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The badness of the best and worst


I’ve just been talking to a colleague in another department about a statistical analysis of Beatles chord progressions that he’s doing. I could go on and on about the pitfalls of that, but I won’t. He’s doing it to illustrate a statistical technique, so he’s not pretending to be coming up with the grand theory of Beatles harmony. He did mention the idea of using some “worst of the Beatles” lists that he’s found on the web as the basis for some comparisons. That got me googling, since it’s totally against my nature to pass up a chance to waste time researching a thing like that.

At the top of the list was a poll that came up with “Ob-La-Di” as “the worst song ever.” Say what? I’ve always thought it was a cute little thing, and the mariachi horns on the bridge are a tasty little jolt of joy. Plus, it was one of my daughter’s favorites when she was 4 or 5, so I have a sentimental attachment. It’s beyond me how it could strike anyone as worse than innocuous. Not the first or last time I’ll be out of step with the mass consensus. It has to be a blip, though. The poll responses were probably all over the map—lots and lots of songs, no big standouts. Repeat it with different groups of 1000 people and I bet you’d get different “winners” each time, as in this CNN survey. A paradoxical aspect of both is that it’s only quite popular (and so widely circulated) songs that stand a chance. They should have hired Komar and Melamid.

There was something very much like this on one of the billions of “best of” lists at the turn of the millennium (remember that big bubble of hot air?) that was strange enough to stick in my memory. Critics were polled about the best composition of the 20th century (or something like that, I don’t remember the exact setup or, for that matter, the publication—Time or Newsweek, I think) and they came up with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Obviously there was no consensus, but could it get more random? For that matter, what piece could they have come up with that wouldn’t be random?

Beyond that, as far as bad Beatles songs are concerned, all I can find are more or less mindless forum debates where everyone chimes in with the song they dislike most. There’s a crucial little difference there—“worst” implies at least an attempt at objectivity. I know it’s meant as trivia, and if folks don’t get to touchy I suppose it can be—it’s amusing, at least, to see the wacky reasons people come up with. But when it’s “I’ve always hated this song (and you should to)” it’s just stupid, like this pissing contest (and it looks like they’re Brits, so most likely they really are pissed).

Recently I happened to hear one song that’s mentioned in the first part of the CNN piece, though it’s not one of the winners—C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”—and had to marvel, not just because of the inane persecuted folksiness of it but also the ineptitude. I can’t quite call it up on my mental jukebox (luckily), but it was something about the way the chorus comes in, with backup vocals, like a clumsy splice. Now that’s what I call a bad. ‘Course it’s not exactly a song (more like a recitation), and it was probably meant to be irritating to people like me. So is it really bad if it does just what the creators wanted?