(Return of) THE BLENDER ’50 WORST SONGS’ BUSKING EXPERIMENT

Seeing 4 NonBlondes’ name pop up a bunch of times on Twitter over the last few days (not gonna try and figure out why) reminded me of this thing I did for Blender 8 years ago.
Given that 8 years is approximately 32 generations in blog years, I’ll just remind you that Blender was a music magazine. The “print” kind.
Also, get off my lawn.

Anyway, this is something I wrote on my old web site back then, when this thing that happened happened (and I want to apologize for how I trashed Starship’s entire catalog, but…):

FEBRUARY 26, 2004


The Blender 50 Worst Songs of All Time
So I did this thing this afternoon — Blender Magazine is putting out an issue of what their staff decided are the 50 worst songs of all time. I differ with them on a few, and would have added some others if I was asked, but I wasn’t. What I WAS asked to do, however, was to learn 5 of them and go busk them in Union Square this afternoon. The writers would assess crowd reactions, change earned, take photos, etc., for the article. I didn’t exactly jump at the chance, but after a few hours consideration, it started sounding funnier and funnier, so I decided to go for it. It was, actually, really funny (and fun). Here’s my take on the set:

WE BUILT THIS CITY (Starship)
Strategy: Open with a bang!
My assessment:
Feeble attempt at youth rebellion by an aging band that was always the most cartoony, and thus least credible of the SF psych scene in the 60s, and went on to bring us even MORE clunkers in the 80s, the only bright exception to an otherwise completely horrible catalog being the pretty cool song, “Find Your Way Back.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t asked to play their one “pretty cool song,” so I got to stare passersby in the eyes today and belt out lines like, “Who drives the wrecking ball into our guitars???” and “Say you don’t know me or recognize my face/Say you don’t care who goes, to THAT kind of place!” Huh?
Crowd reaction:
No one stopped for this one. I think it’s still a little too commonly heard on the radio for it to have registered as strong a question in people’s minds as some of the others. The general reaction seemed to be side-long glances with crooked smiles and a slight shake of the head, as if to say, “Oh no, that poor fool playing Starship in Union Square on such a chilly day…”
Change received during song: $0.00

I WANNA SEX YOU UP (Color Me Badd)
Strategy: Keep ‘em dancing.
My assessment:
What can be said? At least they were better than 98 Degrees. Best/worst line: “Let me light a candle so we can make it better/Makin’ love until we drown.” Now what liquid medium, exactly, are they making love in that puts them in danger of drowning? The world will never know…
Crowd reaction:
Again, a little less enthusiastic/vitriolic than I had hoped for. Apparently, in Jonah’s crowd interviews, he found that a lot of people actually didn’t remember the song at all (I tried to do as traditional a version as could be done with only ONE white dude and an acoustic guitar, but…). Even my blatant attempts to goad reactions by making creepy eye contact with both ladies and gentlemen while singing the chorus, “I wanna sex you up,” was met with indifference. Oh well. Even so, I got a little change on this one.
Change received during song: approx. $1.25

FROM A DISTANCE (Bette Midler)
Strategy: Take it down a notch.
My assessment:
This should maybe have been in the number one worst slot — melodramatic pap with a vaguely Christian social conscience that pushes no buttons whatsoever. Mountains, oceans, eagles, no hunger, only friends, etc. A lot of people don’t recognize the fangs that John Lennon’s “Imagine” actually has. This is what that song would be completely de-fanged and de-venomed, with music written by the lady who played the church organ at funerals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey in 1982.
Crowd reaction:
There were more sideways glances with broader crooked smiles for this one, and even a few seemingly awe-struck listeners who actually backed away, but couldn’t take their eyes off of me — I felt like they didn’t know if they were watching something serious and holy, or the train-wreck that it actually was. I witnessed a few faces that evinced real confusion on this one. The question was answered when, in the middle of my second time through this song, god seemingly WAS watching us, and let the cold pop my E-string just as I invoked his name. A fitting end.
Change received during song: approx. $1.00

WHAT’S UP? (4 Non-Blondes)
Strategy: Crescendo/Climax
My assessment:
The only thing that saves this song from the land of the unlistenable is that Linda Perry chose three good chords for the only three chords she plays in the whole song — A, Bm, and D — that’s a pretty hard progression to argue with. Sometimes, when I wonder how the hell she got where she is today, I have to remember that she at least knows those three good chords, and how to put them together. That said, I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out, what’s in my head, and I’m… AAAAArgh! It’s this friggin’ song that’s still stuck in my head!! It seems that out of the five I chose, it’s the one that’s most stuck in other people’s heads, too. A few people actually stopped to listen to the entire song this time — some even bouncing and singing along. Lot’s of broad, un-crooked smiles from passersby — I think we discovered a widely held NON-guilty pleasure with this one.
Change received during song: approx. $1.75

PARTY ALL THE TIME (Eddie Murphy)
Strategy: Denouement
My assessment:
Rick James also knew a good chord progression when he found one. In this case, he didn’t even need to progress off the first chord, an Am (at least in the key I could best sing it), which doesn’t change for the entire, long verses of the song. This turned out to be the biggest crowd grabber, though — it seemed like it took a second to sink in with most people, but once they remembered it, they were into it. It was also during the first time through this song, though, that the crazies (craziers?) started gathering — the leather/goth dude eating chips and salsa, the well dressed young gentleman who emerged from the subway on my right and stood and stared until I finished, then walked toward me as if he were concealing a shiv to put us all out of my misery with, but instead dropped a bunch of coins in the guitar case, and the guy in the all-striped outfit (hat, sweater, pants, socks — all differently striped, unless my memory deceives me) who looked like a larger, stripier version of Jeff Daniels, etc. But the thing is, they, and all the young B-boys and B-girls, New Wave of Yuppie yuppies, frustrated service industry folks, and leisure-class skateboarders, all got a little extra shake in their step from this one, and that made me happy. I mean, we all empathize with both characters in this song — the guy who’s bummed that his girl parties all the time, and the girl who wants to party all the time — something for everyone — EVERYTHING for everyone!
Change received during this song: approx. $2.75

Actual total change received: $6.76 (given to the one homeless guy who sat there and watched the whole damn thing)
Lessons learned:
Only that outdoor busking in February is probably not as fun as it might be in May. Learning the songs taught me nothing, which is probably why I feel karmically o.k. about having participated!!

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