I hate the term “guilty pleasure”. While I can sort of appreciate its assistance as a vague genre that corrals songs generally regarded as being “uncool” or “cheesy” together, thereby making them easier to find, I hate its connotation of shame. I outright detest the judgement inherent it it. I damn straight resent the smugness and hubris required to listen to a song ironically. When a song is branded or categorized as a “guilty pleasure”, you are in essence being told how to listen to and feel about it. Being reminded that no matter how much you enjoy it, the song in question is inherently silly and/or stupid and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. That it is, by definition, unworthy of your devotion. I know you love him girl, but you can do better...
“Guilty Pleasure” is basically the junior high bully of musical genres.
Of course, we don’t get to decide what we like. The fact remains, we humans are just helpless dustballs at the mercy of our internal wiring. What we like is just plain beyond our control.
And what’s the point of fighting your involuntary attraction to that perceived to be cheeseball song anyway? What do you gain by denying your love ? At the end of the day, nothing. Which is to say you shouldn’t waste your valuable time fighting it. It’s better to just give in. It requires no effort and you will be rewarded with pleasure. That overly earnest, ridiculously overwrought, superficially sentimental junk hunk of pop music candy you’ve always been embarrassed to admit that you like ? Go on and own it girl. Ignore the haters and erase the guilt. Celebrate your pre-ordained musical DNA, turn it up and wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Stop prefacing discussions of the song with an “I know this is lame but…” because if you love it, then technically it’s not really lame. You can’t help what you like. Who gives a rats ass what anyone else thinks? You do you, you magnificently tasteless dustball, always, always.
Sheena welcomes you the guilt-free zone…
When I was record store employee back in the day, I found myself on the receiving end of many “guilty pleasure” themed confessions, people asking for things that they were clearly embarrassed about then attributing their choice to “I have to get this for my sister/ father/ partner”. Unsurprisingly Moms and Dads were the ones most frequently thrown under the bus. Many people would pretend they didn’t know a songs exact title and/or deliberately mispronounce an artist’s name as a way of further disassociating themselves in an a attempt to avoid judgement. I was super-empath, praying mantis sensitive enough to be hip to this game and would sometimes pretend to like a particular song just to help them feel more at ease…to tell the truth, I was always oddly touched by their embarrassment and awkward diversionary tactics. See I understood. I’d felt guilty once too.
There were certain things it took me years to admit I loved out loud to another human. While I was primarily obsessed with “cool stuff” when I was a teen like XTC, The Jam and The Police, I also absolutely loved Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut album which was home to both “Sailing” and the godforsaken “Ride Like The Wind”. I adored it to its flamingo sleeve’d, windswept core and played it nearly every damn day.
It was the existential tag team of futility and time that ultimately freed me from the musical shame cellar. Basically I enjoyed so much musical cheese that keeping up the facade of coolness required far more effort than I could ever consciously devote to it. And handily, as I got older, I started to care less what other people thought, simple as that.
The canvas can do miracles…
What I’m trying to say is that there is nothing wrong with you. Love is love and the purpose of this demented diatribe is to encourage you to embrace your ingrained musical tastes and forever abandon the signifying label known as “guilty pleasure”. And so in the spirit of full disclosure I’m going to share with you 7 songs I love that by the established standards could be considered “guilty pleasures”. Since I feel no guilt or shame about my love for them, I usually just call them My WTF Songs™. Which is to say they are a bemused question I ask myself out loud as they play and I feel both incredulity and delight about the fact that I love them as much as I do. They are not cool in the traditional, logical, acceptable or obvious sense. A few are eye-rollingly over the top and some are scarred with truly cringeworthy lyrical content. They won’t make any All-Time Best anything lists. And I genuinely, unabashedly, unashamedly love them.
I hope the sloppy love letters to these misfit songs that follow encourage you to share and embrace your own musical baggage. In fact, if you feel inspired, please feel free to share your WTF songs in the comments. I would genuinely love to hear about ’em and promise I will still think you’re cool no matter what they are.
Bobbi Martin “For The Love of Him” (1970)
Bobbi Martin’s 1970 Top 20 pop hit “For The Love Of Him” is one of the most disturbingly regressive pop songs sung by a woman in chart history. Behold it’s epic and sinister message ….
