In 1989 I attended the opening of San Diego’s new waterfront convention center with my father. My most vivid memory from that event was hearing Starship’s 1985 single, “We Built This City,” play as the fireworks danced in the sky over San Diego Bay. Since I was nine at the time, I didn’t know Starship’s song and I didn’t remember when it hit the charts in 1985. What I do remember was feeling how appropriate the song was to the event: a celebration of a building being built, and an exciting fireworks show.
As I got older I came to realize that “We Built This City” is not a good song. In 2004, Blender ranked the song as the worst song of all time, and said that it “sounds less like a song than something built in a lab by a team of record-company executives.” In 2011, the song was voted the worst song of the 1980s in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll. To gain some historical perspective I asked my friend, who was 23 in 1985, about the song’s release:
I don’t know if the song itself was really that terrible. It was more that Jefferson Airplane had been such a groundbreaking group, and then Jefferson Starship was still fairly good. But then when they just became Starship, I think that may have been their first song. And we all hated it.
When I listen to the song, my first thought is, “I can’t believe someone made this.” The combination of anti-corporate lyrics and overdone production value makes the song reek of disingenuous commercialism. But because it is music, this was something that a person, or people, actually made. After having that realization, I’m forced to ask, “how could this happened?”
Like every other number 1 single, it began when someone wrote the song—in this case, it was Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s longtime writing partner), Martin Page, Dennis Lambert, and Peter Wolf (who also produced the song)—and then the song was pitched to Starship, who agreed to record the song and presumably felt the song wouldn’t reflect negatively upon the group. Then the song was produced, recorded, and released. After that, “We Built This City” was curated for mass consumption by DJs and radio stations, and finally appreciated enough by the public to hit number 1 on November 16, 1985.
Through all those steps, no one put a stop to this. How did all these contingencies fail at once? In the end all we’re left with is a bad song, and more than anything else we’re left to wonder: why did we love this song so much when it was so terrible?
We Built This City by Starship (songfacts.com): A thoroughly detailed exploration of the song’s creation. I highly recommend reading through the comments as well.
DATA CONFIRMS: ‘We Built This City’ is the Worst Song Ever, by Robert Madison: A numerical analysis of the the song’s use of time and lyrics.
What metric are you using for “bad?” Because I still ponder “who is Marconi?” Why is he playing the mamba? I think those are good questions.
Thanks for reading Adam,
During my research for this article I wondered who Marconi was as well. Apparently, there’s some debate about whether these are even the correct lyrics, but “Marconi plays the mamba” are the correct lyrics. Luckily for us both, someone addressed this issue back in 2007:
The author, Saucy Vixen, explores this part of the song and concludes that the lyrics refer to Guglielmo Marconi, one of the early pioneers of radio communications. Check our her article for more information.