If history has taught us anything, it’s that the 1960s and early 1970s were an incredibly weird time in the US. There were major social and technological changes occurring that influenced every facet of life. Historical events like the moon landing and the American Civil Rights movement influenced art and culture in a number of ways that I’m not going to go into here, because this is not a history lecture. There were also a buttload of drugs floating around amongst creative and non-creative types during this time period. This might explain why art movements like pop art and surrealism were so popular, even in the mainstream.
Historically, time periods like this are marked with an intense obsession with novelty, often at the expense of common sense. This, I think, explains the rise of polyester and other synthetic fibers during this time. It also explains the rise of an objectively bizarre and nonsensical tune known as “MacArthur Park”. This piece of music was once quite popular, however, and I cannot fully explain why. It is a topic that has plagued me for years, possibly decades, at this point. Sometimes I lie awake in bed for a few moments, wondering if this song is truly this baffling, or if I’m remembering a fever dream. Hopefully sharing my observations on Sneer Campaign will put these questions to rest, because I have already spent far too much time thinking about this song.
A Brief History
Now, because I am a Serious Writer ™ and not just some sort of reclusive hag who hangs around haunted buildings, I will first provide you with some background about this bizarre and inexplicable auditory adventure. The year, my esteemable starfishes, was 1967. A producer named Bones Howe (which is probably also the name of MacGruff the Crime Dog’s police informant) tasked American singer-songwriter, Jimmy Webb, with making a pop song with different time signatures and key changes for a group called ‘The Association’. Don’t worry, I haven’t heard of them either. In all fairness to Webb, he did deliver what was asked of him. He also delivered the weirdest combination of lyrics and musical styles imaginable. Shocking almost certainly no one, Howe and The Association both opted to pass on “MacArthur Park”.
Had this not been a time of fickleness and rampant drug experimentation, this is likely the last history would have heard of “MacArthur Park”. However, due to reasons beyond my or mortal understanding, an Irishman named Richard Harris decided to record a version of this song a mere year later. It quickly became wildly popular, hitting number two (that’s not a euphemism) on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number four in the UK. In 1969, Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for his recording. Then, in 1978, Donna Summer released her version of the song. It was a disco version. I’m choosing to leave that alone because jokes about disco are deader than the music itself.
For some inexplicable reason, both Webb and Howe envisioned “MacArthur Park” as a song that had several distinct movements, but could also be played on the radio. This sort of explains why Harris’s version of the song is seven and a half minutes long. I don’t know if this seems long to you or not. For reference, the LP version of Don McLean’s “American Pie” is eight minutes and forty-two seconds. This song is often lampooned for being too lengthy, however, I’d argue that “MacArthur Park” makes “American Pie” look like The Box Tops’ “The Letter”. That was a reference for precisely four other people.
However, even though “American Pie” is technically longer, it fills that space appropriately. The song itself is about nostalgia and all of the factors that contributed to the disaffected youth of the 1960s and 1970s, and McLean almost never stops singing during that time. It feels appropriate. At the very least, it feels consistent. In contrast, “MacArthur Park” dithers for an interminable seven and a half minutes. However, it feels much, much longer. The first time I listened to this song, I was a young college student who had vaguely heard it referenced in the phenomenal Space Ghost’s Musical Bar-B-Que, a singularly delightful study in late 90s surrealism. I immediately decided that I must listen to what some critics were decrying as, “the worst song in history.” Once I had finished, I found that I had aged twenty-five years. That very evening, I found my first grey hair. I have written in my notes that, “the original song was 22 minutes long.” I have no clue where I found that piece of information, though I sort of suspect that it was etched deep within my soul and should be more of an indication of how long the song feels rather than its actual run time. Since deciding to write this article, I have listened to this song in its entirety multiple times. Each time I have had to lie down afterwards. It is a truly exhausting auditory chimera.
