Music, like any art form, is a very subjective thing. It appeals to us, or it doesn’t. It plays on our emotions, or it doesn’t.
When a piece of music appeals to us, we might play it loudly in our car or on our home sound system. We might even sing it in the shower.
But sometimes we have felt the need to hide the fact that we like certain songs or artists who might be considered “unhip.” We keep it a secret that we are fans.
This is what is known as a guilty pleasure. We feel guilty, for whatever reason, that we get pleasure from listening to this song or artist, and we are reluctant to let the world know it.
Me, I’ve been a lifelong fan of the records by The Carpenters. This brother-and-sister act from the early 1970s were considered by some to be the gold standard of square, saccharine-sweet, gooey music. It was well known in my social circle that I was a huge fan of hard rock, progressive rock, hipster songwriter rock, blues rock and others, and I certainly wasn’t going to be caught dead admitting that, deep down inside, I really liked many of the songs in The Carpenters’ repertoire. So that was a big secret. A guilty pleasure.
Everyone has guilty pleasures. It’s a phrase that’s apparently been around since the 1700s, back when it had a more shameful connotation and was pretty heavy on the guilty aspect. It might have referred to one of the seven deadly sins — kinky sexual activity, or pigging out on food, or lazing around all day reading or binge-watching TV or playing video games. These are all guilty pleasures, because we don’t want to admit that we indulge in them.
In the early 2000s, the Canadian band Nickelback achieved considerable commercial success with several multi-platinum international hit albums and singles. But it wasn’t long before public acclaim inexplicably turned to widespread derision, to the point where the group’s fans felt they needed to deny their fandom and hide their Nickelback CDs. For those people, enjoying Nickelback’s music had become a guilty pleasure.
It’s all a bit silly, really. We’re too concerned with what others may think about us if they knew about these guilty pleasures. But ultimately, who cares what others think? If I like to listen to “Rainy Days and Mondays” or “We’ve Only Just Begun,” what business is it of yours, and why should it matter to me?
It’s because we are too proud, too concerned with maintaining our reputation, too worried that people will think less of us. Certain things we may be justified in keeping private, but musical preferences? Good grief, how shallow, and how absurd.
My friend Chris likes certain songs by Barry Manilow, but he was hesitant to tell me that. Why? Because Manilow is largely considered unhip.
And yet, my sister Carrie is a big Manilow fan, and is more than happy to shout that fact from the rooftops. She feels absolutely no guilt about it.
Most of the music that some of us have considered a guilty pleasure is frothy, lightweight pop music — usually from the ’60s, or ’70s, or ’80s, although it could be from more recent years. Maybe it’s a song like “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies, or “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield, or “Think of Laura” by Christopher Cross. Or maybe it’s something by The Spice Girls or The Backstreet Boys.
If I happen to like a song like “Diary” by Bread, I may have a very good reason for it. It happens to remind me of a girl I dated in high school, and although the lyrics are sad, the melody brings back fond memories. When I listened to the song the other day, I was struck by the superb production values and the professional arrangement of voices and instruments, which are both solid reasons for liking it.
There are dozens of songs I like that some people would be amazed to hear me admit to liking. Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight.” Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.” Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.” Why do I like these brazenly cheesy songs? I don’t know, I just do. So sue me.
A recent online article in the British music publication NME (New Musical Express) culled comments from a variety of musical artists and writers about their guilty pleasures, and their remarks were fascinating.
Dave Grohl of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters said, “I couldn’t get The Spice Girls’ song ‘Two Become One’ out of my head, and it’s not even a dance song. It’s just this slow love shit. Lord, I love it, and I don’t know what to do! In Nirvana, Krist Novoselic joked that he was going to call his autobiography ‘What The Hell Was I Thinking?’ Now I know what he means. Do I need a shrink?”
Gary Jarman, multi-instrumentalist of the popular British group The Cribs, made this admission: “I think The Bee Gees’ album ‘Size Isn’t Everything’ is phenomenal. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums. It’s from the much-maligned late era of The Bee Gees, but I think the pop songs are fantastic, and that’s really all that mattered to me. It was a big record for me when I was a kid.”
An NME writer named Rebecca Schiller wrote, “Does anyone really know what Chumbawumba’s ‘Tubthumping’ means? Probably not. Does it matter? Not really. I remember buying it when I was 10. I brought it to a sleepover that night, and we had a massive singalong to it. That’s all that matters. It brings back memories, and it makes me smile. I don’t care if anyone else likes it or not.”
Kele Okereke, lead singer of the British indie rock band Bloic Party, admitted, “I heard Britney Spears’ “I Wanna Go” in a club a few weeks ago. I’d never heard it before, but I was quite surprised that I quite liked it. I think she’s probably someone I should feel guilty about liking, because she’s just a machine now.”
Alan Woodhouse, an NME editor, said, “I personally don’t feel guilty about anything I like, but I suppose people would be surprised if I admitted that I love quite a lot of cheesy songs from my childhood. Remember David Soul, that actor from ‘Starsky and Hutch’? Remember his huge hit ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’? LOVE that song!”
Punk/metal artist Henry Rollins noted, “I used to despise the arena-rock stuff like Boston and Kansas, but when the remasters came out, I bought ’em and found they were just so rockin’! Sometimes it’s these records that hit the spot like no other, which, it seems to me, is one of the great things about music in the first place.”
The older I get, I have come to realize that I don’t need to justify my listening preferences to anybody. If I genuinely like almost everything Bread ever recorded, and someone somewhere thinks I should be mercilessly teased for liking them, well, that’s just too damn bad. Call me guilty, your honor, of getting pleasure from something as subjective as music.
If I’m guilty of anything, it’s that I often make fun of others who listen to music I find unhip or unworthy. I teased my friend Fiji when I learned he owned CDs by John Tesh and Yanni. I roll my eyes when he says he like Celine Dion’s theme song from “Titanic.”
Let’s say you’ve always liked the ’60s novelty “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits. Maybe you’re partial to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Perhaps your guilty pleasure is Barbra Streisand’s duet with Barry Gibbs called (wait for it) “Guilty.”
Well, who am I to say what’s hip or worthy? You like what you like, and you needn’t defend yourself to me, or anyone else.