10 August 2007

We Built This City on Junior High Schoolers' Embarrassment

Junior high school…perhaps the most awkward time in a young person's life. Allow me to share one of my own dreadful memories of that weird netherworld between elementary school and high school, when you wanted to act like adult, even though you weren't, and the world around you still insisted that you act like a fourth grader.

Junior high school was the last time I was forced to sing with my classmates at some type of public gathering. From kindergarten upwards, like many other schoolchildren, I was enlisted to perform songs for parents' meetings, special school assemblies, and holiday pageants. Very adorable at the younger ages, but it turned increasingly embarrassing as the years passed. When I had to not only sing, but dance, to a Tears for Fears song in front of the whole school in sixth grade, I thought "This has to stop—it has to—when I get to junior high."

I was almost right. It happened one more time, the first semester of seventh grade, and after that time, performances in front of others became a voluntary act. I would perform in some plays in school, but no one ever made me sing in front of a crowd again. (And, barring karaoke, which doesn't count in my mind, I haven't sung before people ever again. That's because I can't sing, and unlike the majority of American Idol contestants, I know that I can't and don't want to inflict it on others.) However, the school made sure that the last time I sang with the other unwilling kiddies would be an awful, scaring experience.

They made us sing (wait for it…) "We Built This City" by Starship.

Altogether now: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhh!"

Or, to quote the Penguin: "I believe the word you're looking for is 'Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhh!' "

In 2004 Blender magazine named "We Built This City" as #1 of the 50 Worst Songs Ever. It was a huge hit in the mid-'80s when I entered junior high school, but even then I couldn't stand it, and having to practice singing it over and over again was painful. I was only twelve, but I knew enough to know that "this city" (which I took to be Los Angeles, my town, and apparently the city the songwriters intended as well) was not built on rock n' roll. It was built on West Coast Jazz, thank you very much. Or maybe 1940s jazz standards. Or, technically, it was built on the Owens Valley Water Scandal, if you want to date the city's building as before the post-WWII boom.

I can just imagine the rest of the school laughing behind their hands as they watched us, the poor scrubs, forced to gargle this piffle with our cracking voices. We must have been wretched. I wonder how our music teacher, Paul Morse (who sadly died of AIDS in the early 1990s) was able to listen to us shriek out a bad song day after day.

But after that last performance, all of us got a little bit of the freedom we hoped would finally arrive with junior high school.

Addendum: Looking over the list of the "50 Worst Songs Ever," I'm not certain I would place "We Built This City" as #1. It would get in my top ten easily, but that's mainly from personal experience. I might put "My Heart Will Go On" (unjustly put at #50) close to the top, and maybe that Toby Keith hate-speech rant at #2. (I wonder if he regrets today sounding like that much of an ignorant jerk? Probably not.) I would give "Kokomo" the top spot; I remember it caused me shivers each time it came on the radio. Sad to think it came from the Beach Boys. But Starship had once been Jefferson Airplane, one of my favorite 1960s groups of all time, so anybody can fall a long ways if they hang around the cliffs of popular music long enough. Even the Beatles got a song on Blender's list.