The great film critic Roger Ebert has a rule for rating movies: even the really, really bad get half a star. The rare bestowal of zero stars is reserved only for “movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.” I’ve borrowed Ebert’s mindset for my ratings on this blog – no matter how poor it is, it’ll usually manage to scrape up a 2. For a 1, though, the song must not be only bad but offensively terrible. I don’t necessarily mean offensive in the sense of espousing a racist or sexist message, but offensive in the sense of so aggressively bad that everyone behind the song must have been determined to drag down the overall quality of American popular culture. This isn’t the everyday badness of insipid lyrics or cheesy production, but something darker: pop antimatter, the pure absence of any redeeming elements and complete disregard for creating a listenable product.
At this early stage in reviewing the Hot 100, I have rated 36 singles, with a median score of 6 and a mode of 7. Based purely on statistics, these rankings are a little higher than expected. But each single that’s topped the charts has had to pass through a number of gates to get there – production, distribution, airplay, popular consensus, and so forth. One would assume that a song chosen at random from a list of Hot 100 chart-toppers would be of a higher quality than a song randomly chosen from all songs released in the U.S. from 1958 to the present. (This isn’t to say that all songs that top the Hot 100 are necessarily of a higher quality than all non-#1’s, but that they generally adhere to a more consistently high level of quality than any random song you’d find on the street.) This gate-keeping is obviously present in the film industry as well, which is why Ebert hands out four stars to movies by the fistful each year, yet doles out bagels only once in a blue moon. (A search of all reviews on rogerebert.com reveals 809 movies given top honors and only 59 rated zero stars.) It’s not because there are masses more great movies made than terrible ones (as Sturgeon’s Law states, 90 percent of everything is crap), but that the true no-star movies, your Manos: Hands of Fate-s, never make it far enough up the ladder for a wide public, and thus critics, to see it. One would expect the same in the cluttered world of popular music.
Of course, some Trojan horses still manage to sneak through these gates. As your guidance counselor advised, “Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s right.” We’ve already seen a few cases of songs whose baffling popularity belies their overall lack of quality. But at least the cloying sentimentality of “Why” or “Teen Angel” was tolerable (if unpleasant), versus the blatant submediocrity of “Mr. Custer.” Of course, the song is packed with musty sterotypes about Native Americans (war whoops, Indian drums, references to scalping and “redskins”), but the most offensive part of the song is how completely unfunny it is. It’s a comedy record without a modicum of comedy. The premise of the tune is that one soldier in General Custer’s unit at the Battle of Little Bighorn is afraid to fight the Indians. Not a bad launching point for a song, but “Mr. Custer” goes nowhere with it. There’s no punchline, no twist, nothing clever at all in the entire song. Sample lyrics: “Look at them durned Indians/They’re runnin’ around like a bunch of wild Indians-heh heh heh.” Oh, the hilarity. And yes, the “heh heh heh” is actually part of the lyrics – it’s like a laugh track in song form, but even worse because Verne (or at least his character) is laughing at his own terrible non-joke.
While the lyrics are the most blatantly offensive part of the song, they’re only the tip of this crap iceberg. There’s Verne’s mugging “comedy voice,” the off-key offspring of Droopy and a Clarence Ashley beset with acute appendicitis. And the lack of melody, harmony and any other sort of tunefulness. Don’t forget the “sound effects” of flying arrows, which sound like someone sucking through his dentures – because nothing says funny like sound effects! When the simultaneously weak and overbearing male choir is the highlight of your song, perhaps your song needs a bit of revising. Although I think even a team of song doctors would have trouble doing surgery on a patient that’s D.O.A. So I’m a little startled that I’m handing out a 1 before a 10, but you can’t always pick ’em. I still haven’t listened to all of the hundreds of #1’s that haved peaked since this song’s puzzling, yet mercifully brief, stay atop the chart. However, I fully expect (and desperately hope) that “Mr. Custer” is the Hot 100’s absolute nadir. 1
Hit #1 on October 10, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
37 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.84% through the Hot 100