There’s an art to the good bad song. Not just any bad song will do. What makes “Livin’ La Vida Loca” a bad song and not a good bad song? What makes Ginuwine’s “Pony” or Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” songs that some might mistake as good bad because of their datedness — but are actually good? (Interesting production, for one.) What makes Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” good but La Bouche and Aqua good bad? A lot of it has to do with cheese, of which the 1990s had about as much as Frasier Crane’s fridge. If a song had the right combination of trends, it could reach the top of the charts despite lyrical hokeyness or songwriting shoddiness. Once such a song reached the radio, there was no escaping it, a fact that would later aid astute listeners in recognizing its utter terribleness. But in some cases, we’d be secretly a little happy to hear it again, at least every once in a while. This is what turns a bad song into a good bad song. Here are 25 of them from the 1990s.
Smash Mouth — “All Star” (1999)
While Smash Mouth’s debut single, 1997’s “Walkin’ On the Sun,” astutely detailed a generational gap and critiqued modern American culture, 1999’s “All Star” was a infectious force of positivity with one good “loser” joke and too many ~qUirKy~ sound effects (weak scratching, radio dial, etc.). Despite this (and the Y2K flashbacks it elicits in some), “All Star” has held up surprisingly well in the last 15 years. Turn it on at a party, and millennials and Gen-Xers alike will respond.
Sisqó — “Thong Song” (1999)
Sisqó put that booty on a marble pedestal with “Thong Song.” The string section and dramatic crescendo temper the grossness of an ode to G-strings and “dumps like a truck,” and there’s something satisfying about singing along to his spitfire “thongthongthongthongthong.”
All-4-One — “I Swear” (1994)
All-4-One were a poor man’s Boyz II Men, proof of which can be seen by the fact that “I Swear” was their only big hit. And even then, they had to share “I Swear” with John Michael Montgomery, who made the song a country-to-pop crossover hit in ’93. All-4-One’s version is cheesier than Montgomery’s: that juicy sax solo, the soft drum machine, the crooning Olympics. These guys were totally wearing satin boxers under their spring suits.
Savage Garden — “Truly Madly Deeply” (1997)
This Australian pop duo were blowing our minds with new levels of intimacy on one of their many No. 1 hits, “Truly Madly Deeply.” Like Seal, Savage Garden are almost too earnest to take seriously. Almost. I’ll stand with you on a mountain, but I ain’t bathing with anyone in the sea.
Spin Doctors — “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (1991/1992)
Not only is “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” nowhere near as good as “Two Princes,” it sounds likes a rejected title in the “Little Miss/Mr. Men” children’s book series. Still, the Spin Doctors were a Top 40 time capsule, and a signifier of the diet-alternative lifestyle to come.
Will Smith — “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” (1997)
Big Willie Style ranks among the greatest good bad albums of the 1990s, and its singles suggest as much. Third cut “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” serves up some major braggadocio over floor seats for the Lakers and movin’ on up like The Jeffersons, but there’s no way to take it seriously, even considering the boastful wealth flashed by other ’90s rappers. But in its inability to be taken seriously, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” has the foolproof power to inspire a smile or chuckle.
The Presidents of the United States — “Peaches” (1996)
Few bands successfully poke fun at the over-earnestness of mid-’90s alt-rock like The Presidents of the United States, but then again, this is still a song about canned peaches. It can only be so good, you know?
Deep Blue Something — “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1995)
You can see what one-hit wonder Deep Blue Something was going for: an arty, sensitive take on the alt-rock that was trending at the time. This song got big on Top 40 radio, where half the young listeners had little idea that Breakfast as Tiffany’s was a film. “I hope this Tiffany serves pancakes with whipped cream and strawberries,” we thought. “Mom never lets us have those.” Any way you slice it, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a dumb concept around which to build both a song and a relationship.
La Bouche — “Be My Lover” (1995)
So repetitive it could have easily soundtracked Night at the Roxbury , yet catchy enough that you’ll find yourself singing “la da da dee da da da da a ha ye heyee” long after you leave the dance floor.
Blink-182 — “What’s My Age Again?” (1999)
In their breakthrough single, Blink-182 suggested that they were little more than man-children who managed to learn a couple chords when they weren’t masturbating, watching American Pie, or prank-calling moms. This was not entirely untrue, and the portrait the band painted was one that invited cringing — begged for it, really. Still, these So-Cal pop-punkers picked the right three chords to combine. “What’s My Age Again?” is the song anyone past the age of 23 doesn’t want to admit they love, though some still clearly do.
Ace of Base — “All That She Wants” (1992/1993)
“All That She Wants” goes to show you how easily Ace of Base’s whole thing can go cheesy. While “The Sign” was the most popular song of 1994 with good reason, its precursor, “All That She Wants,” goes overboard on the dub-reggae and synth-simulated sax. Still, there’s something lovable about it in a time capsule sort of way.
