Completely Obsessed: We Built This City

If I were to ask you what the single worst song in rock and roll history was, a large number of you wouldn’t bat an eye before you replied with a thundering “We Built This City.” For decades now, it’s been regarded as the epitome of sleek, over-produced, commercial rock. I, too, have been guilty of berating the song but honestly never really knew why. Maybe it was a consensus that many of us took without question, like the rumor that “Stairway To Heaven” is the greatest rock song of all time (it’s not).

So why all of the harsh treatment? Looking back, I wonder if a lot of it had to do with people who were still upset with what Jefferson Airplane had deteriorated into. Gone were the psychedelic sounds that defined the ‘60s so well with songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.” Even the more radio-friendly, but still completely ‘70s rock of Jefferson Starship was nowhere to be found in this new incarnation, and when you invest in a band, your feelings are bound to get hurt (see Completely Obsessed: When Your Favorite Band Becomes Uncool). But there had to be more at work here. The fact that Blender, VH1 and Rolling Stone all heralded “City” as the greatest atrocity since New Coke meant that this was something bigger than hurt feelings. I mean, this song may as well have been the ET Atari game of music. A disaster of Hindenburg proportions, though a disaster that was a #1 hit on the Hot 100. A disaster that, when no one was looking, was really fun to rock out to.

If you have a kid under 10, there is a chance that you’ve gone through the same transformation on this completely important subject as I have. Did you watch the Muppet movie reboot with Jason Segel? From my son’s obsession with the soundtrack, I got to hear “We Built This City” A LOT. Somewhere around the 50th time, something dawned on me — I hadn’t gone crazy (Or did I?). With every repeated listen, one major thing began to make sense: This wasn’t an atrocity. In fact, it was kind of a masterpiece of pop songwriting.

Did you know that Starship didn’t write it? Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics. Same guy who writes nearly all of Elton John’s lyrics. He had teamed with a couple other fellows, most notably Martin Page, famous for “In the House of Stone and Light,” as well as partially responsible for Heart’s “These Dreams” and Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking.” Usually I’d be put off by the songwriting-factory setup, but not this time. I like these guys. And I can contradict myself whenever I want, because so do you.

Professionals cranking out a perfectly built city of rock and roll, playing with all of the clichés of songs against corporations and youthful anarchy with a fist-pumping chorus, a cool spoken bridge from a celebrity and name-checking enough actual cities to make it feel personal around the entire country. Seriously, that’s like the ultimate formula! How could this NOT have been a hit? It was a song that was born to run, and, oh, did it ever.

Until it didn’t. Because some dude out there hated happiness. A villain. Actually, maybe it WAS a villain who lived in the foretold City of Rock and Roll and he hated music. And the only way to get his way was to destroy it all, like in the Yellow Submarine movie, Blue Meenies and all. So he planted some well-written articles in our world in a coup to burn it down from the outside in (since fighting the Lonely Heart Club Band hadn’t worked so well the first time.) And it worked. He won.

Until he didn’t. Because somewhere along the line, “We Built This City” has crawled back out of the cracks. Sure, it’s had to strip on the weekends as a guilty pleasure to make ends meet, but it’s started to graduate to full-on Vegas dancer, not to be messed with or she’ll push you down the stairs Jessie Spanno style.

Ashamed am I no more, and nor should you. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Blast our anthem loud, for we are the inhabitants of this City. Don’t you remember?

Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.