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The Good Listener: When Was Pop Music At Its Lowest Point?

We like his early stuff better, before he sold out and joined The Stray Mob. (Courtesy of the artist)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and among the Penzeys Spices catalogs that help us remember our ex-roommates' names is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on pop music's nadir.

Josh in Chicago writes via email: "Paula Abdul had four No. 1 hits, spanning 1989-90. One of them featured a rapping cartoon cat. Was that period the nadir of pop, pre-Nirvana?"

Now, now. To me, the existence of all those Paula Abdul hits is mitigated by the fact that the rapping cartoon cat got an entire spin-off album, The Adventures Of MC Skat Kat And The Stray Mob, the sheer WTF-ness of which I treasure to this day. But I hear you on the late '80s and early '90s as a tough little micro-era for pop music, with assorted attempts to fuse pop and hip-hop (Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, the rap verse in Michael Jackson's "Black Or White") proving especially dire. Factor in Warrant's "Cherry Pie," and ... okay, I hear you. Those were difficult times for all of us.

But I'd argue that the worst pop music of any era would elicit the exact same groans of recognition. When I wrote a column earlier this year arguing that Starship's 1985 smash "We Built This City" is not, in fact, the worst song of all time, it received more than 1,200 comments. Few even bothered addressing "We Built This City" — which came out around the same time as horrendous pop hits by the likes of Eddie Murphy and Don Johnson — and instead worked to re-bury the ignoble likes of Paul Anka's "(You're) Having My Baby," which came out in 1974. The All Songs Considered discussion that followed spans many decades, and we didn't mention Paula Abdul even once.

You could take virtually any two-year span and proclaim it the nadir of music based on its worst, stupidest, most cloying hit singles. In 2005, The Black Eyed Peas released "My Humps" — "My hump, my hump / My lovely lady lumps" — and it won a freaking Grammy Award. The video for "My Humps" has been viewed, as of this writing, 152 million times. You could absolutely say, "The year 2005 marked the nadir of human civilization, because 'My Humps,'" and I'd at least hear you out, but I can't imagine anyone calling 2005 the worst year for music. The best metric, if you must pick a "worst year for music," would be to locate what you see as the lowest highs, not the lowest lows.

That said, it's fair to say that the worst pop music of 1989 and 1990 was bleak enough to help set the table for the likes of Nirvana. But, though it made a point of shining a light on its favorite bands — thus improving the musical landscape dramatically — Nirvana also inspired countless end-of-civilization copycats of its own. Would you really rather hear Candlebox's "Left Behind" than "Opposites Attract"? Your methods may vary, but it's helpful to remember that in pop music, as in most things, the bar can always be lowered — and subsequently (or even simultaneously) raised by someone else.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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