This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Enrique Iglesias, “Hero.”
THE YEAR: 2001.
THE REASONS: Treacle and balladry.
You know you’re either destined to be a music critic or a sad, depleted adult —yes, yes, you’re so funny—when you realize you spent multiple nights as a preteen hunched over a clock radio with a legal pad, writing down the names of everything on the radio, plus playcounts, plus thoughts, plus hearts doodled in the margins because you are in fact a tween.
I was in fact a tween, and it was on purpose; it was part of my trying so hard to metamorphose from a computer geek with helmet hair and mismatched clothes to a real preteen girl, the sort who’d appear mid-leap on the cover of a Delia’s catalog. The quest was doomed, of course, but nobody could say I didn’t try. I persuaded my parents to buy me everything in olive green and burnt orange because that was, more or less, the Abercrombie color scheme. I subscribed to every teen magazine on the shelves, from the “legit” ones like Seventeen to the ones that were really just Pinterest boards of celebrities like J-14.
Enrique Iglesias, “Hero”
And I listened to a lot of pop music. Partly this was because that’s what was done, partly I’d been primed by my sorority babysitters’ always-on radio and the VH1 countdowns my grandmother put on after school, but most of it wasn’t environmental at all. The genre—like the magazines—has always been aspirational music for preteens, and the still-not-latent nerd in me wanted to figure out how and why exactly that happened. So I wrote reviews, all of which were terrible. (Thanks to Geocities mirrors, I can report that one Creed blurb contained the sentence “points for originality,” and that there was an Energizer bunny reference elsewhere, plus multiple instances of “music with a good message.”) I made playlists: the crush mix for staring at yearbook photos of the class president on a field trip (something I’m sure I did after seeing it in a movie); the party mix for being driven to dances and pretending they were the club; the self-confident mix for summers at the water park, watching the older, cooler people around me (including at least one babysitter) frolic in swimsuits and get hit on by lifeguards and pretending that if I listened hard enough, I’d get the key to that secret teenage world. There was nothing I couldn’t think I related to.
Nothing, that is, except one particular genre of song: the one where earnest, quavery guys crooned to you about their feeeeeeeeeelings. These were always ballads, but balladry alone was no sin; I willingly listened to Christina Aguilera’s “I Turn to You” no matter how much I associated it with my summer-camp crush ditching me for some girl in jeggings. (That wasn’t yet a term, but make no mistake: they were jeggings.) No, these were the clammy caresses of pop-rock balladeers, the kind that seemed like so much bullshit considering how actual middle-school boys were the absolute worst, the sort of people who wouldn’t serenade you but stand you up or call you a dumbass bitch during ballroom dance lessons. Plus, the songs were generally terrible.
2001 was particularly dismal for these. The year in pop was actually pretty great, even ten years later with hardened ears, but only after dismissing the likes of O-Town’s “All or Nothing,” which even then registered as an attempt to string together every cliché in the English and musical languages, or K-Ci and JoJo’s “Crazy,” about which I remember nothing but the chorus’s puddle of warbly “crazycrazycrazy” bibble that, to my ears, felt like K-Ci and JoJo following me around whining and blowing raspberries in my face, maybe hoping that if they just pissed and moaned enough I’d decide singledom just wasn’t worth it.
None of these were the absolute worst, though. The absolute worst belonged to Enrique Iglesias, Latin-pop legend Julio Iglesias’s son whose single “Hero” was heavily promoted around September 11 for mostly extramusical reasons. I knew neither of these things. I only knew that this song was everywhere—and could prove it, considering I’d tallied the damn playcounts—and I couldn’t go to any school event or retail store or anywhere with a radio without being accosted by gentle guitar and strings and Enrique bleating “I can be your hero, ba-a-a-a-a-a-by, I can kiss away the pain…” until heroics, pet names and grown-up relationships all seemed like pretty poor ideas, and ballads worse still.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
I hadn’t knowingly heard this since it slipped off the radio until now, and I can’t justify my instant negative reaction. Every element is something I’ll accept, even like, from other ballads. Those elements, however, include: limpid strings; a guitar line that goes nowhere and does nothing, like somebody swirling a fork in a puddle of molasses; a bongo loop Enrique either got from the presets directory or a Waves store by the beach, a simple-but-touching-except-not piano line; a spoken-word intro whispered as if he’s trying to distract you during a slow dance from a wandering hand, which is an entirely preteen reaction but still; and that quaver, where “have I lost my mind” is baa-ed like a sheep.
This is where I should probably note that I wrote that paragraph after getting through only 2:30 of the song, which is cheating, so here goes. The strings and guitar line get even treaclier, even more so when I realize it’s doing so in order to chase the vaguely-classical-guitar trend that lasted about a year. Enrique warbles “I just want to hold you, I just want to hold you” with the intonation of every Nice Guy™ ever. I remembered the (rote) surging chorus; I remembered the big soaring notes that never quite left the runway. But when was there a fake gospel choir? Why does that last, mercifully quiet note feel so much like wriggling out of a pair of sweaty arms? “Hero” doesn’t sound as bad as it did before—it’s worse. Or else I really did end up as that sad, depleted adult. You decide.
(Astute readers, however, will note that nowhere in this column did I mention “Be With You.”)