Oh, The Guilt: An essay on musical perceptions

Jeff Terich
Guilty Pleasures

In 2007, Engine Room Records released a compilation titled Guilt by Association, designed around the idea of notable indie rock acts covering songs that could arguably be considered “guilty pleasures.” I say `arguably’ because not every song would immediately seem to fit the notion of what a guilty pleasure is, namely a song that you “shouldn’t” like, but do anyway. In fact, there seems to be a sliding scale of embarrassment on the album based on the source material, ranging from completely guilt free (Devendra Banhart covering Oasis), to over-the-top but respectable (Petra Haden taking on Journey), to reasonably embarrassing (GOAT covering Fall Out Boy), to WTF (Porter Block covering a selection from High School Musical). That Disney tween-pop, Eddie Money and Blue Öyster Cult could somehow all be on a similar level of shame doesn’t seem quite valid, but then again, what is acceptable is in the ear of the beholder, which is a bit of a complicated topic.

In a post-rockist, post-poptimist world, it’s interesting that a label would release such an album, as having guilty pleasures seems to be the last thing a music nerd would want to own up to. Personally speaking, I have trouble with the idea of “guilty pleasures.” Once upon a time I may have subscribed to the idea—in particular I recall busting a move at a bowling alley to N*Sync’s “Tearing Up My Heart” when I was 18 (I even got a free game out of it!). At the time, I may have been goofing on the song, acting the fool to impress my friends, perhaps, but a part of me couldn’t help but enjoy every second of it. Yet even as my critical instincts were a bit premature at the time, even if a bit smirkingly, I would make a point of declaring N*Sync the superior to The Backstreet Boys. With history on my side, I think I can make that case even more strongly now—No Strings Attached and Celebrity even showed a progression toward more interesting music. And I could go on for hours about how great Justin Timberlake is. In fact, I’d put pretty good odds on FutureSex/LoveSound ending up on Treble’s best albums of the decade list.

In my case, I can partially attribute my own acceptance of pop music to maturity, and part of it is that some music is just more interesting than others. Even though, on some level, N*Sync and The Backstreet Boys were peers, I would argue that N*Sync had better songs, and for that matter showed a greater evolution. And in the case of Timberlake, teaming up with Timbaland and the Neptunes didn’t hurt, but he also took more chances than any of his boy band contemporaries. Nowadays Timberlake is mentioned in the same sentence as Prince, whereas someone like Nick Lachey garners neither the critical praise nor the record sales. And yet, even though Justin Timberlake has earned the respect of critics and the snobbiest of indie rock geeks, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t initially met with some resistance, even from a handful of writers at Treble.

Timberlake is but one example of many artists, however, that this conflict could be applied to. By now, most should have come around to understanding and appreciating his talent, but then again, were I discussing Nelly Furtado, Gwen Stefani or Beyonce, you could just as easily discover a divide between those who are infatuated with the artists and those who refuse to accept their viability. In the case of the former, it’s even gotten to the point where people feel the need to qualify their admiration of an artist by saying “I like No Doubt in an un-ironic way” or “I genuinely enjoy 50 Cent.” Now, I still haven’t figured how you can like something “ironically,” unless perhaps you went on a tirade about how much you hate Britney Spears, only to find that you became enamored with a song you didn’t know was performed by Britney Spears. But we’ll save that for High Fidelity: The Sitcom. Essentially, music fans have become obligated to point out that music they like isn’t with some level of guilt attached, which is somewhat baffling.

Somewhere along the line, someone developed a set of rules about how music should be heard and what music aficionados should and shouldn’t like. It sounds silly when I say it this way, but I can’t help but admit that at one point, I probably would felt drawn toward strictly underground music and repelled by top 40. Before the advent of Napster and widespread file sharing, this was especially true. Genres were more segregated, indie rock was its own separate subculture, in a way reactionary toward corporate music. Even Kurt Cobain perpetuated the meme that “corporate rock sucks” (you probably remember the t-shirts), in spite of selling millions of records and becoming a household name. Now, that’s ironic.

