TOP 5 INNOCENTLY BAD ACTS
1. Florence Foster Jenkins: "The first lady of the sliding scale" lived in Philadelphia for a good while, and truly believed herself to be a great soprano. She wasn't, as you can hear in her "Queen of the Night" aria, where she misses the famous top note by a good three or four semitones. She enjoyed wearing outlandish costumes (e.g. angel's wings) and was rich enough to rent Carnegie Hall in 1944 for her ultimate concert, one month before her death.
2. William Shatner: While other "Golden Throats" from hit TV shows made their own ill-advised music albums (Nimoy's rendition of "Bilbo Baggins" springs to mind), Shatner's was so over the top ("Suddenly - someone . . . is there! . . . at the turnstile! . . . ") that he quickly became the poster boy for the whole phenomenon. Later, of course, he cashed in on this status by turning "self-deprecating" Priceline spokesman and collaborating with Ben Folds on a surprisingly decent album ("Has Been").
3. William Hung: An interesting case: Conventional wisdom is that his "American Idol" audition was "out of tune" or "off-key." It actually wasn't (take The William Hung Challenge), but his earnestness along with his lack of charisma on a song that requires it (Ricky Martin's "She Bangs"), along with his line "I already gave my best and I have no regrets at all," made him stand out more than a lot of truly bad singers. He immediately capitalized on his infamy with a recording contract, getting the last laugh on Simon - and us?
4. Mrs. Miller: Now largely forgotten, Mrs. Elva Miller was something of a celebrity for part of the '60s. She appeared on Ed Sullivan's and Merv Griffin's shows, and even sang for the troops in Vietnam, a war which we wound up losing. (Coincidence?) Her version of "Downtown," which hit #82 on the Hot 100, features false starts, giggling, the title word coming in on the wrong beat, and a couple of times where she seems to forget the words to the song.
5. The Shaggs: A rock-n-roll sister act, the three Wiggin sisters were forced by their father to form a musical group in order to fulfill their grandmother's third prophecy about her son's children. This despite their having no idea how to write songs, play musical instruments or sing. They took lessons, but never really seemed to improve. Their unique compositions were later hailed by some (e.g., NRBQ, who orchestrated their 1999 "comeback") as avant-garde "outsider music," by others as enduring trash.
TOP 5 INTENTIONALLY BAD ACTS
1. Marty and Bobbi Culp (Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer): This recurring "Saturday Night Live" sketch featured husband-and-wife music teachers trying to be hip with painfully square performances of rock and rap hits at school events before inattentive and/or heckling students. Reminiscent of the "Sweeney Sisters" from earlier seasons, and though some trace the concept back to Bill Murray's Nick the Lounge Singer, I'd argue that his main characteristic is cynical smarminess, not "bad" performance.
2. Jonathan and Darlene Edwards: Big-band singing legend Jo Stafford and her husband, pianist Paul Weston, "discovered" this team, also a female singer and her pianist husband, and introduced them to the world on a couple of cringe-worthy albums. Of course the whole thing was Stafford and Weston all along, doing expert imitations of incompetent musicianship that always stay just under the bar of bearable.
3. The Portsmouth Sinfonia: Founded by British composer Gavin Bryars, this all-amateur orchestra (most are musicians, but not playing the right instruments - e.g. Brian Eno plays clarinet) butchers the classics, with an effect similar to the River City boy's band at the end of "The Music Man." For classical badness, this is truer than Peter Schickele's "P.D.Q. Bach," supposedly a bad composer, but whose compositions instead wind up being delightful to listen to.
4. "The Most Unwanted Song" by David Soldier: Featured on an unforgettable episode of National Public Radio's "This American Life," this song was written specifically to hit all the notes a focus group had defined as bad, including operatic vocals, lyrics about cowboys, excessive length and references to holidays. As Ira Glass points out, though, it turns out more interesting than its counterpart, written to combine everything people "like" in their songs.
5. Tiny Tim: I'm only including the "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" falsetto crooner/ukulele strummer because of the number of people who instantly said "Tiny Tim!" when I mentioned this genre. Personally, I think that intent counts, and that his intent was less to be bad than to be unique (something I'd also say about Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, who got a couple of votes), but you can't argue with results. *
Find music samples and links to video clips of these acts and tell us about the ones we should have included, on this page of annotated links.