It’s all in the ear of the beholder, isn’t it? For a blues hound, a guilty pleasure might be ZZ Top. If you’re a soccer mom, maybe it’s 50 Cent or Kanye West. For classical music buffs, it could be anything composed after the 18th Century.
For me, it’s really quite simple… Given that some of my friends and family members are a little nutty about American roots music, it’s usually anything that would make these music snobs recoil in horror if I admitted that I own it, much less listen to it.
In the movie Office Space, a computer-programming Michael Bolton calls his more famous namesake an “ass-clown” – then tries to ingratiate himself with a couple of soulless consultants (the two Bobs) when he tells them that the other Bolton is “pretty good.” In one of the movie’s best moments, the first Bob then confesses, “I celebrate his entire catalog.” So basically, a guilty pleasure is like admitting you’re a bit of a Bob, or even worse.
OK, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. But I’d rarely put the entire contents of my iPod (21,000 songs and counting) on shuffle in mixed company, because I never know what kind of crazy shit will pop up. Just the other day, I nearly drove into oncoming traffic when my iPod segued from Coltrane to Coldplay – mainly because I couldn’t find the advance button on my steering wheel.
Recently, I connected with an old friend from college. We quickly shared notes on stuff we’ve been listening to – turns out both of us are addicted to Sixties jazz – then we started talking about albums we couldn’t do without back in the Seventies. It got even better when we compared our expansive playlists of songs from the era.
Both of us listed the obvious culprits: the Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers Band, the J. Geils Band, Bob Marley, Little Feat… then things started to get a little more debatable, with forays into blooze-rock limbo (Humble Pie, Foghat, Savoy Brown), prog-rock purgatory (Yes, Genesis, the Moody Blues), and glam-rock hell (David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music). Now I enjoyed listening to the latter dreck back in the day, just like any other self-respecting stoner, but it’s hard to slap on the Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore or Yes’ Fragile today without a healthy dose of ironic detachment – the old wink-nod, as they say. And god help the ass-clown who whips out The Best of Bread.
Most of my guilty pleasures probably fall more into the category of cocktail music, and I can probably blame college life for this too. Back when I was struggling to graduate from Ohio University (see my earlier post on “Guns, Drugs, Money and Vinyl…”), I fell in with a few misanthropes who had lost the will to rock – probably the result of spending countless hours during our teen years in front of huge banks of PA speakers, head-banging to the Pie. We were searching for more sedentary pleasures involving smoking jackets and cocktail dresses (from Goodwill, of course), mixing high-balls in front of the hi-fi, and slow-grooving to Frank and Dino.
Yeah, I know… it’s a tired cliché. But it worked for us at the time. And we somehow convinced ourselves that we weren’t turning into our parents, mainly by throwing a few contemporary artists into the mix. The clear favorite? Robert Palmer… blue-eyed soulman Robert Palmer, that is – not the guy who hit the jackpot on MTV with his backup band of supermodels. (Back in the Eighties, one’s preference regarding the two Palmers seemed like something worth arguing about… today, not so much.)
Anyway, Palmer put out a few albums in the Seventies that seemed to us like unabashed love letters to the cocktail culture – particularly “Pressure Drop” and “Double Fun.” Since then, I’ve discovered the obvious pleasures of reggae legend Toots Hibbert, which makes it even more difficult to listen to Palmer’s cover of the Maytals’ "Pressure Drop." But some of the stuff on these records holds up surprisingly well, in an earnest, pseudo-soul kind of way. Just don’t toss out any Marvin Gaye to make room for it on your CD shelf.