Music:
On Guilty Pleasures

An office. Bluetooth speakers. An iPhone on shuffle. For a colleague with a secret obsession with Taylor Swift, this is a dangerous mix.

“Phil?” we ask, peering quizzically across the desk at the burly, rugby-loving man sitting opposite. “Is this ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’? The soundtrack to broken hearts being drowned in bottles of rosé? The song squealed into hairbrushes by teen divas across the world?”

“Ha, sorry, wow,” he blusters. “It’s my girlfriend, she loves this song.”

Right, understandable. Not to worry.

A half hour passes, and then…

“Phil? Is this Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’?”

“Ha, oh, right,” he mumbles, eyes averted. “She must have put the whole album on here.”

“This is on a different album,” says Claire, busting chops from next to the photocopier.

A brief tussle, a stolen phone.

“Phil,” we inquire, “why have you got four Taylor Swift albums on here? And a live CD? And a playlist called Bath Music with only Taylor Swift B-sides on?”

“Er…”

It turned out that Phil really loves Taylor Swift. Like really, unironically, properly has a thing for the saccharine warbling of some pseudo-country pop star, a woman who seems only to date men to harvest more mawkish relationship melancholy she can channel into “co-written” (ha!) ballads, that explain how Harry Styles broke her heart; or how John Mayer broke her heart; or how Jake Gyllenhaal broke her heart; or how Taylor Lautner broke her heart (I can only assume that, within a year or so, dating Taylor Swift will be akin to National Service – a pointless, grueling ordeal endured by every man of a certain age. It’ll be character-building, if nothing else).

Now, I have no issue with a grown man liking Taylor Swift. Despite the fact that I write about music for a living, that I play music for a living, that I am, in many ways, a professional at doing things of or around music, a potted glance at my iTunes library would reveal taste that could be deemed objectively questionable. How about a cod-reggae version of Men at Work’s “Down Under”? Or a remix EP of John Cage’s silent composition “4’33”, which includes a recording of someone vacuuming their music studio? Or four compilations of BBC sound effects? I was once banned from an office stereo for playing an album of Christian funk, which rhymed “Saviour of men” with “disco den”.

The weird thing is that these guilty pleasures are largely new purchases. For most people, that copy of “Do the Bartman (Karaoke version)” nestling alongside their Nick Cave LPs is a hangover from a taste-free childhood, when you could pick up novelty dross in Woolworth’s for pocket money, and still have change for a bag of pick ‘n’ mix white mice and an inflatable football that swerved the wrong way when kicked. The majority of the effluent that clogs my computer – and makes it impossible to use shuffle without having my techno mixtapes or avant-garde jazz interrupted by Winnie the Pooh’s “Heffalump and Woozles” – was collected by an adult me, and all abetted by a digital world where you can find nonsense quickly and, most dangerously, without being judged.

The first cassette I ever bought was PPK’s “ResuRection”, an all-conquering trance smash that, ironically, had grown popular thanks to the fact it was available to download for free for a year before anyone had the wherewithal to sign it. Well, I say it was the first cassette I bought; at the same time, due mainly to the fact that the scary dude behind the counter was wearing a Radiohead t-shirt, and glared at me as I wandered up to the counter, lurid blue tape in hand, was “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead. I think you can guess which had a more enduring impact on my teenage years.

The record store dickhead, lurking behind counters with his superior sneer, has righty been maligned as a musical Soup Nazi, the kind of guy who recommends Napalm Death when you ask if he’s got “anything else like Papa Roach.” And yes, the 13-year-old who got home, looking forward to some sort of “Last Resort”-style emo singalong, was no doubt disappointed when they thought their hi-fi had become animate and wanted to eat their soul. But you know what? Papa Roach were really, objectively terrible, and Napalm Death are great, even if they do take a little bit of getting used to.

But iTunes? iTunes is an enabler. “If you enjoyed ‘Last Resort’,” it offers, “then why not try the ‘Alive’ by P.O.D.?” Why not, indeed. Gradually, it becomes easier to buy garbage without feeling guilty at all, until one day you discover yourself preordering the Miley Cyrus album, supposedly out of some sense of sociological fascination, but really because ‘Wrecking Ball’ is just so catchy. It’s just one click on iTunes, but in a record store, it would involve saying, to a man in an Underground Resistance T-shirt: “I want to reserve a copy of BANGERZ, please.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with liking dodgy music, or taking pride in it, otherwise karaoke bars would reverberate to the sound of Tom Waits rather than the Weathergirls. But as with governments and the police, there is a problem with doing things you feel ashamed about in secret. Digital music has destroyed our gatekeepers, and in the face of our own weakness, we need a new guardian to vet our choices; iTunes’ version of the Microsoft paperclip, perhaps.

“I looks like you’re contemplating buying the new Little Mix album,” it would sigh. “Can I help you with that?”

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