There are bad songs, and then there are bad songs that have a significant and irreversible effect on pop culture. Here are nine tunes which, if I had a big cosmic "undo" button, I would have made sure never came into existence. In some cases, the songs themselves aren't the problem so much as the terrible trends they unleashed.
- "WITCH DOCTOR", Dave Seville (1958). Seville (a.k.a. Ross Bagdasarian) wasn't the first to tweak the pitch of a vocal track to humorous effect – Les Paul was doing it years earlier – but his novelty hit was the world's first high-pitched chart-topper. Its success led Seville to create Alvin and the Chipmunks with the same technology. Bagdasarian died in 1972, but his son Ross Jr. revived "the brand" in 1979, which is why we have Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked today.
- "WE'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN", The Carpenters (1971). Like many children of the 1970s, I have a soft spot for The Carpenters, perhaps because of Karen's early death. But there wasn't much in the way of "soft rock" before 1971, Simon & Garfunkel notwithstanding; this song – originally written as a jingle for a Crocker Bank commercial – practically invented the genre, and paved the way for later schmaltzfests like Morris Albert's "Feelings", Christopher Cross's "Think of Laura", and anything by Air Supply.
- "SOLITAIRE", Laura Branigan (1983). While it exemplifies '80s pop at its blandest, it's hard to get angry at the late Branigan's mostly forgotten minor hit. Here's why I'm including it: because it launched the career of songwriter Diane Warren, who would churn out horrors like Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain", Michael Bolton's "How Can We Be Lovers?", and innumerable 1990s "adult contemporary" turds.
- "WALK THIS WAY", Aerosmith and Run-DMC (1986). I actually like 1970s Aerosmith. "Dream On", "Sweet Emotion", and the original "Walk This Way" are all great. But the unlikely collaboration between the then-moribund rockers and Run-DMC resulted in two terrible events: First, it brought rap music into the mainstream. No problem there, except that many hip hop artists rebelled by taking the genre away from its fun dance party roots and plunging it into ugly, misogynist territory. Second, it gave Aerosmith a cheeseball second wind, leading to tacky hits like "Angel", "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (Diane Warren again!), and "Janie's Got a Gun".
- "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR", U2 (1987). I might have been a little more tolerant of this lifeless hymn if I hadn't been subjected to it approximately 99,000 times over the last quarter century. Not only is it cruelly overplayed, but it – and the entire Joshua Tree album – made U2 the biggest band in the world, convinced the merry Irishmen that they were the Saviors of American Music, and allowed Bono's monstrous self-importance to engulf the universe.
- "RUNAWAY TRAIN", Soul Asylum (1992). Soul Asylum was merely a one-hit wonder, but the incredible success of "Runaway Train" – one of the worst songs I have ever heard – opened the door for all the rotten post-grunge bands (Creed, Nickelback, et al) who have filled the airwaves with formulaic yet hook-free rock. (In all fairness, Bon Jovi was probably a bigger influence than Soul Asylum. And I hate "Livin' on a Prayer" almost as much as I hate "Runaway Train".)
- "DON'T SPEAK", No Doubt (1996). Like "Runaway Train" before it, the vomity "Don't Speak" may have been responsible for the countless "hard ballads" that have come since. The special pity in this case is that No Doubt could have been a pretty reputable band.
- "BELIEVE", Cher (1998). This is the song that popularized Auto-Tune. I need not say more.
- "SINCE U BEEN GONE", Kelly Clarkson (2004). I don't like Kelly Clarkson's music, but I cut her some slack because it's nice to have a major pop star who looks like an ordinary woman. But what if this song never became a hit? Might it have sucked the legitimacy out of American Idol early on, saving us from future seasons and personalities such as Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry, and Jordin Sparks? More to the point, could it have prevented "Since U Been Gone" co-songwriter/producer Dr. Luke (a.k.a. Lukasz Gottwald) from becoming an in-demand tunesmith? After all, this man gave us Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl", Ke$ha's "Tik Tok", Flo Rida's "Right Round", and tons of other overproduced, robotic Top 10 singles. If you want someone to blame for the horribleness of contemporary pop music, look no further.