If you ever want to hear really terrible music, just go to a wedding. No matter how good your friends' tastes in life partners may be, their taste in wedding DJs is usually horrible. After all the cake and champagne, you get ear cavities ingesting all the lardy frosting wedding DJs spin — music that makes the maids of honor shake off their stilettos and wiggle tush to, say, Kool and the Gang's "Celebration." (A song that was very celebratory the first time you heard it. The 15th vow-swap? Not so much.) Add to this the fact that the cockroach of club themes —'80s music — has survived the buildup, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, and remains in an infinite loop among gay dives, Goodwill stores, and house parties, and there's stiff competition out there to be the San Francisco DJ spinning the worst music ever. But Dimitri Dickinson and Ryan Poulson are aiming to claim that title in a culture that has a vise grip on irony, if the name of their monthly club night ("The Worst Music Ever") at the Knockout is any indication.
It's a tough battle to the bottom. Dickinson and Poulson aren't novices who grabbed their vinyl stacks from the trashcans outside Amoeba. The dudes know their shit from the shit: They spin in various hip crews around S.F., from Booty Basement to Gun Club. So there was a chance that they would treat this humorous antitastemaking task as reason to swaddle us in safe irony.
Music masochists get excited about a Worst Music Night because it gives us a chance to drop all our adult pretentiousness and revel in guilty pleasures — the corny stuff we loved despite the beating we'd give it now. This cheeky theme could become the photo album you pull down from the closet, each 45 a snapshot of some time in your life long since forgotten. Then again, it could also be like getting trapped at Polly Esther's, where the setlist is as punishingly predictable as the sight of green bellbottoms. A club based on loosening earworms is a slippery slope.
By 10 p.m. last Wednesday, though, there were a dozen of us lined up at the bar, debating what little sonic turds might pop out of the playlist. My friend wanted to hear Gordon Lightfoot. My wishlist was tied between Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and Slaughter.
We knew the Worst was upon us when "Hotel California" came out of the speakers, with the DJs mixing in snippets of M.I.A.'s "Paper Plane" gunshots. Good choice — the Eagles are a secret pleasure of mine. Their lyrics really creeped me out as a kid. Next on deck: an indefensible "grunge lite" version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Until now, the two bartenders had been snickering about whether the DJs were really going to reach into the muck tonight: When the instrumental Nirvana cover came on, the younger one turned to his co-worker triumphantly and said, "Let's do this." And then, for a while there, it was on: Pet Shop Boys, Terence Trent D'Arby, Seal, Nero's Rome — all so familiar, all so inexcusable. A couple of selections such as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" provoked protests from the patrons ("Hey, this isn't a bad song!"). I'd totally forgotten about how much I'd loved Robbie Nevil's "C'est La Vie" until it hit the playlist — when it first came out, I wore down my cassette player rewinding and replaying it. The DJs' mixes were jittery, like they couldn't really decide whether they wanted to play some of the tracks right when they started, so they'd jerk into the next song. M.I.A.'s gunshots also punctuated a few too many tunes. But once they got the rhythm going, the Worst DJs had a respectably bad playlist. That is, until Smash Mouth's "All Star." Man, that song just sucks.
That's the tough thing about a music night that goes out of its way to bomb. You've got to maintain a delicate balance between unearthing the oldies and unleashing the stinkers, without driving away the costumers. For the most part, the crowd seemed into it: Young dancefloor girls threw up their hands for Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and didn't put them down for the next hour. The Knockout was packed from bar to bathrooms. I overheard the guys next to me discussing college memories dislodged by various lyrics. But I started feeling the brunt of the club's name close to midnight, when the songs stopped making me laugh and I just didn't want to hear Stone Temple Pilots. I had to hand it to Dickinson and Poulson — they were playing some serious crap.
By the time "Wind Beneath My Wings" came on, I'd paid my penance to the bad hits of my time. My friend and I left debating the merits of a club night purposely turning the limits of good taste sideways. In the end, I realized, finding the humor in bad music is just as subjective a game as finding the hook in the good stuff, and snobbery triumphs every time.
I draw the line at Bette Midler.