In my first “Bad Song!” post, I shared a “Bad Song” exercise I’ve developed that can be used in solo writing, as an ice-breaker or warm-up in co-writing, and as a classroom or workshop exercise. The spirit of this exercise is about letting go of professional aspirations for the resulting song. Otherwise it turns into “work” and you lose the point of the exercise.
That being said…
Since I first developed the exercise, the universe has been presenting me with a steady progression of great examples of “bad song writing” (not to be confused with “bad songwriting”!) that truly are professional opportunities.
First off, there are countless TV shows, like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Frazier, 30 Rock, and the like, where bad songs are integral to the story lines. Some of these songs are side-splittingly funny, like the episode of 30 Rock (Season 5, Episode 12, “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning”) where Jack Donaghy decides to pre-record disaster relief benefit shows for disasters that haven’t happened yet. Jenna Maroney winds up singing: “Help the people the thing that happened happened to…”—which would be funny, even if she weren’t singing about “Mayhem in Mago” and the wreckage of Mel Gibson’s sex jacuzzi.
Probably my favorite bad song from a TV show, perhaps the greatest bad song performance of all time in my book, was from the old classic Dick Van Dyke Show. In the episode (Season Three, “Too Many Stars”), Rob Petrie is lured into being, once more, the director of the neighborhood’s local talent show fund-raiser. Millie, Laura Petries’ best friend from next door, auditions with a sultry torch song that begins: “My heart got a smash in the face…” I can’t bear to spoil it further.
There are also comedians, like Boston philosophical absurdist Steven Wright, who build bad songs into their act. (A typical Steven Wright joke: “A funny thing happened the other day… no, it didn’t.) Not to mention comedy acts that are built around being bad songwriters. Acts like Flight of the Concord are borderline: there are funny songs, and then there are “funny bad” songs. I think part of the art of bad songwriting in the classic sense—whether in a dramatic or a stand-up context—is the sense that the songwriter or performer thinks they are very good, while the audience knows they are very—very—bad. Of course, the entire premise of “The Producers” is a creative team that sets out to write not just a bad song, but an epicly bad musical—bad in every sense: original concept, writing, staging, execution. But the strange dynamics of the marketplace play havoc with their plans, and the show becomes a surprise hit. This is good writing conveying intentionally bad writing that is unintentionally celebrated as good writing—about nine levels of irony.
Of course, life imitates art imitates life… Consider novelty songs, and songs like Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Even now people probably wonder exactly how intentional songs like that are. But you can’t deny the professional possibilities.
Learning researchers have learned that surprising, shocking juxtapositions are memorable. If you’re teaching and you use a whacky, off-the-cuff metaphor or comparison to get your point across, it will probably stick with your students more vividly. The same thing is true about getting noticed on the Internet. There may be such a thing as a bad song, but there’s still no such thing as bad publicity.
Query. What are some of your favorite examples of “good bad” songs? From TV shows, films, comedians, YouTube, wherever? Have you written some yourself? How many species and varieties of bad songs can we identify? Let’s assemble a Bad Song Cabinet of Curiousities!