“I don't think anybody can take all the credit... or all the blame ” GQ quoted Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico in their recent oral history of the Starship song "We Built This City," which the magazine posits as the "Worst Song Of All Time." That very premise, however — that the anthemic track which reached number one on the radio charts in November 1985 is "the worst of all time" — is so deeply flawed as to be laughable.
Chaquico, among many who contextualize the making of the track, emphasizes that "it's very 80s... I remember watching Miami Vice in between takes." While deeply rooted in a strange cultural moment, as are all in hindsight, "We Built This City" is an eager-to-please, fun-loving song whose cheesy spoken references to San Francisco, "The City By The Bay" as the eponymous metropole built upon rock and roll, might endear it to us rather than the opposite. In short, I'm just going to come out on my own here and say "We Built This City" is a pretty good song, alright, just one that reflects the synthetic, ultra-poppy timbre of a much-maligned era of music.
Starship grew out of the arena-rock band Jefferson Starship, a followup to the '60s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane from San Francisco. Two years prior to the release of "We Built This City," Paul Kantner — the last remaining founding member of Jefferson Airplane — left the band, and later threatened legal action if the group refused to change its name to remove any perception of affiliation. Eventually the group settled simply on Starship.
The last remaining tie to Jefferson Airplane's heyday, Grace Slick, the so-called "Acid Queen" of San Francisco, appears on "We Built This City," for which she and new singer Mickey Thomas earned a Grammy Award nod for "Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group." However, the song might have been a low-point for her otherwise storied career. "You're shitting me," she claims she said when she was first handed the song in 1985, in a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair.
"Do I have a sense of why people mock the song?" asked the group's then-producer Peter Wolf. "It's a good question. I really don't know. It was a terrible video — cheap and ugly — and it got incredible play on MTV. I felt it didn't do the song justice." While I must agree to disagree — because this video is dope — providing a concrete reason to hate the song has proved slippery.
The notion of its superlative badness appears to originate with a declaration from 2004 in the defunct magazine Blender's, where it was deemed the worst of the worst 50 songs in history per an arbitrary ranking. The author of that piece raised his main objection to the lyrics to the Sydney Morning Herald. "Who is Marconi? And what is the mamba?" he asked. "The mamba is the deadliest snake in the world, so he must have meant the mambo, but it sounds so much like 'mamba' that every lyric web site writes it that way. It makes sense neither way."
Marconi, as referenced in the next line "listen to the radio," is likely Guglielmo Marconi, the electrical engineering pioneer who invented the radio. And sure, it should probably be mambo, but who's to say that "every lyric website" isn't dumb and wrong — websites aren't right just because they say they are. As such, I'm not here to tell you to like this song. It's just that, to me, this whole thing feels like when people tell you they hate the word "moist." Nobody is really by that word, it just became popular to call it gross or disgusting. Some things should be moist. Moisture is good.
One person I spoke to who stood up for "We Built This City" has always done so implicitly. That's the popular San Francisco Twitter user and podcaster We Built This City, who tells SFist that she "personally kind of likes [the song]. I think it's definitely not a 'good' song from an empirical perspective," she adds, but, "Mostly when people respond they complain that I've inspired them to get the song stuck in their heads."
That's an important point. The worst song of all time is probably a song you and I haven't heard. It doesn't get caught in our heads — it couldn't if it tried and isn't as "insidiously catchy" as Starship's megahit is called by GQ. It wouldn't have reached number one on the radio, and okay, fine, even if it had done so, we wouldn't still be talking about it. "Listen to the radio," people: "We Built This City" is kinda good. And if every hit from the 80s that sounded just like it were complete trash, why would an entire generation of young pop musicians have decided to reintroduce the world to synths, saxophones, and drum machines again, with hyper-sharp, over-produced vocals, straight outta this era?
You know why that's happened? Because pop songs don't have to make sense, they just have to get caught in your head and maybe make you dance. This is the sound of stupid fun. And everyone who ever said otherwise either works for NPR, or has already told it to their blog.