ONLY NOISE: Wallflower

Self-deprecation is easy. When at a loss for things to write about, I can merely plumb the depths of my humiliating infatuations – never having to dive all that deep (more of a snorkel than a scuba, really). There are so many incriminating things floating atop that black and expansive pool; black, due to its enormity, but also because of its propensity for blackmail.

Yes, I have written about musical guilty pleasures before, but on a more theoretical level. There are always more blood-and-guts specifics to dig into. This mining urge surfaces today, as a bittersweet email drifts into my inbox like a wedding invitation from an ex:

“The Wallflowers – Just Announced”

My organs churn with schoolgirl anticipation. At long last, my decade-old fantasy of singing along to the entirety of “Laughing Out Loud” and the fairly sexist “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” will become a reality. It will be a belated teen pilgrimage. I shall go alone, wearing white and bearing floral garlands. To prepare for such a momentous occasion, it seems high time I revisit my rapturous and embarrassing affair with The Wallflowers, don’t you think? Me too. (For those of you allergic to the mention of Jakob Dylan’s glittering eyes, stop reading now.)

My initiation to the band’s discography, if I am being honest, was not entirely in order. Like many, I was introduced to The Wallflowers with their 1996 breakout hit, “One Headlight,” the video for which was a big part of my sexual awakening.

Whether it plagued or graced your TV set, was it possible to deny the beauty of that music video? From a cinematic perspective, it was pretty gorgeous with its deep blacks and sharp highlights…almost as gorgeous as Jakob Dylan’s cerulean eyes, you might say. Dylan’s charisma was undeniable from the start; he was in a meager league of men who could pull off wearing a beaver fedora and sporting a goatee. A man who knew all too well the power of his looks, he spent most of the video sulking around like he didn’t want to be there…and it worked.

My exploration of The Wallflowers in 1996 started and stopped with that song, but it made a lasting impression nonetheless. Somehow the lyrics, “But me and Cinderella/We put it all together” suggested ripe sexual innuendo, causing my older sister to air hump while singing along with them. I naturally followed suit. It was one of the forbidden things we did while our parents were in the other room, like curse and make our Barbies have sex.

Jakob Dylan and his Wallflowers didn’t reenter my life until I was sixteen, and had long since forgotten them. One day, while cleaning out the CD drawer at my mom’s house in 2005, a copy of Bringing Down The Horse appeared in a pile of jewel cases. That black square stared up at me, spangled with goldenrod stars. It was so instantly familiar – I couldn’t remember exactly what it was, but it emitted a fondness…a weighty and warm nostalgia. The thought that I would enjoy this record at that point in my life was pretty improbable – I’d barely welcomed pop music into my ears after five years of a strict punk diet.

And yet, the opening notes of “One Headlight” gave me chills while that Hammond B3 organ flooded my room, enrobing me in ‘90s alt-rock warmth – a description I’m not proud of. Each track seemed better than the last. “Bleeders” bowled me over particularly with its comparable minimalism. Within days I knew the entire record by heart. Within weeks, I had purchased their entire discography, which at that point was five albums deep.

1992’s self-titled, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse, 2000’s Breach, 2002’s Red Letter Days, and 2005’s Rebel, Sweetheart. I poured through them all, perched on my bed across from my Sony boom box, reading the lyrics along to each track. This was my trusty method for memorizing songs in one sitting. I listened to them each day on the bus, loading up my Discman with a different record Monday through Friday, cycling through their five-CD catalog (in chronological order) during the five day school week.

Of course I had my favorites. The self-titled debut was a little too rough-around-the-edges for me – and not in a punk way. The lyrics were weaker, the song structure less complex, and Dylan’s voice far squeakier. I still love it, but am well aware of its cringe-worthy moments, like “Somebody Else’s Money,” which depicts two lovers stealing their way through life. A loaded topic for the son of Bob Dylan. For me, the artistic pinnacle of The Wallflowers can be found in their third LP, Breach, which was a commercial flop in comparison to Bringing Down The Horse, but was loved by critics (go figure).

