October 5, 2010

Crappy song vs. crappier song

Have you ever had the barest wisp of a thought set off a chain reaction that leads you down an Internet spiral? A passing musing touches off a certain half-buried memory; a quick google later and you're absorbed in many pointless minutes of Web surfing and time wasting.

Such happened to me yesterday. I can't even recall what the match was exactly that lit the fuse, but suddenly I had Rick Springfield on the brain. (True confession: As a young child, I confused him with Bruce Springsteen. Common enough—Springfield even had a minor hit song on the subject—but for some ungodly reason, I confused them both with Dan Fogelberg.) Springfield is a common punching bag among rock snobs, but if you take a few minutes to actually listen to his music, you realize that yes, he actually does suck. Fine, "Jessie's Girl" is dumb fun, but there's a reason why you can hardly remember any other of his massive hit songs. (This is a very credible contender for my "worst song ever" award.) Springfield seems like a good guy, but he was just not very talented, and managed to largely coast by on his soap-opera good lucks—literally; he was a soap star before he hit big on the charts. The fact that he always sounded like he was trying too hard to prove his hard-rock cred only makes his music more awkward and pitiful.

So I thought of Rick Springfield, and then I thought of Kristina. Several years ago, I had a girlfriend by that name, and I told her that Rick Springfield had a song about her name—same spelling and everything. (How I remembered this, I have no clue.) "Kristina" was on the same album as "Don't Talk to Strangers," so zillions of people must have heard it at some point, though I hadn't in an age. But my GF—who, how shall I put this, wasn't exactly compatible with me in terms of musical taste—rushed out and bought the CD, and bounced along happily as we listened to "her" song, again and again, during a road trip. Here you go:



The standard Springfieldian problems: sloppy musicianship, boneheaded lyrics ("I can make love a work of art!"), the sound of a man expending too much energy in all the wrong ways, and a complete lack of understanding of how to properly use keyboards in a rock song. (Here's the all-time best example. Maybe this too.) It is the ultimate irony that anyone confused him with Bruce; he was perhaps the anti-Springsteen.

But yesterday, revisiting this song, I suddenly remembered something: This was a rip-off. Maybe not a rip-off, but definitely a bizarre reworking. As a young teenager, I'd been a moderate fan of —brace yourselves—Bachman-Turner Overdrive (even before I moved to Canada). I've since gotten over that, although "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" and "Let It Ride" are not without their charms. But I suddenly recalled, hiding at the very end of side two of BTO's Greatest Hits, there's a song called "Jamaica." Compare and contrast:



This was from the 1979 album Rock n' Roll Nights, post the departure of linchpin Randy Bachman (whom, by the way, I would give a full-throated defense of, if only because he was in the Guess Who). This was BTO's swan song, a halfhearted attempt to inject some glam elements into their hard rock, and while "Jamaica" has a decent hook and the band is musically capable, it's pretty dopey. And lead vocalist Jim Clench sounds unnervingly like Ozzy Osbourne. Still, I think this is miles better than "Kristina." That's how much Rick Springfield sucks—he can't even cover a Bachman-Turner Overdrive deep-album cut without fucking it up.

Curious, I researched this odd confluence. "Jamaica" is credited to songwriter Jim Vallance, while "Kristina" is officially by Vallance and Springfield himself, who clearly rewrote the lyrics. Vallance has written songs for a pretty impressive array of pop names from the late '70s/early '80s, Canadian and otherwise, but he's perhaps best known for taking Bryan Adams to the top. His fingerprints are on several of Adams's biggest hits, and in fact I ran across his name while researching a question from last summer's BQT Summer Fun Spectacular; it seems when Bry was going around telling people that "Summer of '69" was about the sex position and not the year, Vallance argued otherwise. His account, per his official site.

Then, I poked around Vallance's site to see what he had to say about "Kristina." He doesn't seem upset about it at all (he probably made a shitload of money off it, after all); he even lists Springfield's full dumb-ass lyrics. I was surprised, but then I realized something—it's not like Jim Vallance was writing tunes for the Clash. Am I really surprised that a guy who made his bones writing for BTO and Bryan Adams liked a Rick Springfield song?

This is the problem with falling down an Internet spiral What kind of underworld of pop-music mediocrity had I ensconced myself in? Back to the good stuff then.