I make resources. I help to spread ideas about music. I try to find something to love or at least something of interest in songs across many genres, many eras, and artists of every demographic. In all of the music my kids show enthusiasm for, I try to point out something interesting I hear. How you talk about the music that kids make, as well as the music kids love, matters. Sometimes, that pursuit of appreciation conflicts with my personal taste.
Someone asked me once if there was any music out there that I simply hated. As I grow older, I realize that there is a lot of music that doesn't move me, that doesn't connect with me emotionally, or doesn't particularly interest me. That's a more fair shake than to say I hate any particular music. And there is also a lot of music made that warrants valid criticism.
But what about going deeper than that, even? Is there any music out there you deeply, intensely hate?
I started to think about it all the way back in April of 2017, and I hereby submit my entry for the worst song ever:
I promise you: no good can come of Kid Rock.
Emily, you're really shooting fish in a barrel here. There's nothing controversial about decrying late 90s nu metal, a subgenre that represented the shattered remnants of a genuine, massive progression in pop music. Why don't you really put yourself out there and tell your readers that "All Apologies" is the worst song ever?
Well, because that would be disingenuous. I don't believe "All Apologies" is the worst song ever.
Submitting this song to the list of Worst Songs Ever is not an exercise in critical forensics for me. Rather, it is taking to task everything that someone like Kid Rock stands for. Aside from my distaste for the song, there are lots of good reasons to refer to this as the Worst Song Ever. I'll give you four.
1) Genres in a Blender. A distinct feature of late 90s "alternative radio rock" (by then a big business) was the combination of heavily distorted guitars and the omni-present turntable scratching. Usually this combo was accompanied by an angry white man shout-rapping. Some bands of that era did that better than others. I admit to having loved them at the time, but even now when I hear Incubus (and the scratching heard especially on "Pardon Me"), I don't recoil in pain. Limp Bizkit, on the other hand, has become a cultural punchline. But Kid Rock outdid everyone of that era in terms of putting genres in a blender and then laying down whatever track poured out like an unpleasant smoothie.
One of the most frustrating aspects of nu metal was anyone treating it as though it was "nu" at all. This particular form of genre-bending had been practice since the mid-80s, surfacing with Aerosmith & Run DMC's collaboration on "Walk This Way", which was beneficial for both groups and still holds up to this day. Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers had ruled the start of the 90s with much more interesting versions of what eventually evolved into nu metal. All of the aforementioned acts had longer, more fruitful careers, possibly because they had deeper wells of musical creativity than Kid Rock does. Even now, incredibly popular acts like Twenty One Pilots, who rap a great deal in their songs, have more interesting things going on in their music than anything that happened in late 90s nu metal.
The first time I showed my students the Run DMC/Aerosmith video for "Walk This Way", I compared it to eating Wendy's French fries with a Frosty. If you haven't attempted this combo yet, you're missing out. Kid Rock's mash-up of rock & rap sounds less like a sweet & savory combo and more like donut juice, or some other unpleasant combo that doubles as a vape flavor.
Either way, what results on "Bawitdaba" is a lot of disparate sounds all ground together through a production pulverizer. After an initial crescendo and a short instrumental break at 2:25, there's not a lot to keep the audience's attention. There's almost no change in dynamic, no well-placed pause, no shift in tempo or meter, very little change in instrumentation, very little evidence of structure, and almost no variation vocally. Instead, all we get are massively distorted guitars, massively distorted vocals, and lots of in-your-face noise that plays underneath someone who really has nothing to say. By comparison, "Watch me whip / watch me nae-nae" is at least instructive. Rock's verses are simply shout-outs to broadly defined groups of people. It's like an extremely early version of, "Look at us with our economic anxiety out here!" And while I love the concept of defending pop nonsense, there is genuinely nothing to this chorus, which almost sounds as though it's backed by explosives. It's onomatopoeia with no purpose, unless you move onto item number 2...
2) Appropriation. Based on this song and even more so, the video, Rock comes off as one of those guys who defends himself from accusations of racism, sexism, and ableism by reminding his audience that, "I started out with hip-hop! I'm from Detroit! I have black friends! My drummer was a black woman! My old best friend was a little person! I can't be any of those things you say that I am!"