The record’s lead single, “Sleepwalker” is a biting critique of Dylan’s own spot in the limelight, depicting him as self-aware of his “pretty boy” status. Where “One Headlight” played into his brooding, glittery-eyed good looks, “Sleepwalker” pokes fun at that posturing.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a Wallflowers binge session, and I can’t think of a better time to revisit them than now, in preparation for their concert. I’ll start from the beginning. At this café. I will discreetly embarrass myself, praying that no one can hear the sounds of Jakob Dylan’s smoky vocals drifting from my headphones.

Here we go. The commencing snare rhythm from “Shy Of The Moon” off of their first record rattles my memory and I’m squeamishly delighted to hear it. I am smiling and wincing at once, so terrified that the whole coffee shop knows what I am doing. Before the first song is even over, I pull my ear buds out, making double sure that the sweetly bended notes of Dylan’s Telecaster are flooding my ears alone, and not the entire café. I twist the headphone jack, ensuring that it’s securely fitted in my laptop, but still I feel exposed. I am beaming by the time I reach “6th Avenue Heartache” on Brining Down The Horse – beaming far too much for a Tuesday. To my horror, the guy at the next table turns around abruptly and looks at me – he KNOWS!

Admittedly, I am exhilarated by this conflict of emotion; this bliss and shame I feel simultaneously. It is in this moment of lovely ambivalence that I decide it is time to buy my $75 concert ticket – no price is too high for such a sacred affair. And then, realizing their show at Ridgefield Playhouse falls on June 29, I am devastated.

While Jakob Dylan and co. will regale their audience with alt-rock hits, I will be far, far away, sulking on an air mattress in London. My high school dreams dashed forever.

ONLY NOISE: Backstreet’s Back

An email has landed in my inbox. It is an arrow, shot from my childhood – and aimed at my heart. Piercing deeply, it stings me with eight simple words:

Backstreet Boys Las Vegas Residency Starts Next Wednesday

I am reeling, as if a long gone relative has risen from the dead. Backstreet’s back?! ALRIGHT!

To be painfully honest, I was already planning on writing about Backstreet Boys eventually. The email plugging their Vegas comeback was a serendipitous bonus. But was it really a bonus? Or a sign?

A friend recently asked me what the first record I ever bought myself was. I hesitated to answer. While I’d like to join the tradition of music journalists at least claiming to be born with good taste, my first record was not by The Smiths, or Stereolab, or even the fucking Beatles. Sure, I had an older sister down the hall – but she wasn’t exactly listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain, and even if she were, she wouldn’t have let me in on the secret.

I was a victim of Top 40 radio like all pre-internet, rural eight year olds. Despite a few quirks like an aversion to Beanie Babies, Pokémon, and sports, I pretty much liked what everyone else liked. Yes. I too loved Boy Bands. The first record I ever bought myself was not by The Dead Boys, or The Beach Boys, or The Pet Shop Boys. It was Backstreet Boys, by The Backstreet Boys.

I was an avid supporter of BSB. So much so that when fellow Floridians NSYNC cropped up on the scene slightly after, I leapt to the Boys’ defense. It seemed that they had invented the boy band, and I’d be goddamned if some nobody named “Justin Timberlake” was going to steal thunder from my beloved Nick Carter. My loyalty to BSB over NSYNC was an amalgam of childish polarity, Scorpion dedication, and a fear that giving in to NSYNC would count as some sort of infidelity to the former.

This feud didn’t just live in my head. The BSB vs. NSYNC debate was a very real thing, and a quick Google search will liquefy any doubts you have of its existence. I managed to get into several heated disputes regarding the matter in second grade. It wasn’t that I didn’t like NSYNC’s music – I now acknowledge its superiority – but I felt BSB had been flat ripped off. The five-man structure? The cute blonde, the “freaky” one, the sensitive one, the semi-normal-looking brunette, and the one no one will ever be attracted to? NSYNC had photocopied the pages of BSB’s playbook, and like all eight year olds, I hated copycats. But it was ok. I knew in my heart that BSB would rise to legend status. NSYNC would end up in the novelty hall of fame. That guy Justin Timberlake wasn’t going anywhere, so I wasn’t too worried.

When I wasn’t busy asserting BSB’s superiority over all boy bands (don’t even get me started on 98 Degrees!), I was listening to their music – namely, that first record. While my taste was nothing to brag about, my habits as a music listener were well-formed by then, and Backstreet Boys was on heavy rotation on the boombox. Favorite songs included “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “As Long As You Love Me,” and “If You Want to Be a Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy),” which in its defense sounds like an off-brand Prince song. Not the worst thing. Oh but there was so much more! “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) with that unbearable “spooky” music video, or “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” which an eight year old could really relate to. When Brian sings, “Ooh when I asked you out/You said no but I found out,” it was just like the time at school when I labored over a hemp necklace for Jake Allen, but then he gave it to that bitch Katie Summers. At least BSB understood my pain.

The truthful hero of my boy band days was my dad, however, who sat through every spin of my Backstreet Boys’ CDs and not only tolerated the music – he pretended he liked it. My mom and I lived in a much larger house than the tiny log cabin my dad and I inhabited. At my mom’s I could tuck away into my room to rehearse choreographed dance moves to “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” out of sight and earshot. She was also smart enough to not have a CD player in her car. But dad had to hear it all. I have one distilled memory of us sitting in his car one winter morning before school, waiting for the windshield to defrost, and playing “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” off of 1999’s Millenium. He claimed to particularly like that song.

Although I remember purchasing Backstreet Boys more vividly than Millenium, I recall their equal significance. This presents me with an odd internal struggle I am embarrassed to admit. In weighing the importance of these records, I’ve uncovered a shameful desire to appease the “cult of cool.” Translation: for a split second, I somehow created a hierarchy of Backstreet Boys albums. As if their first LP – their early stuff – has more clout in the same way say, the first Wire record does. Jesus.

I’m learning more and more that in order to write about this kind of music, or simply to fess up about it, you have to suspend disbelief like you would at a play. As much as I am tempted to prescribe critical analysis, or nostalgic rose tinting to the music of Backstreet Boys, the best thing I can do is flatly say that I enjoyed it, and that I still enjoy it. This isn’t just nostalgia at work. Nostalgia didn’t preserve a fondness for Nickelback or P.O.D., both of whose CDs I owned. There is simply no logical explanation for why some music tugs at well-hidden heartstrings. It’s the magical pop alchemy we spend our careers trying to understand. I mean –Backstreet Boys actually have a lyric in their arsenal claiming, “You hit me faster than a shark attack.” I can’t rationalize that! It just is. It just, is very bad. And I love it.

And yet, my snobbery is almost as deeply ingrained as my unabashed enjoyment of BSB. I long to tell you that during my Backstreet Boys phase, I was at least more into AJ. I’d love to tell you that I didn’t just want Nick like everybody else. I want to say that I was the quirky, original girl who dug Howie. But I wasn’t. I wanted to be Baby Spice, not Ginger. I wanted things that were blonde and pink. I wanted Nick Carter. Twas his face, torn from the pages of Tiger Beat, lining my bedroom walls in carefully arranged clusters of blonde mushroom cut. I was just like everybody else.

ONLY NOISE: The Good, The Bad, and The Guilty


Freud called it ambivalence. I call it Cher. And not just “old stuff”, niche, “Half Breed” Cher. I’m talkin’ “Believe” Cher too. The good with the bad, which could be a crude definition of ambivalence itself. This week, I’m thinking a lot about ambivalence, and my favorite iteration of it: the Guilty Pleasure.

I recently came across a piece of clickbait that The Daily Mail ran last summer called “The Science of Guilty Pleasures: Study uncovers how feeling bad can boost your happiness.” Evidently, Professor Ravi Dahr of Yale University got the notion to conduct such a study as he sat next to a colleague one day, watching him munch on a chocolate bar as if it was some sort of dilemma. Dahr was taken aback by his coworker’s simultaneous display of enjoyment and self-loathing while eating the chocolate. Thus spawned the idea to research the merit of the Guilty Pleasure.

The article goes on to site stimuli such as “alcohol and shopping sprees” as arbiters of this shame/pleasure model, the driving point stating that “guilt and pleasure are often tightly coupled in people’s minds, so activating one of these concepts can draw out the other.” Hence: forbidden fruit, the five-finger-discount, ice cream, and Phil Collins. Dahr’s intended application of the study was market research (which is all a bit too Edward Bernays for me), but what happens when we apply this idea to the ultimate Guilty Pleasure: the Musical Guilty Pleasure (MGP)?

Is shame the true catalyst for the immense joy I feel while listening to “You Can Call Me Al” and picturing the entire city dancing in unison? Do I feel just the right amount of “naughty” when I, in all sincerity, have to fight back tears upon hearing “In The Air Tonight”? No. This isn’t a fucking Dove chocolate commercial. I may not be a professor at Yale, but I can’t help but wonder if the MGP functions on a different level than a sumptuous dinner for one at Dallas BBQ. Because unlike the handbag that cost more than your rent, or the 3am Seamless order, the MGP has no real repercussions. You aren’t poorer for listening to, say, every record the Wallflowers ever recorded, on repeat, for a year. Cranking Bette Midler’s The Divine Miss M to 11 when no one’s home doesn’t raise your cholesterol. So why feel guilty in the first place?

One consistent feeling I recognize when accessing my secret song library is discomfort. There is always that lingering question: is this good? Or bad? Or very bad? My favorite example of a band that elicits such confusion is Paul Weller’s schmaltz project The Style Council. Their music is…I don’t know. It could be compositionally brilliant, and merely stamped with that 1980s seal of production quality that seems to doom and date so much of the era’s oeuvre. Or, it could be horrendous. I will never know, because loving The Style Council is like having a stupefying crush: you’re so smitten you fail to notice how ugly his shoes are. Or his crippling video game habit.

For instance, The Style Council have a song called “You’re the Best Thing” off of their 1984 debut LP Café Bleu. It is kind of my MGP poster song, if you will. No song has ever toyed with my emotions so deeply, and I don’t expect another ever will. It makes me rage with cognitive dissonance. It is so gauchely over the top, so sappy, so wrong; and I love every minute of it. This is a track that legitimately makes me squirm with unease. While preparing for this week’s rant, I was going through all of the music that I classify as MGPs. Upon listening to “You’re the Best Thing” I jotted a sprawling note on my legal pad, which read: “isn’t good art supposed to make you feel uncomfortable?” I don’t know what Ravi Dahr would have to say about that.

I suppose that aside from causing discomfort, the MGP stokes the fear of being found out.  That somehow your love of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (just that ONE song, ok?) will potentially negate your enormous Tom Waits collection. Like U2 has the power to cause chemical equilibrium and suddenly disable all of your good taste. There is a wonderful scene in the recent movie Green Room in which an interviewer is asking members of a punk band what their desert island band would be.  They respond with understated cool: “Poison Idea,” “Sabbath” and the like.  Towards the end of the film, as the main characters are getting killed off one by one in the most gruesome ways, the band’s guitarist poses the same question as a sort of rallying distraction, but the answers have shifted rather drastically.  “Prince.”  “Madonna…and Slayer.”  “Simon and Garfunkel.”

The funny thing about these two scenes is that while the characters weren’t discussing MGPs, the same principle of embarrassment applies: that fear of being revealed as a charlatan, of being, god forbid, not punk enough, or at all. Last year I was conducting an interview at the Four Knots festival here in New York, and brushed up against a similar phenomenon. The band was fairly new to the scene, so I asked them that old question I find so endlessly amusing: what were their MGPs? “The Strokes.” “Grizzly Bear.” “Guns n’ Roses.” It was the Green Room effect before I even knew what that was. I wanted real humiliation. I wanted Enya, or Yanni, or Godsmack. I pressed them to think harder, and finally got something deeper. “Alkaline Trio.” There it is.

I don’t believe people when they say: “none of my pleasures are guilty.”  Or maybe I am simply jealous of their carefree life, in which they can host a dinner party and put their itunes library on shuffle, walking away free from the clutching fear that one of several Rancid songs could come on at ANY MOMENT. That must be a nice feeling. But until I can liberate myself from discomfort and shame, I will brandish my guilt in the most Catholic of ways, reserving it a seat next to me at the bar, doing its laundry; hell, my guilt and I could even open a joint checking account. Guilt is a lubricant for dry food; she is the one thing separating bad taste from eccentric taste.