Though I firmly believe "Cheeseburger in Paradise" to be the single biggest piece-of-crap pop song of all time — worse, even, than Bob Seger's execrable "Katmandu" — this won't be a rant about Jimmy Buffett's musical abilities. Or lack thereof. Because that would miss the point.
The point is, it's meaningless to debate Buffett's merits as a musician. We might as well discuss L. Ron Hubbard's legacy as a science fiction writer, or pile on John Wayne Gacy for his shitty animal balloons. No matter how valid our arguments, they would miss the larger truth, the real story.
The real story is that Buffett has sunk his silly little three-chord hooks into America's collective conscience and won't let go. The 62-year-old tropical-rock pioneer is no longer a mere musician; he's a lifestyle guru, a canny opportunist who's branded and co-opted the "island escape" fantasy so many times over and in so many different mediums that he's effectively inserted himself into the fantasy itself. And that's fucking criminal, amigo.
Think about it: When was the last time you took a trip to Mexico and didn't hear "Margaritaville" blare at some beachside bar? Or a friend didn't download Havana Daydreamin' on iPod and unwittingly use it to befoul your docking station? Because, hey, we're on vacation, and what could be more apropos than Buffett?
I was forced to confront this unfortunate line of thinking several years ago, during a sailing trip in the Caribbean. It was a great time, but the captain insisted on playing Buffett during dinner, and it was galling — much like being forced to dine at Olive Garden while vacationing in Rome. Why listen to some mediocre folk singer warble on about warm trade winds, stiff drinks, and all-night conga lines when the genuine article is right here?
That's the strange, enduring appeal of Buffett — a guy who more or less mints money from his music, restaurant, and publishing endeavors while simultaneously maintaining his image as a laid-back, reefer-smoking island burnout. Indeed, the one-time Billboard magazine correspondent still mobilizes his core "Parrothead" audience like nobody's business, selling out concerts to the tune of $40 million in annual revenue.
He either has the most forgiving or undiscriminating fans in music. Imagine, as a basis of comparison, that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke decided to open a chain of OK Computer Frozen Yogurt Cafes. And then publish a series of post-modern mystery novels starring a domesticated version of himself. Afterward, would anyone give two shits about Thom Yorke? Clearly not.
And yet Buffett can open Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants in Mexico itself and remain a viable pop culture force. That's how spectacularly this man sells out, and still people buy the illusion. Maybe it makes perfect sense: Many of Buffett's biggest hits are less about the delights of paradise than the delight of polluting it — say, with cheeseburgers or a raging, brokenhearted bender.
As such, I have a new, post-modern Caribbean fantasy of my own. It involves Buffett flying down to St. Barts in his two-engine Grumman Hu-16 Albatross and finding just a moment of peace, a brief window of respite, from the myriad pressures of his $100 million-a-year empire. Maybe he's sipping a beer on the beach. Maybe he's enjoying a ray of sunshine on his favorite cot. And then this beautiful, unguarded moment is lost when he hears some yahoo in a rental car blast "Cheeseburger in Paradise" on the stereo.
And it's his own damn fault.