Seal — “Kiss From a Rose” (1994)
Seal’s brand of R&B is almost too earnest to bang to, yet too sensual for mundane everyday listening. A superhero movie is somewhere in between, which made him a great fit to soundtrack Batman Forever with “Kiss from a Rose.” Seal would go on to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammys for “Kiss From a Rose,” but accolades can’t shield against cultural re-appropriation as the butt of endless jokes for the last 20 years or so. Cheesy lyrics about snow and flowers will do that to a song, I suppose.
Citizen King — “Better Days (Bottom Drops Out)” (1999)
Citizen King’s sole Top 40 hit was incorrectly attributed to Sublime on many peer-to-peer file sharing sites, which may be silver lining when you consider the song’s lyrical quality. “Do you like my Gucci bag?” “That’s beautiful.” Poetry, man. But damn if it ain’t an earworm of a one-hit wonder to close out the decade that redefined one-hit wonders.
Alanis Morissette — “Ironic” (1995)
It pains me to include anything off Morissette’s excellent Jagged Little Pill on this list, but alas. This is not a terrible song musically, but it has forever marred the word “ironic.” No one knows what the word ironic actually means! From a linguistic perspective, it’s impressive. From a practical perspective, it’s annoying to point out yet again that a black fly in your Chardonnay has nothing to do with irony.
LFO — “Summer Girls” (1999)
Lyrics like “Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole lotta sonnets” and “Chinese food makes me sick” are not even the most offensive things about LFO’s top five hit. It’s the fact that they made Abercrombie and Fitch a household brand, thus making $45 logo T-shirts the Millennial Generation’s Guess jeans. Still, the melody is so earwormalicious, it actually pisses me off.
Aqua — “Barbie Girl” (1997)
Did Aqua offer up worthy commentary on beauty standards and the male gaze with “Barbie Girl”? Yes. Did they mean to? Hahahaha.
Paula Cole — “I Don’t Want To Wait” (1997)
The sonic equivalent of a cardigan tied around a girl’s waist. I blame Dawson Leery for the rise of this touchy-feely hit, and its subsequent ability to make me tear up.
Hanson — “MMMBop” (1997)
Let this sink in: “MMMBop” is not only a Grammy-nominated song, but it won the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop music critics’ poll for 1997’s best song. As the mainstream was moving away from alternative and towards bubblegum pop, Hanson’s “MMMBop” served as a nice bridge between the two. It has its obvious merits: vocal harmonies from both pre- and post-pubescent Hanson brothers and a catchy opening riff. But it’s just a little bad, too, because lyrically, it makes zero sense.
Creed — “Higher” (1999)
This one dances dangerously close to just bad, but there’s a reason “Higher” is a karaoke favorite: we love to belt along to Scott Stapp’s overly earnest words, maybe even sing along to the faux-metal guitar riffs.
House of Pain — “Jump Around” (1992)
Make no mistake — this is a house-party anthem of the most hedonistic nature. But sonically, it’s more interesting than say, Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” That screeching is as intriguing as it is annoying, and the flow on the verses is actually pretty impressive.
Shaggy — “Boombastic” (1995)
Jamaican rapper Shaggy is the master of unlikely pop hits that require a shower after listening. While 2000’s “It Wasn’t Me” is sleazier than his second single “Boombastic,” the latter mixes female orgasm noises with industrial sound effects and keyboard tapping. It’s truly intriguing, and sort of unbelievable when you consider that “Boombastic” went to No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart.
Sugar Ray — “Every Morning” (1999)
Sugar Ray redefined bad-good as the 1990s came to a close. The hint of seductive Spanish guitar signifies that, yes, this is a band of massive tools. Ah yes, playful misogyny has never sounded so catchy. And yet, we found ourselves singing along to the radio about four-post beds.
Right Said Fred — “I’m Too Sexy” (1992)
The audacity of a bald dude saying he is too sexy for the entire country of Japan negates anything else he may have to say, even if it’s all meant in jest. Still, the best novelty song of the 1990s (you heard me, “Macarena” and “Cotton Eye Joe”).
Limp Bizkit — “Faith” (1998)
Anything redeeming about this song is because of George Michael, whose original falls into the “good” category. Liking the Limp Bizkit cover of “Faith” feels incredibly wrong, like I’m stabbing George Michael directly in the heart, despite the fact that he gets royalties from Fred Durst’s version.
Chumbawamba — “Tubthumping” (1997)
“Tubthumping” was the whole kitchen sink of ’90s one-hit wonders: an army of men chanting a message of solidarity, an elegant hook girl cooing about “pissing the night away,” and lots and lots of drinks of all kinds. Was this a hit because Americans were confused at what we were hearing? Maybe!
And if you’re feeling really adventurous, here’s the whole 25 in a Spotify playlist. Don’t blame us if your co-workers never speak to you again, though.