in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I want it that way (guilty pleasures)

When people talk about the musicians that influenced them, they’re mostly talking utter nonsense. It’s not to say that they’re lying – those musicians probably did influence them. But in most cases the names we cite pale in comparison to those others we keep hidden away, the guilty pleasures we all disavow and hide.

By the late 80s plenty of kids at my school had been hooked onto ‘rap music’, mostly through cassettes of NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC and Tone Loc, borrowed off older siblings. In my case, it was the last of these artists that had the most profound impact, and I still rate Loc’d After Dark as one of the finest hip-hop albums ever made. I mean it: if you’re ever at a flea market and you see an old copy on sale, buy it on sight. It’ll be the only three dollars you’ll spend this year that might change your life.

Tone Loc was fine and good, and has aged well. He certainly didn’t have anything like the street cred of NWA or PE, but it was okay to admit you liked him, for sure. Thing was though, I first heard Loc on the television, when Funky Cold Medina was in the top ten. And – as it was in those days – Loc would appear alongside all kinds of other artists, some unpardonably, unmentionably bad. Being a kid, I listened to them all, with an openness that’s almost impossible for me now. My favourite thing to do was to dub Top 40 Australia off the radio. I’d like to tell you how I always made edits from these tapes, but the fact was that most of the time I would just listen to the whole countdown – 40 to 1 ad nauseum.

But a hush fell on my childhood mixtape adventures with the advent of high school, a time when the music you listened to became the intimate marker of who you were, what you stood for, and what that was worth. Metallica might still have been considered cool (to the metal kids), but what about NPG-era Prince, Betty Boo, Vanilla Ice, Roxette, Ace of Base, Enigma, and Partners in Kryme (remember ‘Turtle Power’)? A blanket of shamed silence fell on all for the next six years. But I was humming the tunes under my breath the whole time.

It’s when you do karaoke that you see how most people have lived with their very own repressed top forty: given enough booze full-grown adults – who normally want to avow their sophisticated taste in obscure genres – will be clamouring for the mic when George Michael’s ‘Faith’ comes on. But it doesn’t mean that all repression has ceased, no siree. Recently, I uploaded a friend’s copy of David Bowie’s Lodgers onto my mp3 player. The first few tracks played as normal. Then there came an unexpected piano intro, followed by high mid-90s production values… and the opening lyrics, spoken in a saccharine male voice: ‘You are/my fire/the one/desire....’ I double-checked the screen on my mp3 player, which read: David Bowie, Lodger, ‘Red Sails’. But it was none of these things. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the Backstreet Boys I Want It That Way.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.