A Treatise on Pleasure
I am an opinionated prick. I talk loudly when I feel passionate about something. I deride the things that I think are shitty, and I think that most things are pretty shitty. I hate popular music and modern comedies. I turn my nose up at Middle America and television. I hate NASCAR fans and hipsters, fashion’s fickle cliques and yuppies. I grew up and formed my tastes in a cynical age, and I cast a skeptical eye towards anything that resides in mainstream culture.
Lately though, whenever I start shooting off at the mouth about how Michael Bay should be castrated and sent from Hollywood naked and hobbled or how anyone who likes this band or that band is clearly a stupid asshole, I can hear a small voice in the back of my head that plainly makes pointed comebacks to my clever misanthropy. It’s the voice that reminds me that when I took my ten-year old nephew to see Hanson at Red Rocks, I actually liked it. It’s the voice that reminds me that in spite of my Pere Ubu collection, I know all the lyrics to Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake”, that even though I have been covered in the blood of other men at a Jesus Lizard show, I secretly watch videos of cats doing funny things, and that I am a simple man who at his core longs for nothing more than a sunny afternoon, a milkshake, some Seals and Crofts records and to be accepted as such.
I’ve been trying to listen to that little voice in my head more often. Not only should I be shutting my gob about being the true decider of what is good or bad, I should more staunchly defend my own pleasure. I grew up and shaped my musical tastes in an era when the record industry finally figured out how to co-opt the underground. In this era, when the cool kids vituperated those who had defected the true rebellion by branding them as “sell-outs”, the only way to enjoy things that were outside of the purview of the underground was to enjoy it ironically. Are you listening to Hall and Oates? Yeah, look at his hair, and how stupid this is!
But truthfully, I really really like these songs. The snob in me writes off my enjoyment as nostalgia, that listening to these songs is an active form of backwards-thinking reverie. It’s hard to argue with that voice. But even though the music critic inside of me, the consummate collector of rarities and champion of the underground, snivels and writhes whenever Bread crackles through supermarket speakers, the deep and abiding self that resides within me sighs relief, hums the melody, and forgives the egregious lyrical trespasses contained in a song like “(I Wanna) Make It With You.”
It may seem really hard to reconcile those disparities inside one’s self. It may be easier to come up with a new classification for the things you enjoy that are outside of what your peers find acceptable. You may come up with a little internal filing system that dictates that it is alright to vocalize your allegiance to Lightning Bolt or Current 93 and simply internalize your secret fondness for Keith Sweat and reggae. Those categories may shift with the company you keep, but the fact of the matter, and the point of this column, is that defining certain music as a guilty pleasure is a real disservice to what makes us enjoy the art-form in the first place.
I was having an email exchange with some local musicians and scribes, and one of them referred to the writing of a local critic as really solid because “she doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures.” That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks, and has quickly become my mantra. Should I have to defend my affinity for Counting Crows? Should I have to hide my love for John Denver from my metal-head friends or my love of R&B and riotgrrl from my male friends who feel threatened by femininity? Should I have to tell another soul that Led Zeppelin’s songs are not at all about wizards and goblins, but are mostly about fucking?
The answer is no, I should never have to defend my tastes. I love Cat Stevens. I love reggae and French pop and bad R&B and hair metal and jazz. I love it all for different reasons and I will no longer feel guilty for that.
Inversely, as a critic, it’s worth stating that although it’s my job to give my opinion about albums and artists, I would never want to keep someone from enjoying something, nor would I want to make someone feel stupid for caring about something that I don’t like. I think we all need to cultivate the strength and the conviction to not feel threatened by our tastes, and to not let the critics dissuade us. Let the critics criticize. It can be really helpful, and nothing is more fun than finding and reading critics who think like you do, who connect to music in a way that you do. But don’t let anyone tell you that singing Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” in a clearly audible voice while shopping for fruit is not acceptable because it ain’t hip. Sing it.
To celebrate pleasure without guilt, I put together a playlist of songs from artists or genres that have historically incurred a lot of incredulity from my peers. This one is for the dudes who call Kathleen Hanna a scary dyke, for the dickheads who say that reggae is for hippies and trust-funded Boulderites. This one is for the tough guys who can’t get behind jazz or gay pop. This one is for the snobs who can’t see the connection between prog and just about everything that is popular in Indie Rock right now, and for the fuddy-duddies who simply just can’t get over themselves and experience a simple and trifle joy.
These are songs I love. These are songs that I will no longer keep separate from my love of Big Black, songs that have a rightful place alongside Akron Family and Anticon, songs that will just as easily find their way onto mixtapes I make as The Monks or Guided by Voices.
Feel free to add your own (no-longer-guilty) pleasurable playlists in the comments. Let’s take the power back. This feast is bacchanalian.
1. King Missile – It’s Saturday
2. Electric Light Orchestra – Don’t Bring Me Down
3. Erasure – A Little Respect
4. Steely Dan – Bodhisattva
5. Yes – Long Distance Runaround
6. Counting Crows – Round Here
7. Slim Whitman – Indian Love Call
8. Horace Andy – Change Your Ways
9. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Kinky Reggae
10. Medeski, Martin, and Wood – Chubb Sub
11. Ray Baretto – A Deeper Shade of Soul
12. The Platters – Twilight Time
13. Jill Scott – The Way
14. Prince & The Revolution – Let’s Go Crazy
15. The Grown Ups – Imbicilic
16. Bikini Kill – Star-bellied Boy