Music to your ears, maybe, but not to everyone's

Joel van der Veen
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Years ago, I was riding in the car with my father. As was my habit then, I brought along a cassette to listen to; this time, it was the first album by the Travelling Wilburys.

We got to track four, Last Night, and before the song had ended, Dad had reached over to the tape deck to shut it off in disgust.

“That’s enough of that,” he said, deeming it “repetitive nonsense.”

Truthfully, there’s not much to the lyrics, especially the chorus, which repeats interminably as the song fades out: “Last night/Thinking ‘bout last night/Last night/Thinking ‘bout last night. . .”

Dad makes the same complaint about any song that lacks lyrical variety. His tastes are more classical, with a little bit of Pink Floyd, the Psalter Hymnal and Switched on Bach thrown in for good measure.

I like to think I’m not nearly so picky about music, but I know deep down I’ve got my own pet peeves. It’s fascinating to look at how people respond to songs they don’t like, and the reasons they’ll give for their prejudices against certain performers or tunes.

Dave Barry, a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald, once surveyed his readership and compiled a list of the results, declaring MacArthur Park — made famous by Richard Harris’ 1968 recording, and also later recorded by Donna Summer — officially the worst song in modern history.

But why? Barry mentions Harris’ “hyperdramatic” singing style and said many of his readers commented on the “pretentiously incomprehensible lyrics,” summarizing their response as “What the hell is this song about?”

Well, obviously, it’s about a cake someone left out in the rain. Its sweet green icing is flowing down, and the singer laments not having kept a copy of the recipe.

As for what that’s supposed to represent or symbolize, I haven’t the foggiest. Perhaps things would be different if I’d been alive in 1968 and forced to hear that song repeatedly as it dominated the airwaves. But today I simply listen to it and laugh.

Another frequently cited “worst song ever” is Starship’s We Built This City, which somehow spent a week at #1 in the U.S. in 1985 despite being a bad song. Didn’t all those record buyers and radio listeners know it was bad?

Just like record critics who attempt to make an exhaustive list of the best albums or singles of all time, writers who declare one song to be objectively worse than every other song ever written are striving for the impossible.

Yes, there’s plenty of music I’ll admit to not enjoying. My current “target du jour” is none other than everyone's favourite punching bag, Yoko Ono. Her husband, John Lennon, subjected his fans to aural torture by recording albums together with her.

Double Fantasy, released just before Lennon’s death in 1980, alternates between songs sung by John and songs sung by Yoko. Milk and Honey, issued posthumously four years later, follows the same structure.

Suffice it to say that listening to a great track by John (say, Just Like Starting Over or Nobody Told Me) and then having to hear Yoko perform vocal aerobics or sound like the business end of an obscene phone call makes for a bittersweet experience.

But hey, John Lennon was an unquestioned musical legend, and he thought her work was good enough to include with his own. So perhaps it’s all relative.

And that’s one of the amazing things about human creativity. Each one of us is capable of hearing a piece of music differently and appreciating it, or not, for our own reasons. And we’re all entitled to our opinions.

Except when it comes to Yoko, that is. She’s awful.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Pink Floyd, Miami Herald

Geographic location: MacArthur Park, U.S.

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