Guilty Pleasures

I admitted In This Space (as the journalistic formula runs) that I didn’t like Wagner, and Richard subsequently mentioned that he didn’t like Rachmaninov. These feel like heresies, and I at least state mine with both a certain defiance (“I don’t like one of the pitiless-but-unquestioningly-worshipped Easter Island tikis of music history; so sue me”) and a lingering sense of vulnerability, as if I just acknowledged an unprotected soft spot. Will they suddenly institute a new kind of qualifying exams for full professors with completed doctorates? If so, what if they ask me about Wagner?

(Don’t laugh. Most academics I know still have the I-didn’t-do-my-homework dream, even now. These can be hilarious, as when I was dream-thinking, “Oh, NO; what’ll I do? I’m sitting in my colleague’s Intro to Graduate Study class, unprepared to turn in my final project. I know, I’ll do project X real quick. No, that was my second book. Project Y? My dissertation. What’s left? Oh, NO…” completely unaware of any implausibilty. I also once dreamt that I had to walk onstage and play the Liszt B Minor Sonata after having forgotten to look at it—ever. So, in my dream, I tried to sight-read it. I take it back; you can laugh.)

I’d like to turn the idea of musical blind spots around and, thinking of things we like that others might find questionable, riff on Phil’s wonderful blog about guilty pleasures. For musicians, there should be no guilt involved in liking something unfashionable, or even admitting it publically. The lingering bad habit consists of stupid, self-conscious protestations of guilt we don’t really feel, as if wondering how we appear in the footlights, given such taste—a habit (I may have mentioned this before) of which I was cured by my friend Vivian. All of us have pop songs we enjoy—not talking about the Beatles or anyone it’s hip or at least acceptable to like, I mean one-hit wonders or stuff that was commercially assembled money-making product from the get-go—that would make our friends cringe. Yet, when we’re alone, we turn it up. There’s an old .sig of mine that puts it in a nutshell:

“Listen, disdain is easy, a mug’s game, but look closely at anything and it’ll break your heart.”

—Stanley Elkin (American Novelist, 1930-1995)

The flip side of guilty pleasure, I think, is campy, theatrical affection (“I love Mrs. Miller; she’s just fabulous”). This always struck me as a kind of poisonous hypocrisy, where the object of loathing is kept near, like a bullied house-pet, with condescending pats and strokes so as to enslave and torment. From beneath that, though, sometimes there peeks a deeper, sadder attraction, so it’s affection-masking-contempt-masking-REAL-affection. Moving beyond the obvious Judy Garland or Ethel Merman stuff here, what about…the Monkees? True: packaged entertainment product, Don Kirshner’s money-making Beatles knock-off, all the rest of it. Yet given the well-scrubbed, beautifully assembled pop songs by the likes of Neil Diamond and Boyce and Hart, wouldn’t we really rather turn it up than sneer at it? Is there not some part of us that still enjoys—without self-consciousness—revisiting the sulky preadolescent cynicism of “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” the grade-school angst of “Shades of Gray,” or the pre-teen crush of “Then I Saw Her Face”? For an earlier generation, the same goes for the Phil Spector fourteen-year-old true-love mini-symphonies like the Crystals’ “Do Do Run Run” and “Then He Kissed Me.” On one level, those are cynically produced pop products too, like disco or the Monkees. On another, they put my car speakers at risk whenever they come on.

Pop music itself has become a free zone for academics; liking pop music gives us (we think, with a kind of trans-Plutonian logic) a coolness or street cred our professors didn’t have. (That is, until we find out what they really liked.) What about unfashionable recordings? Those old New York Pro Musica recordings are reflexively disrespected and considered unlistenable to many now, but for me, the NYPM versions of Orlando Gibbons’s “London Street Cries” or the anonymous old English-texted stuff—“Edi beo thus” and “Foweles in the Frith”—are the Songs of My Youth, with Russell Oberlin’s silken counter-tenor and the rest of it. Many of us were sold on early music via those recordings, or worse ones. Now we have a wealth of high-quality, historically informed early music recordings, and I love the fact that there are killer competing recordings of this repertoire. Yet I still love some of the old recordings, historically uninformed though they may be. I’ll turn them up, too.

Guilty pleasures? Not so’s you’d notice, not anymore—I don’t do guilt. Crank it!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to Guilty Pleasures

  1. andrew says:

    about guilty pleasures: last year’s EMP pop conference (that meeting of academic and non-academic pop music critics in Seattle) was about “Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt”, i.e. guilty pleasures. Lots of very interesting papers and talks about various aspects of that. Check out

  2. M says:

    Glad to hear academics still have those dreams. Mine is that I still have to do my senior recital. I show up to the conservatory and my accompanist (waiting for the music), teacher (who wonders why I have skipped out on so many lessons), and family have been waiting. I know I haven’t played my instrument in 6 years but they don’t. The school threatens to invalidate my master’s degree and ruin my career if I don’t perform. It’s so ridiculous. Funny how the mind works.

  3. dr. dave says:

    As a professor in the sciences, this really struck me as interesting… the idea that for someone in art or music or drama… their personal TASTES could be interpreted as reflecting on them professionally… because it’s simply not a problem for us. It’s not like we catch anyone going around saying… “Meh… I’m not just a big ‘fan’ of Heisenberg…”

  4. Phil Ford says:

    There have been times when the humanities have tried strenuously to model themselves on the sciences and remove taste from the picture — to get things on a truly “objective” footing, so that the scholar’s individual preferences don’t intrude and muck things up. The main result of this is that a certain collective notion of taste lingers in the supposedly purified scholarly practice, but now given a bogus air of naturalness and objectivity. So you’d study (say) watermarks on the manuscript paper that Mozart used, but the unspoken assumption was that the study of Mozart (or, less ambitiously, a kleinmeister of the same period) was unquestionably what you should be doing — not, say, the study of Duke Ellington, or Rossini. Ironically, the moments when the humanities have tried hardest to emulate science are the moments when it has created the most tension over the appropriateness of our musical interests — in other words, it creates the conditions in which “guilty pleasures” become inevitable. If you like Rossini and want to do scholarship on him, and your discipline kind of frowns on it, then Rossini becomes a guilty pleasure.
    Still, as long as human beings are status-conscious animals (meaning forever and always), we will find things to be status-conscious about — we will worry that our interests aren’t classy enough. This will happen whether or not we are “positivists” or “new musicologists” or whatever.

  5. Charles Freeman says:

    Still, I don’t think any of the various comments or threads here have really brought up a thoroughly transgressive kind of distaste or dislike. Yes, the Wagner cult was pretty heavy for a while, but his more odious writings and quirks always left an opening. Poor Rachmaninov practically walks about in music history with a bullseye on his back, or perhaps a sign: “Make fun of me, I was Romantic when Romantic wasn’t cool.” And these days it seems like popular music is the big growth industry in musicology these days; if I had a musicological nightmare it might be that I’m a beat slow in recognizing and being able to comment intelligently on some band with which I’m not that familiar, and end up being universally dismissed as a hopeless old scholastic fogy before I’m anywhere near fifty.
    But are there really no sacred cows? Nobody will mentally take a scholar down a notch for opining, say, “I know he’s important, unique American voice and all that, but after two minutes I just can’t listen to Ives anymore”? (Or substitute–egad!–Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Monteverdi…let your imagination run wild.)
    This is what I’m curious about. Anybody?

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