A reader writes, apropos of this posting:
Your iPod list and brief commentary brought to mind an interesting question. I notice you list “S.O.S.” as a “guilty pleasure.” It seems that whenever I encounter this phrase regarding a piece of music, it is always applied to rock and roll (by which I mean rock and roll in its broadest definition–the momentum-based forms of music that have dominated pop culture since 1955). My question is this: as far as you know, is there such a thing as a “guilty pleasure” in any other essentially populist musical genre? I’ve never once heard a jazz, country or blues record described thus. Same for show tunes or traditional Tin Pan Alley pop or any brand of folk or gospel. I’m interested because quite often when I see something described as a guilty pleasure, it’s a record I like a lot (“S.O.S.” included) and if there are some of them lying around in other forms I’d certainly like to get to know them!
This is a wonderful question, one that makes a point that had never previously occurred to me. The phrase “guilty pleasure,” of course, is itself inherently problematic, because it implies that we ought to be hypocrites when it comes to our artistic responses. Kingsley Amis said the last word about this deeply wrongheaded attitude: “All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt.” The inverse is also true. I really do like “S.O.S.,” which I believe to be a beautifully crafted pop single, so why should I feel guilty about it?
Generally speaking, though, I don’t fall victim to either error, partly because I don’t give a damn about received opinion and partly because it’s unusual for me to like fundamentally dishonest art. It occurs to me that this might point in the direction of a working definition of bonafide “guilty pleasures” and our responses to them: guilty pleasures let us off too easy by pandering to our innate longing for unearned simplicity. They are the Krispy Kreme donuts of art.
Most commercial movies, for instance, are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle–but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we’re supposed to think the star ought to do (kiss the girl! give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn’t, we go home feeling cheated, and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.
Smooth jazz, like minimalist music, works in something of the same way, but I don’t know that I’d call either genre a guilty pleasure because I don’t find either one pleasurable, any more than I find reality TV pleasurable. As for the pop and country music of my youth–the kind that used to be played on AM radio–I didn’t like most of it back then and don’t like it now, but I always made an exception for simple, well-crafted songs like “S.O.S.” whose “catchiness” was a function of their musical integrity.
And are there guilty pleasures to be found in other musical genres? I’ll end by handing out hostages to fortune: here are fifteen more stylistically wide-ranging records of variously dubious artistic merits from which I nonetheless derive wholly guilt-free pleasure. Brace yourselves:
• George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
• Henry Mancini, “Baby Elephant Walk”
• Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
• A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
• The Carpenters, “Close to You”
• Paul McCartney and Wings, “Junior’s Farm”
• Buck Owens, “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”
• Alice Cooper, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
• The Three Suns, “Twilight Time”
• Toto, “99”
• Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”
• Carmen Miranda, “South American Way”
• Hall & Oates, “Private Eyes (Are Watching You)”
• Blue Öyster Cult, “I’m on the Lamb (But I Ain’t No Sheep)”
• Bing Crosby, “Sweet Leilani”