"How bad could it be?" With this simple question, Joe Queenan embarks on a nightmare journey through the depths of American pop culture, subjecting himself to Broadway musicals, Red Lobster Captains' Feasts, and John Tesh concerts: "With his shopworn, lounge-lizard stage gestures, eviscerated salsa compositions, and studied reveries, Tesh was a human Cuisinart of every hack musical stunt, effecting a strange synthesis of various mongrel styles where half the songs sounded like generic background music for promotional videos ... and the other half sounded like retreads of Mason Williams's sixties hit Classical Gas."
Queenan sets out to find music, movies, books, and TV that transcend awful, and the most remarkable thing about this book is that one never doubts for a moment that he actually subjected himself to all of the horrors he describes (including the literary efforts of Joan Collins). In an era where references to Burt Reynolds movies are used as hipster currency by people who have never endured Cannonball Run II, Queenan mocks nothing without experiencing it first. His odyssey throws up a few surprises--including the discovery that Barry Manilow is actually pretty good, and that most of the junk that clogs the arteries of popular culture never reaches the stratospheric level of badness achieved by someone like Michael Bolton. This leads Queenan to coin the term scheissenbedauern ("shit regret") to describe "the disappointment one feels when exposed to something that is not nearly as bad as one hoped it would be."
But generally, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the book is "Really, really bad." Making fun of bad middlebrow entertainment may seem like a no-brainer, but when a writer as sharp as Queenan gets his claws into something like the collected works of Billy Joel, the results are hilarious. Like Jonathan Swift with a remote control, he gleefully shoots every fish in the pop-culture barrel. --Simon Leake