Guilty Pleasure Ain’t Guilty!

After re-watching High Fidelity recently, I was reminded to actually re-organize all my CDs, which in the course of my moving from Berkeley to DC, were still in boxes, unalphabetized and unorganized in any systematic way.

As anyone with a large music collection knows, one of the greatest, if not THE greatest joys of re-organizing your collection is the sensation of discovery, that feeling when you get when you chance upon an album that somehow got buried among the rest, an album that maybe you’ve heard extensively before and put away for a while, and perchance you find it in the stack, and you remember what it was like the first time you’ve heard it, and you put it on the turntable or in the CD player, and voila: that feeling is back.

I had that feeling when I found, of all albums, Enema of the State by Blink-182 buried in one of the boxes. I totally forgot I bought that CD in the summer of 1999 when it first came out. That album was huge back in 1999, and both the alternative-rock (KROQ et al) and top-40 (KIIS-FM) stations in LA were heavily rotating the lead-off single “What’s My Age Again,” and the accompanying music video was all over MTV as well.

The timing of the album was fortuitous in a way, because in the summer of ’99, I was 12 going on 13, and thus on the cusp of consciousness about popular culture. Therefore, my accidental exposure to Blink-182, at least in retrospect, probably had an indelible influence on my musical identity. Although I no longer listen to the kind of pop-rock that Blink-182 is perhaps an exemplar of (damn, that was a shittily-constructed clause, but oh well), they were probably one of the necessary reasons for my becoming interested in rock music to begin with. After all, we have to start somewhere.

An aside: damn, I can’t believe how old I sound when I read the previous paragraph! I mean, shit, Blink-182 is no longer making music, and if in the future, were I to have children of my own, I would tell them about how Blink-182 was one of the reasons that I got into listening to music, they would probably look me perplexedly and ask who the fuck Blink-182 was. And then I’d probably reply, grumpily: “kids these days! Now back in my days…”

But I hear you say: what about the goddamn music? I’m coming to that. So after being surprised, I put it in my CD player, put on my headphones, and listened to the whole album all the way through to see how I felt about it, some 9 years after my first meaningful exposure to the music. And you know what: it’s not bad. Is it original? No. Is it ground-breaking? No. Is it simplistic, power chord-abusing, commercialistic pseudo-punk music? Yes. On the other hand, does it have fun riffs? Yes. Is it hummable? Definitely. Is it melodic? To the core. Is it something that you can sing along with a group of friends and have a good time? Yes, and I had done it plenty in the distant past.

For all its simplicity, the record is just entertaining: the three singles all feature hooks so powerful that they refuse to let go after you’ve heard the song; all three feature sing-along choruses that anyone can sing even when intoxicated, but also, say, when a group of friends is riding in a car and just having a good time being silly. And let me just make a bold claim: Enema of the State is the best Green Day album since Dookie.

Think on that.

Yet I can hear it already: is Mike actually apologizing for a sell-out band like Blink-182? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that I do not find the record to be completely without merit: in fact, there are things that one can justifiably like about the album. No, in the sense that I’m not arguing that the music is essential. It’s not something that should be preserved by the Library of Congress as an example of national culture; it’s not something that we are going to send to space as radio signals that might be picked up by ETs; it’s definitely not something that we should bury deep underground so that milleniums later, posterity can dig it up and find the best and loftiest expressions of human culture.

Which, in a very roundabout way, brings me to the title of this post: why should we feel “guilty” about certain things that are not worthy of the term at all? Guilt is a concept with distinctly legal and/or normative dimensions: I just don’t see how liking some music that is deemed by others as “not credible” as having those dimensions. There is a sense in which whether certain music is “worthy” is only an aesthetic question, but whether someone or something is guilty is a distinct normative question. Therefore, in speaking of listening to certain music as instances of possessing “guilty pleasure” is to collapse the distinction and mix the categories.

After all, there is no sense of being “guilty” in a normative sense when you listen to say, some horrible music like The Village People; but there is a distinctly normative sense of “guilty” when someone takes pleasure, say, from the torture and abuse of children (like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov). So, to use the same word to describe acts of music-listening and acts of sadism is a glaring instance of false equivalence.

And there is no better recent example of this kind of confusion as in the case when both John McCain and Barack Obama told the press their respective top five songs. McCain got slammed for listing “Dancing Queen” by Abba, while Obama was being portrayed as the hip, cool dude who’s rocking to Coltrane and Kanye West. McCain’s choice thus were used as evidence of his out-of-touchness with reality and his old age, while Obama’s choices were used as evidence of his understanding of contemporary reality, and thus by extension, his greater ability to govern in such a contemporary reality.

Well, where do I even start with these kind of claims made by the media (both the traditional and the netroots)? First of all, to even IMPLY that presidential candidates’ musical tastes can even remotely predict their governing style and reflect their personal qualities is absurd! All such revelations by the candidates really show are just that: their musical preferences, and nothing else.

One is perfectly justified to criticize McCain’s shitty musical taste (and his pathetic excuse that because he was imprisoned in a POW camp for five years, that that experience prevented him from being exposed to new music: gee, way to “honor” your military service!), one cannot justifably extend that criticism to speculative claims about how his musical tastes are predictors of his governance. Similarly, I think it would be totally fucking awesome if Barack Obama and I sat on a comfy leather couch together, roll two joints (or smoke hookah, if we were to keep it legal and non-addictive), rap about the meaning of existence, all the while A Love Supreme is spinning on the turntable. But all this shows, once again, is that Barack Obama has a nearly impeccable taste in music, and NOTHING ELSE at all about his ability to govern as the head of the executive branch.

An aside #2: Speaking of the above fantasy scenario, I cannot take credit. Instead, the credit must go to the Honorable John Conyers (representing the good people of the 14th district of Michigan), he who is the current Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In a hearing I attended last week which Conyer chaired, he suggested, at one point, that everyone on the witness table and members of the committee all get together in a room, listen to some Coltrane, drink a little alcohol, and work out a compromise that satisfies everyone. It is critical that such a meeting place, to quote Conyers, have “the right ambience.” I shit you not. When I heard that, I was faced with two alternative interpretations, both of which seem equally plausible to me: 1) Conyers is off his meds, or 2) that he is on them.

So please, let us no longer use the term “guilty pleasure,” because as I’ve hopefully shown, it makes no conceptual sense. In the mean time, let me shamelessly sing along to “Adam’s Song.”


One Response to “Guilty Pleasure Ain’t Guilty!”

  1. Mitzi Says:

    Too right. I’m not at all ashamed to admit I still love Blink-182’s music. It’s good to me because it reminds me of the first time I went apeshit over a band and had posters of them everywhere. That level of fangirliness only endured and got passed on to other bands (like you know, The Darkness), once I’d outgrown Blink.

    The summer right before going away to college I had tickets to see No Doubt with Blink-182. Due to the venue overselling the place and there not being enough parking, we spent about three hours just trying to get in, and we finally just drove away. I was more upset about not seeing Blink. I’d only recently gotten to really and truly like No Doubt, and Blink were the ones who held more memories. And well, then they broke up, so that really had been my last chance.

    Recently, one of my best friends from college and I drove back to Santa Barbara for one final reunion. She too loved Blink-182 and all those other pop-punk bands, so all during the drive we listened to “Enema of the State” and “Dude Ranch” and sang along. It was glorious. No, they’re not geniuses and their songs are far from what I would call brilliant now, but if I still love and know a song like I did 8 years ago, it can’t be too shabby.

    …so that’s my unnecessarily long way of saying: I agree. I’ll stop here, this comment’s long enough.

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