ELO are the band we love, but hate to admit it, according to a list this week, while Top of the Pops became a victim of its unhip-ness. But when it comes to what's in and what's out, haven't we gone beyond cool, asks Alan Connor.
The acme of cool: discuss
Pity the poor trendsetter.
Finding music used to need a bit of savvy and a lot of elbow grease: due attention to the appropriate radio shows and magazines, and a trip to a bigger town to find a shop with more than a few tapes.
Now you can't move without being told about how many bazillions of members have signed up to community music sites; online bookshops will have more albums than any megastore can hold and sites like Last.FM even provide computers to eavesdrop on your listening habits and tell you what to try next.
Which, you might have thought, doesn't leave a lot of room for the munificent tastemakers, mavens and with-it-ologists to helpfully guide us in making sure that our listening is stylistically correct.
Well, you might have thought that, but you'd be wrong. Newspapers and TV bulletins this week are falling over themselves to tell us about the list of "guilty pleasures" compiled by Q magazine: songs which we were previously told it was uncool to like, but which are now apparently acceptable.
They were cool (or were they?); now they're not... or are they
On the one hand, this is the archetypal silly season story: a concoction of list format, press release, water-cooler talking point and a large dose of fluff.
But there may not even really be a talking point.
The idea of "guilty pleasures" can be traced back to BBC local radio DJ Sean Rowley, who started a search for songs that people liked "in spite of themselves".
It catches the ears for a moment, and then you start to wonder: who on earth listens to music "in spite of themselves"?
TOP FIVE GUILTY PLEASURES
1. ELO - Livin' Thing
2. Boston - More Than A Feeling
3. S Club 7 - Don't Stop Movin'
4. 10cc - I'm Not In Love
5. Gary Glitter - Rock'n'Roll Part 2
Source: Q Magazine
Look through the CDs of normal people. and you're unlikely to find Yes, All Saints and Hall & Oates hidden away in a corner of shame: these are multi-platinum artists, after all.
And when the Today programme ran an article on "cheesy music" this week, you could hear four million listeners saying "...but I didn't even know that ELO were forbidden. Do you mean I've been listening to them without the proper permissions?"
The new establishment
Moreover, who's doing the deciding? In the case of "Guilty Pleasures", the edicts are coming from the punk generation. For the benefit of younger readers, in the 1970s, various fans and critics declared a "Year Zero", pronouncing that music had gone stale.
If you believe the tales of these elders, punk was necessary because every previous song of the 1970s had been a 14-minute epic about hobbits, performed in a tricky 11:8 time signature.
Now those young punks have become the establishment, the previous diktats have been revised and suddenly "it's OK to love" Dire Straits.
Cyndi Lauper - hip or not hip? Depends on your dress sense...
One set of rules has been replaced by another, and this is supposed to be a celebration of individual taste.
The feature in Q isn't a poll; it's a list compiled by a magazine which has never exactly been cutting edge, and it contains some frankly bewildering entries.
The Bangles? (If we're counting, the band was rated by Prince, a paragon of cool in anyone's book.) And Cyndi Lauper? (The same goes here, double, with regard to Miles Davis.)
Some acts appear to have made the "guilty" list solely because they had haircuts that were fashionable during their heyday. Other tracks are guilty of little more than being fun.
Cold hard sales
It seems likely, though, that Meat Loaf, Cliff Richard and ELO are too busy counting their Himalayan heaps of cash to keep up with whether a few London scenesters have decided that they're "cool" again.
The last few years of Top Of The Pops saw the programme lambasted by more spokespeople for cool, decrying the show for being in grave danger of not being trendy enough: of not being "relevant".
The core of TOTP, though, was the songs which had built up the most cold hard sales since the previous edition. If British people bought cool records, they were in.
You'd have to be frighteningly easily entertained to have liked every song on TOTP, but it did offer a central unarguable starting point.
With even that gone, and with cultural commentators descending into incoherence, how is the music fan to pick a direction through the acres of back catalogue and hordes of new bands?
