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I love the Oak Ridge Boys. I'm fascinated at the way they map Southern-gospel musical ideas onto distinctly secular themes, like sweet lovemaking. But although it's orthodox among the hipsterati to like certain bygone country acts, it's definitely not okay to like the Oak Ridge Boys. I can live with that.
Which brings me to this article. Did you ever wonder about Isthmus music writers' guilty pleasures - what they listen to when no one is around to ridicule them?
Here is the answer, in contributions from weekly music columnists Rich Albertoni and Jessica Steinhoff and our nightlife scribe Emily Mills. What they write reveals that they are fearless even in their secret tastes.
- Kenneth Burns
For more than a decade now, hipsters have been touting their love of kitsch and distaste for Nickelback. It's cool to "like" MC Hammer and Quiet Riot - and, more importantly, wear their T-shirts - as long as you don't like them in earnest. You're a musical god if you front a sextet of musical saw players or an electro band that does Hall & Oates covers, and liking Belle & Sebastian can make you a VIP member of certain cliques.
It's about knowing when to say you like a particular artist, and to whom, not holing up in your room and listening to your favorite albums on repeat, as I'm prone to do.
In other words, what makes a song a guilty pleasure in my world is context. Sure, some of the songs I like are downright bad, but the ones that are most embarrassing tend to be tied to cringe-worthy stories and extremely uncool levels of sincerity.
Though the ska revival came and went in the late 1990s, I'll reminisce about a 1998 Let's Go Bowling concert like it took place last week and crank up Sublime's "The Wrong Way" in a room full of style-conscious Damien Jurado groupies.
My timing is all wrong when it comes to musical small talk, too. When I'm at the Wisco, I'll neglect to mention my Misfits fixation and let it slip that I've been listening to Jamiroquai - not Jucifer - on my way to the bar. Meanwhile, at the Project Lodge, I can't seem to shut up about how Boston's "More Than a Feeling" can really get you going in the morning - like, really.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. If I've been drinking, I might admit I've been singing "I Dreamed a Dream" (badly, in the shower) at least as long as Susan Boyle has. Never mind that it reminds me of a legitimate accomplishment: reading Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, all 1,300 pages of it. I'll probably just get teary-eyed and order another round, yammering on about my Pandora station devoted to Gary Numan and my burning desire to start a Blondie tribute act called Little Debbie & the Snack Cakes.
However, there are some guilty-pleasure stories that seldom emerge from the ether, like how I used to drive around listening to a cassette single of Brandy & Monica's "The Boy Is Mine," imagining the two R&B songstresses having a knock-down, drag-out chick fight on the mean streets of Waukesha, Wis. I rarely note how power-pop groups the Raspberries and Badfinger can put me in a good mood, even when they're not being covered by a cheeky punk band.
And for some reason, I never mention that the Wayne's World soundtrack saved me from drowning in a sea of Mariah Carey CDs in middle school. It was my first exposure to Jimi Hendrix, Chris Cornell, Black Sabbath and, weirdly enough, Haydn's lovely "String Quartet in G Major," Op. 54, No. 1, which I went on to study as a violinist.
Whenever I consider how pop music has changed, I stop and think: Is music really different now, or is it just me?
I'd like to think I have an objective theory. Liking shallow music wasn't so shameful when I was a kid, but that changed after Nirvana. And now, almost 20 years later, listeners just want to have fun again.
That could be right. Or I could be getting it all mixed up with the course of my own sonic journey.
Back when I bought my first 45 single, I had yet to eat of the tree of knowledge of musical good and evil.
I was 7, and every time my dad gave me my $1 weekly allowance, I'd save it for the next time Mom drove past our local record store.
There, the wall of Top 30 singles loomed large behind the cash register. I still remember the first one I bought - "Groovy Situation" by Gene Chandler.
Over the next five years, my 45 collection knew nothing about musical cool. Daddy Dewdrop's "Chick-A-Boom" sat alongside Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." David Cassidy's "I Think I Love You" spun as much as Sweet's "Little Willie."
