The State of the Guilty Pleasure Bad Taste in an iPod Culture

When in June 2005 WCBS 101.1 FM in New York made the abrupt transition from an oldies format, under which it had been running for over 30 years, to a new, DJ-less programming style known as Jack FM, the change was seen both as a benchmark in the tale of traditionally formatted radio programming's slow decline into obsolescence, as well as a natural reaction to a shift in the listening habits of the American public brought about by the rise of 'iPod culture.' While WCBS ruthlessly alienated its loyal listeners in the process of the switch, the action played right into the logic behind the very rise of the 'non-format' format that is Jack FM (or, in industry-speak, Adult Hits): by removing both the human element of the DJ and the constraints of genre, radio programmers can skew their demographic younger, at least making an attempt to adapt the tired format of radio to the ways that native 21st century boys and girls in America experience their music. If the music in their MP3 players is supposedly an eclectic mix of pop, rock, and maybe more hip-hop and R&B than radio execs would like to admit, let's throw a mixed bag of music at them with no personalities to get in the way in the hopes that everyone will find something they can get behind.

In a way, this event reveals more about the cluelessness of the radio industry than anything else. It also, inadvertently, goes a long way toward defining shifts in the way many people have begun to evaluate and listen to music beyond the fact that they now listen to it digitally. For example, it used to seem like you couldn't turn on MTV without someone talking about how they “really couldn't help liking N*Sync, even though they knew they shouldn't” or how “embarrassed they were to admit that they listened to Olivia Newton-John.” With that in mind, fast-forward to current times: When was the last time you heard someone actually express guilt over their love or Beyonce or, say, Olivia Newton-John? With Jack FM pumping out bona-fide guilty pleasures like Loverboy on a daily basis, the apparent absence of guilt in these changing times is striking and begs the question of what music-related guilt really means in the first place.

If guilt in general is caused by a deviation of one's actions, thoughts, or desires from those deemed appropriate within a certain social or moral framework, guilt in the context of listening to music would logically involve hearing and enjoying that which goes against commonly held and prescribed aesthetic beliefs within a certain group or society. However, the equation of musical guilt with, say, religious guilt starts to fall apart when it is taken into account that guilt on the whole usually makes itself known negatively, serving as a sort of emotional punishment for transgressing the bounds of a moral code. It is the rare case where music-related guilt manifests itself in pure remorse: hardcore kids on their knees apologizing for getting down to D'Angelo or thug lifers tearfully confessing their forbidden love for “Sweet Caroline” are rare sights indeed. More often than not, musical guilt is not thought of as an occasion for penance, but as a positive, if potentially embarrassing, hanger-on to the experience of listening to music, usually expressed through the idea of the Guilty Pleasure.

In literal terms, the guilty pleasure is a song from which the listener experiences pleasure, followed by a feeling of guilt for having enjoyed the song and perhaps another wave of pleasure on account of the guilt. Upon closer inspection, however, this vague description gives way to a set of more specific characteristics of the guilty pleasure that can help us to comprehend the changed and changing nature of the guilty pleasure in today's popular musical environment.

One common characteristic of the guilty pleasure is its 'uncoolness.' Furthermore, the temptation is to think of guilty pleasures primarily as songs that are not cool or, more specifically, songs that are not cool to like. Despite the truth in this statement in most cases, in the interest of defining the guilty pleasure, the idea of coolness misses the mark altogether. For example, Chuck Klosterman's take on the career and appeal of Billy Joel, wherein he unwittingly lays out a near flawless portrayal of a guilty pleasure, implies that the true attribute in question when dealing with the guilty pleasure is not coolness, but greatness. Of course, coolness always enters into the equation when dealing with popular music, but, as Klosterman points out, it has nothing to do with greatness, which is the real issue at hand.

Klosterman never defines what greatness means, probably because he can't; and he can't, probably, because no one can. Coolness is largely a communally constructed quality, inextricably tied to popularity (generally speaking); in many cases, something or someone is considered cool simply because it has been agreed that it is so. Greatness changes its meaning entirely based on context, the personality evaluating the presence of greatness or lack thereof, and what sort of object the term is being applied to. Still, in the case of the guilty pleasure, there are few definite things that can be said about how this greatness works.

For one, Klosterman points not only to the difference of coolness and greatness, but to greatness' transcendence of coolness. As much as the distinction of greatness lies in the eye of the beholder in regard to the individual characteristics or qualities of who or what is being evaluated, it also contains the idea of scope and ubiquity, which inches toward creating an undeniable status of greatness. Without delving too much into questions of syntax, it should still be clear that terms such as 'the Great War' or 'the great white shark' manifest this more quantitative usage of the word, which is quite different in practice from usages such as “Leandro Barbosa is great,” or “it's really great that Michael Jackson is trying to rehabilitate his image.”

