Among many self-recriminations, my life-long love of Vangelis is fairly benign. I have even confessed this kink at times by foisting records like Opera Sauvage and Direct on tour partners held captive in long car drives. I have definitely been teased about Vangelis’s simplistic harmonic motion and petroleum-jelly-aesthetic. I’m okay with it. I admit that I appreciate the sonically saturated sticky-vinyl-seat patina of Spiral. I smile when someone correctly places the influence of the Blade Runner-esque feedback squall that closes Becoming Air, a solo trumpet piece I created with, the decidedly cool, Annea Lockwood.
Even for me, though, Chariots of Fire is problematic. Probably Vangelis’s most recognizable theme, it’s three minutes of musical bliss that I feel the need, reflexively, to qualify, and my manner of objecting to it has evolved over the last thirty years. At first I hid my interest, denying that it could possibly be part of my brilliant, well-curated aesthetic. If Vangelis came up in conversation, I would salvage my credibility with a stock phrase: “You know, Blade Runner is cool, but Chariots? Come on.” From there, I grew into a more ironic approach by embracing the Greek madman’s entire output as a kind of joke that becomes cool because you’re in on it. And finally, as I got older—and my tolerance for my own bullshit petered out—I settled for a self-care approach: Vangelis and Chariots of Fire became a guilty pleasure.
I loved Vangelis throughout this entire progression. As I lied about my interest in his music, made fun of it, and then grudgingly admitted enjoying it, the magic of Chariots of Fire remained unblemished: the weightlessness of its reverb/delay combination, balanced by the warm heaviness of the production that makes the piano feel like it’s oozing out of my pores; the melodic proximity to “On Top of Ol’ Smokey” that reminds me of summer camps and church-basement socials. Chariots of Fire is as much a part of the musician I have become as Christian Wolff’s Exercises or Mouth-piece by Kenneth Gaburo—two compositions I would openly praise in any conversation; pieces that are pleasures without the guilt.
I wonder why we do this to ourselves, why we feel shame about something that brings us joy. Of course, shame and guilt have been existential topics for everyone from Aristotle to Ernest Becker, and this short article isn’t pretending to add to that level of discourse; these are large and complicated topics. But why has no one questioned the simple, mundane attempts to hide our delights with the same rigor? I think about how often I have laughed off my predilection for the music of Vangelis, Chuck Mangione, or Cameo: music that makes me smile so big that it brings tears to my eyes? Should I be ashamed for loving this music, or am I embarrassed about actively hiding this part of myself like it’s a vestigial tail?
Like all of those small, sand-in-your-shoe existential moments, the discomfort of owning up to a pleasure that is not deemed “cool” stems from something else, and its presence will bug you until you finally stop and deal with it. Every time we hesitate in embracing one of our tastes or—and we all do this as well—judge someone for theirs, we throw up a tiny wall at the border of possibility. For years I hid my Vangelis fixation, and that meant I wasn’t allowing myself to recognize what attracted me to his music. It was only when I finally decided to feed my obsession that I found aspects of his music that would end up expanding my compositional and improvisational sound-world. It was like opening the door on a new room, full of glorious light and color.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but hyperbole is part of who I am, and I embrace the above paragraph’s performance with the same sense of heroism, I assume, that Chariots of Fire instills in everyone who hears it. However, I’m not advocating an everything-is-perfect-in-this-perfect-world attitude. I listen critically and, when something moves me, I try to understand why. When something doesn’t move me, I try to understand that as well. And then I throw it away. So, if I can gain actionable musical knowledge from Chariots, then where does my shame come from?
There is a difference between critical appreciation that is personal and that which is cultural. And this is where the idea of the guilty pleasure gets a little insidious. If our ideas of what are acceptable joys comes from the need to fit ourselves into a desired cultural system, then we need to understand what that system looks like: Is it critical or emotional? Personal or public? Do its standards come from transcendence of time and milieu or repetition and market forces?
