“We Built This City” may be the avatar of a song that is terrible on an almost molecular level that somehow becomes a big hit anyway.
There are a lot of songs that aren’t great that do well at radio. Some truly bad songs, however, manage to defy their quality and become massive, airwave-saturating beasts. “We Built This City” is primary in that pantheon of tragically horrible hits.
The series of personnel changes and legal battles that led seminal ’60s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane to transform into Jefferson Starship and then to Starship is too complicated to recount here. The band behind genuine classics like “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit” and “Miracles” had become a different entity by 1985.
Starship had all the hallmarks of a veteran band straining to be “current.” They embraced synthesizers and drum machines. They made cheesy videos and wore unflattering trendy styles. And while still nominally a rock band, they aggressively courted a profitable adult contemporary audience.
From that perspective, “We Built This City,” a song allegedly celebrating the transformative power of rock music, is quite ironic. “We built this city on rock and roll” the lyrics insisted. Even as they played out over a generic mid-80s synth arrangement and practically begged soft rock listeners to crank up the volume in their Volvos. It should surprise no one that the song topped the U.S. Pop chart. And because rock radio was a very different place in 1985, it topped the Mainstream Rock chart as well.
Consider a few lyrical quotes from “We Built This City” as evidence of its tragic inanity.
“Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight.”
This line strove to sound “deep” and instead landed on “WTF?” The word “hoopla” should never have appeared in a song. Never.
“Marconi plays the mambo, listen to the radio.”
Painfully terrible. An attempted allusion to the “father” of radio technology was awkward. The “mambo” invocation just dragged it down even further into ridiculousness.
“Someone’s always playing corporation games. Who cares they’re always changing corporation names.”
An attempt at hippie rebellion against The Man, made ridiculous by a band on a major label aggressively courting airplay from big radio stations. There was a hint of the legal wrangling the band had endured, but that would have been opaque to most listeners. It wound up splitting the difference between hypocritical and nonsensical.
“Who counts the money underneath the bar? Who rides the wrecking ball into our guitars?”
Another attempt to recapture the band’s scrappy origins as a Bay Area combo trying to make it big. But they had traveled so far from those roots by 1985 that their creation myth may as well have happened to another group altogether. And again, the attempt to be poetic instead just sounded bizarre.
None of this stopped “We Built This City” from becoming a huge hit. Even its almost painfully ludicrous video didn’t torpedo it. The very forces the band was supposedly lamenting (corporate control over the music and radio industry) were the very things that insured this piece of self-indulgent, poorly constructed tripe became a cross-genre behemoth. You could not get away from this song in 1985.
Three decades later, it sounds even more ridiculous. And the worst part is that every word is probably burned into your brain, taking up valuable memory capacity that would be better spent on anything else.
For all the ways it fails as both a work of music and a slice of social commentary, “We Built This City” has earned its place as one of the worst hit songs of the modern era.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 19, 2016.