I would like to agree with the people who say there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. You should like what you like and not feel you have to apologize for it, since personal taste is such a subjective thing. But because you want to be respected by your peers, you can’t help feeling a certain degree of pressure to like the things they like. Plus, you’ve got to deal with the fact that certain artists, certain albums, and certain songs have been declared by high-profile critics as superior and thereby enshrined in the Canon of Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you want to be taken seriously as a student of the music, you had better sign off on that critical opinion, too.
Here’s my problem with the canon: Oftentimes I can’t figure out what that critical opinion is based on. Critics will slag the hell out of somebody I find harmless and sometimes even likable (the Alan Parsons Project springs to mind), or they’ll praise somebody who leaves me generally cold (Pink Floyd, for example), but when I put the records on, I can’t tell why I should like one and not the other.
Years ago, when I was an iconoclastic, know-it-all writer for my campus newspaper, I wrote that Ozzy Osbourne and the Osmonds can both make good music, but it won’t be the same kind of music and it can’t be judged by the same standards. Looking back on it now, that seems to open the door for a slippery, participation-trophy sort of music criticism where everyone can be a winner. Surely there must be some reason why Ozzy’s reviews tended to be better than the Osmonds over the course of their long careers, but I don’t know what it is. So I insulate myself against this critical ignorance (if that’s what it truly is) by clinging to the concept of the guilty pleasure.
I had been noodling with this idea for a while before I picked up Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond. It’s about his (and our) transformation into what he calls Drooling Fanatics, “geeks who walk around with songs constantly ringing in their ears, own more than 3000 albums, and fall in love with at least one record a week.” Drooling Fanaticism happens when a record or an artist hits you in a place you may not be able to describe, but you know when you feel it struck. Music of any sort is bound to strike somebody that way, Parsons or Pink Floyd, Ozzy or the Osmonds. (Or the Styx album Paradise Theater, which is the subject of this excerpt from the book.) Fanaticism happens beyond the boundaries of the canon, beyond rock-crit expectations, and beyond the need for explanation to anybody. So we’ve got that going for us.
(There was something plausibly related to this line yesterday at Popdose: “Rock Classics That You Don’t Have to Love.”)
Recommended Reading: You may have seen over the weekend that a tape of the TV broadcast of the first Super Bowl (1967), long considered lost, has been found. The Classic TV History Blog suspects there’s more to the “discovery” than the Wall Street Journal reported, and also maybe less. Also worth a look: whiteray and Kinky Paprika set the wayback machine for February 1971. And there’s this piece from HuffPo on what was really wrong with Christina Aguilera’s performance at the Super Bowl.