We are taught to understand our tastes in a linear way, a one-way historical understanding of good and bad. For example, Louis Armstrong is recognized as “great” for a long list of historical and musical reasons. Those reasons could be argued, but taking his greatness as a given for the sake of this exercise, it is accepted that Armstrong’s potency as a jazz trumpet player was passed on to Roy Eldridge, who bestowed it upon Dizzy Gillespie, who grudgingly gave it to Clifford Brown and so forth and so on. In other words, when it comes to acceptable taste, the “greatness” of one is preserved and conferred upon the agreed-upon few that follow in the cultural line.
But what if our understanding was more tree-like? To continue the exercise, let’s start again at a root of Armstrong. If we think of his influence as a tree, it does not grow and develop in a straight line, but shoots off a branch that contains, say, Wadada Leo Smith and Jon Hassell; or a branch with Chuck Mangione and Vangelis; one with Mayhem and Prince. To me, as the trumpet player I have become, this evolution makes more sense than the Armstrong-
This is not an original thought—Franco Moretti has been dealing with tree-structuring of literary criticism for decades—but it has rarely been consciously applied to how we view our creative lives. Instead, we fixate on a single endpoint and follow the shortest prescribed path to reach it. Think of the above tree with the Armstrong roots. If this is my personal tree—and I’m being honest about the way it grows—the branches look more like this:
Ron Miles-Marg Tobias-Wendell Berry;
Moby Dick, The Blues Brothers, Ellen Fullman;
Powell’s Books, Paul Lytton, boats;
and so on and so forth.
If we’re talking about influence, then the way we need to understand it has to be broad. That’s not a personal demand, but an existential urgency. If we limit what we allow to influence us, then what we are trying to achieve has an end-point. And it must
arrive at that end-point. And end-points are death; creative, personal, cultural.
So, let’s really get honest. The above is a serviceable example, but no one’s roots come from someone like Louis Armstrong. Not really. What grounds us comes from those less famous and more important: parents, friends, partners. Our trees grow from whomever frees us to think what we think and do what we do. And the true nature of our roots is something we keep to ourselves. We can conceive of what is at the core of our development but naming it is almost impossible. These deeper truths are harder to translate, more personal and painful to produce. But the one thing they don’t create is guilt or shame.
So, now I return to Vangelis after this lengthy digression. I went through my evolving denials because loving his music was outside of the line-of-taste I had taught myself is correct or cool. I thought of my music as having a certain path and, if I were taking the short and direct route, it wouldn’t come anywhere near Chariots of Fire. My peers are on some version of the same journey—or at least I think they are—so admitting that I took a side trip to that glorious synthgasm is to admit to myself, and them, that I have been something less than efficient, that I shunned my Protestant work ethic. Enter shame.
To apply a simple axiom to all of this: no one likes something for no reason, but the concept of the guilty pleasure makes the assumption that our reason is flawed. “It makes me happy” is a reason—and a damn good one. No one around you could ever deny you the small happinesses in the ups-and-downs of existence.
And that, ultimately, is enough. But if you dig a little deeper by asking why this thing makes you happy, you may find something important; some rare thing extracted from the deep. It initially appears to be nothing, but it feels right to you. And it becomes profound as you contemplate it. It begins to shine, reflecting truths about who you are and what you are trying to say as a human being. You can take this rare thing and put it alongside the others you’ve unearthed, change their order and attitude toward the sunlight, view them with one eye closed or put your nose up next to them. You can start to understand how they work together in ways that feel the most like you.
We have learned to view our tastes as a metric of our artistic self-worth. This is a useless waste of energy, if not a damaging one. That being said, it’s been hard for me to admit my love for Chariots of Fire here. I hope it’s worth it, but if one reader can get rid of their pointless guilt for loving something that gives them joy then my admission is a small price to pay. So, I hope you will put this book down for a moment now and get out your Grease soundtrack or that cassette copy of Limp Bizkit. Get down to it. Loud and proud. Figure out why you love it and own that love. Watch it grow and thrive as a new branch in your tree. Maybe you will turn someone else on to it and that will expand the way they think. And if you hear a triumphant piano melody bathed in delay, know that it’s just me applauding.