Everyone knows that a good ballad goes a long way on Valentine's Day, but choosing the right song is key.
The mood for love?
One of the year's most evocative days is upon us and around the world millions will be marking the occasion by steering well clear of shopping malls, televisions and most certainly their radios. Valentine's Day isn't for everyone, and love songs can be particularly painful; some rather more than others. Canvass your friends and colleagues about this topic and a few mighty anthems will invariably make an appearance, by the likes of James Blunt, Céline Dion and Bryan Adams. These are far from the worst examples of the genre, though. Yes, the opening bars of Dion's My Heart Will Go On may make you want to jump off a boat, but that's really due to overexposure, rather than quality.
For a truly bad love song you need a rare combination of appalling lyrics, inexplicable mainstream success and, for added bonus points, a sinister undercurrent. Is the enormously successful Everything I Do (I Do it For You) really the worst ballad of Bryan Adams' career, for instance, given that he also brought us the horrifying Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? "When you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really love a woman," gushed the graveley rocker in 1995, like a lovesick stalker. Scary. As for Adams' compatriot Dion, that ship-related epic was actually a quasi-sequel to her first international hit, a scientifically suspect soft-rock monstrosity called Where Does My Heart Beat Now? "Where do silent hearts go?" she wailed, before ultimately deciding that "hearts are made to last, until the end of time", the sort of flawed logic that often graces such schmaltz.
Overblown, inaccurate and just plain weird, these are fine samples from the book of bad love songs. But, as the captain of the Titanic might agree, they're also just the tip of the iceberg. There are good love songs, bad love songs and love songs that it's hard to believe were ever allowed to happen. Michael Bolton has contributed regularly to the latter two categories. The white-soul Lothario is happy to court offence by covering hallowed soul classics (When a Man Loves a Woman, Lean on Me), and his original works reached an impressive peak of pomposity in 1993.
Said I Loved You - But I Lied sounded mean but was actually an attempt to establish a bold new paradigm for power ballads. The actual concept of love, it seems, just wasn't enough for Bolton any more. "This is more than love I feel inside," he crooned. "Love could never, ever feel so strong!" Then he carried on singing about love, of course. Sometimes you only need hear the title to guess that a song is going to be jaw-droppingly inappropriate. Few outside the United States will have come across an early hit by Justin Timberlake's old band N: Sync, for example, called God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You. Don't expect to hear it in JT's live sets any time soon.
Also rarely played, for obvious reasons, is an extraordinary 1962 single by soul quartet The Crystals: He Hit Me and it felt like a Kiss. Written by legendary songsmiths Jerry Goffin and Carole King, it was proposed as a protest song against domestic violence but recorded as a straight-ahead ballad by the producer Phil Spector, and an outcry ensued. That furore was an ominous foretaste of the fate that would eventually befall the now-imprisoned Spector.
Keeping to the incarceration theme, no one is more synonymous with romance than the bullet-ridden ex-crack dealer 50 Cent, so when he pens a love song you know it will be worth catching. 21 Questions, from 2003, doesn't disappoint. "If I didn't smell so good, would you still hug me?" pondered the rapper previously known as Curtis Jackson. "I love you like a fat kid love cake." Another Jackson warrants induction into this dubious Hall of Fame but not the much-lamented Michael, although his rat-related ballad Ben almost makes the cut; likewise The Girl Is Mine on which he staged a mock argument with Paul McCartney and achieved the impressive feat of a double career-nadir.
No, surely the worst love song in the Jackson family annals is by Michael's brother Jermaine: the schmaltzy but shambolic Do What You Do ("when you did what you did to me"), a bewildering sentiment immediately bettered by the bizarre "why don't you say what you say when you say what you said, any more?" which is the sort of lyric that makes English teachers weep. Even the girl in the video looked confused.
Bad grammar is rarely sexy. Imagine using the biggest hit by the Los Angeles MOR stars Bread (Baby I'm-a Want You) as an opening gambit: your intended would think you were nuts. At least the first line from Billy Ray Cyrus' Achy Breaky Heart gave fair warning of subsequent horrors ("You can tell the world, you never was my girl"), but it hardly helped enhance the international standing of Southern men with mullets.
Cyrus' breakthrough hit is often cited as the worst song of all time, across all categories, and helped launch both a resurgence of line-dancing and the future career of his daughter Miley Cyrus: quite a legacy. Time for a trip across the pond now, to the point where many casual fans finally turned against Coldplay: 2005's Fix You. This haughty anthem begins like a song for preschool children ("when you try your best but you don't succeed"), becomes nonsensical ("lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones") and, more pertinently, is about a man telling his significant other that he'll try to fix her, as if she's a broken refrigerator.
Like Bono, Chris Martin spent much of the late Noughties rushing out lyrics in between more pressing engagements, safe in the knowledge that people would buy the resulting records anyway. Good songwriting, like a relationship, requires love and patience, although a curious number of awful lyrics about the process of writing a decent ballad are also in circulation. Take Elton John's first hit single, Your Song, which is blessed with a lovely melody but burdened by some of rock history's most fatuous words, courtesy of Bernie Taupin. "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no," sang poor Elton. And: "I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss, well a few of the verses, they've got me quite cross."
Which is understandable. On a similar theme, the Londoner Adrian Gurvitz's one memorable release is a prime example that daft lyrics needn't affect sales. The slushy synth-rock anthem Classic was a worldwide smash in 1982 despite opening with the intriguing couplet "Got to write a classic, got to write it in an attic." Why an attic? Lofty ambitions, perhaps. Gary Kemp also found it "hard to write the next line" on Spandau Ballet's karaoke staple True, and ended up just making do with some random nonsense: "I bought a ticket to the world," his frontman Tony Hadley dutifully sang, "but now I've come back again."
This leads us to a dedicated subsection of the rotten ballad run-down: perfectly adequate compositions that have had badness thrust upon them. In the early 1960s a couple of young American college students came up with a catchy number called A Groovy Kind of Love, which then became a hit for a beat group called The Mindbenders. Twenty-five years on, Phil Collins gave it a moody makeover, but his achingly earnest delivery sat uneasily with lyrics like "When I'm feeling blue, all I have to do, is take a look at you, then I'm not so blue." That innocent little song would never be the same.
Billy Joel, on the other hand, managed to taint his own tune. The 1977 hit Just the Way You Are was written as a birthday present for his wife, Elizabeth. "Don't go changing," crooned the diminutive piano man, "to try and please me." Unfortunately Joel then divorced Elizabeth and married the blonde supermodel Christie Brinkley, which gave the song a nasty aftertaste. Bad love songs can occur via incompetence, carelessness, even circumstances beyond the writer's control, but it takes a certain calibre of artist to keep churning them out; which brings us back, finally, to Bryan Adams.
The aforementioned Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman is just one of the dubious treats on 18 til I Die, a sort of midlife-crisis concept album which features two further additions to the upper echelons of the bad romance roster. This neglected 1996 opus kicks off with The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me Is You, which needs no further comment. Only Adams can do this. Bow down to the master.