Monday, January 19, 2009

Guilty Pleasures -- The Mix

First off, let’s just get this out of the way – the very concept of a “guilty pleasure” reeks of rock critic elitism. The idea of feeling guilty about deriving personal pleasure from a particular song (or any other form of art) assumes some measure of objective quality to art, such that if you happen to like something that critical consensus deems unworthy it’s somehow embarrassing. But, let’s face it, some songs and artists are kinda crappy. Banal, kitschy, derivative, whatever – admit it, when you have company over, there are some cd’s you leave out for them to see, and some you hide in a closet somewhere. And just as there are some artists whose total coolness can buy you all the rock hipster cred you need, there are some things that can cost you that cred twice as fast. Though, then again, knowing exactly what music will draw critical derision, assures you its own measure of cred if you know enough to listen “ironically.”


I like these songs.

One of the earliest guilty pleasures is no doubt the Monkees. Just as the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Brian Wilson, etc. were turning rock & roll into a critically worthy art form, the Monkees hit the tubes and brought with them everything the rock intelligentsia was obligated to disdain – they didn’t write their own songs, play their own instruments, or, for that matter, really exist as a band. And those songs – sappy 2:30 pop songs just as fm radio was starting to explore longer and more innovative album tracks. But, a few decades later, stripped of context, there are some killer pop tracks that you’d have to be a fool not to like. Incidentally, once the Monkees themselves tried to be taken seriously, producer/creator Don Kirschner came up with a band who would never demand that they be allowed to play their own instruments or write their own songs or exert any creative control whatsoever – the Archies. Yet for a wholly fabricated cartoon band, the formula still worked – some hopelessly catchy pop tunes. Sure, “Sugar, Sugar” was the record-breaking hit, but there are some other fine tunes as well.

Neil Diamond has long been one of the least respected figures in rock – maybe it’s the glittery outfits, his acting performance in The Jazz Singer, or every song he’s written since 1976 (and most before then as well). But there were still some fun tunes in his early days. “Shilo,” about a boy with an imaginary friend, isn’t necessarily one of them, but for some reason it always gets stuck in my head.

Tommy James & The Shondells had a half dozen major hits in the 60s. Then he dumped the band and became a Christian-slash-country singer. “Draggin’ the Line” was from his early solo days, a cheesy song, but it’s also totally fab (and his last real hit).

Not sure if Queen is a guilty pleasure or not – they seem to go in and out of vogue. But they were definitely on the uncool list by the end of the 70s. Still, they were a big part of my childhood, and I’ll always get a kick out of the run of singles from that era.

America sucks; pale, crappy imitation of CSNY, with some of the most atrocious lyrics ever written. Yet, like 98% of Americans, I have a copy of that damn greatest hits cd. Not sure why. Maybe ‘cuz we used to sing these songs at camp, or they were inescapable on 70s classic rock radio. But I kinda like a couple of the songs, at least as background music, though I’d rather claw my eyeballs out than ever hear “Muskrat Love” again.

AC/DC, while always hugely successful, are a critic’s nightmare. Repetitive and largely uninteresting, simplistic blues-metal, horny teenager lyrics. But a few songs that nobody ever turns off when they come on the radio.

The Bay City Rollers were, like, the hugest band in the universe (or at least am radio top 40) when I first started getting into music in the mid-70s. I had all their albums, which I later destroyed. Still regret doing that. Major fun, here, people. Trust me, the BCR hipster revival is on its way.

Not much of an ELO fan, however popular they once may have been. But the shoo-bop 50s-sytled chorus of this still makes me happy.

Mid/late 70s-period Fleetwood Mac, the Buckingham/Nicks era, was obviously one of the most successful bands ever. Which alone is good reason to hate them. Plus, Christine McVie’s songs were sappy, and Stevie Nicks’ were, whatever. But Lindsay Buckingham, at least his songs from that era, was a fine songwriter and an underrated guitarist. Plus, the production is amazing.

Sweet were another band all over the top 40 when I first got into pop music (and Desolation Boulevard was one of the first albums I ever bought). These days it seems like the stigma isn’t really there (at least for their old bubblegum songs and their early glam/rock hits), so not a lot of guilt left. But by the late 70s, as they became more of a dull metal band, they were both a critical and commercial disaster. Still, “Love Is Like Oxygen,” their last hit, is immensely fun, albeit one of the most stupid songs you’ll ever hear.

Which brings us to the 80s. The Moody Blues, their art/prog days behind them, started moving into a more adult contemporary kinda sound, which made them even sappier than they used to be. But I really do like 1981’s Long Distance Voyager for some strange reason.

While the ’70-’75 prog era of Genesis, with Peter Gabriel at the helm, remains somewhat respected (excepting those with a total prog aversion), the Phil Collins era is another story. While they started moving huge volumes of product, they steadily moved from the holdover art rock sound of the Gabriel days to 3-minute pop songs. 1980’s Duke was the last gasp of the original band’s sound (though already knee deep in pop); 1981’s Abacab, with horns and increasingly cheesy keyboards, was probably the breaking point for most old fans. Yet I still find something about that album charming (though they lost me after that).

Guilty pleasures start becoming fewer and farther between after that. Maybe it’s because, without the youthful association I feel for much bad 70s music, bad 80s music was just… bad. In the mid-70s, I listened to crappy top 40 because that’s all I knew, so I have some youthful nostalgia for that music. By the early 80s, I knew better, and didn’t listen to as much popular music (especially once I got into college radio in the mid-80s). Still, there are some new wave-y tunes that, though maybe too commercially popular and critically reviled to be cool, I have to admit liking. The Rick Springfield track is pretty lame, but certainly fits the bill. For a kitschy new wave sound, there were a million to choose from, but the Missing Persons tracks seemed particularly apt. And Katrina & The Waves… well, actually, their first few albums were legitimately good (before they rerecorded the tunes with horns and big 80s production and made them suck). Not sure if the Dream Academy song counts or not; it’s just a long-forgotten one-hit-wonder, but one I really liked at the time.

For some reason, we skip over an entire decade here, but I just couldn’t find much from ’85 to ’95 that I liked but shouldn’t have. I think I was just pretty oblivious to popular music at that time, or at least didn’t form any attachments to songs that I can’t explain liking. Maybe it was all the hair metal shit back then, which might qualify as guilty pleasures but for the fact that I got no pleasure from it.

The Rentals were a Weezer spin-off, with one solid hit and… well, never listened to anything else by them. The Gin Blossoms’ brand of lukewarm Americana is pretty much reviled (or at least ignored) by the critical masses, lumped in alongside other faceless artists from the height of Alternative radio (Toad the Wet Sprocket anyone?); yet I kinda liked ‘em. And this tune, from the soundtrack of the abysmal Empire Records (now running almost every night on cable and something of a guilty pleasure itself), is undeniably great. Or deniably, I guess.

“Tumthumping” was huge until the backlash began. But it was a great anthem, and if it didn’t get so damn popular I’d bet more people would be willing to admit liking it.

“Steal My Sunshine” is another in a string of not-so-terrible 90s one-hit-wonders, but stands out as particularly charming (and particularly annoying, but the charm wins out).

Could only come up with one true guilty pleasure from the past ten years, and that’s that Kelly Clarkson song. No explanation needed, and none will be provided.


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