Guilty Pleasures Are Dead…And Bigger Than Ever

 

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Irving Berlin said, “Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it.”

Recently the metrics meets storytelling site polygraph (poly-graph.co) published a piece by Matt Daniels on the most timeless songs from the 1990’s. More specifically, using Spotify plays as a yardstick, Daniels took a look at how resilient songs from the 1990’s were for today’s all-the-worlds-music-at-my-fingertips streaming music listeners.

As you might expect cultural clarion calls like Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Under The Bridge, Radiohead’s Creep, and Eminem’s My Name Is dominated. These songs are all different…or are they? After all, they’re all personal declarations of adolescent pain. The kind of pain that has fueled much of the great rock and hip hop of the last 30 years. These songs are variations on “I am hurting, the world is a mess, it’s in my kiss deal with it”.

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The 60’s gave us My Generation, we were Comfortably Numb in the 70’s, The Smiths and songs like Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now helped define the 80’s, and then came the 90’s. For every Smells Like Teen Spirit or Creep, there were hundreds more where they came from. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and a legion of downcast “complaint rock” bands ruled MTV and radio in the era. Apparently, in the 1990’s it was hip to be bummed.

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OK then. Through the ages, teenage angst has been constant in pop music. But when listeners are not bummed out, and they can listen to any song they want from the anonymity of their smart phone and headphones, what else do today’s streamers want to hear?

Apparently, they want to hear…crap.

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The kind of “crap” that in the pre-Napster Rock era (1964–2000) you had to be ashamed to buy. Or more charitably…a concentrated set of incredibly catchy, sometimes dopey, wonderfully catchy pop songs, formerly known as Guilty Pleasures.

You see, streaming music sites like Spotify, Pandora and Slacker have done more than open up the catalogue of all music to anyone with broadband — they have killed Guilty Pleasures. This has happened gradually but surely over the last ten years. No one needs to know exactly what you are listening to in those headphones, and even if they did judge you for your momentary dalliance with Roxette or Bryan Adams, it was just momentary. There are a million other songs just a click away, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like you’re going to get a Spin Doctors Two Princes tattoo, right

Contrast our present day ease of entry, ease of escape with the 1990’s. Can you imagine the walk of shame for a 16 year old Gen X’er as she ambled up to the Tower Records counter with a CD or two from Britney or The Spice Girls along with her Sonic Youth and Nirvana masterpieces? That was simply not going to happen.

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Guilty Pleasure pop like Britney’s Baby One More Time and The Spice Girls Wannabee were mortal enemies before streaming. Now they are playlist kissing cousins. These songs dominate the catalogue spins across the streaming services.

Songs like Collio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Celine Dion’s My Hear Will Go On, Blackstreet’s No Diggitty and Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn are no longer Guilty Pleasures at all. They are simply fun oldies. Perfect for your Songs That You Think Sucked…But Don’t playlist, or Wussiest Songs Ever station or Yes I’m Listening To Lite Rock, So What.

On a revenue level, these are massive catalogue streaming hits, generating huge market share gains for their labels.

Perhaps there are cultural and personal economic forces at play here too. The path to employment isn’t an easy one for millenials. Student loans, 24/7 connectivity and the resulting social media pressure have created a perfect sociological storm for disposable pop. Maybe impending adulthood sounds like crap a lot more than a Coolio song ever could. I’ll leave that one for the social scientists.

Financially, these songs are most certainly not crap. Thanks to streaming, these former Guilty Pleasures are now simply songs we love. Gangsta’s Paradise, Wannabee, and Britney’s hits are the new catalogue smashes. These are great pop songs ready for your “Hipster Karaoke”, “Stadium-Singalong”, or “Yacht-Rock Party”. Whatever your station or playlist is called, these songs are perfect.

Guilty Pleasures are dead. They’re also bigger than ever.

Van Morrison: Treasure … No Longer Buried.

 

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I am, or at least try to be, a Van Morrison fan. Van is a notoriously “difficult” character — known for an ornery persona with labels, promoters, the press and fans alike. I have no problem with any of that. In fact, truth be told, I sort of like his wariness and mistrust of celebrity and of the music industry. And I’m certainly more than OK with the idea of loving the art, not the artist.

So, it wasn’t Van’s personality that made it tough to be a fan. Instead, it was simply the fact that his catalogue was a mess. The back-catalogue had fallen into incredible disrepair. For the last 15 years or so, a good portion of Van’s music was out of print on CD, and absent from streaming services like Spotify and Slacker. You literally could not listen to pristine versions of life-changing albums like St. Dominics Preview or Into The Music without breaking the law or breaking your bank account.

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So, I approached the news that Sony was cleaning up and readying the Van Morrison catalogue with realistic expectations. Van Morrison was a self-professed music industry hater, grappling with a digital era that he certainly couldn’t feel much natural affinity with.

Listen to how many times Van reminds the Time Magazine interviewer here that he is “not a download artist”.

Yet, here we are. Sony has done a nice job, under no doubt difficult circumstances. The new Essentials CD is well curated, combining tracks from Them, the Warner titles, and Sony’s newly licensed stockpile into a worthwhile overview.

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More importantly, they have at least plugged the gaping digital hole that was Van Morrison’s streaming catalogue. 3 of the 4 Warner albums and these 33 Sony titles are now available for streaming. For depth of emotion, commitment to chasing the muse, and pure musical delight these albums represent a catalogue of music that rivals any solo artist in the history of rock.

Van creates a unique musical mix of R&B, Rock and Roll, Celtic folk, Soul, New Orleans blues and jazz, all while he searches for transcendence. It is art of the highest order.  It is the only music I know that sounds simultaneously completely spontaneous, and yet inevitable. And its all so intimate, so personal, as to make almost every other artist sound artificial.

Griel Marcus breaks this down:

People take Van Morrison personally. Incidents from his music enter the events of their lives – events in their love lives, their family lives, births and especially deaths – and people feel as if he put those incidents in their lives. As if, in some way, he’s there. Not in any magical sense – just in the manner in which art is supposed to work: it touches you. And won’t let go. People have always talked about the certainty they had that when Elvis Presley sang – on record, especially in person, but even on television – he was singing directly to them. This is different. It’s a feeling people get that Morrison has already lived the events that they’re living out or have lived out – or haven’t yet lived out, but may – that he’s been there first, and put those events into songs, into music, into an emotional form that can be transferred into a thing, a record, an LP or a CD or a download on a computer or an iPod, something you can physically refer to, that produces an apprehension of the real, the tangible. In other words, not he’s singing to you; in a certain sense, he has lived your life for you.

Listen to Van Morrison on Slacker here.