The song begins with the most over-enthusiastic harpsichord player I have ever heard. I am not sure why people decided to revisit the harpsichord during this time period, but I suspect that controlled substances may have contributed. After about twenty seconds of someone pretending to be Bach, Harris joins in. More accurately, he tries to join in. Now, I am not musically gifted in the slightest. I’m sure if someone made me sing “MacArthur Park”, I would not fare better than this person who (ostensibly) was trained in the musical arts. However, I’m honestly not confident that Richard Harris can sing. And by this, I mean, I don’t think he is physically capable of it. He sounds like he’s about to start wheezing at any second. And, more embarrassingly, he is overwhelmed by the harpsichord. For those of you not familiar with the history of this instrument, it used to be tremendously popular prior to the invention of the piano. However, one of the reasons the piano replaced the harpsichord is because the latter does not have a dynamic range. It doesn’t matter how hard you press a harpsichord key, it will always be roughly the same volume. So, everyone involved in producing this song should have been able to accurately determine exactly how loud the harpsichord would be. The fact that its sound constantly buries Harris’s vocals leads me to believe that either the choice was deliberate, or whoever was mixing the sound didn’t find their job especially fulfilling.
When we are able to hear Harris’s singing, the lyrics are bizarre and inexplicable. I will discuss them in a subsequent section, because there’s just so much to say. If you are interested in reading an article that is much funnier and better written about “MacArthur Park”, there is a 2007 publication from the Guardian written by Joe Queenen. He asserts that, “The song is broken up into four sections, but nobody cares, as the instrumental break is generic late-Sixties faux-classical bloviating, and only the lyrics matter.” I disagree with this, mainly because I think part of what makes “MacArthur Park” so baffling is the juxtaposition of the bizarre lyrics with the schmaltzy orchestral score. The fact that there are so many key and tempo changes in this song also contribute to the sense of disorientation. It is impossible, for me at least, to listen to “MacArthur Park” and not feel profoundly unmoored by this inconsistent format.
The first ‘movement’ of this song lasts for about two and half minutes. I have to imagine that upon hearing this song for the first time, people assumed that the first movement was the etirety of the score. And then we hear the woodwinds. And then the strings. At about the three minute mark, Harris finally starts singing the lyrics to the second movement. This section is quieter and more introspective than the first. It was apparently titled, “After the Loves of My Life”. In Harris’s version, we are finally able to hear his vocals clearly. For some reason, he sounds incredibly similar to Winne the Pooh. We are also treated to another assortment of stringed instruments. Just before the five minute mark, the tempo picks up. This marks the beginning of the third movement, which is an up-tempo instrumental section, called “Allegro”. It sounds virtually identical to the Hawaii Five-0 theme song, because there was exactly one style of up-tempo instrumental music in 1968. It also features more tambourine than anyone ever needs to hear in one musical arrangement.
For the next, and thankfully last, minute of the song, we are treated to a reprise of the first movement. There’s no harpsichord, but plenty of sweeping orchestral brass to drown out Harris’s already reedy voice. Harris also appears to jump in about a beat too early. You would think that they would have done another take, but I’m thoroughly convinced that everyone involved at this point in this process just wanted to go sit in a smoky bar and leer at women. This section is where it becomes painfully obvious to the listener that Harris is at the precipice of his vocal range and teetering precariously. Perhaps the one thing the sound mixers did right in this arrangement comes at this juncture. For the finale, several backup singers are mixed over Harris. The result is a bizarre (and slightly tinny) disembodied choir, but it’s better than listening to a grown man trying to hit a pitch that only certain species of moths can hear. As the vocals fade, it does begin to sound a bit like screeching, but it does finally end. Seven and a half minutes later, it blissfully fades from the void whence it came.
The Lyrics or: The Icing on the Cake
If you knew anything about “MacArthur Park” before reading this article, it was probably related to the nonsensical and overwrought lyrics. The song is allegedly about a breakup. This is told through the use of extensive metaphors, none of which seem particularly relatable.
The first verse is as follows:
Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants
I truly cannot think of a less romantic metaphor than, “your love is like when I iron a pair of pants.” In case you assumed that the only normal element of this song was Harris’s pronunciation, fear not. He in fact pronounces ‘striped’ as ‘stripèd’ in this section. I’m not sure if this is because he’s European, because he was feeling fancy, or both. However, the only thing that can make an already amateurish metaphor seem weirder is insisting on an archaic pronunciation.
