In Defense Of: Starship’s ‘We Built This City’
Everybody says they hate “We Built This City.”
But… everybody doesn’t — even if it really seems like they do.
In 2004, Blender magazine and VH1 ganged up on “We Built This City” and placed it at No. 1 on their list of The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs...Ever. In 2011, Rolling Stone’s readers named the Starship tune the worst song of the ’80s, and did so by a huge margin. GQ called it “the most detested song in human history.” In The New York Times, Stephen Holden called the album that spawned the song, Knee Deep in the Hoopla, “A compendium of strutting pop-rock clichés” and that it “represents the '80s equivalent of almost everything the original Jefferson Airplane stood against — conformity, conservatism, and a slavish adherence to formula.”
Even many of the people who wrote it and sung it have thrown the song under the bus. Singer Grace Slick referred to "We Built This City" as “the worst song ever” during a 2012 conversation with Vanity Fair.
But I love “We Built This City.” And deep down, a lot of other people love “We Built This City” as well.
In 1985, Jefferson Starship crashed and took off again as Starship with singers Slick and Mickey Thomas, guitarist Craig Chaquico, bassist Pete Sears and drummer Donny Baldwin. What started with Slick writing and singing “White Rabbit” in Jefferson Airplane - shouting “And you've just had some kind of mushroom/And your mind is moving low” and screaming “Feed your head!” over gloriously trippy and relentless-driving music - had become something very different in ’85.
In the two decades between “White Rabbit” and “We Built This City,” the band cycled through endless line-ups and styles but remained a commercial force (if not a cultural one). Nobody paying attention could actually be shocked at the “conformity, conservatism, and a slavish adherence to formula” of “We Built This City.” Yes, it’s a long way from radical ’60s psychedelic art. Yes, it’s mainstream pop. But it’s not far from the Balin penned-and-sung Jefferson Starship smash “Miracles,” which went to No. 3 in 1975. It sounds exactly like something you’d expect from a band who released rock radio staples “Jane” in 1979 and “Find Your Way Back” in 1981 and “No Way Out” in 1984.
Jefferson founding member Paul Kantner, who bailed out before Starship formed, said: “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll? Yeah, right.” And yet, he was cool with “Miracles” and “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back” and all the filler on the albums the hits came from?
Millions of hippies had already become yuppies and followed Starship, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and dozens more stars from rebellion to adult contemporary favorites. Anyone paying attention would have expected “We Built This City.” Only, I wasn’t paying attention.
Teens and tweens have always driven record sales. And teens and tweens in the ’80s had never heard “Somebody to Love” or heard of Grace Slick. “We Built This City” came out of an era dominated by power ballads and Top 40 cheese made by former jazz fusion bands (Journey's “Don’t Stop Believin'”), prog rock groups masquerading as pop rock groups (Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), ex-punks (Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”), ex-funk gods (Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover”) and Beatles (Paul McCartney “No More Lonely Nights”). The kids gobbled it all up because that’s what they do.
“We Built This City” went to No. 1 in the States, Canada and Australia in 1985. It dotted Top 20 charts all across Europe. The single was certified gold here and platinum in the United Kingdom. In the age of Prince, Madonna, Micheal Jackson, Whitney Houston and Bruce Springsteen, it managed to be the 14th biggest song of the year.
Since then, through storms of criticism and into the streaming age, it has remained. Approaching 300 million spins on Spotify, it has been listened to on the streaming service more than any song by grunge kings Alice in Chains, hip hop icon Nas, country sensation Scotty McCreery or modern rock queen St. Vincent. Good lord, it was covered by the Muppets for their 2011 comeback movie.
Oh, it’s also an amazing song (if you happen to have it crushed into your brain in elementary school).
The song begins with Slick and Thomas harmonizing on the hypnotizing chant of “We built this city!” over high-gloss synths. Then comes the drum fill played on electronic pads. Then a positively-thumping bassline. Thomas sings, “Say you don't know me or recognize my face” (and he was right). Slick sings, “Someone's always playing corporation games/Who cares, they're always changing corporation names” (and she was right). There’s a wonderfully-catchy bridge, lyrics that often make no sense but sound great to shout along to, a DJ’s voice pumped in to reinforce its legitimacy as an anthem of rebellion.
The song offers up such a soft underbelly to tear into. That seemed a defining trait of time: gooey centers baked into saccharine confections and sprinkled with bad synths, worse puns, god-awful innuendo and perfect hooks. But falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll has to start somewhere.
Thanks to Cobra Kai, The Goldbergs, Glee, American Psycho, and an endless string of covers by Weezer, no terrible ’80s song has been off limits from rehabilitation. We have seen new generations of impressionable kids fall for songs many though should have never been hits in the first place.
But almost any artistic gateway drug has merit. “We Built This City” leads 13-year-olds to “White Rabbit.” “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” leads to yacht rock and that leads to Steely Dan. “No More Lonely Nights,” Oasis and the Monkees put people on the path to Abbey Road.
So, while almost everybody hates “We Built This City,” almost everybody also hates “Sussudio,” “I Was Made for Lovin' You,” “I Got My Mind Set on You,” “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" and some Kenny Loggins song from some movie. Bad songs make up a huge slice of a genre as ridiculous as rock ‘n’ roll. But you shouldn’t stop loving them - just make sure to mix some Beatles, Bach and Billie Holiday into you diet alongside spins of "We Built This City".