That innocence was lost in high school. That's when friends spread rumors that the Bee Gees were eunuchs and that Rod Stewart had something awful pumped from his stomach. And they mocked the melodrama of Barry Manilow.
It was 1978, and tough guys on campus liked prog - Rush, Kansas, Supertramp, Floyd and Zep. I wasn't one of them. About the closest I got to prog was Styx, but let's face it, "Come Sail Away" was practically a ballad.
Still, with New Wave on the horizon, most kids were tolerant of musical differences. I could admit liking the Go-Go's. I could even admit that Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away" was my favorite song for a while.
But I never admitted thinking Manilow could do pathos better than anyone.
Starting graduate school in Seattle in 1988 changed the way I thought about music forever. Until then, music was always something I bought or heard on the radio. But in Seattle in 1988, local bands and live shows were a way of life.
There, I fell in love with someone who knew Calvin Johnson in college and had a friend who dated a guy in Soundgarden. And I got way into the Young Fresh Fellows. I left Seattle before Nirvana exploded and came to Madison soon after. Like a lot of fans, I took the artistic side of music more seriously.
I bought Stereolab and Pavement discs and got hooked on Elliott Smith. Nostalgic for the Seattle local-music mystique, I started writing about Madison music in 1997.
My "guilty pleasures," like the Gin Blossoms' "Till I Hear It From You," started to feel, yes, a little guilty.
In 2010, I have two tweens of my own, and their pop proclivities take me back to my days spinning 45s. They like Steve Aoki's "I'm in the House" because it's catchy and funny.
I have a theory that last year, Phoenix and Passion Pit made progressive music fun again after a long era of musical orthodoxy.
That could be right. Or I could be getting it all mixed up with not feeling so eager to prove something to myself anymore.
Some folks make attempts at refining their musical tastes, or focus their efforts on specific genres or musicians. I have never had such discipline. My only criterion for what I'll listen to is whether or not I find it enjoyable. Does it make me dance? Does it make me think? Does it make me cry? Does it make me laugh? Does it fill me with fist-pumping rage? I'll take it.
All of that is to say there are several artists and bands I regularly listen to (or at least I burst into song when they come across the radio) that I recognize are not "socially acceptable." You might call them my guilty pleasures, but even as I understand that they may not be all that talented or even, y'know, good, I feel little shame in listening.
The most recent addition to my shameless loves is the nearly inescapable Lady Gaga. I resisted her charms for as long as I could manage, assuming that surely such a mega-pop-star with mostly middling dance tunes in her repertoire wasn't worth the time. Big-time pop stars, after all, aren't usually my cup of tea (another exception is British singer Lily Allen). But I was curious. Gaga was just so weird. And I like weird. So I listened and watched, and eventually my morbid curiosity mutated into full-blown adoration. I don't give a jot if she's completely manufactured - the songs make me dance with wild, childlike abandon, and the performance art of her videos and live shows have me absolutely smitten.
Speaking of performance art, I've also become a huge fan of Finnish folk metal outfit Turisas. It was their cover of the 1970s Euro-pop (and historically educational) tune "Rasputin" that first brought them to my attention, but it was their dedication to character and ridiculously over-the-top tunes that kept me coming back for more. They wear furs and battle paint, for cryin' out loud! What's not to love?
On the other end of the spectrum is my appreciation for the utterly relaxing but rather clichéd work of Enya. I blame it on my mother, who used to clean house to the New Age strains of "Orinoco Flow." Maybe it's nostalgia, but I do still sometimes dial the ol' iPod over to Shepherd Moon for a good bliss-out.
I'll bust a move at the drop of the hat to pretty much any Duran Duran or Culture Club. When I was younger I was in the habit of memorizing all the lyrics to several big musicals like Les Misérables and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (and I'd be lying if I told you I didn't still know them). I'm always game for ABBA.
Point is, I've always followed my heart when it comes to music - not the charts, not the underground buzz, just my own, oftentimes strange whims. And really, isn't that what it's all about?