The next portion of the song is the first where we are introduced to its most infamous metaphor–the cake. In the song, MacArthur Park and the singer’s lost love are both compared to a cake. But not just any cake. No, they are compared to a cake that has been left out in the rain. Here’s the refrain:
MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
First of all, it’s ‘MacArthur Park’ not ‘MacArthur’s Park’. The park doesn’t belong to him, especially since the locale’s namesake, General Douglas MacArthur had died five years previous to this recording of this song. The mention of ‘sweet green icing’ also reminds me so much of the food from Troll II. Given the bizarre parody of human behavior featured in both this film and “MacArthur Park”, however, I think it’s entirely possible that they exist in the same universe. The next lines of the song are perhaps the most infamous in music history: someone left the cake out in the rain/I don’t think that I can take it/’Cause it took so long to bake it/And I’ll never have that recipe again/Oh no! Now, one of the few things I retained from the two creative writing courses I was forced to take in college is what bad writing looks like. Metaphors are incredibly tricky things. It is important to come up with something that is original enough to avoid cliche, but also common enough to be relatable.
I would argue that comparing someone’s failed relationship to soggy baked goods is certainly original. However, unless I’m grossly uninformed about the habits of today’s youth, I do not think many people can relate to the idea of someone leaving a cake in the rain. Why would anyone do that? Was it deliberate or out of negligence? Also, who is walking around with an entire uncovered cake in the first place? Any time I’ve had to bring a cake somewhere, I’ve put it in a cake tray with a lid like a goddamn adult. I think most people do that, unless they’re especially fond of pulling flies and leaves out of their ‘sweet green icing’. If the singer of this song thinks that melting cakes left out in the rain are so common that they make a good metaphor, they should probably find more responsible people to befriend. Furthermore, they go on to lament that: “it took so long to bake it/And I’ll never have that recipe again”. Generally speaking, cakes only take about three hours tops to both bake and cool. I’m sure they take more time if you decide to slather them with ‘sweet green icing’ and other fanciful nonsense, but three hours is still really not that much time. Even if you have the attention span of a gnat, it doesn’t make sense that you’d then complain about losing the recipe for a cake that you seem to think is a waste of time to prepare. In fact, if the cake took ‘so long to bake’, wouldn’t you want to lose the recipe so that you could just buy a box mix? Also, if the only reason you can justify feeling sad over the end of a relationship is basically predicated upon the sunk cost fallacy, maybe it wasn’t that good of a situation in the first place?
The next verse of the song also seems vaguely related to the first verse:
I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
The birds, like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers by the trees
I think it’s one of the more sensical portions of the song, honestly. Of course, we are treated to more strange musing about clothing. As an aside, the Donna Summers version doesn’t change the lyrics of this part, which either means that she was dating someone wearing a yellow dress, or that her lover was kneeling on her dress at some point. Or both. ‘Both’ is a distinct possibility. The part of this verse that honestly troubles me the most is that this person is apparently making it a habit to pick up birds in the park. This seems like an excellent way of both contracting ornithosis, and getting pooped on.
We are then treated to the refrain once more, because this song talks about soggy cakes more than most episodes of The Great British Bake Off. This is followed by the comparatively normal lyrics to the next movement. I’m not going to analyze them because honestly, this article is already far too long. It’s quickly approaching the longest article I have written for Sneer Campaign. I truly cannot abide the idea of having my longest article be about this cursed song. All you really need to know is that this portion of the arrangement features the singer looking hopefully towards the future where they will find love again. The refrain is sung for a final time, and the song, dear readers is finally over.
As I already mentioned “MacArthur Park” was inexplicably popular when it was first recorded. Several versions of the song topped charts, and one even won a Grammy. However, once the full impact of the war on drugs had been felt in the US, the song fell out of favor. In 1992, the Miami Herald held a contest for its readers in which Harris’s version of the song was voted the worst overall song, and the song with the worst lyrics.
Now, I agree that this song does not hold up well. It is overly ambitious, both in terms of musical style and lyrics. It utilizes instruments that were very trendy in 1968, which makes it feel dated 53 years later. Combining these factors with the utterly bizarre imagery it evokes means that it remains truly baffling. However, I don’t know if I would consider it the worst song ever made. There are many, many legitimate criticisms of this song. However, at the end of the day, it’s a song that makes you feel something. In my case, that emotion was ‘existential exhaustion’, but I still felt something. In the genre of pop music, regardless of time period, that is an impressive feat. If art is supposed to make us ‘feel’ something, “MacArthur Park” technically hits that mark.
It is also a song that has been stuck in my head for the past three days, playing each morning when I wake. I am hoping that writing this article will make it go away. However, beware, because I have a strong intuition that it is the musical equivalent of the VHS tape from The Ring and needs to be passed memetically. So now I leave it to you, reader, to go and listen to this truly inexplicable song, lest the ghost of Richard Harris emerge from your boombox and devour your eyeballs.