A few years ago, I wrote about some of my musical guilty pleasures. Included on that list was the band Genesis. I’ve had Phil Collins on the brain for a few weeks now, and I’m not sure why. Then last week I read an article about how he’s planning on playing at the opening ceremonies of the US Open at the end of this month. It’s a big deal because Collins has all but dropped off the face of the Earth these past few years. The reason for this has varied, depending on who you ask: Collins can’t hold drumsticks anymore due to a crippling back/nerve issue, he wants to spend more time with his family, he’s near death after years of substance abuse, and he’s so rich he doesn’t need to perform or record music anymore. But the biggest reason given for his extended absence from the spotlight–he got sick and tired of all the criticism.
This leads me back to my post from 2012 on my Top 5 Guiltiest Musical Pleasures. Genesis made the list, but why? It’s wasn’t because of their bizarre and sometimes beautiful early prog-records with Peter Gabriel. It was because of Phil Collins. I grew up on classic rock radio and Collins’ work with Genesis and his first few solo albums were in heavy rotation back in the 1990’s. Even today, his biggest songs like “In The Air Tonight” are played almost as often as FM staples like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California.” Growing up, Collins and Genesis never struck me as particularly cool nor did they strike me as uncool. This was not the case among my peers. I had a friend in Junior High who used to get teased mercilessly because his mother was a very, very big Phil Collins fan. I liked this guy a lot, but there were so many other things about him people could make fun of, so why was his mom being a Phil Collins fan such an issue?
I have two theories about why people hate Phil Collins so much. The first is that Collins was simply just too damn successful. The ubiquitous nature of his music during the 1980’s and early 1990’s made people sick of him. The same reasoning can be applied to The Eagles, who also have gone from beloved to hated by the culture at large. Getting over-played on the radio isn’t the band’s fault, but the listening public can only take so much before a backlash begins. Modern radio with its limited song rotation certainly did nothing to help either Collins or The Eagles. By playing “Life In The Fast Lane” 50 to 100 times a day, people got sick of The Eagles. Likewise, Collins was overplayed both as a successful solo artist and as a member of Genesis. Collins was a double-threat releasing hit songs by himself and with Genesis, though many people might have trouble telling them apart, especially near the end of both his solo career and his life with the band. Collins became a symbol of the old guard, his success was so great he became locked in an ivory tower. This made him the perfect target for the younger bands emerging in the 1990’s who showed real disdain for him (specifically Oasis, who were merciless in their public criticism of Collins).
The second reason Collins has become so hated has to do with Collins the artist. Phil Collins has two modes: mindless pop and painfully earnest sincerity. People can handle one or the other, but when an artist tries to exist in both worlds people start having problems. A good example of this is “Another Day In Paradise.” The song was written by Collins at the end of the 1980’s and tackles the issue of homelessness. It’s a serious subject, one that is undercut by the fact that it’s being done by a millionaire who made his fortune off of bubblegum pop like “Sussudio.” Collins tried to make both serious art and product, essentially trying to exist in two different boxes. This was something that people simply couldn’t reconcile. Making matters worse, a large swath of the listening public finds earnest sincerity fake when it’s attached to a smarmy-looking millionaire.
But none of this is very fair to Collins, is it? After all, it’s not his fault that he was so successful. And it’s not his fault that he’s able to make simple pop music and music with a bit more weight behind it. I don’t think the man’s career is unblemished (it isn’t) or that he hasn’t recorded more than a few stinkers (he has), but I do think the level of hate for Collins is simply disproportionate to his contribution to popular culture. Even if you don’t particularly like him or his music, you can’t help but admit that “In The Air Tonight” is an interesting, cool, song. In fact, I can’t think of another song that’s like “In The Air Tonight” that became a massive hit.
So I’m removing both Genesis and Phil Collins from my list of Guilty Pleasures and instead owning the fact that I like a large portion of the music he’s created. There’s been a sort of ironic appreciation of his career over the past few years, but I want it to be known that there is not a drop of irony in my love for Phil Collins. Human beings are petty, sometimes jealous creatures, and my guess is we needed a whipping boy. I’m sorry that person had to be Collins, but at least he seems to have been able to take it. Imagine someone like poor Morrissey saddled with a Phil Collins-level of public malice! He’d have thrown himself under a bus or train decades ago. I suspect that there are more than a few people placed in that awkward situation of secretly liking something that’s seemingly universally despised. If you’re such a person, my recommendation to you is to cast off the shackles of conformity and own your opinion. Unless you like Nickelback, in which case you’re not right in the head.