Graded on a Curve: Starship,
“We Built This City”

Well here it is, the most abused song in the annals of rock and roll. If ever there was a tune that belongs in a shelter for battered songs, it’s this one. In a just world it would be sitting in a tranquil psychiatrist’s office, blowing its nose into a hanky and sobbing, “Why does everybody hate me?”

1985’s “We Built This City” has been maligned by plenty over the years, but I’ll limit my mentions to two publications. In 2010 Blender put it at the top of its list of the “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever.” Not to be outdone, in 2016 GQ declared it “the most detested song in human history.”

But I’m not here to pile on. You really can’t beat “the most detested song in human history,” and I might even question whether the detestation is justified. The real question is, just WHY do people detest this baby so much? I will attempt to answer this question.

1. People detest it because they hated everything Starship had come to represent. As you’ll no doubt remember, “Starship” was just the latest attempt by a bunch of hacks to re-brand what had come to be a decidedly second-rate product. Jefferson Airplane produced a lot of great music. Jefferson Starship produced a modicum of okay music and a lot of really shitty music. The abbreviated Starship produced a couple of odious hit singles and left the whole world wondering what they’d change their name to next. Star? Ship? Starshit? In short, the record-buying public was sick and tired of these bozos, and just looking for an excuse to throw eggs.

2. Many also despise “We Built This City” because it’s the product of egomania run amuck. Plenty of people built the rock scene in San Francisco, and Starship’s feckless attempt to snatch sole honor stank of hubris. To make matters worse, Grace Slick was the only member of this band of latecomers who was around when rock exploded in the Bay Area. These poseurs didn’t build this city; they showed up late and shit all over it. Oh, and it doesn’t help that the lyrics suck. “Marconi did the mamba” anyone?

3. Despite what I’ve said above, I doubt that many people really detest “We Built This City.” It’s just a dumb song. In fact, I suspect most of us are glad it’s around to poke fun at. So let’s poke fun at it!

4. From my Dutch pal Martijn de Vries: “We built this city on I can’t believe it’s not rock and roll!”

5. “We Built This City” was the first of four singles from the Starship’s debut LP, Knee Deep in the Hoopla. I have actually listened to this LP, and I am here to tell you that it’s knee deep in something, and that something smells suspiciously like horse shit.

6. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “The rocks and fossils of the San Francisco Bay region reveal that the geology there is the product of millions of years at the active western margin of North America. The result of this history is a complex mosaic of geologic materials and structures that form the landscape.” In short, this city wasn’t built on rock and roll. It was built on rocks. Starship lied!

7. In their heart of hearts, everybody has a song they think is worse than “We Built This City.” Mine is Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch.” That said, the videos for the two songs come in neck-to-neck for dead last. Starship’s video features some very wooden dancing by vocalist Mickey Thomas, a lot of people dressed in bad ’80s garb hypnotically gazing at a granite statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln (the one in D.C., not the one in San Francisco), people fleeing a giant set of red dice, and one very crazy-eyed Grace Slick. The Dan Hill video features, well, Dan Hill.

8. The great Bernie Taupin helped write the lyrics. And Bernie’s lyrical contributions to Elton John speak for themselves. As he proved with the lines, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them/If you did,” his ability to distill complex scientific ideas to gibberish is truly mind-boggling.

9. In 1986, “We Built This City” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. I do not know who won the award and I do not want to know. What I do know is that the people who put together the Grammy nominations are a bunch of galloping fucktards.

10. “Someone always playing corporation games/Who cares they’re always changing corporation names.” This from a corporate rock band that had just changed their name (again!), and who would have happily changed it to “The Jeffersons” had they thought it would increase their black demographic. As for the line “Who rides the wrecking ball in to our guitars?” I don’t know. But I would like to be the first one to thank them for their service.

11. The song’s spoken interlude seems to confuse San Francisco with both Cleveland (“the city that rocks”) and New York (“the city that never sleeps”). And an early draft of the lyrics simultaneously conflated the City by the Bay with both Paris and Bern, Switzerland (“We invented croutons/We gave you Ovaltine/Our official language’s German/Here comes the guillotine!”) None of these apparent incongruities has ever been explained.

12. As mentioned above, Starship included only one member of Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick. Paul Kantner, the band’s other last remaining survivor, ejected via escape pod following 1984’s Nuclear Furniture, after first sending out an SOS that warned, “The Starship has been taken over by hostile alien life forms.”

13. Slick once had to be dragged from the set of a game show because she was abusing the participants. How rock and roll of her! She once also castigated a captive German audience for losing WWII. How inconsiderate of her! A more gracious singer would have congratulated her hosts for their good try.

14. An anonymous member of a prominent ’80s band, as quoted in the GQ “Oral History” of “We Built This City”: “Our producer brought the demo to us. It’s the most pussy thing I’ve ever heard. “Knee-deep in the hoopla”? Well, even Mark Twain wrote some bad prose. Don’t quote any of this.”

15. New York Times critic Stephen Holden: “A compendium of strutting pop-rock clichés, Knee Deep in the Hoopla represents the ’80s equivalent of almost everything the original Jefferson Airplane stood against—conformity, conservatism, and a slavish adherence to formula.”

16. In 2002 Slick summed up her feelings about “We Built This City” with the words, “I felt like I’d thrown up on the front row… “ And that’s how it was for all of us. We felt we’d be thrown up on in the first row. Except, of course, for the millions of people who actually love the song. But most of them aren’t talking.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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