As we all know, just because a song reaches the top of the Billboard pop charts does not ensure that it's a great - or even a good - song. After all, the pop music market can be fickle, and top hits' general dependence on popularity automatically makes song quality an afterthought. Therefore, it's fairly easy to come up with a lengthy list of '80s No. 1 hits that are questionable if not cringe-inducing. Here's a short list - in chronological order - of the most offensive violators in this category. Tell me these tunes had not already induced your gag reflex during the calendar year of their release. If not sooner.
This 1981 chart-topper is an appropriate place to start this list because it's a song that belongs on this dubious countdown in several ways. First, almost any song from a film soundtrack, especially one as saccharine and easy-listening-infested as this one, raises some major red flags as it climbs the charts. This is because of the watered-down, focus-group qualities such compositions generally take on in order to pursue mass appeal. Cross' vapid lyrics and cloying vocal performance fit perfectly for a soft rock nugget but should never have reached the level of prominence that ordinarily befits a No. 1 pop tune. Of course, Billboard's pop charts only rarely represent the best that pop music has to offer, a fact proven here.
I suppose I should stop picking on movie soundtrack hits, but in this case I'm focusing far more on the limitations of novelty songs and how it's very much a mixed message when they generate real pop success. After all, this track is charmingly of its time, to be sure, and it properly matches the playful tone of the comic film it accompanies. The problem is that its musical value is beyond questionable, suffering from a slightness that even Parker, prone to some silliness anyway in his R&B stylings, has not rivalled previously. Such fleeting, insubstantial emblems of pop culture have their place, but I just wonder if that place should ever be at the top of the mainstream pop charts as one of music's most popular and most heard tunes.
OK, maybe the soundtrack thing is coincidence, but speaking of movies, who can forget Jack Black's memorable skewering (in High Fidelity) of this gag-reflex-inducing profession of goody-goody romantic love. Let's just say I would hate to sample the collective taste of any couple or family who willingly used this '80s Stevie Wonder song in connection to their wedding, but I'll stop with the insults. The problem with sappy pop like this is that even though it claims so heartily to express real emotion and devotion, its utterly unrealistic and stubbornly sunny view of romance actually lacks passion at its most vital. I never used to understand why this song always induced some sort of dread in me when I was a kid, but now I think I finally do.
The third, nauseatingly pop manifestation of '60s psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane has long been an '80s stepchild, so I shouldn't pile on again here. But I'm going to because I have to. This 1985 chart-topper doesn't offend so much because it's an irredeemable piece of music but rather because it's so utterly disingenuous from its title to its deeply charitable lyrics in terms of the band's place on the music spectrum. Starship's newest lead singer, Mickey Thomas, had already proven himself to be a talented vocalist (listen to Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"), but when paired with Grace Slick and the group's strange blend of new wave, hard rock and pop, the walls come tumbling down and leave "this city" in sonic ruins.
Back to the movies again, this time for Bob Seger's only single of the '80s that succumbed negatively to the decade's worst musical impulses. Not even fine singing from the Detroit rocker and singer-songwriter can save this heavily orchestrated track from sounding like throwaway material. Even knowing of this song's association with the Beverly Hills Cop film franchise doesn't explain how a piece in shambles like this could make it all the way to No. 1 when it retained none of Seger's strengths: strong storytelling, wistful emotion and rugged wisdom. The tune's cinematic connection may explain the idiocy of the lyrical refrain "Shakedown, breakdown, you're busted," but that rationalization doesn't salvage the weak songwriting here.
This is probably one of the very few remakes or cover tunes that has found its way onto one of my song lists, but I don't make the exception with any shred of joy. Though Billy Idol had smoothly made the transition from convincing punk rock artist with Generation X to new wave artist when he went solo, all the way to mainstream arena rock/hard rock artist as the decade wore on, this selection of cover material makes no sense on any level. Released initially on Idol's 1981 EP Don't Stop, the song didn't reach the top of the charts until 1987 on the strength of a live version. For the life of me, I can't figure out how a song that probably never should have come to be in the first place could be covered so persistently and successfully.
British singer Rick Astley never had much going for him to promote success during the MTV age. His Opie Cunningham look was stunningly square and certainly didn't match his soulful if grating vocal style. Nonetheless, the heavily orchestrated song was absolutely ubiquitous in 1988, but it really did much to bleach the pop music landscape at that time. Again, going to No. 1 has never been a guarantee of a song's quality on any level, but in this case it's a real head-scratcher as to how this kind of music could get positive attention from a record label, much less break the local charts, even much less become an international hit. And on and on.