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What music do celebrities listen to in the gym? Tony Barrell sniffs out the sweatiest sounds


Famous people are not like us. Goodness knows how many sit-ups, bench presses and squat thrusts the poor darlings endure to look perfect for us. So it’s a comfort to discover that they, too, can find exercise tedious without some music to spur them on. Attending a post-premiere party in Notting Hill in 2010, Brad Pitt revealed that he has worked out while listening to ‘Bonkers’ the 2009 song by Dizzee Rascal. It’s now all but impossible to erase the image of this Hollywood hunk grunting along to lines like “I act real shallow but I’m in too deep, And all I care about is sex and violence” as he tortures himself for his movies. Hip hop is the workout music of choice for other public figures, too. Earlier in 2010, Jay-Z claimed that President Obama had told him personally that he was keeping fit in the gym to the rapper’s 2009 album, The Blueprint 3.

At the other end of the political spectrum, we find a different class of exercise music altogether. The right-wing US politician Sarah Palin has admitted that she regularly runs with a rather noxious mix of music in her ears: she begins with some old Van Halen and AC/DC, follows that with country music, and winds down with a couple of songs by the Christian balladeer Amy Grant. “Sweat is my sanity,” says Palin, in case we were wondering about that.

Celebrities are continually pumped for advice on what music we should be running, cycling and trampolining to

Fitness music has come a long way since the early 1980s, when Jane Fonda pulled on a pair of legwarmers, Olivia Newton-John got Physical, and the Sony Walkman transformed the jogging experience. These days, there are hundreds of workout compilation CDs on offer, with strangely obese titles such as Body Moves: Non-Stop Disco Workout, and Fitness at Home: Pop Aerobics Nonstop Workout, and thousands of websites providing MP3 playlists for all kinds of exercise regimens.

With far too much music for the confused exerciser to choose from, celebrities are continually pumped for advice on what we should be running, cycling, rowing and trampolining to. Rihanna once revealed that she preferred to work out to ‘Party Like a Rockstar’ by Shop Boyz, or ‘Glamorous’ by Fergie. Bizarrely, the singer LeAnn Rimes’s workout playlists have included the rather subtle theme song from the TV series Grey’s Anatomy (by the UK electronica duo Psapp), as if she needed to remind herself not to overdo it in case she ends up in hospital.

Kasabian were shocked to hear that Arnold Schwarzenegger had been pumping iron to their debut album

Amy Williams, the skeleton champion who won a gold medal for Britain in the 2010 Winter Olympics, told me she has alleviated the drudgery of training with a blend of classical, jazz, dance, and even spoken word. “I’m trying to learn French – very unsuccessfully – so I have that on my iPod too,” she revealed. “And chilled-out dance music, like on the Sunset Ibiza albums, is good to listen to just before races because it’s so calming.”

It’s nice to see some older athletes moving with the times. Back in 1983, Arnold Schwarzenegger released his Total Body Workout album, which featured Arnie in a pink singlet and shorts on the cover, and encouraged people to get fit to ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls. More than 20 years later, the British indie band Kasabian had the shock of their lives when they heard that Schwarzenegger, then the governor of California, had been pumping iron to their debut album.

The American gym chain Equinox Fitness, known for its starry customers, has enlisted a string of famous singers to make special downloadable music selections for exercisers, known as EQ Sessions. Cyndi Lauper has provided a “holiday special” selection that invites you to sweat to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. Madonna’s EQ Madmix, released in 2009, was much cooler, with tunes from David Guetta and Hong Kong Blondes. But Madge’s taste in workout music seems to change as rapidly as her hairstyle and her love life: her Madmix had nothing from Britney Spears, whose Blackout album she told people she was using for “Pilates and dance aerobics” in 2008.

At least there’s one person who still works out to Britney: the singer herself. On March 22, 2010, Peaches Geldof was in a gym in Los Angeles when Spears entered the building. We know this because Peaches started gossiping about her on Twitter. Suddenly, Peaches announced that the singer’s 2003 hit ‘Toxic’ had started playing on the gym stereo. “So now Britney is working out to her own music,” she bitched.

‘Toxic’ clocks up about 143 beats per minute (bpm), which makes it good for a tough workout, according to the experts. Total Fitness Music, which releases compilation albums for exercisers, recommends tempos of 132-165bpm for fitter people who enjoy boxing, sprinting or high-impact aerobics. It suggests that beginners try 125-135bpm, which is ideal for walking, jogging, cycling, cardio machines or low-impact aerobics.

Wanting some music to play while he practised t’ai chi, Lou Reed recorded some relaxing tracks of his own

Of course, if you’re seriously out of condition, or you’re doing something slower and calmer like Hatha yoga, you may want to kill the beats altogether. Back in the Noughties, wanting some suitable music to play while he meditated and practised t’ai chi, the late Lou Reed recorded some relaxing tracks of his own. In 2007 he decided the music was too good for just his own personal use, so he released it as an album, Hudson River Wind Meditations, which includes the whooshing of real air off New York’s famous waterway. Reed said this music was “really nice in the city, because it seems to absorb the outside sounds and blend them into something”. Given a choice between this and that Metal Machine Music album he did a few decades ago, I know what I’d rather have playing by my treadmill. 

© 2014 Tony Barrell

July 23, 2014

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About the Author

Tony Barrell is a pop historian, journalist, editor and Londoner who has spent much of his life interviewing musicians. He has written many major articles for The Sunday Times and other publications. His 2017 work The Beatles on the Roof is the first book to be published about the Fab Four’s famous 1969 rooftop concert.

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