With the world falling apart, we answer burning questions.
Is Phil Collins Awesome?
Well, is he? Our writers weigh in.
My ex-girlfriend liked him…
Phil Collins the solo face that takes up the entire album cover is not awesome. (I tried to like Genesis, but never did.) His pumpkin-like mien and that “jaunty” handwritten title of each one with his name tried too hard to be hip and casual. My ex oddly played not only the local L.A. band X incessantly on cassettes in her beater Ford hatchback way back, but also those same Collins on his own sob-fests with the massive processed percussion. Very early ’80s. Luckily I never caught or forgot any videos he did back in the heyday of MTV. Although if he played on those early Eno LPs, I cut him some slack. – John L. Murphy
Ring up Phil when your heart is breaking
If there’s a moment that answers the question regarding Phil Collins’ coolness, it can be found in Episode 339 of This American Life where writer Starlee Kine sets out to explore whether sad songs can make us feel better and, in the procees of managing her own heartache, attempts to write a break-up song. Over the course of the episode, Kine and her now-ex partner’s ironic interaction with Collins’ music becomes heartfelt and, when it’s time for her to write a break-up song of her own, she turns back to Collins and, surprisingly, rings him up to enlist his help. Phil is funny, sensitive, helpful and supportive, guiding Kine through the songwriting process and sharing his own experiences of heartache. Under no illusions of how people view his work, Phil manages to be both self-aware and serious about his craft and emerges, most certainly, as cool. – Scott Wilson
Collins the MVP?
The question reminds me of what it’s like when a real stathead asks you who your favorite baseball player was before revealing a trove of advanced statistics he’s going to use to prove you wrong. But, like Don Mattingly, the unheralded star of the New York Yankees during their dark years in the 80’s, Phil Collins is unquestionably awesome. Look, we a lot of music gets drilled into our heads without permission, and it’s mostly garbage earbugs that make you realize how little control you have of your subconscious mind where every bad lyric is stored. Some of these songs feel like acid reflux when you realize you’ve been singing up to the second chorus, but have you ever felt angry when you catch yourself singing a Phil Collins song? Even the stuff from Tarzan? Me, either. In fact, “I Can’t Dance” came on while I was at Target hoarding toilet paper the other day and I sang it to my son all during self-checkout. So, bask in his solo awesomeness and Genesis profundity and smile at the next person who sees you doing the drum solo to “In the Air Tonight” in your car. You’ll have made the world a little bit better. – Don Kelly
Avant-garde pop wiz
Yes — and not just because he was on Another Green World. Phil Collins, art rock drummer, is a respected professional; but Phil Collins, ’80s pop juggernaut, has delivered the soundtrack to our cheesy lives for decades, from the signature drum break of “In the Air Tonight” and even to the insistently obnoxious pseudo-Motown of “Sussudio,” one of the most ridiculous and profound #1 records in chart history. That song’s dated keyboards and hypnotic flights of filtered fancy a visceral thrill carried by a bassline that involuntarily seeps into your intestines and makes you like it. Just don’t make me every hear his cover of “Can’t Hurry Love” again–Collins is best when he honors ’60s R&B from an ironic distance; when he tries to tell the kids, “Hey, kids, this is where I came from,” it’s as convincing as a Joe Biden anecdote. – Pat Padua
Drowning in treacle
Look, I get the desire to rehabilitate 80’s pop music. It’s gotten an unfair reputation for being slick, cold and commercial that is both unearned and immaterial to the quality of the songwriting of the period. But good God, I cannot get behind the attempts to make Phil Collins cool (or at least worth one’s time) again. I have tried, sure; I’ve listened to Face Value and No Jacket Required in full. I’ve given Collins-era Genesis a shot (turns out I’m just not really into Genesis at all). But his solo work especially leaves me feeling about as numb and empty as the treacly ballads he rode to pop stardom on. Sure, he tried to be interesting at times: “Sussudio” is a disaster, but it’s at least a mildly interesting disaster. And “In The Air Tonight” was a halfway decent song before it got run into the ground. But the bulk of his contribution to pop music gives off the impression that he’s the ’80s equivalent of Michael Buble, a syrupy crooner with so much reverence of pop’s history and conventions that it does him a disservice. – Kevin Korber
Phil Collins, the social media influencer
Years ago I wrote a joke on Twitter—remember when that place was funny?—that went something like this: “Thought I saw a bowl of cold oatmeal on the back of a toilet in a burning Walgreens, but it was just Phil Collins at the peak of his career.” That earned a single like, but I wasn’t tweeting for glory. Phil Collins seemed like such a ripe target for ridicule, precisely because no one is sure whether he’s awesome or not. My brother latched onto the format of that joke and started doing his own riffs, usually ending with a time-saving acronym: “Thought I saw ____, but it was just PCATPOHC.” His social media feed is a string of these jokes, and his friends post photos and song links to rile him up because he genuinely seems to hate Phil Collins.
But, like Oppenheimer, I fear I’ve unleashed a weapon that mustn’t be used. Because the fact is, I love Phil Collins. Sure, his radio hits and Disney soundtrack stuff got increasingly treacly over the years, but that’s just the effect of mainstream success sanding the edges off. Listening to his early solo work, the edges are very much there, most epically in The Drum Solo. That four-second fill at the climax of “In the Air Tonight” is one of the highest peaks of rock’n’roll power in history. How many musicians have achieved that, regardless of how treacly their subsequent work or how much they look like a plumber?
I won’t stop making the jokes—it’s an evergreen format, after all—but I also won’t be shy about speaking the truth in my heart: Phil Collins is awesome. – A.C. Koch
Phil Collins, aphrodisiac
I’m no Phil Collins scholar, but I can tell you for sure that it’s awesome when “In the Air Tonight” comes on in the final minutes of Risky Business. Joel (Tom Cruise) and Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) leave a bustling prostitution ring fête to “make love on a train.” It’s Chicago, so there’s no shortage of trains—it’s just that, this time of night, they aren’t yet empty. Gradually, the passengers depart, and that’s when Phil drops in, sounding ominous and heart-wrecked.
Moody as a muscle-bound teen but cloaked in the mystery of forbidden adulthood, the song is perfect for Joel, who finds himself growing up more quickly than expected and in need of the right soundtrack to guide him down the path of prosperity. Bob Seger, whose “Old Time Rock and Roll” soundtracks the film’s famous underwear dance scene, won’t cut it anymore. The situation calls instead for Collins, who provides enough dramatic flair to spawn waterlogged urban legends and, in the video, an endless corridor of portals. It’s just right for the film’s vision of fulfillment, the promise of something big directly within reach.
Admittedly, the sample size is small (it’s “the first time, the last time we ever met”), but it’s enough to make me think Phil Collins must be pretty rad. – Jeff Heinzl
Phil Collins > Peter Gabriel?
My wife cannot tell the difference between Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. I almost exclusively listen to Gabriel but whenever it’s on, my wife asks, “Is that Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel?” I hope it’s just to piss me off, but it works.
At a party recently, someone came up with the challenge to name the 10 best songs overall if you combined Collins’ and Gabriel’s discographies (I dare you to do it in the comment field below). Nine of those songs will be coming from Peter Gabriel’s catalog. But that remaining one, that best song of the bunch, is “In the Air Tonight.” – David Harris