Starship's We Built This City is reputed to be the worst song ever written. I was simply aghast when I discovered this. The worst song? Ever. But, but, but... We built this city! On what? On rock and roll! Surely such a rockin' song could hardly be the worst song EVER. To prove it to myself, I downloaded the song and started listening to it with my roommate.
About halfway through the song, I asked my roommate, "Did he just sing 'my pony plays the mambo?'" Surely not!
My trusty roommate Googled the song for me. "You're close," she said. "It's 'Marconi plays the mamba.'" Of course. That makes much more sense.
I poured over the song lyrics. I watched the video on youtube. While my colleagues watched video footage of the Virgina Tech shooter's "multi-media manifesto," I listened to Starship ask me, "Who rides the wrecking ball into rock guitars?"
I considered doing a verse-by-verse analysis of the song in the same vein as my MacArthur Park exegesis. To do so, however, would simply be a perverse use of my time (because clearly, what I'm writing now isn't a perverse use of my time). I was going to explain how the song is really about how awful Corporate America and law enforcement is. Now that's something I can totally get into. Instead, however, I will address only a few lines that are especially telling. If, however, you would like to know all the lyrics, you may find them here.
Someone's always playing corporation games.
Who cares? They're always changing corporation names.
We just want to dance here. Someone stole the stage.
They call us irresponsible; write us off the page.
Clearly, Starship is lambasting and sneering at those who take the corporate dollar. But what they're really doing is being ironic. Kind of in the same fashion as Alanis Morisette, where the only thing ironic about the song Ironic was that nothing she sang about had any irony in it. (Alanis totally had the last laugh on that one.) Where's the irony here? How much did We Built This City sell? Lots. In fact, I just paid ninety-nine cents to download it yesterday. It's been on commercials. Nothing is more ironic than a band taking the corporate dollar while chastising those who take the corporate dollar. Kudos to you Starship. That was clever!
Don't tell us you need us 'cause we're the ship of fools.
Looking for America coming through your schools.
I need to take this opportunity to make a lyric correction. I've listened to this song at least twenty times today. The lyric is NOT "simple fools." It's absolutely "ship of fools." When I asked my friend Robin what they hell they meant by "ship of fools," she pointed out that the name of the band is StarSHIP. Ah-ha! I bought it.
However, Starship's aforementioned irony struck me so much that I have since changed my mind. They were going deeper than a mere play on the name of their band. Indeed, "ship of fools" is an old allegory that has long been used in literature and art. With self-deprecation, it describes the world as a vessel whose deranged passengers neither know nor care where they are going.
Perhaps Starship is pointing out that our schools are flawed and failing, and that unless corporate greed stops, bastions of learning will merely be pumping out ship upon ship of fools. Or perhaps the band is stating that they are the so-called ship of fools. What with their rock and roll, they don't know where they're going and they don't care. Watch out! That attitude will be coming through your schools! And do you know why? The answer is simple. Because we built this city. On rock and roll.
There is only one more lyric that needs elaboration. For those who have gotten this far, I've saved the best for last:
Marconi played the mamba. Listen to the radio. Don't you remember...
We built this city. We built this city on rock and roll!
Guglielmo Marconi was interested in the work of Heinrich Hertz, who demonstrated that one could produce and detect electromagnetic ratioation, or "radio waves." Marconi's ideas were not his own, but he commercialized a practical system of radio communications. In fact, he established the first transatlantic radio service. His competition was Nikola Tesla, who you may remember from his appearance (played by David Bowie) in The Prestige. In short, Marconi is often credited as being the creator of what became the radio. Rock on, Marconi.
But what about this mamba thing? Most people think it's a dance. But it's not. The mamba is the most deadly type of snake. Ever. Seriously. I'm not making this up. The mamba is a snake. So perhaps Starship fucked up and meant to say "mambo." But come now... a band so brilliant as to use the phrase "ship of fools"? (Note that the band didn't write this song. Elton John's longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics.) No way. "Mamba" could not have been a mistake.
So what does Marconi playing the mamba mean? Clearly, "Marconi" is referring to the radio itself. The marconi. The device. The radio plays a deadly snake. Listen to it. We built this city. The snake -- the mamba -- is slithering from the speakers. Ready to kill greedy corporations. Ready to squeeze the life out of the police. Ready to free the world of all that is evil, and to leave behind only the youthful idealism that is encompassed by the tenets of rock and roll.