And yes, other musicians quote lines from other songs all the time, as Rock does here with the "Up jump the boogie" (a notable line from the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", a cornerstone rap single). The onomatopoeic title also refers to "Rapper's Delight". But aside from the borrowing of that lyric, there is no homage paid here to hip-hop. Not to mention that Rock's trailer park persona, as presented in both the video and in the multiple shout-outs he yells in the verses, is also posturing, seeing as he grew up on a million dollar estate with horses in suburban Michigan.
Not to mention that this gentleman who happens to be white is showing absolutely zero rapping prowess in this song, and yet is praised for his efforts (this song was nominated for a Grammy in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance). See below.
3) Shouting/Monotone. There is no vocal inflection in the chorus. There are no changing pitches. If you were to arrange this for a wind ensemble, playing the chorus would sound like an articulation exercise gone horrifically wrong. Similarly, the rapped section is as boring as can be. I read a then-current review of Devil without a Cause, the album that "Bawitdaba" appeared on, by me & Thurston Moore's old pal Robert Christgau, in which he compares the nonsense chorus to work by Missy Elliott. Among the spectrum of differences between Rock and Elliott, Missy has always distinguished herself from other rappers by her treasure trove of vocal inflections atop her bonkers reserves of creativity. When compared to other 90s rappers, Rock continues to pale in comparison. He doesn't have the grit of Tupac's voice, the melodic sense of Notorious B.I.G., the rising tessitura of Snoop Dogg (or even Warren G), the furious diction of DMX, the melodrama of Busta Rhymes, the triplet cadence or rhythmic wordplay of Jay-Z, or the pitch-scooping attitude of Lil' Kim. Rock lacks the rhythmic dexterity of Eminem (whom I also detest but can at least credit some competancy). In this song, all we hear is loudness. The rapping is loud and it's very boring.
4) Focus-grouped into Obliteration. Apparently, early in his career, Rock drew praise from members of the Insane Clown Posse, a controversial rap collective turned cultural touchstone who also sprang from Detroit in the 1990s. For all the awful ICP lyrics and cultlike behavior of their fans, referred to as Juggalos, their music was never intended to be commercial, and thus they could get away with ludicrous wordplay and generally unsuitable themes in their lyrics. For better or worse, this has made ICP into cult icons who still have a inexplicably large following.
In the case of "Bawitdaba", however, apparently a multitude of f-bombs and references to homicide were eventually replaced with a plea to "love someone" in "the pit" in order to garner radio airplay (and eventually score Kid Rock a duet with Sheryl Crow). Violent-J must have been so upset when he heard the final radio edit of this song.
As mentioned before, Rock makes unspecific platitudes to "homies" (appropriation) of all sorts, leaning heavy on stereotypes and harmful -isms (interestingly enough, in the music video, when Rock refers to "crackheads", the camera focuses on the one black young man who is walking alongside Rock).
Kid Rock's musical journey has indeed been a strange one. He landed on the national scene with this truly terrible debut that somehow won some praise. He then moved on to be a guy who played more "intimate" venues and then famously rhymed "things" with "things". (I mean, come on. Katy Perry at lease uses a very Emily Dickinson sense of slant rhyme in her songs.) He was a rapper, and then a rocker, and then a country star. He's changed genres more often than 1990s Christian acts. While some may argue that genres don't really even matter anymore, his constant shifting comes off as even more disingenuous than Garth Brooks's short stint as soul patch wearing Chris Gaines.
Over the last two years, he became a darling of the middle American conservative movement, even threatening a Michigan run for Senate. But just like in his songs, when it seemed like something might even make sense, he just dropped a few f-bombs and kept on blowing things up.
Maybe some of the things we love are bound by where we grew up. Having come of age in Central Florida, my unshakeable admiration for Tom Petty needs no defending. Seeing that my entire family is from Long Island, NY, Billy Joel is likewise religion (and hence my defending "We Didn't Start the Fire" to the death). Maybe Michiganders can find something worth defending in Kid Rock's ouvre. I'm willing to imagine that there is a magic to Kid Rock that I just don't understand or appreciate. But I also imagine that Kid Rock is to hip-hop what fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos is to education -- someone who claims to admire it but not-so-secretly has always been on a mission to destroy it.