The Power of Our Tuning: Flyin’ the Flannel For What You Love

The songs and musicians we consider to be "guilty pleasures" serve a powerful purpose – they make us who we are.
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Image Credit: Sub Folk Collective 

Image Credit: Sub Folk Collective 

Growing up, our house always had copies of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," Lisa Stansfield's "Affection" and Santana's "Moonflower." I was fed a steady diet of show tunes, disco, pop punk, new wave, "alternative" (lol) and riot grrrl. My first musical crushes were George Michael, Michael Jackson and Michael Hutchence. (I had a type.) My first LP was a free copy of Men At Work's "Business As Usual" I found outside a record store in Vancouver, WA. "Abba Gold" is still my desert island record.

This bizarre potpourri made for some interesting identity politics in high school. I became a target of ridicule for those with more cohesive adolescent personalities. There were so many rules, usually unspoken, about what to like and what you were allowed to call yourself. The term "poser" got thrown around frequently, not because I claimed to like things I didn't actually like, but because I basically liked all music forever. I was harassed by a schoolmate for wearing an MxPx sweatshirt as she drove off in a car covered in Vice Squad stickers. Did it matter that I was also listening to Bikini Kill and The Clash, two bands she would have likely approved of? Not at all. Identity was dogmatic. I continued to wear the sweatshirt but with a more muted pride.

When I was 16, I went on a Caribbean cruise with my grandmother. I came back with fond memories of beautiful beaches and a fear of flying for the next 15 years. On the way to Puerto Rico, we hit a patch of major turbulence over the ocean. The distinction between water and sky was nonexistent – a beautiful feature until your metal tube starts vibrating like a Shake Weight in the blue oblivion. The plane dropped, shook and dropped some more. The window shades rattled down and adults were screaming. The disorientation was visceral, and my actual viscera was somewhere up between my ears. The man in front of me started singing "Rollercoaster of Love." As I sat there paralyzed, contemplating my imminent mortality, my Discman played on, nary a skip. Until now, I've always left out one important detail of this story: I almost died prematurely in the Bermuda Triangle listening to Jamiroquai. More specifically, the platinum-selling 1996 record, "Travelling Without Moving."

Yes, Jamiroquai. You may remember them as a genre-hopping four-piece band, fronted by a man known as Jay Kay – a handsome Brit who has unfortunate taste in hats and whose name I can only ever hear as the abbreviated slang for "just kidding." If ever there was a reason to not take Jamiroquai seriously, this alone is a good place to start. But as a young thing squarely in my pupal stage, I loved this record.

I recently re-bought TWM before a long flight, attempting to reconstruct the context in which it had become such an inextricable part of my musical history. Among all the other albums in that 12-disc Case Logic I brought with me, this was the only one I didn't carry into adulthood. Surely there had to be something I still loved about Jamiroquai, anything that could explain why this record gave me comfort during a traumatic time. But other than my lifelong love of a dance beat and a prominent ride cymbal, there wasn't much I could connect with in those 13 tracks as an adult. It has been forever banished to the small corner of my memory reserved exclusively for guilty pleasures.

I realize now that I have historically misunderstood the concept of guilty pleasures. I used to tout that no one should ever feel guilty for what they like (which is true). But guilty pleasures are not things you can argue in favor of, like my friend's affinity for defending Taylor Swift with the rigor of a PhD candidate defending her thesis. Liking Taylor Swift makes sense to me. I imagine her music as genetically-modified sugar for your earholes.

True guilty pleasures are the things you like that defy rational explanation and the birthplace of all guilty pleasures is childhood. What you liked when you were too young to care about being cool is the ground zero of who you really are. Engaging in cerebral gymnastics to justify what you love is such an adult behavior. It's a socially acceptable way to hide and protect the tiny version of yourself who used to dance around the house to The Simpsons Sing the Blues (my first cassette) or the gangly preteen whose first concert was seminal christian band, The Newsboys (also true).

A few friends recently shared their guilty pleasures with me and every instance felt like a coming-out party. I caught a glimpse of the small, vulnerable children they used to be. I remember the familiar desire for acceptance flicker in their eyes and at the corner of their mouths as they smile and confess to loving Paramore or Dashboard Confessional. I've never felt closer to them than in those moments. If there could be a single universal truth of personality, it is this: it isn't what you don't like that makes you interesting but what you do. Cool is irrelevant in the face of total honesty.

We live in a time when we can curate nearly every part of our lived experience, leaving little to chance while constructing elaborate facades to avoid being vulnerable. Even so, there's still so much one can't control, like who your seat mate is or what you're listening to when you realize the plane's going down. On my list of life-changing records, it would be dishonest for me not to publicly include "Travelling Without Moving." The adult disconnect and modicum of shame I feel about Jamiroquai is weighty but still less burdensome than engaging in revisionist history for the sake of some street cred.

I'm glad I didn't die on that plane for many reasons, as music has since taken me to four of seven continents forcing me to confront and heal my aviophobia. I'm also glad I outlived my teenage love of this record, if only as a means of measuring my emotional growth. I wish I was cool enough to say Bikini Kill saved my life (they've saved so many), but the person who was really there for me in my time of need is none other than a furry-Dr.-Seuss-hat-wearing, acid-jazz-playing white dude from Lancashire, England. And if there's one thing Jay Kay can teach us all, it's to wear our musical taste the way he wears expensive fedoras. With shameless, unapologetic pride.

A few great reads on taste and guilty pleasures:
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste - Carl Wilson
The Billy Joel Essays - Chuck Klosterman
“All of the Pleasure. None of the Guilt.” by Adam Sternbergh for the New York Times     


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