Monday, February 11, 2008

What Distinguishes A Guilty Pleasure From The "Good Stuff?"


Why is it considered acceptable to love some songs and artists but embarrassing to love others? The correct answer to that question is that there should be no answer at all. Taste in music, as in all of the arts, is totally subjective. Why else do such diverse genres as chamber music and gangsta rap both exist? Do you have better taste in jazz if you prefer Wynton Marsalis to Kenny G? Are you on a higher intellectual plane if you prefer Pavarotti to Bocelli? Are you a really a cooler dude if you prefer Pearl Jam to Bon Jovi?

So what gives one musician credibility while another is thought of as a joke? Sometimes an artist's reputation is born from the words of the musical press who almost to a man fancy themselves to be the arbiters of good taste. Regional preferences often play a role too. If you're from Alabama and you like Toby Keith that's cool, but if your a Keith fan from Greenwich Village your taste in music will definitely be sneered at. If all of your friends are into heavy metal you may be afraid to admit you like Michael Buble.

J. A. Bartlett, proprietor of one of my favorite music blogs, The Hits Just Keep On Comin' described guilty pleasures better than I did. He said, "’s possible to quibble with the very concept. Why should you feel guilty for liking what you like? It only makes sense if you accept that the taste of the tastemakers, whoever they are, is automatically superior to your own. But the concept persists nevertheless...."

Even though I agree with J. A. I still believe there are certain criteria that set the more respected artists apart from those considered guilty pleasures even if we happen to love the latter anyway. Let's discuss some of them now.

Do not become too popular
If there are appearances that a musician is more interested in commercial success rather than making art for art's sake (whether it's true or not) he or she is finished with the critics and those they influence. To many in the press an artist with too many hit records is an automatic sellout and is manufacturing music instead of creating it. It was painfully obvious to me all during the 1970s that magazines such as Rolling Stone would turn their backs on anyone whose early obscure albums they triumphantly praised when that same rocker's latest release finally broke through the wall to go double platinum. There are not many pop artists like The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Dave Matthews who have managed to maintain their artistic integrity with the cultural elite while lining their pockets with cash.

Once a band started to sell records it took some anti-establishment and often outrageous or crude public behavior to get back into the critics good graces. The best thing that ever happened to The Doors was The Lizard King's bust in Miami for indecency. Until then The Doors were getting too much AM radio airplay and selling too many records to stay on the counter-culture's good side. Nirvana is another example. Would they and Kurt Cobain be such iconic heros if he hadn't taken his life in true rock 'n roll style at age twenty-seven.

Compose your own music
Beginning in the 1960s with The Beatles and Bob Dylan anyone who made a living covering the works of others was often fodder for ridicule. Both artists greatly changed the way people judged pop music. Ironically, recording your own work is not something that is required of the elite symphony orchestras and other classical musicians. Seldom does an orchestra play a new piece that was written by its conductor or another member of its organization. When it comes to recording original works pop musicians are held to a higher standard than their classical brethren who are often praised for their interpretations of the works of the great masters.

Your lyrics must be cryptic or edgy. If you never write lyrics about anything other than broken hearts or sentiments that you will find on a Hallmark greeting card don't expect good reviews.

Never record with children
In most cases this is the kiss of death for your reputation. If you are going to sing with children you better make sure you are singing for children. If the song is meant for the ears of anyone beyond the third grade you are dead in the water.

Do not imitate Milli Vanilli
Please make your own records. Use studio musicians to supplement your band, not to replace it. Outsiders were often used by The Beatles but only when they needed something they couldn't produce themselves. Capitol/EMI and George Martin never told George Harrison to stay home because there were five studio guitarists waiting in the wings to replace him. When Eric Clapton played lead on The Beatles "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" it was at Harrison's invitation because he wanted a certain sound for the song. Clapton, as we all know, is not some generic hired gun. All of The Beatles were there in the studio playing on the song.

On "Eleanor Rigby" the band used a double string quartet. It's true that none of The Beatles played on the track because they couldn't play those instruments themselves. However, Paul McCartney wrote most of the song with a little help from John Lennon. The string quartet was the band's idea, they had an artistic vision they couldn't create without help so they sought out people who could. Nothing was forced upon them by a producer or a record company. The Beatles were totally in control of their own work.

One of the reasons the Beatles ended was because Phil Spector added strings and a choir to "The Long and Winding Road." When McCartney realized he was losing control over his own music his integrity would not allow his art to be compromised. To him that was the final straw and, when added to all the internal problems the band was having at the time, he quit.

On the other hand the rock band Chicago allowed themselves to be controlled by their record company and producer. Beginning with 1982's Chicago 16 producer David Foster frequently used studio musicians to replace individual Chicago members in the studio. All during this period there were so many guest musicians listed on their albums it is probable, and in many cases proven fact, that many of the band members hardly appeared on their own records. Current Chicago guitarist Keith Howland is listed as a member of the band on their latest album, XXX, released in 2006, but he admitted that he hardly played on it at all.

Today, would the art world think as highly of the Mona Lisa, or Leonardo Da Vinci, if it was discovered that someone else had actually sketched the outline of the famous face, and Da Vinci simply painted in the colors based on the numbers already put there by someone else?

While it's true that the general public has no clue what goes on in a recording studio, nor do most care, the wholesale usage of other musicians replacing the supposed real band in the studio indicates that they are more interested in generating product instead of art.

Meeting the points discussed here does not guarantee an artist a lofty place in history, nor does not meeting them automatically stick you with a reputation as a perennial joke. However there have always been certain aspects of the careers of most musicians that distinguish the ones who generate a lot of respect from those who don't. I know we all have guilty pleasures, whether we admit it or not, and we all have a list of music's most respected acts that we would rather never hear ever again. It all goes back to one simple statement: taste is taste!


  1. Excellent points all around, Charlie!

    The difference between Chicago "Stone of Sisyphus" and Chicago XXX... SoS is a CHICAGO album whereas XXX is more a "Chicago" album.

    I'm not arguing with the fans who enjoy the music on XXX as taste is subjective. I just ask them to concede that given all the studio musicians on XXX it's not really a Chicago album at all regardless of how good or bad they feel the music is.

  2. Great post! I wouldn't disagree with the thrust of your argument. I can only comment for me.

    In my own case I find that there are many artists who are just rubbish (sorry, this is sooo subjective but often there is some agreement on this) but embarrassingly (for me) there is always one or two quite good songs in their collection and this is the problem. As soon as you admit to liking the one or two everyone aligns you with liking the artist generally and there's no getting away from it. That's why you are guilty - it's because you have to keep quite about the few to shelter from the derision of the many (as Churchill may have said...)