Rockism

These “rules” to which I refer are now commonly known as “rockism,” a term coined by Pete Wylie of Wah! Of course, the term is somewhat derogatory. It connotes an “old-guard” way of thinking. The rockist subscribes to a certain set of ideals about how music should be valued. While the definition of a rockist is somewhat nebulous, and has been argued ad nauseam by critics with bigger paychecks and more impressive collegiate pedigrees than my own, there’s a general idea that the rockist, himself, places authenticity on the highest pedestal. An artist who writes his own songs is more respectable than the pop singer who doesn’t, for instance. This particular idea creates a problem, however, and a pretty amusing one at that. One could easily argue the “authenticity” of artists like Nickelback, Kid Rock, John Mayer, Jason Mraz or, hell, even Toby Keith. They all write their own songs, after all. And furthermore, one could argue they’re all “serious” musicians.

Music criticism is, one should note, a subjective medium, and is a bit like politics in that it is not a concept that relies on absolutes. And yet, there is no fucking way that John Mayer is somehow inherently “better” than an artist like Kylie Minogue. I’d almost be willing to call the opposite an absolute truth, were I that arrogant. Because of these rigid ideals, Nick Currie, better known as Momus, compared “rockism” to Stuckism, an art movement which holds that artists who neither paint nor sculpt can truly be accepted as true artists. Likewise, a rockist will have reservations about Pro-Tools and hitmaker producers, image-conscious artists and lyrics devoid of “serious” content.

As one might imagine, nobody really wants to be called a “rockist.” After all, that kind of critic doesn’t sound like he’d be that fun to hang out with. Still, some would argue one can like pop music while still discussing it under rockist terms. For instance, Hall & Oates wrote their own songs and therefore have more artistic merit than Madonna. Or, likewise, The Roots play live instruments and are superior to hip-hop artists that rely more heavily upon samples. Contrarily, someone who loves rock music isn’t necessarily “rockist.” Plenty of people love both Led Zeppelin and Madonna.

Of course, in the decades since the term was coined, a firm definition still hasn’t come to fruition, and thus the image of the “rockist” has come to be through numerous critics injecting their own meaning. That said, one could likely point out what he or she considers “rockist” ideology when he or she sees it, even if, at its most extreme, it’s just a bogeyman that exists to keep critics from ever allowing themselves to become too rigid.

Poptimism

After “rockism” came to be recognized as a critical ideology, however, it has been met with its own backlash, primarily in the past decade. This counter-ideology has come to be labeled as “popism,” or for those who prefer puns, “poptimism.” It’s the utilitarianism to rockism’s moral absolutism, a populist critical ideal that places all forms of pop music on a level playing field. Mariah Carey should be viewed as no less valid than Bob Dylan. Reggaeton is just as important as shoegaze. You get the idea.

Having a more populist view of pop music makes perfect sense, considering even the most earnest rock music is still, believe it or not, pop music. Even if it is a knee-jerk ideology, it’s a perfectly sympathetic one; one shouldn’t feel maligned because his tastes don’t fit into some kind of “elite” ideal. This could be why Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet seems to have wormed its way into some form of canon. The irony in that is pretty transparent, however: a magazine like Rolling Stone or Blender celebrating an artist derided by rockism still plays into its ideals. Jon Bon Jovi does, after all, write and perform earnest, blue-collar rock music.

Another argument for popism comes from the idea that rockism lent itself toward racism, homophobia and sexism, thereby making the need for an opposing point of view even more necessary. Ironically, putting everything on the same pedestal then becomes contradictory in this respect. While a rockist may dislike “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by Yin Yang Twins for its musical content, a poptimist may celebrate it, though doing so may give validation to its sexist lyrical content. How does one reconcile loving it as a pop song and not condemning it lyrically? Maybe you don’t, but if sexism is part of the problem, then how does one justify condoning it if you like the song?

