'I cringe when I hear Rihanna now': the songs Guardian writers can't listen to any more

·11-min read

The song tied to my first love …
Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger, who went on to marry him (well you would, wouldn’t you?). I can’t quite remember the first time ever I heard it, but it remains indelibly linked to a certain person in my mind. In particular, the version most of us love best. And that is, of course, Roberta Flack’s 1972 one (though recorded in 1969). It is quite natural for people to have a certain song perennially tied to their first love, but a track attached to a relationship runs the risk of being ruined if that love ends less than amicably. Mine did. This makes it difficult for me now to hear Flack’s stunning version, which in my opinion is also one of the greatest songs of all time. I love it so much that I could never banish it entirely, and a workaround is to listen to other great recordings: Johnny Cash’s typically husky take (slightly too much reverb, but nothing is perfect) or Gordon Lightfoot’s zigzagging rearrangement. But Flack’s version is now only listened to in times of fortitude, when I know it won’t leave me on the floor in a pool of emotions, the variations of which I’m not always sure of. HJP

The song my employer played to death …
Blondie – Atomic

When they knocked down the old concrete shopping parade in Brighton and replaced it with a mall, it felt like an embodiment of 1998’s hope: out with the bleak, in with the dazzling. I scored a job at Debenhams and went off to university, but would come back in the summer. One year I was displaced to lingerie, where my days were spent disentangling knots of thongs and trying to advise men on their partner’s bra size as they would grope the air with both hands and say: “She’s about this big.” This was the year they launched Debenhams Radio: a 30-minute tape that would get played on a loop. One of the songs on it was Atomic. I loved Blondie, and still do. My hair was cropped and peroxide because Debbie Harry’s was; I had a poster of her on my wall, and nothing else. But the more you hear Atomic, the more you realise how few lyrics it has. “Uh-huh,” I would hum as I tried to pull the gusset of another pair of knickers from the coat hanger they were entrapped upon. “Toniiiiiight.” That was it. In the course of a month, I listened to that song upwards of 300 times. Never again. JS

The song inexplicably played at my mum’s funeral …
Chumbawamba – Tubthumping

Punk and disorderly: Chumbawamba in 1998.
Punk and disorderly... Chumbawamba in 1998. Photograph: Hayley Madden/Rex/Shutterstock

Once, during a session at the mobile chemo unit, my mum told me which two songs she wanted played at her funeral. Not long after that, she died. And not long after that, the funeral celebrant told us that we actually needed to pick three songs. So, for the third, my dad picked Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. Apparently she really liked it. I had no idea. Nobody did. But Dad was adamant, so Tubthumping it was. And so, two weeks after that, the saddest hour of my entire life concluded with Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. I never really liked Tubthumping. But now – now that it is always and for ever inextricably tethered to the memory of my dead mother – it has become legitimately unbearable. It’s the sort of song that gets played during adverts. It’s the sort of song that boneheaded Take Me Out contestants will mime to in lieu of having an actual skill. It’s played everywhere, all the time, as a joke, and people always go “Weeeeeeeey” when they hear it. And whenever I hear it, it makes me really sad. Tubthumping. Tubthumping by sodding Chumbawamba makes me sad. The moral here is that you should never pick a novelty song for your funeral. Unless it’s Where Me Keys Where Me Phone by Mr Zip, because I’ve already bagsied that for mine. SH

The song used as the soundtrack for a horrific sex scene …
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

I wish Hollywood would just leave Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah alone. Pop culture had already tried to ruin it for me, from Shrek to The OC scene in which Marissa dies to The X Factor’s Alexandra Burke. But no one has besmirched its legacy quite like Zack Snyder. Hallelujah’s brilliance is that its meaning isn’t clear cut: is it about spiritual healing, biblical lust, regret and loneliness – or, as Jeff Buckley once put it, was it just a good old “hallelujah to the orgasm”? Well, in his 2009 comic-book adaptation Watchmen, Snyder decided to take that idea and run with it, sneaking my favourite song in with some of the worst rutting seen on screen. Its sex scene, between the characters Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, is often singled out as one of the “worst of all time”. Aside from the act itself being as sexy as watching two hams grind on each other, it manages to turn Cohen’s masterpiece into a literal interpretation of “Hallelujah, I came”, steamrollering its subtlety for everyone. Once you’ve seen someone’s jizz face when the choir kicks in on the chorus, it’s not possible to listen to it in the same way again. KH

The song from a disastrous night out ...
Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen

Dexys Midnight Runners.
Not so young soul rebels… Dexys Midnight Runners. Photograph: Andre Csillag/Rex