When he opens the door says “I’m home”
Be aware of the look in his eyes
They tell you the mood he’s in
What kind of day it’s been
For the love of him
Make him your reason for living
Give all the love you can give him
All the love you can
I’ve seen the lyrics written out on various sites where they claim the second line of the chorus is “Make IT your reason for living”…but make no mistake, what Bobbi actually sings is make HIM your reason, which is very troubling indeed. And as she co-wrote the song, no one was putting words in her mouth. I have tried to give Bobbi the benefit of the doubt and attempted to reinterpret this as a love song to Jesus to see if it fit but no, “For The Love Of Him” can only ever be the anguished hymn of a truly desperate and scared housewife.
This thing was on the radio constantly when I was little and had no power or ability to change the station in Mom’s car. As a result of this forced exposure at a time when my mind was a malleable piece of clay, “For The Love Of Him” has been lodged in my brain like some beautiful, ridiculous, politically incorrect barnacle for roughly a trillion years. Hey Bobbi, let’s hear that second verse :
There’ll be times when he won’t say a word
And you wonder if it’s something you said
A gentle touch of your hand
Tells him you understand
Okay, there’s a couple of additional verses after this but you don’t need to see them to get the gist of the songs message which is You are here to make him happy girl, that is your sole purpose in life, so just watch yourself. Yet I can’t dismiss “For The Love Of Him”, for despite its evil, insidious directive, the tune itself is Burt Bacharach level sublime. And Bobbi’s stunning, impassioned vocal so perfectly captures the lyrical pathos that I’m literally scared for her. And that chorus. “For The Love Of Him” is a genuinely menacing little cheeseball…and I love it.
Ashford & Simpson “Til We Get It Right” (1989)
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote some of the greatest and most beloved R & B songs of all-time. Songs that are the very definition of evergreen including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Every Woman”. And they too enjoyed a lengthy recording career, regularly landing in the R & B charts and enjoying a massive pop hit with “Solid” in 1984 ( “the thrill is still hothothothothothothot”). But while Nick Ashford was a masterful songwriter, he was not the greatest singer. This was regularly accentuated by the fact that Valerie was a very good singer and could wail, throw down, and act as a human steamroller whenever the situation required it. Calling out the disparity in their respective vocal skills is not a controversial opinion or a hot take. It’s never been a secret. Yet I’ve always kind of loved Nick’s “limited” voice. The way he would passionately reach for distant notes and not always get there. His audible effort. The endless keening and eternal breathiness. All of these qualities are on full display within “Til We Get It Right”, a deep cut off the duo’s 1989 album Love or Physical. It’s a painfully earnest shoulder shaking anthem about fixing the world before it’s too late, that grows in size with each passing verse. It’s dramatic and infectious and features a particularly big and sexy synth in the bridge which I have been crushing on hard since the day I first heard this song. “Til We Get It Right” is a beautifully earnest completely wonderful cheeseball of hope.
Nick Ashford passed away in 2011 and much as I love “Til We Get It Right”, I have a special memory of him that I value almost as much as that criminally fabulous song.
Okay, so I went to see Michael McDonald play at tiny Joe’s Pub in NYC back in the 2010’s when he was kicking out all those Motown cover albums. Fittingly, as they had written so many Motown classics, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson turned up as surprise guests late in the show. Cool right ? Anyway, as they made their way to the stage, they had to head down the staircase my friends & I were leaning on. It was kind of dark & one of my friends had a shaved head. As 6’2″ Nick was coming down the stairs, his eyes solely fixed on his destination, the stage, he placed his hand on our friends bald head to brace himself as he descended the staircase. He literally mistook his head for a bannister. It was then our friend then uttered one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard;
“Nick Ashford thought I was the railing “.
You may think our friend was humiliated, but honestly, to this day, I think he was blessed.
The Deuce Project “Stone Cold” (2003)
I first heard The Deuce Project’s “Stone Cold” when I was working at corporate mega music store conglomerate Virgin in NYC. I was instantly overcome by its handsome anthemic shuffle and over-confident vocal which is to say, I f-ing loved it. My infatuation ran so deep that I made a point of telling our Warner Brothers sales rep, the guy whose job it was to sell us new releases that I thought it would be a massive hit and maybe even land in the Billboard Top 10. He reacted with a chuckle and then served me up some hard truth, namely a big fat “no it won’t”. He was, of course, correct. Also there’s a (strong) chance he knew more about the Warner Brothers marketing budget than I did. My blind optimism never stood a chance.
