At the end of my last column I said I was going to write about how guilty pleasures don’t (or at least shouldn’t) exist, and I will do just that: The Rocktimist’s word is his bond. But frankly, it’s sort of hard to make this argument, because the concept of the guilty pleasure is pretty ridiculous on the face of it. We’re not 16th Century Spanish monks, and we shouldn’t have to say 600 Hail Marys and spend a week on a bread and water diet just for thinking My Chemical Romance wrote some kickass songs:
So obviously we should de-couple guilt from pleasure and proudly defend what we like in the public sphere (and if you don’t like “Dead,” I’ll fight you whenever). Now, I’m walking a fine line here, because I firmly believe there is good music and bad music, and I don’t want to say that everything’s equal in terms of quality. I’m just saying that if you like something you should stand up for it, because there is, and always has been a great deal of value in the uncool.
History vindicates trash all the time: when popular music first emerged, the intellectual elite rejected them as meaningless, value-less, even dangerous to culture itself. Theodore Adorno called jazz (and popular culture in general) “the liquidation of art,” and the folk-loving hipster-beatnik crowd of the 50s and 60s thought rock & roll was crass, commercial, saccharine nonsense. Luckily for us, folks like Louis Armstrong and The Beatles ignored those assholes, worked entirely within their trashy media, and produced some of the defining art of their century (and paved the way for much more avant-garde shit, like Mingus, or, well, the later Beatles). The song remained the same for decades, and today yesterday’s uncool, the uncouth, the trashy, and, it is important to note, the popular, seems as worthy, if not worthier, than whatever was hip. After all, who was more influential: the Mahavishnu Orchestra or the Shangri-Las?
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Hell, even disco, that whipping boy of the old critical establishment is fairly interesting stuff, and even if you don’t like disco on its own terms, you have to give it credit for generating a lot of ideas, namely the reliance on sampling and programmed beats that spawned hip-hop and electronic music. The particular bile that fueled the most extreme moments of the anti-disco backlash of the late 70s, like Chicago’s famed Disco Demolition Nights, looks in retrospect like they were fueled by a nasty undercurrent of machismo, heterosexism, and in any likelihood, racism (so score one for the Poptimist school of analysis). And frankly, I think a lot of time when we say something is a “guilty pleasure,” what we really mean is that “something I like, but that is made by and for people different from me.” Maybe that’s not always true, but it’s certainly how I felt in middle school when I studiously concealed my appreciation for chart-pop.
The guilty pleasure as we currently know it is in many respects a product of the original punk scene. If you read a good book on the era (Please Kill Me, Rip It Up And Start Again, Passion Is A Fashion, and Our Band Could Be Your Life would all be good choices), you’ll notice quite quickly that the original punks were almost comically totalitarian when it came to taste – John Lydon lost a lot of friends over admitting he liked King Crimson, Joe Strummer had to suppress the fact that he had been in various boogie bands, and Minor Threat broke up over some members’ growing affinity for U2. Folks learned to hide any appreciation for music outside a very narrow canon. And while punk re-adopted various things it had rejected (disco, folk-rock, etc…) in its transformation into post-punk and indie-rock, a lot of us have maintained the attitude that there must be certain types of music (usually the most popular or most artificial) that it is morally unacceptable to enjoy.
Which brings us to today. For the last couple of decades the critical ban on liking mainstream pop has slowly eroded. The separation between the vanguard and the mainstream can no longer be taken for granted. For instance, round about 2006, every critic in America started noticing how innovative and distinctive platinum-selling producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes were, and they started to be seen as auteurs.
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Meanwhile, the wall between the cool kids and the guilty pleasures is coming down. In the mid-90s Jarvis Cocker got a lot of props for mooning Michael Jackson during an elaborately choreographed performance at the Brit awards, but by the middle of this decade, nobody batted an eyelash when John Darnielle was publicly proclaiming his love for R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix.” While Darnielle surely does have some affection for Kels’ immortal classic, he was being a bit ironic, and in any case The Mountain Goats didn’t start sounding like R. Kelly. But this year I think we’ve reached a major turning point: critically-adored, self-consciously forward thinking indie bands like The Dirty Projectors and The xx are openly borrowing tricks from melismatic pop princesses like Mariah Carey and Aaliyah.
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For a while, most of the interesting developments in rock have come from weird marginal scenes like noise, IDM, or Canada. I have a crazy thought: maybe in the coming decade, innovation will emerge from the mainstream.