Well, you could always try trusting your own ears. If a song is playing and its "cool rating" even crosses your mind, you should probably be listening a little less to pundits and a little more to actual music.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I have never held firm with what the industry say are THE albums to own or what the pundits declare to be 'the coolest'. Most of them I have never heard of. Musical taste is subjective. If we all liked the same thing the world would be a very boring place to be. If you look back to these 'guilty pleasures' it is typically music which has been going for many years eg ELO, Abba, Meatloaf and, although perhaps not as cool as Artic Monkeys or Razorlight, I am sure it will be around for much longer than the modern bands which only seem concerned with egos, image and promotion rather than the actual music.
Nicky, Bristol, UK
Are you inferring that people are ashamed of their Hall & Oates records?!?! Outrageous!!
Ian Jarrold, London
Any genuine music fan listens to music because they enjoy it, not because they've been told that it is cool by Q magazine. This idea that there's such a thing as 'cool' music is as ridiculous as every other fashion-based industry. It is no wonder that so much drivel is produced - the focus is on marketing rather than quality. What a bunch of no-life clowns the people who drive the popular music industry are.
Fjool, Lerwick, Shetland
*yawn* pop cultural relativism is so 90's.
Chewtoy, Amsterdam, NL
Sorry to go against the tide here, but there seems to be an opinion that old songs are being criticised for being old or unfashionable. There will be subjectivity in music tastes but it's not simply an arbitrary definition of cool that has led to this list. There are fairly objective reasons why Elvis was better than Cliff Richard, why Bob Dylan is more highly regarded than Billy Joel, why Bruce Springsteen is cooler than Bon Jovi, and why early Stevie Wonder sounded better than the later version. It's not even certain styles or genres that are uncool. It should be understandable why Johnny Cash was a legend and Kenny Rogers is not. Or how a ballad by Dusty Springfield is great, but a Westlife ballad isn't.
Most of the "uncool" songs aren't just randomly uncool. They are often formulaic, cliché-ridden and lyrically and musically conservative. The uncool songs often use the most basic means to convey emotion (the Westlife key-change) instead of employing some real artistic creativity to make something new and interesting (the Beatles key-change).
Others on the list are actually guilty of self-indulgence and overdoing it. This invention for the sake of it, is just as unoriginal and uninspiring as the textbook pop stars.
I don't agree with all the choices on list itself, but I also disagree that there are no good and bad songs. Good Vibrations is a good song. Mr Blobby is a bad song. We can disagree about the precise order of everything in between but it's not all objective.
Considering what the media thought of the Stones at the start of their career maybe I should flog my tickets. then again maybe I will just ignore pompous media pundits and enjoy the music I like. Considering the cash the likes of ELO made in their day maybe its just hard cheese?
Wanda, Welwyn Garden City - UK
Unfortunately all music has been reduced to a disposable commodity since the advent of the (horrid & compressed) MP3 format. Nothing in music is cool anymore; nothing in music is around long enough to develop a following or to establish itself as a genre and the internet has made any sense of "belonging" to any kind of scene some what redundant. I miss the punks, the new romantics, the ravers. Etc. There (my) like will not be seen again I fear.
James, Brighton UK
It just makes me laugh to see middle aged people trying to cling on to their youth by downloading 'cool music' on their iPods; dads and politicians everywhere actually comparing their playlists to see how they measure up, whilst I, as a genuine teenager, am so eminently secure in my youth that I have an iPod full of music such as 1960s reggae, songs from the shows and most of all classical, and I don't care if 40-somethings mock me for it!
Kate, Newcastle upon Tyne
I decide what i'm going to listen to, watch on tv and what clothes to wear and I don't need some overpaid "know all" telling me so!
I dont care whether others think its cheesy or not... Roll over Beethoven - ELO til I die !
Tigger, Milton Keynes
The days of being defined but what you listened to are on the way out, with music easily and cheaply available, coupled with the ability to listen to it on a variety of mass storage devices, anyone can listen to what they want when they want. I have various genres from the 50's (before I was born) through to the current day on an mp3 player. I don't care if anyone else approves of my choice in music, nor do I concern myself with other's tastes. Forbidden pleasures!! No theres just stuff you like and stuff you don't!