Yet in the bizarro alternate musical universe that existed solely within the confines of my mind, “Stone Cold” was huge. It was number one on that chart for f-ing weeks. The Deuce Project made a total of 1 album and as of this writing do not have a Wikipedia page…but they don’t need one. The video of “Stone Cold” which you can watch above, will tell you more than the written word ever could. But as a public service, I’m going to fill in the blanks to enhance your viewing experience. The Deuce Project were a duo consisting of 2 childhood friends, and were actually signed to Madonna’s vanity label Maverick. Lead singer Josh McMillan described their music as “homegrown acoustic rock on Ecstasy.” Guitarist Noah Pearce added “What we do is cool jams on the guitar with Josh’s voice. We wanted a kind of Britpop feel.” Right, so in a nutshell “Stone Cold” is Josh and Noah, all beanies, floppy hair, hoodies, converse and chokers, emitting an almost comically obvious slacker, skater kid vibe singing what is essentially a Britpop song that sounds like the type of thing that would be playing during a party scene on the O.C. As homegrown cool jams on Ecstasy go, it don’t get much better than this…
Sheena Easton “You Could Have Been With Me” (1981)
If you are a incurable music nerd there’s a good chance you’ve pondered the eternal fantasy band question, which is as follows:
With no boundaries of time or place, what would your “dream band” sound like and who would be in it?
I’ve spent a disgraceful amount of time thinking about this and can confirm my mythical dream band would be ’70s era Chaka Khan or Gladys Knight fronting the Beach Boys circa 1966-1973 ( the epic-symphonic-psychedelic years). I’m pretty sure that’s what it will sound like in heaven if by chance I end up there someday. All of which explains why I have forever adored “You Could Have Been With Me”, the title track off Sheena Easton’s second album. While it wasn’t a platinum selling behemoth, it was an actual hit, getting as high as # 15 in the U.S. pop chart. It is an absurdly dramatic, lyrically eccentric Beach Boy flavored AOR power ballad that I guess could be described as “Surf’s Up” meets Andrew Lloyd Webber. In addition, its opening lines might possibly resemble the plot of a tacky romance novel :
You’re the seventh son of the seventh son
Maybe that’s why you’re such a strange and special one
While Sheena can sang and unleashes a fine assortment of big notes along the way, the most captivating element of this thing is its shimmering, widescreen piano line. It sounds like it came straight off of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s seminal 1977 lost soul of an album Pacific Ocean Blue and is the sonic equivalent of walking straight into the ocean and never looking back. Wait. Hmmm, yeah, I’m suddenly realizing that might be a bit too dark and ominous an emotion to be inspired by a Sheena Easton song…let’s just say it’s melodically persuasive and I’d follow wherever it leads regardless of the danger. While “You Could Have Been With Me” doesn’t necessarily sound like what Chaka and Gladys getting all spaced out with Brian Wilson and the Boys presumably would have, it does offer a wonderfully weird European approximation of it and holy shit, I’ll take it.
ZZ Top “Rough Boy” (1985)
There are ZZ Top traditionalists who regard “Rough Boy” as something of a betrayal. They think it’s too “wussy” or “girly”. I vividly remember a male co-worker of mine characterizing it as ” the worst ZZ Top song ever”. I once read a posted comment from another guy that said “This always struck me as a gay song. It’s the only ZZ Top song I absolutely do not like”. “Rough Boy” is not a punchy, synthesized rattlesnake rock song of the sort that made ZZ Top famous and beloved. It is a languorous ballad sung by a lushly bearded boy ( Billy Gibbons) who is begging a girl to him a chance even though he ain’t much to look at and don’t have no canned speeches to persuade her with. Billy’s guitar serves as his wingman, extravagantly pleading on his behalf when he’s not singing, in an exceptionally seductive and swoon-worthy fashion.
