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On guilty pleasures

In Atlanta they have started to play wall-to-wall Christmas music on some of the radio stations, which in general catches me too early since thirty days of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” can yank the Christmas spirit out of just about anyone.  But some of the songs I’ve heard clearly fall into the category of guilty pleasures, by which I mean those I’m usually ashamed to share with others.

Here is a wholly random example that I’m trying to sort out right now:  I am totally wrapped up in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of a Christmas hymn called “What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger.”  I heard it somewhere last week and then had to research to figure out the song title, and then download it from iTunes, and now can’t get it out of my head.  I’m moved by it, in part I know simply because of the early spirit of the season, and also because the lyrics, basic though they are, are gentle and rather wistful.  I guess I shouldn’t be the least bit embarrassed by this – millions of people around the world are taken with MTC music, not the least among them the seven million Mormons in the United States – but I am, if just a little.

I think it is true of everyone, especially those in the iTunes and MP3 and YouTube universe, but my popular musical habits are lately driven by one kitchy song after the next.  Last year my Christmas music pathology was the Michael Crawford version of “O Holy Night,” which many people found creepy because the idea of the Phantom of the Opera singing about Jesus struck them as just, well, plain wrong, but I found it rather spectacular. The year before it was the Century Men singing “Oh Beautiful Child of Bethlehem,” which dares to pair the all-male choral number with a hammered dulcimer backdrop that makes it sound, gasp!, downright Appalachian.

More broadly, in the last six months alone I’ve worked through (and am now mainly over – see, there’s the denial part) fast obsessions with Shirley Bassey (love the Living Tree and that bad Moonraker theme), the baton-twirling kid who almost won the British version of American Idol (the YouTube video of him on stage with his little grandmother watching from the side stage, which was admittedly edited to achieve a reaction, choked me up every time), Ben Folds singing The Luckiest, Marvin Gaye’s doing the Star Spangled Banner at some basketball game twenty years ago, or the exuberant debut video of Riverdance at the Eurovision contest years ago (especially the very end where the performers can’t seem to believe the reaction they have elicited).  But I can’t blame it all on new media or the YouTube video archive:  my guilty music pleasures – which include Lynn Anderson singing Rocky Top, the Bellamy Brothers’ Let Your Love Flow, Sniff’n the Tears’ Driver’s Seat, Dolly Parton’s Hard Candy Christmas, the O’Jays doing Love Train, that sappy Andy Williams’ song Dear Heart, Nina Simone covering the George Harrison song Here Comes the Sun, Dionne Warwick (before she went all occult) doing almost anything – have been going on for years.

And how am I supposed to defend any of this?  Please help me.

Some I know mask their true guilty pleasures – the number of people who answer questions about their “favorite music” by waxing on about Mozart and Mahler surely exceeds the number who actually have their car radios set to the classical music station – or wear their shameful preferences right there on their sleeve.  But when millions of Americans trumpet their love for achy-breaky country music and it has become the most popular radio format in America, then can one really be guilty about it?  Dollywood and NASCAR and Graceland and Desperate Housewives are at some level pure kitch, but when millions watch or attend and whole cottage industries exist to serve the needs of their fans, these institutions drop off the true guilty pleasure list.

Some portion of anyone’s guilty pleasures derive from events that transport them back to childhood, and we’ve all seen people defending the indefensible (like Baby Got Back! or Tony Basil’s Oh Mickey) with a shrug and a Sorry, high school favorite!  A recent entry in this genre was written into a newspaper column by Melissa Ruggieri:  “Not that I’ve ever hidden my devotion to Duran Duran and Bon Jovi.  Look, I grew up with them.  They were my teen crushes” (can you hear the defensiveness?).  I suspect this throwback logic explains my truly excessive love of Cat Stephens’ Morning Has Broken (it meant a lot to me in college), Neil Sedaka’s Laughter in the Rain (every time I hear it I remember what high school felt like, even though none of my high school peers would have been caught dead listening to it), and Supertramp’s School and Goodbye Stranger (when I hear those I instantly remember my senior year).  Even more than those:  Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat and Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young’s Teach Your Children Well (I think I was the only American who liked Walter Mondale more after he soundtracked a campaign-closing TV ad to that song), and, get ready to cringe, that Harper’s Bizarre 59th Street Bridge Song (you know, “feelin’ groovy”).

And maybe most of all: Andy Williams’ Moon River, which I can’t hear without being instantly transported into the wistfulness of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  I imagine millions of others must feel the same way:  why else would it have been featured as a key soundtrack moment in Sex and the City (in the episode where Big leaves NYC for wine country it plays in his empty apartment) or in that aching scene from the HBO version of Angels in America where a relationship traumatically ended too soon is remembered as an imagined dance to that song?  So perhaps I get a pass on that one.

