You guys! Over at The Critical Condition, Roommate Mark has unleashed the Ultimate Pop Song Tournament upon us, and our summer may not ever be the same. I, along with Nick Davis, was fortunate enough to be invited to help shape the field of 64 songs (from 1981-2011) and even did some of the writeups. Mark started posting the first-round matchups today, and I can't encourage you strongly enough to go over there and vote.
For my part? I'm going to highlight the matchups as Mark releases them and tell you how I'm voting and why. Because every good tournament deserves some armchair analysis!
FIRST ROUND - "JOY BOMB" DIVISION
(1) "Like a Prayer" [Madonna] vs. (16) "Higher Love" [Steve Winwood f/ Chaka Khan]
This is a matchup that should not be close, on paper. And I don't really expect the voting to be very close either. "Like a Prayer" is pretty much the definition of a brilliant pop song, and that's before you consider all its ancillary benefits (it represents all Madonna for the tournament; the music video was groundbreaking and amazing). It's getting my vote, but MAN do I want to make a case for "Higher Love," one of the more underrated pop masterpieces of the '80s. By the time Chaka Khan joins the festivities, all "BRAAAAANG ME A HIGHER LOVE!" I'm pretty much in heaven. Stevie and Chaka got a terrible first-round draw; I'd have voted it over either one of the 8-9 seeds.
(8) "Tubthumping" [Chumbawamba] vs. "Don't You Want Me" [The Human League]
I think I grew up in the wrong corner of the '80s, because I never really experienced "Don't You Want Me" until its Aughts-and-beyond resurgence. It's a strong song, but so much of pop music (at least in the way I experience it) is in the emotional reactions it pulls from you, and I don't really get that from The Human League. As one-hit-wonders go, "Tubthumping" is a really strong one, as this irony-melting They Might Be Giants cover shows. It gets my vote.
(5) "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" [Eurythmics] vs. "Freedom '90" [George Michael]
It's not that I don't love "Sweet Dreams" or Annie Lennox or appreciate the positions that they hold in the halls of music history. But I'm just not going to vote for it over a song that hold as prominent a place in my own personal history as "Freedom" does. Most days, I like to pretend that David Fincher got his first Oscar nomination for directing that video rather than Benjamin Button. It holds up as a pure song without all those supermodels writhing around too, but why deny yourself all those mental images?
(4) "I Want It That Way" [Backstreet Boys] vs. "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" [Belinda Carlisle]
I advocated hard for BSB's inclusion in this tournament, and my reward was a first-round matchup with a song I have more pure heart-bursting affection for than almost any other. Oh, hi, my two children. I guess I'm going to have to choose between you now. Both songs make me want to force the entire world to sing along with me. Both have amazing breakdown-power-return moments. Iconography: the masked children with glowy Earth globes vs. the BSB white-suit assault? AAAAHHH, I can't choose! I guess, breaking it down, Belinda does solo what it takes five Backstreet Boys to do. But, man, when Nick Carter busts in with that post-breakdown "Don't wanna hear you SAYYY!" I can't vote any other way.
(6) "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" [Irene Cara] vs. (11) "Groove Is in the Heart" [Dee-Lite]
Once again, call me Sophie, because girlfriend is about to make a CHOICE. There are few songs more fun to sing along to than Dee-Lite's early-'90s confection (especially if you have like 2-3 friends with you and can assign roles -- make sure your Q-Tip can handle that rapid-fire flow!). But I honestly think "What a Feeling" is one of those unimprovable pop songs gifted from Jesus. I still think Lady Miss Kier should be a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race, though.
(3) "Bad Romance" [Lady Gaga] vs. (14) "9 to 5" (Dolly Parton)
So tough to properly evaluate "Bad Romance" without years and years of perspective. Obviously, I know "9 to 5" has stood the test of time. Will I be able to say the same about "Bad Romance"?? ...Actually, I think we will. I wouldn't be opposed to a series of battle duets to help me change my mind.