Cultural sensitivity is perhaps a side effect, however, and for some, this may not be the point of adopting a positive outlook on all forms of pop music. On a purely musical level, though, popism presents the potential for the inverse of a guilty pleasure, namely finding shame in not liking something. And as much as I’d like to say I’m immune from this, I’m not. Just last year, I made an effort to convince myself that I liked Lil Wayne, but after a few run-throughs of “A Milli,” I could only conclude that he was really fucking annoying (though unsurprisingly I like any track in which he collaborates with Jay-Z). I even spoke with a friend about it, feeling as if I had somehow failed to accept Weezy as the hip-hop savior that everyone else has. My friend, a Weezy fan, reassured me, “if you don’t like his music, that’s his problem, not yours.”

Still, I like the idea of popism as a jumping off point. A love of pop music is what inspires so many of us started in writing reviews or blogging about music. That’s why Treble exists. And yet, as I see it, even the most diplomatic poptimists out there may inevitably fall short.

Metal health

While the past decade has shown a strong evolution in criticism away from niche publications and toward a buffet-style, smorgasbord approach, the inevitable problem with trying to give equal weight to everything is that something will still be left out. A critics’ favorite time of year is easily December, when year-end lists are compiled and published. It inspires debate, it lengthens shopping lists, and it neatly summarizes 12 months of music consumption into an obsessive-compulsive compartment. And reading dozens of them reveals the broad differences between different music publications. Nonetheless, there was a fairly common thread among all of the ones I read, namely a near complete absence of metal. Paste gave kudos to Torche’s Meanderthal, and a handful of magazines gave the nod to Metallica’s Death Magnetic, but beyond that, “heavy” just wasn’t in the class of 2008’s vocabulary.

I make this argument knowing fully well that Treble’s list didn’t contain any metal either, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. There seems to be a certain aversion to the genre, which could be the result of numerous factors. For some, it may just be a matter of preference. For others, it could be a resistance based on commonly-held stereotypical views—metal is a “difficult” genre. Yet even when The Jonas Brothers have become validated by rock magazines (though I’d still warn any of these critics against being the only 40-year-old single male at one of their shows—it’s a hard one to explain), it’s still fairly uncommon to see a band like Isis or Converge being universally adored by critics outside of a somewhat small circle of metal devotees. It’s a shame, but as someone who once upon a time didn’t pay much attention to metal, it’s not truly surprising.

Even in 2006, when Mastodon was beginning to earn credibility in more critical circles, it managed to evade the Village Voice‘s revered Pazz & Jop poll. For the record, I wasn’t invited to vote, and still haven’t been. Curiously enough, Torche did land in 2008’s top 40, so maybe all hope is not lost.

Hope is important

In 2009, even when everything else has pretty much gone to shit, and industry crumbles, I still have hope for music as an art. And after endless debates on nerd-addled message boards over whether or not one is actually `rockist,’ or whether R. Kelly’s last album was as good as Band of Horses’, critics and music fans in general may have actually arrived at a place where the only thing necessary to recognize good music is an open mind.

Sasha Frere-Jones may truly like both Ne-Yo and Lykke Li, but his taste does not exist in a vacuum. Nor does mine. Being 12 years old and hearing The Beatles, Nirvana or The Jonas Brothers for the first time is a pure experience unencumbered by expectations (usually, anyway). A critic hearing Vampire Weekend for the first time is not. In some ways, I envy being able to have my mind blown in the same way that it was when I first heard DJ Shadow or Helmet or Elliott Smith. Yet there is something incredibly thrilling in finding something new and invigorating after having listened to literally thousands and thousands of albums.

In 2009, maybe we’ve finally come to accept that how one perceives and processes music is a deeply personal thing, sociological implications be damned. You can give yourself a set of rules on how you should assign value to music, but sometimes the reason why you like or dislike something is far more ephemeral than merely how it was made, or who made it. As difficult as it is to express why, say, Spoon’s Girls Can Tell has made a much bigger impact on me than almost any other album in the past decade, that won’t stop me from trying. As painfully uncool as it may be to like Billy Joel, I still do without reservation. And as much as I felt I was “supposed” to like Lil Wayne, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t. The only absolute truth in music lies between the individual and the music itself.

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