If you Google the words “the worst song of all time”, you’ll generally get a string of irritating novelty hits. You’ll get “Agadoo”, you’ll get “The Birdie Song”, you’ll get “Can’t Touch This”, and so on. And while there’s the occasional surprising result (seriously, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” isn’t even the worst Beatles song), by and large, you get a selection of songs that are, when all is said and done, a big joke. Songs that were funny the first time, but made everybody want to stick forks in their eyes by the seventy-fourth. It’s pop culture’s revenge- for the crime of tormenting our elders by singing Aqua over and over again, we in our turn will be tormented by the younger generation singing “What Does The Fox Say?” over and over again. It’s tough but it’s fair.
But here’s a funny thing- deep down, where it counts, none of those songs truly deserve our hatred.
No, really. They deserve our annoyance, and they deserve our disdain, but actual, genuine hatred is something different. The songs mentioned above are, basically, harmless. MC Hammer, Black Lace and the others set out to make disposable pop hits, and disposable pop hits are what they made. Besides, you only have so much hate to go round- if you waste it on a band with lyrics like, “Come on Barbie, let’s go party,” you’ll have none left over for Hitler.
But what about a band with more ambition like that? What about a band who want to teach their audience a valuable life lesson? What about a band who decide to write a song with an important social message? And what about a band who completely mishandle that message, so that their song comes out as a pile of clueless, sexist, victim-blamey tripe?
Gentle readers, I give you City High’s “What Would You Do?”
I hate this song. I hate it with the power of a thousand suns. I hate it with a passion that, to be honest, is probably a little out of proportion considering that it’s a thirteen-year-old song by a band who split up soon after its release. But it still exists. Every time I think I’ve forgotten about it, it suddenly comes on the radio and makes me want to kill things.
Although it was released in 2001, “What Would You Do?” has always made me think of the 1980s slogan “on yer bike.” The origin of this phrase was a comment made by the Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, in the aftermath of unemployment riots in the summer of 1981. In criticising the behaviour of the rioters, Tebbit said, “I grew up in the Thirties with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.” Many people interpreted this as Tebbit telling the unemployed to look for work like his father did instead of complaining. Some considered this sensible advice, and adopted “on yer bike!” as a tough, no-nonsense slogan. Others responded, “Go out and look for work? Wow, what a brilliant idea- I’d never have thought of that on my own! And I certainly haven’t been doing exactly that for the last year, you insensitive bell-end!”
But the thing that jumps out at me is this- Norman Tebbit only felt he could imply what City High, twenty years later, directly stated in this song. And I think we can all agree that when an up-and-coming R&B group are less sensitive to the plight of the disadvantaged than a right-wing politician in the 1980s, something’s gone horribly wrong.
The song begins with our narrator at a wild party with plenty of booze and strippers. Please note that he went there of his own free will, and there is nothing in the lyrics or video for this song to indicate that he isn’t enjoying himself. Remember this- it will be important later.
The narrator notices that one of the strippers is a girl named Lonnie who went to school with him, so he drags her outside and demands that she explain herself. Instead of punching him in the face and stealing his wallet, Lonnie explains that she works as a stripper (and occasional prostitute) because it’s the only way she can feed her son. I’ll pause here to point out what we’ve just learned about the narrator: He objects to his old friend being a stripper, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with himself or his friends paying to be entertained by strippers. It’s alright for them to want a particular service and enjoy it when it becomes available, but wrong for Lonnie to provide it.
There are several terms for men who think like that, but the only one I can repeat in polite company is “gigantic hypocrite.”
Admittedly, you could take a more charitable view of his character and argue that he has no particular moral objection to stripping, but he remembers Lonnie as a clever girl and is surprised and disappointed that she hasn’t done more with her life. You could argue that I’d be just as surprised if I saw an old schoolfriend working in Mcdonalds when I knew she’d got A*s on all her A-levels. And I can’t deny that. But the difference is this- if I did see a genius friend working in Mcdonalds, I’d arrange to take her out for a drink and catch up on what had happened over the years, then broach the subject of her career choice politely. I wouldn’t drag her outside and demand that she justify her life to someone she hasn’t spoken to in years.
At the start of the second verse, the narrator once again fails to endear himself to me by telling Lonnie that her need to support her son is “no excuse” for her behaviour. You know, I don’t think I’ll be satisfied with her stealing his wallet anymore. At this point, it’ll pretty much have to be his kidney.
It’s that word “excuse” that gets to me- the sheer presumption on the part of the narrator that she has to excuse her method of supporting her son to someone who is essentially a complete stranger. He’s basically Angel Clare from Tess of the D’Urbervilles– a complacent man alternately taking the sexual favours that women offer him, and demanding that they explain to him exactly why this doesn’t make them massive sluts.