See, what those aforementioned hater guys fail to accept and understand is that “Rough Boy” is a song constructed primarily for the enjoyment of girls. It was never intended for them and therefore their opinions about it are irrelevant. ZZ Top weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing. “Rough Boy” was a deliberate attempt to send all the boys to the restroom at their shows en masse so they could hit on their girlfriends by serenading them with “Rough Boy”. And it worked. I should add I personally love the idea of it being a gay song, sung by one cowboy or leather daddy to another. I also like the idea of a girl singing it to another girl. In fact I want all musicians to cover “Rough Boy”. Women and Men. Metal bands and solo acoustic troubadours. Shoegazers and Dreampoppers. Country twangers and gospel choirs. And on and on forever and ever amen.
P.S. I think “Rough Boy” is the best ZZ Top song ever.
Montgomery Gentry “Twenty Years Ago” (2006)
It would be way too easy to fill this list with painfully literal country songs from the ’90s and ’00s that I have no connection with from a life experience position but just plain love. Montgomery Gentry’s “Twenty Years Ago” has taken up permanent residence in the beat down motel on the outskirts of my mind and even after 15 years, appears to have no intention of leaving. It wanders the hall in its bathrobe, beer in hand, offering its homespun insight at random, unpredictable times namely remindin’ me to not let pride git in tha way a what matters. It’s a straightforward tale about how a straight-laced, crewcut sporting, Vietnam Vet Dad and his rebellious son can’t see eye to eye. They fuss ‘n fight over many idealogical issues from hair length, to choice of friends to the dreaded “future plans”. Things inevitably reach a boiling point and get physical and our rebel son splits only to be called back years later when Dad is on his deathbed. And yes, there is a spoken word section where our hero has an epiphany in case you were wonderin’. It’s a perfectly predictable piece of genius, all impassioned vocalizing, bitchin’ chorus belting and infectious melody making and as long as the earth is spinnin’ I’m happy to have its corny ass livin’ rent-free in my head ‘n heart.
Rick Springfield “Souls”” (1983)
I’ve written about Mr.Rick before and consider him to be a criminally underrated genius. But I digress. Anyway, when I worked at the infamous One Hour Photo Lab as a young one (my first job), there was a guy there named Tom whom I became briefly infatuated with because he bore a slight resemblance to Steve Clark from Def Leppard whom I believed to be “hot”. And desperate AOR power pop animal with a killer hook “Souls” was the song I would play on my Walkman™ to soundtrack all my Tom-themed daydreams. In my mind, it was “our” song. Here is a lyrical sample for your enjoyment:
He held her tighter and tighter
As he danced inside her
She knew from the moment that she let him in
They’d been two souls searching for each other
Ah yes, true love. And if that weren’t enough, just like the word “moot” making its famously incongruous appearance in “Jessie’s Girl”, Rick cleverly incorporated another vintage SAT word into one of the verses of “Souls” to remind us that he is well read and not the dumb rock star one might assume.
Too many nights on the ledge
He acquired a knife edge
Still the city didn’t acquiesce to his demands
Acquiesce y’all. Inevitably, that Tom kid faded from my mind as almost as quickly as he’d appeared but the experience left a “Souls” shaped scar that has yet to heal. P.S. the video is f-ing nuts. It features a sugar mama art patron, a Keytar, singing statues and the passing of cryptic love notes on champagne trays. But the best parts feature Rick pouting with immense frustration and desire while involuntarily clenching and/or pumping his fists…both gestures dovetailing very neatly into the the song’s aforementioned lyrical sentiments; he’s clearly feeling it with a capital F.
A Final Note : There is a “Guilty Pleasures” themed playlist on Spotify with over 2 million followers. Among the songs included are The B-52’s “Rock Lobster”, Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To U”. Abba’s “Dancing Queen” is in there, as well as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. I personally have never considered these songs to be “guilty pleasures”. They aren’t inherently embarrassing or uncool, maybe silly and fun in a couple of cases but there’s no reason to be sheepish and ashamed about admitting you like them. No, what they are is older, the product of a different century. The aforementioned playlist is less a collection of “guilty pleasures” than it is a documentation of once contemporary trends that now sound “funny” in 2020. And so the water has gotten kind of muddy in terms how some folks define what a “guilty pleasure” is these days. All I know is I love my WTF songs and I want you to love yours without fear of judgement. And next time you gather them in a playlist don’t title it “Guilty Pleasures”, tell the truth…call it My Fucking Favorite Songs 😉