Kevin, Hampshire UK
Bravo! Thank you for this article. I have to say I found the Guilty Pleasures thing slightly amusing, but at the same time slightly annoyed that Q Magazine could tell me how uncool I am. Big deal if you like singing along to 'Livin' Thing' in your car on the way home - chances are it'll raise a smile after a hard day. Also I'm sure some of those Q journalists have been guilty of shouting and dancing along drunkenly to 'I Will Survive'! It's always been OK to do so - and I won't be told otherwise!
what a pointless, ridiculous article. Also, the guy in the picture is not very cool at all. one of those people who wears terrible clothes and thinks he's cool. Pity anyone else who thinks he is!
Who cares if music is cool or not - if you like it then you like it. I've always been a bit of a figure of fun with friends for my "juvenile" tastes in music - including McFly, Steps, S- Club and Kylie (I'm 28!) but so what they make great music that is fun to listen to and surely that is the point of all music - that it is for entertainment. People bothered about being cool are missing the point!
I think your ears must decide. I recently stumbled across an LP (Note to younger readers - an LP is a plastic disc that carries music and existed before the CD) of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. My wife and I cried with laughter at their version of "My Favourite Things" from the Sound of Music and had a thoroughly good time. Cool? No, not even in an ironic sense. Fun? Yes, lots and lots of fun! Now, what about guilty pleasure in films? I suggest Woody Allen "Radio Days" for undiluted pleasure or any "Carry On" as a UK cultural icon.
Lewis Graham, Hitchin, UK
Unfortunately, the record companies have a stranglehold on the music industry. Franz Ferdinand become popular? Record companies start promoting only the bands so similar to them they could be tribute acts. I'm pretty certain Coldplay wouldn't be as big as they are today if it weren't for Travis' success. This makes it virtually impossible to find anything different from what's shoved down our throats, and for unique bands to be heard if they're not 'cool'. It's the record labels that are killing music, no wonder people are looking to older music for something new. Oh, and thank god for the internet.
Alex Knibb, Toronto, Canada
This is what happens when people find the idea of something more important than the content i.e. 'what does liking a song say about me', rather than 'do I like this song.' It actually reflects a lack of confidence - a desire to be accepted by the herd rather than do what we want to do. Even those who declare themselves conciously hip, do so to be seen by the herd. If you like 'more than a feeling' then listen to it, and do it because it is a song you like. There are more important things to worry about.
Presumably the people who wrote this list were the same ones who chuckled into their ironic knitwear at the book of crap towns that was published a while back? Honestly, if you can't decide what you like for yourself without being told you're allowed to like something, you're hardly likely to be cool to anyone other than the other pretenders out there. Open your mind and your ears and listen to wealth of wonder that's out there. Simple.
Personally, I never saw what was wrong with 14-minute epics about hobbits, performed in a tricky 11:8 time signature.
Keith, Whitstable, UK
"Cool" is just an excuse for snobbery and derision of someone else's harmless choices in music and entertainment.
Gareth, Spalding, UK
Truely cool people listen to music they like, regardless of whether or not other people 'approve' it or not. If you like Britney or prefer Lilly Allen, go on and play her, loud and proud! (But maybe not so loud on the bus). Music should be based on your own tastes, not someone's else opinion, which will have been paid for by the record companies, don't forget. BTW, did anyone actually do a 14-minute epic about hobbits, performed in a tricky 11:8 time signature? Because I'd like to hear that.
Surely it's far cooler to make up your own mind about what's cool for you, rather than blindly follow trends? Apparently I have been the epitome of cool for years as I love ELO, Dire Straits, A-ha and songs like Escape (The Pina Colada Song) When these go back 'out of fashion' I will still listen to what pleases me!
Two words: John Peel. By listening to what he liked, loving music for its qualities rather than its associations, and not caring what anyone thought, he inadvertently became possibly one of the coolest men on the planet. People who try too hard just look like twerps: what's cool about that?
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