But I can’t blame it all on my childhood and neither can you.  Some guilty pleasures just have to be left alone for what they are:  pure moments of pathos that caught you short at the right (or wrong) time.  And this is why they are so hard to admit, since it is embarrassing to confess that one actually fell for the shameless manipulation of emotion in that movie or TV show or Obama (or, maybe for you, Palin) speech.  Or to admit that you secretly enjoyed that gruesome moment when Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal dines on Ray Liota’s brain.  As Bill Everhart has put it, “a guilty pleasure can be a movie that is so bad it’s good, so unapologetically maudlin, violent, shameless, or ridiculous that you can’t help but love it.”  For me those would include All That Jazz!, Moulin Rouge, The Natural, Fields of Dreams, and yes, Dr. Zhivago and Music Man and the Sound of Music (confession:  I want to go to one of those sing-along Sound of Music screenings).

Some of the explanation for guilty pleasures is contextual:  in some neighborhoods a trip to Disney World is the dream vacation of a lifetime, where in others it signifies a secret shame.  One gets some sense of this from the responses volunteered by academics answering a “guilty pleasures” inquiry from the Chronicle of Higher Education:  professors named People magazine, karaoke, Texas hold ‘em, Jimmy Buffett, cheesy historical fiction, comic books, and Barry Manilow.  Imagine the shock in the faculty lounge!  But in Dallas or Philly or Oakland or Chicago and outside ivy-covered walls, I’m not sure any of these would raise any concerns.  Well, except maybe Barry Manilow.

Others are things from which we derive pleasure even though we know they are bad for us, like Krispy Kreme donuts or clove cigarettes or shopping on QVC.  An entire scholarly cottage industry has arisen to explain why so many women end up compulsively hooked on media images that create impossible weight and beauty standards, and on romance novels that even today celebrate the idea of being swept away by a Prince Charming bad boy figure (an example of this research is a recent essay by Maxine Leeds Craig).  I know I’m not supposed to like the endless-one-take “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), but I’m transfixed when I see it.  Maybe the parallel event for you is Titanic.  Henry Jenkins (who has just announced his intention to leave MIT for the University of Southern California, a fact I know because of the guilty pleasure I derive from academic gossip) has written a book, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture (NYU Press, 2007), that spends considerable effort to account for this impact and in ways often surprisingly sympathetic (especially given the way in which popular culture is so often disparaged even within cultural studies, who dismiss it as reproducing capitalism and racism and sexism).

A good test of one’s genuine and unfabricated guilty pleasures is to uncover the answer to these questions:  What things in the world, because they move you (perhaps even to tears), do you insist on repeatedly experiencing alone?  Or, since tears are not the only measure of strong reaction:  what things rev up or inspire you (and thus bring you back to the experience time after time) that you would never confess to anyone else?  

Go ahead, name them out loud:  Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell.  Anything by ELO, but especially Mr. Blue Sky.  The Carol Burnett Show, particularly at the end every week when she tugged her ear and you knew she was saying hi to her grandmother.  Meet Joe Black.  Shirley Temple movies.  Michael Jackson music made before he went crazy.  The old Andy Griffith Show, especially any episode with Barney or Goober.  Rip Taylor.  V for Vendetta.  College marching bands.  Showboat, especially Ole Man River or the moment when at New Year’s Eve the singing prodigal daughter brings tears to her father’s eyes with her increasingly confident rendition of After the Ball.  The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon.  Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.  ABBA.  Any novel by Nora Roberts or Barbara Cartland.  Those old James Bond movies; yes, even the most absurd ones starring Roger Moore and featuring Jaws.  Xanadu (the movie, not the Broadway musical).  The Carpenters. Brian’s Song.

There now:  don’t you feel better?

And if your memory needs to be jogged, you can consult The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (by Sam Stall, Lou Harry, and Julia Spalding, published by Quirk).  The book “celebrates the joys of cheesy pleasures such as Wayne Newton, Baywatch, motion-sensitive mounted fish that break into song, and those pestilential ‘collectible’ plates and figurines from the Franklin Mint” (Loeffler).  “Going into this,” says Harry, “I had no idea there was a real Chef Boyardee.”

Meanwhile, I’ll be sticking with my official public replies:  the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (which is, I must say, genuinely sublime), Hitchcock’s Vertigo, anything by Sondheim, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Frontline and Charlie Rose and the Lehrer Newshour, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto (the opening minutes provide the best bang for the buck in the repertoire)…  And don’t let me forget CSPAN and Shakespeare and any film by Godard or Bergman or Renoir or any theatrical production of Beckett…

SOURCES:  Bill Everhart, “Guilty Pleasures,” Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 7 March 2008, Sunday magazine; Melissa Ruggieri, “Guilty Pleasures Still Sound Sweet,” Richmond Times Dispatch, 16 May 2008, pg. E-9; William Loeffler, “Guilty Pleasures:  Our Secret Shame,” Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 20 March 2005; “Guilty Pleasures Revisited,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 June 2008, Chronicle Review, pg. 4; Maxine Leeds Craig, “Race, Beauty, and the Tangled Know of a Guilty Pleasure,” Feminist Theory 7.2 (2006): 159-177.


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