Train - Worst pop song ever?
The Worst Pop Song of All Time?

"Hey Soul Sister" is a memorable, significant song, but for all the wrong reasons.

For nearly four decades, Starship’s unremarkably dull “We Built This City” has been hailed as the worst pop song of all time. It’s a claim that’s hard to dispute; the song is undeniably terrible. Yet, it achieved gold record status as a single and continues to be heard in both soporific and ironic settings. Its success, or rather, its endurance, is a paradox. While objectively bad, a song like “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle doesn’t have the same lasting impact. A truly atrocious pop song must have longevity and can only be appreciated after several years have passed. Mediocre pop songs come and go. Truly repugnant pop songs like “We Built This City” linger forever.

I am happy to present for your consideration my nominee for The Worst Pop Song of All Time: Train’s 2009 hit single “Hey, Soul Sister.”

I hate this song. I hate the inane, insipid, and lazy lyrics. I hate Pat Monahan’s whiny voice. I hate the way they exploit a ukulele. It sounds like a prop in this song, something that is deliberately used to make the listener react in a certain way. It’s supposed to make the song sound light, breezy, ephemeral, whimsical, or something like that, but instead it feels fake, affected, and annoying. More than anything else, the use of a ukulele sounds contrived rather than natural, and I hate contrived in my music. I hate when a song sounds like it was constructed in a lab, which is the case with this song. 

What else is there to hate? Let’s start with the song’s background. Apparently, Monahan had heard of this thing called Burning Man (only one of the biggest arts festivals/happenings in the world and a huge deal), thought it sounded cool, and decided to write a song about the sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girls who presumably are running around bare-midriffed in the desert spouting free love and being charmingly quirky. He came up with a song about a woman with whom he’s become obsessed. He even sings, ‘I’m so obsessed’. Uh, that’s kinda creepy, dude. It’s a selfish, stalker-ish song. It sounds like a song about a woman the singer hooked up with once and now won’t leave alone. I’d be scared if I were her – I’d probably be blocking him and even filing a police report. It’s creepy.

Do you know what else is disturbing? The simple inanity of the lyrics and the song’s structure.  Monahan rhymes “Hey, soul sister” with “Ain’t that Mr. Mister,” which is the absolute worst.  Is it the laziest thing you could rhyme with the word “sister”?  Is that their great love connection, that they both like a middle-of-the-pack New Wave pop band? Then there’s the line he rhymes with: “I’m so obsessed” – “My heart is bound to beat right out my untrimmed chest.”  What the hell does that have to do with anything? Does that make you manly? Does that mean that you’re a free spirit as well? Then the bridge opens with “Way you can cut a rug/watching you’s the only drug I need/so gangster, I’m so thug/you’re the only one I’m dreaming of.” There’s a lot to unpack here. The excitement and euphoria from watching someone dance is also creepy, fitting in well with the rest of the song’s theme.  Moreover, there is simply nothing about Train’s identity that one would equate with “gangster” or “thug” in either the modern slang vernacular or the older historical definitions of either word unless the band members are devoted to the Hindu goddess Kali. Which they, in fact, might be. Their music has caused untold suffering, and much blood spilled out of listeners’ ears over the past two decades. Or maybe they’re “gangster” because they can write bad songs with worse lyrics (see also: “Meet Virginia,” “Drops of Jupiter”) that still sell in bushels, and they don’t care. Either way, they are the lowest common denominator songwriters, and if I ever met Pat Monahan on the street, I’d punch him in the mouth and take his wallet and shoes.

To be fair to Train, millions of people around the world love this song. According to the RIAA, it has been streamed or downloaded over 11 million times, its music video has 365 million views, and it’s been played 1.5 billion times on Spotify. If you’re a fan of this song, please don’t take this personally. “We Built This City” has its defenders, too.

With its bonafides thus established, let’s compare “Hey, Soul Sister” and “We Built This City.” Inane, confusing, and laughable lyrics? Check. An uncomfortable earworm of a hook? Check. Chart-topping success? Check. A lingering cultural footprint? Check. Would I be happy if I never heard it again? Check. 

Is it a memorable, significant song, even if it’s for the wrong reasons? Check. And at the end of the day, that means success for both Train and Starship, even if we all suffer for it.

Adam is just a dude based in Brooklyn who enjoys thinking about music in all forms. He enjoys cooking, board games, baseball, and arranging songs for ukulele that shouldn't be played on ukulele in an extremely amateurish way. Adam is shown here at age 13 on his way to a bar mitzvah.

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