I learned the philosophy of “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” from a friend, and it took me a long time to come around to agreeing with him. The idea of hierarchies of taste in pop culture had been so ingrained in me that I was unwilling and unable to give the idea up. What made listening to Coldplay or Ke$ha inherently less interesting than Phoenix or Can? What made Coldplay uncool and Phoenix a much-lauded hipster commodity? What made listening to Ke$ha bad and Robyn good? Is it just the music, or is it something else? At the time, I’d never really listened to Ke$ha, but when her newest record came out, I agreed to finally check it out. She’s no Mick Jagger, but what the girl lacks in vocal talent, she makes up for in lyrical swagger. Who else would could rhyme “saber-toothed tiger” and “warm Budweiser” and get away with it?
For me, it wasn’t just that Ke$ha was better than I expected. It’s that her album got surprisingly good reviews and was cited by many music outlets as one of the best records of the year — from anyone. (That snooty New York Times put Warrior in their ten best list.) This wasn’t a guilty pleasure. This was just pleasure.
I think that the “guilty pleasure” label puts a shame upon liking certain types of things, playing into the rhetoric of highbrow and lowbrow culture. It’s okay to like the films of Woody Allen, but not to embrace the joys of Gossip Girl or Cougar Town — because Allen’s films are literate and high-minded and Cougar Town is about older women getting laid in Florida. But the clear problem here is that Cougar Town is a lot better than most of Allen’s recent films, especially When You Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Scoop and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, movies that the less are said about, the better. Esquire magazine talked about this problem a couple years ago, when they discussed why many recent Elastica albums are better than Bob Dylan albums. It might be true — because Elastica doesn’t try as hard to be great and can just focus on being enjoyable — but you can’t ever say that, even if you think it.
I think that when we start chaining ourselves to this pop vs. art divide, we keep ourselves from liking a bunch of things we might otherwise really enjoy, even more than stuff we are supposed to like because Pitchfork or Robert Christgau do. For instance, I know a lot of people who seem to hate Justin Bieber for strange reasons that have little to do with his music, when some of his music is actually not terrible. ”Baby” placed high on last year’s Pazz and Jop poll, just as Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” topped it this year — because its bright and infectious, if not exactly high art. (Fun fact: Robert Christgau, overlord of music criticism, loves the Black Eyed Peas. Deal with that.)
In the case of each, a part of me wanted to instantly hate them, because (as a recovering snob) I have a natural bias against hired-hand radio jams (aka the Dr. Luke Factory), but to simply dismiss what is popular or wouldn’t be fair to the artist or to music criticism. The more I listened to Jepsen’s now-ubiquitous tune, the more I realized there was nothing guilty about it. While reminding me of the throwaway bubble-gum pop of the late-1990s, often described as guilty pleasure nostalgia jams for folks who grew up during that era, the strings in the background remind me of all the disco music I really love. It most reminds me of the song “Doctor’s Orders,” a classic Carol Douglas tune about the innocent joys of love. When we look for everything to be as deep as Radiohead’s Kid A, we squander what can be fun and joyous about music that isn’t looking to be intellectual. Jepsen just wants to have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
We don’t have to instantly dislike things because they are poppy, on the radio or popular — and if we do dislike them, it should be for reasons that are more interesting than that; good criticism merits it. For instance, I could go on forever about why I hate Katy Perry, but I won’t right now. Later.
Recently, I talked to a guy who said that he didn’t like Fight Club anymore after he heard other so many other people talking about it. It just wasn’t special to him anymore, like finding out everyone else slept with a girl you liked. Similarly, when Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” became a massive success, a lot of people who liked the song “before it was popular” are turning against it. The same goes with M83’s “Midnight City,” which ended up in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Why is that a thing? Why do we only want to like things when other people don’t know about them or they are made by two RISD dropouts and their cats in a cabin in Minnesota? Is it such a crime to be on the radio, to be…gulp…successful?
Listen up, y’all: Nothing we like can ever be special to us. Your music taste isn’t special, and someone out there likes what you like. Anything you like or find interesting will also be enjoyed by an entire community of people on the internet who also obsess about that very thing, especially if that thing is Community. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s better that way. The communal nature of enjoyment can make something more interesting. When we submit our tastes to a public forum, that gives others the ability to add to the experience of enjoying something through re-interpreting it or giving us new information; it’s like having someone be the Director’s Commentary for you. Remember when you learned that “Every Breath You Take” by Police isn’t about love, it’s about being stalked, and you remembered that people play that song at their weddings? It blew your fucking mind. Sharing our tastes is like that. It’s called learning, and we can only do it when we interact with others. They help our tastes to evolve and deepen.
When we keep things to ourselves and pray the radio doesn’t find out about them, we don’t enjoy music; we hoard cultural capital naively, and we don’t allow our tastes to grow. In doing so, we won’t be challenged to think outside our critical boxes or to allow interplay between what is considered “high” and “low.” I remember the first moment I heard Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals, his second album of samples and mash-ups, my brain exploded when he used the hand claps from Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” as part of the beat to a rap song I really enjoy. And throughout, I lauded the way he was able to blend old and new, high and low into something seamless and incendiary. This was what making and enjoying art was, and it did not discriminate between popular and obscure, public and private. All was worthy of enjoyment and regard.
I always hear people say that music now isn’t as good as it used to be or isn’t as good as _______, but I have a really hard time believing that. Although some years (like 1967, 1991, 1993 and 2010) are exceptionally good, whereas others (like 2011) are slow, there’s more music in the public market and more ways to consume than there ever were before, and little excuse to complain. How can you not find a plethora of different things you like? We have Pandora, Spotify, ITunes, mixtapes, SiriusFM, CDs, records and the radio to constantly feed us new genres and bands we’ve never heard of, and the more we close ourselves off to the multitude of cultural universes out there, the more we make our tastes insular and boring. The music landscape is changing and growing every day, and when you look at the Pazz and Jop winners every year, the list doesn’t delineate between our Britneys and Animal Collectives. If we do, we look even shallower than the music we purport not to like — just because other people like it.