AVQ&A: Guilty pleasures
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question, courtesy of reader Steven Cuculich: What are your pop-culture guilty pleasures? Nothing that you're proud to be different about—nothing based out of nostalgia, irony, or a love of kitsch or camp. I'm sure with your writing chops you all can defend any of your guilty pleasures enough for other people to be interested in them—and then, well, they technically might not be guilty pleasures anymore. But come on, who likes Fergie? The Hills? Not Another Teen Movie?
I've long wanted to make a list of "The New Guilty Pleasures": those TV shows, movies, bands, and books that are popular, critically acclaimed, and award-winning, yet derided by a very vocal minority. That's where you'd find your Coldplays, your Forrest Gumps, and a personal favorite of mine that no longer gets any respect: Friends. I watched the full run of Friends when it originally aired, and I've seen each episode a couple of times in syndication. Friends was a hit show that won Emmys and—in its peak years—landed on critics' top-10 lists, yet today it's become a shorthand for everything some people can't stand about the traditional three-camera, laugh-track/studio-audience sitcom. I sort of understand the hate. Friends' cast was so ubiquitous during the decade the show was on the air that it's only natural people would get a little sick of them. And the show itself was hardly edgy or groundbreaking; it was essentially a low-grade soap opera with sex jokes and double-takes. But those soap-opera plots were well-crafted, and it didn't take long for the cast to develop into a real ensemble, capable of delivering those sex jokes with snap. Friends was a reliable, go-to show from right after I graduated college until I got married, bought a house, and had a kid. It was the background to my young adulthood, and when I flip by it now, I often stop and watch, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because it's a sturdy sitcom machine, and still works.
Geez, what could be a guiltier pleasure than my well-established love of Fall Out Boy? Maybe this goes further: When I was at my snobbiest as a holier-than-thou, DIY-punk-rock know-it-all—some time around 1994—I had a predilection for Counting Crows. I sneered as much as my similarly snotty friends at "Mr. Jones," which honestly did little for me, but I kind of loved the rest of August And Everything After, particularly "Anna Begins" and "Round Here." When I bought my copy of the album at the hip Austin record store Sound Exchange, I was filled with shame. I wanted to shout to everyone, "But I really love Econochrist! Don't judge me!" I don't think I still have that record, but about 10 years ago, I picked up their double-live album, and also kind of loved it. That has since disappeared, too. But if I hear some of those old songs on the radio, I don't change the station. Josh, Nathan, and I used to sing "Mr. Jones" at our old office. And hey, the songs from August are only 89 cents apiece on Amazon…
To answer your question, Mr. Kyle Ryan Sir, a far guiltier pleasure than Fall Out Boy would be my own inexplicable fondness for 2002's Boat Trip, the universally reviled romp where quality magnet Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a dumped sad sack who woos sexy Roselyn Sanchez by pretending to be gay after accidentally embarking on a gay cruise with corpulent best pal Horatio Sanz. I watched Boat Trip—a lark so over the top that it almost transcends rank stupidity and becomes a knowing parody of high-concept sex-comedy idiocy—with a big goofy grin on my face the entire time. There is something bizarrely winning about the film's utter shamelessness, as well the manic brio of Gooding Jr.'s manic, boldly unselfconscious performance. I find it reassuring that in times of great economic peril and widespread uncertainty, we live in a world ridiculous and superficial enough to support the existence of something as mind-bogglingly idiotic as a Cuba Gooding Jr./Horatio Sanz gay-cruise sex comedy.
For me, it's largely superhero comics. Which will probably make Keith roll his eyes, since he reads a lot more of them than I do (thanks in part to the hefty boxes of review copies that Image and DC send us every month) and seems pretty guilt-free about it. Still, I can't get over the feeling that I shouldn't be reading them at all; most superhero comics aren't really written for thinking adults, and for women in particular, given the adolescent-male power fantasies, the women-in-refrigerators problem, and the scanty outfits and vast hoverboobs on so many superheroines. And yet they're generally fun, and so much lower-key than most of the films and books I assign myself for work or for critical catch-up purposes. I have a similar soft spot for superhero movies, which I generally wind up seeing even if they look terrible. Possibly in a similar vein, I'm a sucker for anything animated, which is why I always wind up reviewing the latest CGI kids' mess, and probably enjoying it more than it really merits.
I will watch any movie about the business world, no matter how dire. The gambler in me loves the go-for-broke fluctuations of the stock market and how savvy young men in suspenders can manipulate the numbers to their advantage. I’ve seen the dreadful The Secret Of My Success more times than I can count, because Michael J. Fox’s journey from the mailroom to the boardroom is somehow compelling enough to withstand the irritations of Helen Slater and that “Oh Yeah” music cue that was so ubiquitous in the mid-to-late-‘80s. I’ll watch the last half hour of Trading Places, starting from the point where Paul Gleason gets caged up with the gorilla, not because it’s funny, but because Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd use their inside knowledge of orange futures to put the screws to the bluebloods played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. And the abstract language of the trading floor in Wall Street compensates for head-slapping moments like Charlie Sheen staring out at the city from his penthouse balcony and exclaiming, “Who am I?”
All of you who claim to take your pleasure without any guilt, may I see your iPods, please? On mine, you'll find a healthy selection of Hall & Oates and '80s Billy Joel. But it isn’t these artists that make my selection, it's a whole broad, ill-defined era of lite rock. I'd love to tell you that my entry point into rock ’n’ roll and all related genres of transgressive popular music came from hearing Afrika Bambaataa rework Kraftwerk, or Joe Strummer scream against the powers that be. But it wasn't. It had a lot more to do with the soft, seductive sounds blasted at the public pool during a few years in the early '80s. I was a kid from a home where it was understood that maybe all rock ’n’ roll wasn’t the devil's music, but enough of it was that it was probably best just to avoid the whole genre. But I couldn't deny the pull of Hall & Oates’ "Maneater" and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian," and thus I was lost forever. Nostalgia plays its part of course, but even now, I'll happen across a song from that era, or just before it, that I missed the first time around, and my response is Pavlovian. (Highly recommended: "Jesse" by Carly Simon.) Tastes mature, but I'm not sure they ever really let go. In my heart, I know "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)" has as strong a pull as "The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One."
