Music fans like to pretend like we’re way fuckin’ cool. Each of us believes our tastes are unassailable, our collections immaculate. To quote LCD Soundsystem, “I’ve never been wrong – I used to work in a record store”. And really, I’ve never been WRONG. Even when I was way into Dave Matthews Band in the 90s. Even when I tried to make Antony and the Johnsons happen with my Shreveport friends and was promptly shut down. Even when someone gave me a free Milli Vanilli CD a few years ago, and I accepted it. Though I do worry about its adjacency to Rhett Miller, Minibar and the Minus 5 on my shelf. As if somehow, the scandal will ooze onto the more talented musicians’ records. I’d like to think that the Ministry CD will kick Rob and Fab’s asses if they get out of line. (I have a vivid imagination.)
I’ve never been wrong because, as I’ve stated many a time here in the pages of The Essential Noise, Music Is Subjective. I might hate AC/DC, but maybe AC/DC saved your life. You may rather poke your eardrums out with a grapefruit spoon than hear one note of R.E.M., which means we may not have much to talk about, but that’s your prerogative. And because I believe that Music Is Subjective, I have a rather hard time wrapping my brain around the concept of the musical “guilty pleasure”. Isn’t listening to any music that you enjoy a pleasure? Whether it made you laugh, cry, or pogo in your living room, you still most likely felt something good. It’s possible that the only true guilty pleasures in life come from cheating on your lover or your diet.
Perhaps we enjoy “guilty pleasure” music in a different way? I want to boogie in my seat when Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” comes on the car radio, a reaction I wouldn’t have if the song was, say, Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. But that’s like saying we should be embarrassed by liking any tunes that tap a goofier part of our brains. What’s wrong with a little car dancing?
I own a truckload of Jeff Buckley product, and not one Katy Perry song. It is possible then, that the artists you define as “guilty pleasures” are ones that simply don’t track with the rest of your typical preferences. Those assumptions can cut both ways, though. Just because I liked DMB back in the day doesn’t mean I dig Jack Johnson now. Never really have.
“Guilty pleasures” can even creep into a generally accepted artist’s oeuvre. David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” just came up on the old shuffle as I type. David Bowie, most people would agree, is a musical genius – but things got a little murky there in the 80s. There’s not a clear through-line from “Space Oddity” to “Let’s Dance”. And yet, I love both songs equally. Locked into my childhood MTV-all-the-time memories (where this era’s Bowie became one of my first discernible celebrity crushes), “Let’s Dance” stands proud with other legends’ questionable output, like “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash and “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. That last song came on while I was shopping at CVS earlier today, and I completely forgot what I’d walked in to buy for its duration. A full-scale earworm invasion. And OMG, the video…
At its core, I think this whole “guilty pleasure” concept is really just a sly form of musical prejudice. Most of the time, the artists that you like but think of as guilty pleasures are ones that your peer group, or the critical press, overwhelmingly don’t support. And even those parameters could obviously vary from circle to circle. I’d get laughed out of the room by my friends if I suddenly fell head over heels for Kid Rock, but it’s a fact that Kid Rock has sold millions of records. The circles who love Kid Rock would probably laugh me out of the room for liking Depeche Mode. Music. Is. Subjective.
And thus, in the interest of dismantling the concept of the musical guilty pleasure, I present a few artists that I genuinely enjoy, that could get me shunned by various folks. Think of it as going through the looking glass of “The Inessential Noise”. I hope you’ll still talk to me after this.
If you’re American and know who Robbie Williams is, congratulations. If , like me, his output takes up considerable space on your iPod, I embrace you. For those of you paying attention in the late 90s/early 00s, maybe his sort-of hit singles “Millennium”, “Angels” or “Rock DJ” grabbed you. Freshly split from British boy band sensation Take That (who notched their one hit in the States, “Back for Good”, after Robbie was gone), Williams hung out with the Gallaghers for a while, did everyone’s share of drugs, and emerged anew as a solo artist who sold about a gazillion records in the UK. The UK, and everywhere, really – except America. England was where I first heard Robbie Williams, in 1997, right as he was getting notices but before “Angels” turned him into a true phenomenon. I expected him to break on our shores eventually; “Millennium” hit just in time for Y2K, and I figured he was off to the races. It was not to be. A search of the RIAA’s online database reveals that Robbie’s never even gone Gold in America. And, I have to wonder, why the hell not?! Is he too British, too self-deprecating, too arch? (You’d think at least the teenyboppers would have latched onto him for his looks alone.) Justin Timberlake’s schtick circa FutureSex/LoveSounds isn’t too far off from what Mr. Williams has done. I will always be baffled that US fame eluded him.
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS
A friend recently tweeted about how Stone Temple Pilots was their guilty pleasure, which set off the idea for this article in my head. Stone Temple Pilots are the Rodney Dangerfield of rock; these guys never got any respect. The band came to prominence shortly after grunge invaded the nation in the early 90s, and immediately haters thought STP was either a Pearl Jam ripoff – in retrospect, “Plush” was both the best and worst opening salvo for this band – or too grounded in old-school gut bucket rock. They were either too grunge, or not grunge enough. So basically, they got slammed for rocking incorrectly, which I didn’t think was even a thing until I just wrote this sentence. I admit, it’s got to be hard to be a totally devoted Pilots fan – what with all the band tension and likely a constant Scott Weiland Deathwatch. But peel away the inner and outer drama, and maybe you’ll agree with me that it doesn’t matter how Stone Temple Pilots rock – they just DO. May I present Exhibits A, B and C of STP?
I started digging on John Mayer shortly before “No Such Thing” became a proper hit single, and because I liked him, my friends threw him in the AngieMusic pit with all the other emotional (but not emo!) singer/songwriters. But he struck a chord with me all the same, most likely because he and I are close to the same age. His 2001 record Room For Squares was all about having a quarter-life crisis right when I was having one myself, a crisis that eventually took me all the way to California. Yes, he can head towards the schmaltz with tunes like “Daughters”, but the uncensored heart on his sleeve is part of Mayer’s appeal. Plus, he was funny as hell – surely I’m not the only one who adored his VH1 special John Mayer Has a TV Show. And I ended up with quite the crush on him for a while. I nearly blew off a networking event shortly after I moved to L.A. in favor of driving to the Star 98.7 studios, where Mayer was doing a live drop-in. Common sense prevailed, and I ended up meeting someone at the event that I’m still friends with to this day. (I’ve now admitted to thinking three musicians in this article are attractive. I’d like to assure everyone that even if a musician looks like the reincarnation of Paul Newman, if his band sucks, I’m out.) Mayer’s music matured as he did, becoming bluesier with each album. I just read that throat problems have pushed back the release of his latest album and may sideline his career indefinitely. I really hope that’s not the case.
OK, that’s enough confessions from me. Why don’t you all open up and share the artists you’re sort of embarrassed to admit you love? There’s no judgment here.