Instead of going with my kidney idea, Lonnie rants at the narrator, telling him, “Every day I wake up, hoping to die.” She doesn’t add, “And if I’d known I was going to run into a sanctimonious twerp like you today, I’d have wished a lot harder,” but I think it’s implied. She then tells him that she and her sister ran away from home to escape their father’s sexual abuse, before concluding, “Before I was a teenager/ I been through more shit that you can’t even relate to.” The narrator never shows any sign that he, in fact, can relate to her life, but he doesn’t let this get in the way of telling her that she’s doing it wrong.
The music video then cuts back to the narrator telling his friends the story. The music stops as one of them interrupts with, “What’s stopping (Lonnie) from going out and getting a real job?”
Well, I’d like to ask him by what standards being a stripper isn’t a real job (it requires real hours and pays real money, doesn’t it?), but otherwise he asks a valid question. There could be a number of factors- it might be that the economy’s in the toilet and the strip club’s the only place hiring; it might be that there are other jobs going, but the pay isn’t as good, or they require qualifications and experience she doesn’t have, or the hours aren’t compatible with childrearing; it might be that she lacks the motivation to look for a job, possibly because she’s clinically depressed (the “every day I wake up hoping to die” line certainly suggests this)…
“What would you do? / Get up on my feet and stop making up tired excuses”
Oh, who am I kidding? It’s because she’s lazy, obviously!
Fortunately, this part of the song isn’t spoken directly to Lonnie, which means that she’s not going to have to listen to any more pseudo-moralistic garbage, which I imagine is a relief. No, this is just something that the narrator’s friend would say to Lonnie if, hypothetically, he met her. Which he’s not going to. So it’s just the audience that has to suffer as he tells us exactly what he’d do if he was in this situation that he’s never been in and never will be in, but knows, instinctively, that he’d handle a lot better than this stupid, lazy woman.
Before we come to the general theme of this song, there is a very odd line in the final verse that I think is worth addressing: “Girl, I know if my mother can do it, baby you can do it.” Since this is the only mention of his mother, and he doesn’t elaborate or attempt to explain whether or not her situation was even remotely similar to Lonnie’s, all this line achieves is adding a creepy Madonna / whore vibe that, frankly, fits right in with the “It’s OK for me to watch strippers unless one of them is somebody I know personally, in which case it’s an affront to my morals” attitude we saw in the first verse.
This song has not one, but two, highly questionable morals. We’ll start with the horrifically sexist one, then go on to the horrifically classist one.
Moral the First: If you’re a stripper or a prostitute, you should give it up. Not because of any practical or moral reservations that you yourself might have, but because it might make a man disapprove of you.
And we can’t have that. Everyone knows that a woman must devote her life to the good opinion of males everywhere. There are many times and places in which boys are told that all women are either bad girls (who you sleep with and then dump) or good girls (who are human beings), and the first verse comes across as the narrator telling Lonni off for blurring the line and making his head hurt. And in the final verse, the line “stop making up tired excuses” carries the disturbing implication that Lonni should have let her son starve to death before she allowed herself to become sexually impure.
Moral the Second: If you know somebody who does something dangerous or morally questionable to support her children, it’s not because of complicated factors like a hostile job market or lack of financial support from the government or her children’s father. It’s because she’s lazy!
See also, “I’m not paying tax to support a bunch of people on the dole who can’t be bothered to get jobs!” Some people badly need to believe that the reason they’re better off than poor people isn’t that they’re luckier, but that they’re inherently better people. If they were in the poor people’s shoes, they tell themselves, they wouldn’t sit around all day watching TV and eating crisps, or whatever it is that poor people do. No, they’d go out and achieve, and earn a million pounds within a week. Because they’re better people, and that’s why they’re rich.
This is an very convenient philosophy for rich people to have. It means that they don’t have to give money to charity (because it would only go to lazy people), and they don’t have to feel guilty about blowing large amounts of it on frivolous things (because if the lazy people had money, they’d spend it on something even more frivolous). Take it far enough, and you can live a life of unbridled hedonism without even a twinge of conscience… always assuming that nothing unforeseen happens to your money.
In City High’s defence, I think they intended “What Would You Do?” to be an empowering song, telling struggling single mothers that they didn’t have to resort to jobs in the sex industry to feed their children. The trouble is that they didn’t bother to come up with any actual alternatives. If this song had ended with the narrator giving Lonnie some advice on where to look for a job, or telling her he’d see if he could get her an interview where he worked, I wouldn’t have half the problem with it that I do. But all they could offer, after two verses of smug, judgemental hectoring, were some vague platitudes about “getting up on your feet.”
Or, if you prefer, “on yer bike.”