Can I be the douche who will inevitably pop up anyway and say "I don't believe in guilty pleasures"? I can? Sweet. Maybe I just don't believe in guilt, but I enjoy various pop-cultural items for different reasons—none necessarily more valid than another. I guess this is really several questions, if we can get that deep. The "hipster douchebag" contingent, if such a thing actually exists, probably scoffs at the fact that anyone likes Coldplay or Death Cab For Cutie,because they're both easy to like and both popular. But I like 'em both, and I feel no compulsion to hide that fact. Then there's the stuff that you know is "bad," but you really enjoy anyway—and I think that makes it not-bad. I will watch every fucking movie Jason Statham is in, and enjoy most of them unabashedly. I actually thought The Bank Job was sort of boring, because it didn't have enough Statham-related ass-kicking. Crank is hilarious on purpose, and The Transporter series' action scenes are just as good as those in Casino Royale, if you're being honest with yourself, viewer. I will also watch Armageddon any time it comes on TV, and my feelings for Con Air are well-documented on this site. But I don't feel any guilt about watching them. There's always time to watch and enjoy Rachel Getting Married or Frost/Nixon later.
I'm glad Josh did it so I didn't have to. (Though I always wonder how discussion of these things would go if "guilty pleasure" were described, more accurately, as "object of desire, but only at an affected ironic distance. And so affected as to embody the very idea of pretense—and then some!") But I suppose my liking for Sex And The City would qualify here, no matter. “Like” probably isn't the right word, but I've long found SATC a pleasant show to settle on when scrolling interminably through channels and happening upon it on TBS. That took a while: I detested the show at the beginning, for lots of good knives-brandishing reasons, but after working through all of those—and definitely after the writing started getting better, which it did—I started liking certain parts enough to piece together something like enjoyment from it. And then on from there it went.
Every summer, I show incoming college freshmen a series of film clips illustrating the various problems that arise when they attempt to define movie quality. The very first one—coming immediately after the precocious teenagers have thrown out criteria like "believability" and "serious message" and "relatable characters"—is "Start Of Something New" from High School Musical. The groans and laughter that fill the room threaten to drown out Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. Of course, I'm trying to make a point: These new collegians don't really hate HSM—they are just trying to differentiate themselves from its target demographic. I encourage them to expand their horizons not only to encompass higher culture than they've so far been able to do, but in the other direction as well. Embrace the disreputable, I tell them. But my affection for HSM isn't feigned. Its stars are charismatic (for all their appalling overexposure), its tunes are mostly snappy, and its choreography energetic. By design, it harkens back to the shoestring college-revue let's-put-on-a-show B-pictures of the post-war era. The HSM secret is that it's harnessed the gee-whiz enthusiasm and theatricality of those movies as well. There are worse gateway drugs for the theater and its performance traditions, and it's not inconceivable that those legions of tweener fans might go on to enjoy Kandor and Ebb, or Kelly and Astaire, or Sondheim and Lapine—even though I'm laughed out of most adult circles before I get a chance to make that case.
Yeah, yeah, we shouldn't be embarrassed by what we like. It's a nice thought I endorse in theory, but the fact is that I keep certain parts of myself hidden when I'm around certain groups of people, because I don't feel like defending myself all the time. And it isn’t just the hipster assholes in my life who judge me. Everybody judges me, just as I judge everybody and so do you, you judgmental sons of bitches. So to protect myself, I avoid potential conflicts. When I'm around my high-school friends, whose tastes still veer toward the Adam Sandler movies and Bad Religion records they loved back in 1995, I tend not to wax rhapsodic about how sexy I find Barbara Streisand in Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 screwball classic What's Up Doc?When I'm around my mom, I don't talk about how Taxi Driver is my favorite movie of all time, and that I don't regret renting it when I was 14, like I told her when she accidentally watched it with my stepdad. I won't even try to explain to my father-in-law why I love Cruel Intentions so much. Shame, like death, is an undeniable fact of life. I'm just glad I married a woman who loves Billy Joel's The Stranger and Dallas as much as I do. Otherwise, I could never be completely honest with anybody.
I don’t know if this is a guilty pleasure or some sort of ingrained holiday coping mechanism, but Santa help me, I really do like holiday music. Yup, pretty much all of it. (Except “Good King Wenceslas.”) I look forward to the day after Halloween, when the local Lite FM station switches over to the 24-hours-o’-Christmas-shmaltz format, and I add at least one new corny holiday disc to my collection every year. (This year: Kristen Chenoweth’s A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas.) The holiday season is generally when I shed the crunchy cynical exterior I wear most of the year, and indulge the silly little elf within who likes to wear socks with candy canes on them and bake cookies. And the music is a big part of that. I blame this mostly on my mother, who’s maintained an all-Christmas-all-the-time attitude from Thanksgiving on since I was a kid, so I’m sure nostalgia plays a big part in my affliction. (This would also explain my preference for the songs that put the “Christ” in Christmas, despite the fact that I’m a total heathen who hasn’t had a need for church since Grandma used to drag me there as a young’n.) I could lay out some nuanced argument on the musical validity of these songs, but you’ve probably heard it, and what it really boils down to is this: They’re familiar, fun to sing, and they remind me of home, hearth, family, and all that bullshit. So take your humbuggery elsewhere, I have a tree to trim.