Guilty pleasures are great in the same way the great white shark or Great Britain are great. While classic guilty pleasures most often manifest this size-oriented form of greatness in their sound and subject matter as well, more important is the way that the idea of greatness makes itself known in regard to recognition. In order for it to qualify as a guilty pleasure, common opinion must take hold of a song, transforming it from a simple, unbiased piece of music to one carrying with it value judgments and negative or positive associations. Regardless of how listeners feel about a song personally, whether they believe it to be great or not, they need to know how they are supposed to feel about it in order for a sense of guilt to form. The two constituents of musical guilt are a) pleasure, and b) this pleasure's deviation from the expected reaction as proscribed by common opinion and aesthetic codes. A relatively unknown song, or a song that slips by unnoticed, cannot inspire guilt. It is in the converse of this, a ubiquitous song that sticks out like a sore thumb and inspires pleasure despite the consensus that the song sucks ass, that we find the blueprint of the guilty pleasure.

Or, at least, it used to be.

To return to the case of Jack FM, a radio format that does not follow normal radio conventions of genre-based programming and is thus a shining example of the seepage of eclecticism into the listening habits of today's music-consuming public, it is clear that we are no longer living in a time where traditional musical classifications and boundaries carry any particular importance. Furthermore, while most Americans can't manage to sing, or at worst, hum, a few notes of “Irreplaceable,” it must be admitted that in the age of globalization and Chinese Democracy, gone are the days of the monolithic popular culture that used to so clearly define what was great, what was cool, and what was simply not done. Musical culture has fragmented, creating an environment that, while still friendly to the creation of ubiquitous pop songs that gush forth in an unceasing stream from the shopping malls of America, also supports the emergence of subcultures -- not to mention the nested sub-sub-sub cultures belonging thereto, as forces that cannot be ignored (except, of course, by the record industry itself). What this means for the guilty pleasure is a simultaneous expansion of possibilities and a threat to its entire basis.

Under this conception, in which eclecticism has gained a foothold, albeit tenuous, on commercial radio, and when previously impenetrable subcultural musics are becoming more and more available to unsuspecting ears, there is a larger amount of music for listeners to feel guilty about than there was a decade ago. The chances today of a Dip Set fan falling in love with a Belle and Sebastian song (an event that would most likely be accompanied by its share of guilt, or perhaps only shame) may still be relatively slim, but it stands to reason that they are not as slim as the chances of a Bronx B-Boy hearing and enjoying an Orange Juice track in 1982. While this quantitative change alone accounts for a rethinking of the nature of guilt in music, this feeling is only amplified when the cultural response to this change is taken into account.

Just as the rise of eclecticism, spurred by the 'have it your way' nature of MP3 culture, has opened up new avenues of music for casual music fans, it has also affected seismic shifts in the very aesthetic codes that inform musical tastes. For one, there is an undeniably rising prevalence of discrete musical tastes over those that run down strict party lines of classic rock, East Coast hip-hop, or bebop among both casual listeners and cultural tastemakers. While this tendency threatens to destroy the very subcultures it simultaneously promotes through overexposure or fragmentation, it also places the personalized codes of taste and aesthetics in a position rivaling those prescribed by consensus or cultural standards. Taken to its logical extreme, this creates a case in which consensus on expected reactions to music against which guilt can be defined ceases to exist.

It is symptomatic of this situation that more and more often music fans are questioning the very idea that one should feel guilty about the type of music they enjoy. Whereas music criticism once worked to create standards of 'good' and 'bad' that formed a large part of the cultural consensus and aesthetic codes through which musical guilt could be defined, criticism, like the practice of listening to music itself – no longer a communal activity facilitated by live concerts, radio, or even record stores – has become an entirely personal pursuit. Commuters now close themselves off in the self-created and staunchly personal musical world of their iPod, and critics are no different. As much as music magazines or websites try to present a unified aesthetic front, the purpose of criticism, as well as its relation to guilt and the guilty pleasure, has changed. Questions: Should criticism in this context be seen as working not to create a canon or a consensus, but to encourage and nurture the creation of individual tastes and aesthetic codes among its readers? Can we see criticism as working to define aesthetic norms using new, more abstract criteria? To take a more theoretical tact, it could be that the issue of guilt is now left to be defined not by the music itself, but by the non-musical or extra-musical issues, stances on political or moral issues, for example, of which it acts as a signifier.

In either case, it seems that the current musical climate is moving toward a situation in which guilt will no longer be the factor it has traditionally been. Without a communally decided upon set of standards against which to measure one's own reactions to music, guilt can be defined only against listeners' own aesthetic systems. While this is a thought that borders on solipsistic ridiculousness, it does not necessarily mean that music will cease to support communal activity or that consensus, common aesthetic standards or, for that matter, guilt, will cease to exist. What is disappearing is only a top-down definition of guilt in which the standards by which one judges music as enjoyable come from one's identity in regard to ethnicity, class, geographic location, etc. Critics and the music industry no longer have the control they once had in creating standards that define the guilt of listeners. Music listeners today create their own identities and seek out others who define their aesthetic codes similarly, thereby creating the same sort of community and ground for consensus that was lost through the collapse of traditional musical power structures. In other words, if radio executives and the RIAA can't make you feel guilty for liking Avril Lavigne, maybe your friends can.

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