The evening that led up to my first ever proper night out had been frantic: pre-loading with sixth-form friends, playing a Trance Nation CD far too loud, glugging down Foster’s with the nervous energy of 17-year-olds who are 87% sure they’re not even going to be allowed in. The club we went to was called Freestyle & Firkin, which I maintain to this day sounds quite cool. It definitely wasn’t cool. My very naive younger self imagined it would be like the places I’d seen in Mixmag – a Bradfordian version of Manumission, but better. In reality it was a place where sticky carpets and dancing on tables was the order of the day, while very drunk older people belted out terrible renditions of chart hits. I had been expecting to hear a meticulously well-mixed Balearic set while I had a dancefloor epiphany, but instead I stood next to a table with sick on it while Come On Eileen was blared out. It’s not Dexys’ fault, but now every time I hear that song I’m transported back to the 17-year-old I was, drenched in CK One, slowly realising that Bradford city centre wasn’t a place where a DJ was going to play Daft Punk’s Burnin’, or even some Alice Deejay. LB

The song that led to an awkward conversation …
Rihanna – S&M

The year was 2011, we were on a big family road trip during the summer holidays. My cousin had made a mix CD for the journey: we’re talking Super Bass, that Katy Perry track about getting abducted by sexy aliens, the now largely forgotten Like a G6 – bangers only. But the song that will always stand out from that trip was a little number called S&M. Rihanna’s brash EDM-pop era was glorious but, without wishing to pander to stereotypes, my family is Indian and we do not talk about sex. The first time it played, I convinced myself that the adults weren’t really listening, but the CD got played again and again, until eventually my cousin and I were brazenly singing along to it all. At one point, as Rihanna chanted “S-S-S-and-M-M-M” accompanied by two teenage girls, my mum asked, curiously: “What does S&M mean?” There was silence in the car, filled only with aggressive synths and the words: “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it!” No one said anything and my mum asked again, impatiently. Eventually, someone mumbled: “You can look it up when we get home.” I don’t know if she did, nor do I want to. Even now, should that song come on, I can feel myself physically cringing. TJ

The song marred by an ill-judged karaoke performance …
Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend

It was my friend’s birthday; I was going through a Robyn phase. For days I had listened to my chosen songs on repeat, practising the lyrics, envisaging the spontaneous applause that would erupt. But which Robyn song to choose? Dancing on My Own: too obvious. Indestructible, a perfect blend of sadness and euphoria: not obvious enough. It had to be Call Your Girlfriend – catchy, fun, with a dash of frisson in the lyrics (think a millennial-era Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored). My friends would find it amusing, probably charming. But, on the night, few of our mutual friends could make it; instead, I was faced with a dozen or so almost-strangers. Stubbornly, a few glasses of prosecco in, I persisted; they’d all recognise the song and join in. Reader, they were not familiar with the song. I watched as, one by one, the women in the room turned to look at me, aghast, as I instructed an imaginary lover to be unspeakably cruel to their partner at my behest. The song is three minutes and 46 seconds long but it felt like nine; at the end, no applause was forthcoming. Every time I hear the song now I feel a strange tingle of guilt. I haven’t done karaoke since. KB

The song that became problematic …
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean

The helter-skelter, rigidly propulsive foundation of Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit is one of the most danceable, iconic basslines in pop music, and a staple of my childhood. At every wedding and family party, among the Motown and Bollywood hits, there would be Billie Jean: guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It was one of the main inspirations for me taking up the drums, to replicate that beat. As I got older and the media frenzy surrounding Jackson’s sexual abuse trials began to seep into my consciousness, I noticed a slight unease about his music and the running jokes that would go along with it. Nonetheless, come every gathering, Jackson would still be front and centre of the playlist; his death in 2009 only seemed to induce a temporary amnesia towards his alleged wrongdoings. So when the Leaving Neverland documentary aired in 2019, examining over four hours the horrifyingly detailed testimony of Jackson’s continual abuse of children, it came as a shock. Not merely Jackson’s behaviour, but mine and many of my peers’ wilful ignorance to it in favour of nostalgia. Now, that nostalgia has been worn away, and despite the musical genius of that song, it seems increasingly untenable to separate the art from the artist. I’ll just stick on Janet instead. AK

The song associated with a horrendous hangover …
Fifth Harmony – Work From Home

On a particularly bad working-day hangover – one that, when you try to remember the night before, it’s just you, with a shot of tequila, yelling: “THURSDAY IS THE NEW FRIDAY!” to an audience of no one – my body somehow decided that the only way through this was to play Fifth Harmony’s Work from Home all day on repeat. To be fair, it taps into a lot of the same flavours as a thudding hangover: the heavy dinks in the intro, like the pulses of a distant headache; the three-and-a-half minute run-time, adjacent to the hungover attention span; the pervasive miasma of horniness, spread over it like a sheen. By mid-afternoon, Work from Home was both my medicine and my poison: all my body could really handle to hear (I tried other songs, they didn’t take) but also bringing with it its own squirming notes of PTSD. By the 16th or 17th play, I was quietly murmuring “dolla sign” under my breath when Ty Dolla $ign started his rap. At 5pm sharp, I closed my laptop, fell asleep on the bus, and never once listened to it again. I dread to think what would happen to me if it came on in the wild, at a club or a funeral or something. I think I’d honestly have to make my excuses and go home. JG

Are there any songs you can’t bear to listen to any more? Share your thoughts in the comments below…

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