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 has started posting the first-round matchups, 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!
(3) "Nothing Compares 2 U" [Sinead O'Connor] vs. (14) "I Will Always Love You" [Whitney Houston]
I love this matchup of two of the biggest "You know that's not originally their song, right?" hits of all time. The gold standard of obnoxious know-it-alls everywhere! And you know what? I love Dolly Parton with all my heart, I really do, but I'm just about sick of hearing about how much better her version is than Whitney Houston's. Like, we get it, you're a far more substantial person for liking Dolly. And obviously her version is better! But it's not like Whitney has a number-one hit for a bazillion weeks due to hypnosis or something. When she hits that booming note for the final chorus, she's making you feel something. That's why you hate it!
Fewer people try to perpetuate the notion that Prince gives a better rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U," thank God. Mostly because Sinead O'Connor is viewed as just as authentic as Dolly Parton. And boy, is she. If you know me, you know my very favorite thing in the universe is singers who cry real tears in their music videos. Which is why that single tear at "All the flowers that you planted, Mama" just slays me. Sinead definitely gets my vote.
(6) "We Belong" [Pat Benatar] vs. (11) "Lost in Your Eyes" [Debbie Gibson]
I had to fight to get BOTH these songs in the tournament, and even though my beloved Debbie is currently getting trounced. I'm choosing to see it as a validation of how fucking unbelievable a song "We Belong" is. Because IT IS. I love that Pat Benatar's ass-kicker of a voice is putting itself in service of perfectly constructed melodic relationship counseling. Still, though, my vote went to my childhood best pal Debbie Gibson, who managed to fight through the Casio orchestrations of her regrettable time period with the sheer clarity of her voice and lyrics. Plus, seriously, watch that music video. Shoulder pads AND Blossom hats AND Rickie Vasquez-approved color-explosion vests?? Bliss.
(2) "(Don't You) Forget About Me" [Simple Minds] vs. (15) "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" [Pet Shop Boys w/ Dusty Springfield]
Similar to my Kate Bush-free childhood, I also was somehow kept ignorant of the Pet Shop Boys, at least until long past the point where I was judged to be a traitor to my orientation for not really getting their whole thing. I think the last bus to the New Wave was leaving just as I was entering the pop-culture sphere, which means neither of these two options hold much sway over me. So I did what I felt was the only responsible thing to do and went with Dusty Springfield.
(7) "Running Up That Hill" [Kate Bush] vs. (10) "Losing My Religion" [R.E.M.]
Poor Kate Bush, you guys. I guess I can't complain too loudly about how she's currently getting trounced in this matchup. I'm the guy who apparently never came across Ms. Bush growing up, despite the fact that I was super into pretty much all her descendents (Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, you name 'em). But even though I probably can't tell Hounds of Love from Hound of the Baskervilles, I can still appreciate a superior pop song, and "Running Up That Hill" is definitely one. I like "Losing My Religion" a whole lot -- certainly my favorite use of the mandolin in music history -- but other R.E.M. songs would have given me more of an internal struggle.
(1) "Sweet Child O' Mine" [Guns N Roses] vs. (16) "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" [Smashing Pumpkins]
Now we're getting to the region of the bracket where I actually wrote the song blurbs, so I'm not going to repeat myself too much here. Except to say, once again, that I feel compelled to make the case for the underdog; "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" is a GREAT song. What is with these 16-seeds?? I love them all so much and yet I just can't vote for them again such towering competition. Billy Corgan may have my angsty teens, but Axl Rose has my hopeful formative years.
(8) "Rolling in the Deep" [Adele] vs. (9) "Dog Days Are Over" [Florence + the Machine]
Talk about two songs jockeying for position in the same square of the pop landscape. I love Adele and think she's got the better career-longevity potential. But "Dog Days" takes it for me in a squeaker. Maybe not exclusively for that moment when the beat drops out and then ol' Florence comes roaring back, but that's certainly a big part of it.