I had a deeply philosophical conversation this week with Index-Journal Executive Editor Richard Whiting about song quality and the idea of being forced to listen to one tune for the rest of your life. Your boat sank and you are now stranded on a lonely island. Luckily, you have a durable solar-powered iPod, but unfortunately only one song is on the playlist for the rest of your days. What would you pick?
This led to an interesting notion -- if you listen to a "bad" song long enough, will it become, if not a favorite, at least extremely tolerable? Does repetition of a song increase its worth? And who says a song is bad?
Music is subjective. What moves you might make me cringe. My favorite song might quickly wind up in your trash bin. But, we know there are bad songs, right?
"MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris is much maligned even though writer Jimmy Webb is a Hall of Fame songwriter. People just don't believe he should have written about wet cake.
"We Built This City" by Starship. Ugh. I probably sang along with this song in 1987 but even Grace Slick said this is a terrible track now. Some things just don't stand the test of time.
Paul Anka's "You're Having My Baby." Vitriol reactions abound.
Anything by Nickelback -- it's always in fashion to dislike Nickelback.
But the top of the heap in the bad song category truly belongs to one girl group: The Shaggs.
Three sisters, Helen, Betty and Dorothy Wiggin, grew up in Fremont, New Hampshire. They are the daughters of Austin Wiggin Jr., who received a haunting message from his deathbed-ridden mother who said, in essence, "your daughters will be in a successful rock band."
So, Mr. Wiggin bought them instruments, he made them take lessons, and, with high anxiety, he worked them through hour after hour of rehearsals even though they had no musical inclination whatsoever -- none of them. And then, he spent his life savings with a swindler/record producer who put microphones in front of the girls to record an album. Yes, they had a record deal (of sorts). Mr. Wiggin paid for 1,000 copies. The crook-producer left town with his money and 900 copies.
The result is The Shaggs' "Philosophy of the World," which was recorded in 1969 and features the single "My Pal Foot Foot," which I am offering to you as the single worst song ever recorded in the history of recorded music. Dot Wiggin wrote "My Pal Foot Foot" about her cat that ran away. It's a sad story. It's a strange and terrible song. I can't even begin to describe the sounds you will hear if you type this into a YouTube search box today.
The Shaggs would have likely disappeared into obscurity had it not been for a radio station in Boston that began playing the record. Frank Zappa heard it and said, famously, that the three girls were "better than the Beatles." This created some interest. Rolling Stone magazine did a piece where Debra Rae Cohen called the album, "the sickest, most stunningly awful wonderful record I've heard in ages: the perfect mental purgative for doldrums of any kind." She went on to compare the sisters to a "lobotomized Trapp Family Singers."
To be fair, the Wiggin girls shunned the spotlight, wrote original tunes, and never asked for any of the recognition they received. And if you find an original pressing (one of the 100 left over) on vinyl, hang onto it. The album sells for between $300 and $500 today to eager collectors.
Paul Crutcher is the broadcast specialist and XLR Radio general manager at Lander University. He serves on the national governing board for College Broadcasters Inc., the largest representation of college radio and television stations in the country. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulCrutcher.