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Hipster Rules and Guilty Pleasures

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-12-19


For the better part of the last twenty years, I have been living under a self-imposed "Classic Rock" embargo no matter how many great rock and roll "catalogue" songs I might miss, I decided some time in the early 90's that I wouldn't be caught dead listening to any song that might make the playlist for Rock 104 or 92.3. Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger, the Who, Pink Floyd, it didn't matter, living in Fort Wayne for a couple of decades had killed those bands for me. It's one of the great dangers of listening to radio in this town, some brain-dead DJ will always try to slip "Slow Ride" or "Mississippi Queen" by you when you're not paying attention, no matter how many millions of time those horrible songs have lit up the airwaves. I've always had an ambivalent relationship with nostalgia anyway, and especially in rock and roll, and so it was easier for my psyche to just abandon classic rock in its entirety than sit still for the occasional gem that I'd always liked.

Slowly, though, and inevitably, I started to back down from my righteous stance "Gimme Shelter" and "Fortunate Son" just sounded too good on the jukebox at O'Sullivan's and the Brass Rail, and I found myself re-investing in some songs from my past. I still can't imagine doing anything but changing the station whenever "Stairway to Heaven" or "Dream On" or "Breakdown" comes on, of course (and quick, turn on 92.3 or 104 RIGHT NOW, I bet they're on), but I no longer feel the need to deprive myself of "Rebel Rebel" or "Surrender" or "Won't Get Fooled Again."

But then one night I heard the song "Dirty Little Girl" by Elton John on the radio, and a whole new can of worms opened itself for me. "Dirty Little Girl" is an all-but-forgotten song from Elton's 1973 album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and I've always gotten a kick out of it--it's the third song from the "decadent" side, side 3, the one with the songs about prostitutes and bankrobbers and sexually voracious women, and as a hormonally-driven 12 year old I thought the songs were profoundly racy and dangerous. The song "Dirty Little Girl" itself has a great, grungy guitar lick at the beginning, and a snarling, misogynistic chorus that sounded impossibly grown-up and weary-wise to me.

So a few days later, after I heard the song, I'm at Wooden Nickel, thumbing through some old CDs, and what do you know there's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," used, cheap, available. It'd be great to have a copy of this, I think, I can blast it in my car or at home, sing along. So I put my hand on the CD, fully intending to take it to the counter and purchase it--and suddenly I can't do it. I physically can't do it. Some inner voice is compelling me not to buy it. I stand there for what seems an eternity (in reality, probably 90 seconds), and finally I put the CD back, and I leave without purchasing a thing.

Why couldn't I buy it? I have no rational explanation for my decision-making at the time, except to speak the truth, which is this: I thought it was too uncool. It was as if a 25 year-old hipster had suddenly climbed on my shoulder and ridiculed me for my intended purchase. The hipster on my shoulder told me to forget about the glam-rock Elton of the early 70s, he told me to focus on the later Elton, the fat Elton, the schmaltzy Elton, the Lady Di and Gianni Versace Elton, the Elton who wrote those unforgivable adult contemporary ballads on "The Lion King" soundtrack. Do I want to admit to liking that guy? Do I want to be a charter member in that particular club, the "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" club? Of course I didn't. And so I put the CD down.

Again, there's no sense to this. I mean, who would even know? I don't have parties where I open up my music library, nobody is ever in my car, my music habits are always solitary who would possibly care? The guy behind the counter? Ha. He looked at me for two seconds, tops, then went back to his magazine, and besides, he probably sells so many copies of Katy Perry and Insane Clown Posse that he's gotta be immune to judgments. So why should I care?

It gets even more ridiculous, for I probably own 50 CDs that would gag any self-respecting hipster, from A Flock of Seagulls to Gwen Stefani to the Fat Boys to Hall & Oates. And usually I'm proud of my contrarian tastes, yet for some reason Elton John was the breaking point for me that day, and I had to admit, finally, that I still sought favor from the great unseen and unheard hipsters out there, even if they were in my head. It was like I was back in high school, trying to impress the cool kids with my impeccable taste.

I initially wanted to write this column about guilty pleasures, but I gave up the idea when I discovered how tricky it is for people to be honest about looking stupid. I polled a bunch of friends on Facebook, asking them about their favorite guilty pleasures, thinking it would make a fun column, but their responses were, for the most part, just too damned hip for me. They might have been "guilty pleasures," all right, but they sure seemed like socially-approved guilty pleasures, and I could almost sense the self-editing that people were doing when responding to the question. On a public forum like Facebook, nobody wants to look like a dork, so the "guilty pleasures" question got a lot of whimsical and off-beat responses, but nothing truly "guilty" or honest. Everybody still wanted to look cool to everybody else, like in high school.

Of course I can't blame them my failure at the record store proves that I still want to be seen as cool, or edgy, or at least on top of things. Having said that, I also must say I recognize the pure folly of trying to live up to some collective concept of "coolness." There are always going to be new bands breaking through that I'll never be hip to, and I've conceded the fact that I can't catch up to what the scenesters have already digested. There's some relief in knowing this, for it's exhausting to think how diligent I would have to be to be fully plugged in to the rock zeitgeist in 2011.

The next time you run into a full-blown hipster, check his music library, for I guarantee he will have one particular artist on the list (though, if he's a true hipster, he won't have it on iTunes, he'll have it "on vinyl"). The artist is Johnny Cash, the patron saint of hipsters everywhere. No other singer not Dylan, not Elvis, not Bowie approaches Cash in true hipster power. Whether it's because of "Ring of Fire" or the iconic middle-finger poster or the Western gothic milieu he lived in, Johnny Cash remains no. 1 to the skinny-jean and vintage T-shirt set. I like him too, but it's worth pointing out that the great man also had a streak of cornball sentimentality as big as a barn door, and for every "I Walk the Line" there was also a "Boy Named Sue" and covers of "Desperado" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And there's simply nothing cool in that. Those songs are pleasures so guilty they make Elton John seem like Alex Chilton.

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