I read a brilliant piece yesterday called “In Defense of Schlock Music” where the author, Jody Rosen, proposes an argument for a genuine appreciation of Billy Joel and Journey. I’m not doing it justice– it’s awesome, go read it. But it struck me as odd that we culturally feel some moral responsibility to only appreciate what can be considered “good,” that Celine Dion or romantic comedies are to be enjoyed self-deprecatingly. Bullshit. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is now (and probably always will be) the most played song on my iPod, because it’s the greatest song to sing at the top of your lungs on the planet, and I go through a hurricane of emotions singing it. I will not apologize for my love for it. And since I’m not watching porn in a public forum (ahem, guy from my freshman dorm) or letting Keeping Up with the Kardashians mold me, I don’t see why I should. I don’t really think of my pop cultural enjoyment as a moral dilemma.
Lately, in serious or at least self-serious discussions of entertainment, I started hearing less of my friends’ genuine opinions, and rather their parroting of a more intellectually acceptable opinion– the Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, whoever. Opinions were formed about a certain movie or album or show before they had listened or watched it. I understand how this happens– there’s an excess of information and “informed analysis” and critical breakdowns of absolutely everything under the sun available at our fingertips. And I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing– when I love something, I want to learn more about it and even, sometimes, learn from someone with insight about why I loved it. Same when I hate it. But does this mean that we are stuck with regurgitated thoughts in our everyday conversations? We filter so much of what we think about pop culture through this barrage of “intellectual” criticism, and a lens of postmodern irony that I hope that there is somehow room for a post-postmodern enjoyment of pop culture, knowledgeable of film’s/tv’s/music’s/book’s flaws, but still a celebration of the pleasure derived from it, irony-free.
For the most part, when I really am looking forward to a film, I try to see it alone, because I want to experience it and form my own reactions without filtering it through any companions or reviews. This preference usually leads to me openly weeping alone in a movie theater, which I’m pretty sure has led many strangers to pity/mock the insane spinster. I am, admittedly, both analytically minded and easily emotionally manipulated. And I think we should be manipulable when it comes to “art”, high or low. Whether we are in a “golden age of TV”, whether we justify our popcorn blockbuster movies by giving them deeper resonance, or whether we dress up dance-pop numbers with avant-garde or ham-fisted pseudo-politicism, pop culture is by necessity highly digestible. Music, movies, television– these are all designed to be consumed at high volumes and with immediacy. It helps the effectiveness when they are emotionally visceral. The lie that we have been living is that “art” must be challenging, elusive. And undeniably, some great art is. But more often than that, great art is evocative. In the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Art, there’s a massive landscape by Albert Bierstadt that I love to visit. Depicting a majestic and idyllic scene of the Sierra Nevadas, it’s essentially a propaganda painting– created to visually encourage the concept of Manifest Destiny to the American populace. And it’s a lie. The landscape doesn’t exist– Bierstadt made it up. The painting is hokey in its magnificent beauty. But it doesn’t really matter, it still takes your breath away. Mozart’s Requiem, Chopin’s catalogue, JMW Turner, if time and circumstance hadn’t given these things gravitas, we might have mistaken them for schlock. But it doesn’t make them any less remarkable.
Of course, I have my own bag of films/shows/books/songs I sneer at, which I hate myself a little bit for every time I catch myself doing it. I can’t make it through Nicholas Sparks or James Cameron movies or Twilight without internally mocking it. I act like a horse’s ass if someone makes the mistake of graciously inviting me along. Despite my own mistakes in this arena, there are not really any principles involved in liking Mad Men or Paul Thomas Anderson movies. It’s self-righteous to qualify “strict adherence to good taste” as a virtue. Of course, I’m not denying that some things are just unavoidably terrible. But art, no matter the medium, is personal. We might receive it collectively, but we still experience it through only our own eyes, philosophies, histories, emotions. To my eyes, there is a big distinction between “quality” vs. likeability. There are a million reasons you can like or even love something, and occasionally that lines up with it being of good quality. I can recognize when something is cheaply written or predictable or somewhat sophomoric. That doesn’t stop it from speaking to me in the moment in time when I’m experiencing it.
I have a theory that all pop culture, including Taylor Swift, CW TV shows, Katherine Heigl romantic comedies, and all sorts of other maligned cultural outlets have at least a nugget of emotional honesty or resonance. I think the beauty and the intrinsic flaw of pop culture is that it is a collective artistic effort filtered through commercialism. The commercialism might stamp out some creativity, some artistry, but delivers something polished and broadly consumable. And the collective artistic effort gives tens to hundreds to thousands of people an outlet to use their skills and talents to express their own humanity. I’m not sure if it’s a bitterness or a need for superiority or a simple insecurity of our own tastes, but as a whole, we deny the fact that almost all pop culture is the hard and devoted work of many who know exactly what they are doing. Maybe their truth might not be as high-brow or profound as you might wish, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. Or that it cannot also speak to your truth.
I like to think it’s a simple insecurity of our own tastes and that constant, desperate need for cool, because I feel the pangs of that. And I think my only way out is to own it. Own what I like, unabashedly.I know nothing about the etymology of the “guilty pleasure” but it seems like such a Gen X 90s construct. It is so deeply seeped in that ever-grunge mixture of faux-apathy and self-loathing, it practically reeks of clove cigarettes. Why should I, or anyone, apologize for liking ABBA or vampire shows or The Voice? By far, my favorite artistic medium is musical theater/film, which has always saved me from my hipster tastes, because musical theater could not be further away from irony or (accept it, RentHeads) coolness. Even its acclaimed and highbrow examples are so heart-achingly earnest and overblown, you can feel the bleeding hearts of every performer and creator. And musical theater is the linchpin to Jody Rosen’s whole defense of schlock– it is a medium which, by nature, is so overwhelmed by its emotions, it cannot be contained in just words, it literally has to burst into song. Because music should not be cold or distant, it IS supposed to capture (or try, at least) the ineffability of the human experience. There’s a reason people cry at opera ballads without any idea of what’s going on or what’s being sung. And it’s ridiculous that we think we need to hide the poignancy of something just because it’s not broadly considered artistically “significant”.
So what’s the cure for the guilty pleasure? Why not have a world where ethics do not factor into taste whatsoever (you know, unless you are really connecting to Mein Kampf or something). A morality based on what we like to watch or read or listen to is such a superficial, self-aggrandizing morality, it’s a blessing there’s no vengeful god to smite us for having our heads up our asses. I want to feel free to like what I like, and for you to like what you like, and for us both to understand that it doesn’t make either of us right or wrong. Films, television, music– they are a shared media. And I understand this idea of wanting to share what we love with others, but do we really need to invite absolutely everyone on the planet to the TV room? Does our every opinion have to be the End-All, Be-All, and do we have to value the opinion of the amorphous “They” above our own? Do we have to kowtow to the pop culture tastemakers? This is my mountaintop– I love Celine Dion. And Vampire Diaries. And I cry every time I see “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (which is about 9 times now). And I (will try to) no longer give a shit about what that says about me to anyone else.