There is a certain kind of pop song that seems specifically designed to send the conscientious listener into screaming purple fits of despair. Everyone who listens to pop music can identify a few songs that stick out in their memory as being totally, incongruously bad, so bad as to be overwhelmingly depressing. The idea is not that pop music can’t be melancholy or sad, but that most pop songwriters don’t really know how to do this very well, and quite often the fruit of their attempts at emotional relevancy rot on the vine. There is no shortage of sad songs that overshoot the mark entirely, creating a kind of feverishly putrescent, morbidly depressing effect that can easily overcome the unwary listener.
It is to these songs that Tom Reynolds has dedicated the present volume. Sometimes a song is so overwhelmingly misconceived that it becomes laughably so. Thankfully, Reynolds has categorized these car-crashes for the curious reader, even going so far as to begin with literal car crashes, or rather, that horrid classic rock sub-genre devoted to forlorn love and twisted metal. (“Tell Laura I Love Her” serves as an excellent example—has there ever been a stupider ode to teenage death?) Other categories are similarly self-explanatory. “I Hate Myself and Want To Die” deals with a few wrist-slittingly depressing examples of suicidal angst (Karen Carpenter, unsurprisingly). “I’m Trying To Be Profound and Touching, But Really Suck At It” is, also unsurprisingly, a pretty fat category, with appearances by Kiss (“Beth”), “MacArthur Park” (singled out for the Richard Harris version, but really, any one will do), and especially Bette Midler’s “The Rose”. Is there a human being alive who does not freeze in mortal terror at the maudlin sound of those first plunked piano keys?
For the most part, Reynolds serves as an admirable tour guide through his murderers’ row of craptastically depressing tunes. In addition to merely mocking the tracks in question, he also educates the reader as to their provenance, an exercise that feels slightly akin to reading biographical sketches of the scientists who first identified anthrax (not the band). He is also remarkably even-handed in his denunciations: iconic artists like Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and the Doors come in for as much of a thrashing as perennial punching bags like Gilbert O’Sullivan, Phil Collins, and Celine Dion. (If you’re interested, Springsteen got dinged for “The River”, Floyd for “Comfortably Numb”, and the Doors for—what else?—“The End”.) There is a noticeable absence of any Beatles’ tracks, however, which is somewhat suspicious considering that I personally have petit mal seizures every time “The Long And Winding Road” comes on the radio. The Rolling Stones are mentioned but only in passing, as Reynolds focuses on Marianne Faithful’s version of “Sister Morphine” at the expense of the Stones’ slightly less depressing interpretation. Also, hip-hop and R&B go entirely unmentioned—surely he could have thrown in a token mention of Master P’s “I Miss My Homies”?
If I have one complaint with the book, it is that Reynolds’ sure grasp of musical minutiae and keen satiric sense completely fails when he discusses those groups who specialize in intentionally glum music. I didn’t mind him giving the business to Metallica’s “One”, because those guys are famously humorless and that song is humorless to the point of self-parody. But his criticisms of bands like the Cure, Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails seems, frankly, pedantic. It’s common knowledge that the Cure write a lot of depressing music, but Reynolds seems constitutionally unable to understand the merits of a dour group—he seems totally unaware of the fact that the Cure are not humorless, and that their most depressing music is always balanced by delightful excursions into cheeky pop (“The Love Cats”). Maybe he just finds something inherently silly in the notion of dark and gloomy music. Certainly, while I will not disagree with the notion that Johnny Cash delivered an absolutely devastating cover of “Hurt”, I think that it’s simply false and needlessly inflammatory to assert that, in his words, Trent Reznor’s original “chomps the rusty bar”. Anyone who saw Reznor perform the song on last year’s Hurricane Katrina telethon—or anyone who has ever seen the song performed live as the centerpiece of a Nine Inch Nails show—can attest to the fact that the man who wrote the song certainly knows how to sing it.
Perhaps Reynolds should simply have stuck with a certain era—he is strongest when discussing the pop detritus of the ‘60s and ‘70s, not so much as the years advance and artists begin to explore depressing themes as a matter of course. A great deal of the fun of pop satire of this sort comes from the sensation that the author and the audience are both in on the same joke, but in discussing acts like the Cure, Reynolds proves that he really doesn’t get the joke at all. Which is a shame, because the majority of the book is well-written and consistently witty.