The 80s brought us plenty of joy and some pretty amazing music, however, there have been some truly bad 80s songs by great artists.
Back in the mid- to late-1980s, I had a “Winwood window”– and it was a small one. My run as a Steve Winwood fan lasted exactly two years. It started in Summer 1986, with the release of his Back in the High Life album, which inspired me to buy all his previous albums. And it ended in Summer 1988, with the release of the album Roll With It.
Bad 80s Songs By Great Artists
Officially, my Winwood Window slammed shut on August 22, 1988, when I saw Stevie in concert. I found him to be one of those virtuoso musicians who didn’t acknowledge the audience and played boring, needlessly protracted versions of obscure tracks no one really knew. Just an all-around lackluster and disappointing show. But my disillusionment truly began two months earlier, with the release of the “Roll With It” single– a corny, trite song, with its endless exhortations to “roll with it, baby… come on and just roll with it, baby.”
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good advice. (Bobby McFerrin offers the same mantra in “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” also released that summer, which is still one of my favorites.). And the song did spend four weeks atop the Billboard charts, so someone must have liked it. But to me, “Roll With it” is just so repetitive and uninspired, especially when compared to Winwood winners like “Higher Love” and “The Finer Things.” The fact that “Roll With It” was played ad naseum in the summer of 1988 didn’t help endear the song to me.
Anyway, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of “Roll With It,” here are nine more Very Bad 80s Songs Performed by Very Good Artists. Before I embark on this journey into suckitude, a few qualifiers:
Of course, lists such as these are highly subjective. A song I may consider one of the worst ever may be someone else’s choice for her father-daughter dance. Also subjective are the reasons I might not like a song. Was it the lyrics? Music? Just not a tune that makes my socks go up and down? No accounting for taste, after all.
Novelty or joke-y songs– e.g. “The Curly Shuffle” or “Disco Duck”— won’t find their way onto this list. Remember: these are what I consider duds from otherwise great artists.
Many “Bad Songs of the 80s” lists include Starship’s “We Built This City” somewhere near the top. I’m not going there. Honestly, I kinda like “We Built This City,” as did a lot of other people at the time, because it went to #1 on the charts. (Starship had two other #1 in the 80s– “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”— and I think “We Built This City” is WAY better than those two.) All I’m saying is that I think “We Built This City” is unjustly maligned, and so I’m not going to include it here. No, onto the list…
“Emotional Rescue,” Rolling Stones– I’ll start with a song that, judging by comments I’ve read online, inspires many polarizing reactions. Some folks seem to enjoy Mick Jagger and Co’s answer to disco; I came across one online commentator who called it “best song ever.” Really? I just don’t see it. In fact, I am steadfast and true about how much I loathe pretty much everything about this song, from Mick’s stupid falsetto to the creepy “I’ll be your knight in shining armor” soliloquy at the end. Not even its supposedly bitchin’ bass line can rescue this song from itself.
”Private Dancer,” Tina Turner– Fun fact: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits wrote this “prostitute with a heart of gold” song but opted not to record it, after he conceded it wasn’t meant for a male singer. So he gave it to Tina Turner. He really shouldn’t have. Honestly, it would have been better for everyone if this song remained on the shelf forever, rather than unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. Why Tina chose THIS turd as the title track for her 1984 comeback album– which also contains “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and “Better Be Good to Me”— is mystifying. Simply the worst.
“Spies Like Us,” Paul McCartney– “Yesterday”… “Let It Be”… “Eleanor Rigby”… and “Spies Like Freakin’ Us”?? Definitely disheartening that in the span of seventeen years Sir Paul could go from writing poetry like “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly” to inane drivel like, “Ooh ooh what do you do/ No one else can dance like you/ So what’s all the fuss?/ There ain’t nobody got spies like us.” Just a dumb, uninspired song from an equally dumb, uninspired movie– the Dan Aykroyd-Chevy Chase Cold War comedy of the same name. (Then again, the song reached #7 on the charts, and the movie made $60 million… so, as always, what do I know?)
“Nikita,” Elton John– Speaking of unfortunate consequences of the Cold War, here’s Elton John’s sappy 1985 ballad about an American man whose crush on a Russian border guard remains unrequited, thanks to the Berlin Wall. Or something. While I suppose I respect the song’s narrative thread, it wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking topic at the time: between films like WarGames, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and White Knights; songs like Sting’s “Russians” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”; and even musicals like Chess… what aspect of mid-80s pop-culture DIDN’T involve the Cold War?
Beyond that, though. “Nikita” is just boring– definitely Elton’s weakest song from the mid-80s. And considering his output at the time, that’s saying something. (Seriously, I was just glancing through the album Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume III, 1979-1987, and you can literally chart the drop in quality as the decade progresses. Side 1 has classics like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “Empty Garden”; Side 2 has gutterballs like “Two Low for Zero,” “Wrap Her Up,” and “Nikita.” Talk about a precipitous decline…)
“I’m Goin’ Down,” Bruce Springsteen– My beef with this song is its repetitiveness: by my count, Springsteen sings the word “down” 84 times. A tad excessive, no? But I’m not the only one who’s underwhelmed with this song. When I last saw Bruce in concert, at Gillette Stadium in 2008, he was encouraging fans to make song requests via signs. So, he pulled a sign out of the audience and said, with a smirk: “The rarely-played and even more rarely-requested…” Then he turned the sign around: “I’m Goin’ Down.” See, even the Boss thinks the song is lame!
“Batdance,” Prince– So, let me get this straight, Prince: you’re composing the soundtrack to the summer’s most anticipated blockbuster… and you couldn’t come up with a better song? I am remiss even calling it a “song”; it’s really just a tuneless amalgamation of not-particularly-catchy hooks and some Jack Nicholson dialogue. How this piece of bat guano went to #1, I will never know. Even die-hard Prince loyalists have to concede this was a misstep.
“Possession Obsession,” Hall and Oates– I was going to go with “One on One,” which I have never liked… but this one is much, much worse. For those who don’t remember, “Possession Obsession” is the only song for which Oates, in all moustachioed glory, stepped up as the lead singer. The results were not impressive. Tough not a big hit for the duo, it did reach #30 on the charts (about 75 spots too high, in my opinion). And “Possession Obsession” did have a video, which featured Oates driving a cab, alternatively leering at or looking disapprovingly at the passengers in the backseat. Just an unintentionally goofy song all around.
“Groovy Kind of Love,” Phil Collins– My disdain for this song boils down to one word: “groovy.” Think about it: a song with the word “groovy” in the title rose to the top of the charts… in 1988? Yes, I know it was originally written in 1965, and I suppose I could give Phil a pass if he sang with even a hint of irony in his voice. Instead, he’s so damn earnest when he sings this. Just a total schmaltz-fest.
“Uptown Girl,” Billy Joel– I was so pleased when I saw the Amy Schumer film Trainwreck, and Amy’s character made this pronouncement about “Uptown Girl”: “That’s, like, probably the worst Billy Joel song. I’m pretty sure Billy Joel hates that song.” I feel the same way, but I’ll go a step further: not only is it one of the worst Billy Joel songs, it might just be one of the worst songs, period. Can’t really explain why. Just find it super-annoying.
So there you have it: my list of ten blights in the discographies of amazing performers. But let me make it clear: I don’t blame these artists for these songs. After all, everyone strikes out sometimes. I accept that: I love 1980s music, but I’m no 80s apologist. In short, when I hear these songs, I’ve learned, well, to roll with it.