You're aimlessly driving, aimlessly twiddling the radio dial, when "Total Eclipse of the Heart" begins pouring from your speakers. You reach forward to quickly change the station again, to get rid of that classic-rock crap. But you pause. There are no friends in the car. You're miles from where anyone could hear you scream -- or sing.
What do you do? You crank that fucker up -- 'cause every now and then you fall apart.
Guilty pleasures, those songs you know you shouldn't like but do, can make you hide your CDs like an alcoholic hides booze, except that to most people, secret drinking isn't as bad as owning Bachman Turner Overdrive, let alone playing it.
Sure, taste is subjective. There's no right and wrong when it comes to art, no solid, rational proof that can be used to establish the worth of a film or piece of music. You can sit around and listen to the Average White Band and eat Moon Pies and watch Touched by an Angel all day long, and nobody has the right to judge you.
But everyone will. And you know it. Whether it's a truck driver with a Kate Bush jones, a hip-hop head with the complete John Denver oeuvre, a punk-rocker who has his kid sister buy Avril Lavigne CDs for him or a concert pianist who can karaoke "Back in Black" without a cheat sheet, everyone has that secret kink, that strange taste that stands in utter contrast to his public persona.
For those of us still grappling with guilty pleasures, the record store can be a trying place. We grasp the Rush CD in a shaking hand, fearing the judgment of the bespectacled über-hip music snob who will no doubt secretly snort in disdain at prog-rock dinosaurs such as Rush. As immortalized by Jack Black in High Fidelity, the snooty record-store clerk looking down from on high is a cultural icon (the scene in which Black berates a man for trying to buy "I Just Called to Say I Love You" for his daughter is a fear-inducing classic). Surely these ultracool fanatics, with their obscure German art-rock bands and immaculate taste, don't have the time or inclination for any guilty little musical secrets.
Supertramp, Vintage Vinyl clerk Kris Boettigheimer admits, is his guilty pleasure. "I've avoided owning any of it," he says, "but if it's on the radio, I'm going to give it a listen." Boettigheimer confesses that his friends harass him for his love of "Goodbye Stranger," but he's standing by his taste. "I have to try to justify it to them, but they don't care."
Ken Dussold, the man behind the desk at Revolve Records, is more reluctant to admit to any faulty taste. After some prodding, he owns up to owning "a lot of Depeche Mode, which is pretty embarrassing," and knowing the words of every classic-rock song. And when Rush is brought up, he's quick to recommend 2112 as the group's best album.
Jen X, with her facial piercing, her jean-jacket button reading "Stay Analog" and her post behind the counter at Vintage Vinyl, may be the quintessential fear-inducing record clerk. But even she admits her love/hate relationship with No Doubt is less than hip.
"I hate Gwen Stefani," she says, "but in some sick, sadistic way, I like them, and I even think she is pretty hot -- but I won't admit it in public. They're cheesy, but they're good."
By the way, just because record clerks admit to guilty pleasures doesn't mean they don't judge you. They do. Although Jesus never set down explicit guidelines for music criticism, it is fair to say that his rule about those without sin casting first stones doesn't get a lot of play in record stores. None of the critics interviewed was eager to trash customers (not to a reporter, anyway), but all admitted to being driven crazy by some of the tastes and questions they deal with on a daily basis. Dussold despairs when surprised customers exclaim, "So, they still make vinyl?" Jen X, for her part, "can't stand seeing kids buying Nirvana. I want to ask them, 'Do you really like this crap?'"
Some guilty pleasures aren't your fault. Without sounding overly lefty-paranoid, the corporate mass media does everything it can to plant some songs deep in your skull, where your devoid-of-taste subconscious is powerless against catchiness in any form. This is why you'll hum along with Nelly's "Air Force Ones," no matter how silly you think it is for grown men to sing about shoe shopping. Even if you're repulsed by the song, some part of your subconscious (Freud called it the "death drive") can get your brain pumping "The Macarena" like your own personal shitty jukebox. (Speaking of corporate evil and "The Macarena," Michelina's using that damn song in its ads may rank as one of the most cynical campaigns of all time, because no one on earth likes the fucking "Macarena" -- the tune is analogous to those ear slugs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
Guilty pleasures can also come from your early childhood, back when your puddinglike brain wasn't developed enough to know that you were listening to crap ("Mama, play 'Knock Three Times' again"). It's a mystery of the human condition why so many of our adult preferences were formed at the age when we liked to eat paste (although it does help explain Creed).
Then there's the nostalgia angle, when you begin liking songs from your past because they recall happier times. Sure, you hated Jesus Jones twelve years ago, but now, when you hear "Right Here, Right Now," all you can think about is that you had hair in 1991 and how nice that was. These two factors alone explain why Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are still pulling in royalty checks.
The only way to escape this cycle of guilt is confession. We must stand eye to eye, our Bell Biv Devoe and Night Ranger in our hands, and learn to accept that we are not perfect. Go ahead: Admit that you think "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" is the saddest song in the world. Make "Islands in the Stream" your relationship's theme song. Rock out to "Round and Round." Buy Michael Jackson's latest album. Life is too short to live in shame. Turn around, bright eyes, indeed.