Guilty pleasures and other travesties
I’ve occasionally written on this blog about the music that I like, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever admitted that the song from the last decade that I’ve probably played the most is Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It’s as close to indefensible as I can imagine without being actively offensive: it’s a sonic trifle that gains its appeal entirely from a hefty sample from Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a legitimately good song to which “Whatcha Say” attaches itself like a remora. Take away that load-bearing sample, and the rest of it would fall apart. Yet that’s part of the reason I like it. Derulo—who wasn’t even twenty years old at the time—and his collaborators saw something in the original track, with a big assist from a famous scene from The OC and its even more famous parody by the Lonely Island, and rode it to the top of the Billboard charts. I’m not even mad; I’m impressed. “Whatcha Say” wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for a moment of opportunistic ingenuity that took Heap’s moody vocoder vocal and remixed it into the core of a mercenary radio hit. And as much as it pains me to say it, I like it better than “Hide and Seek.” It isn’t as lugubrious or self-important; it’s about nothing except for itself, and I could listen to it forever. I could conceivably use it as a case study in the power of sampling, and I’ve occasionally thought about writing a post on the subject, if only to have an excuse to talk about it. But I can’t really defend it to anyone.
In other words, it’s the definition of a guilty pleasure. I think it’s best to start with a purely legalistic reading of the word “guilty,” which hinges on the idea that you’re a free agent who can choose between right and wrong, and you deliberately chose wrong. A guilty pleasure should be a violation of your own high standards, not those of society at large. You might not like, say, Stephen King’s It, which is my favorite American novel published in my lifetime, but that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure for me: I think it’s legitimately great in a way that “Whatcha Say” isn’t. A guilty pleasure is also something different from a flawed masterpiece. When I put together my alternative canon of movies last month, I deliberately avoided guilty pleasures: I wanted to write about films that I think everyone should see. A true guilty pleasure is inherently autobiographical and personal: it resonates with you in particular in a way that it might not for anybody else. A list of my guilty pleasures may not tell you more about me than a ranking of my favorite movies or books, but it’s a crucial part of the picture. And it provides an indispensable sort of balance to my inner life, as the critic Christopher Morley once observed:
There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.
So what are my guilty pleasures? Aside from “Whatcha Say,” they include the first season of the MTV reality series The Hills, which I can watch for hours on end with the same detached contentment that I once felt with the screensaver on my old desktop Mac; Kevin Spacey’s directorial debut Beyond the Sea, in which he channels the late singer Bobby Darin in a performance that goes beyond impersonation into something like demonic possession; the movie of Angels & Demons, but not the book; the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon; true crime books like Fatal Vision or Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, as long as they’re at least five hundred pages long; the airplane novels of Arthur Hailey; the video for Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” None falls into the category of “It’s so bad, it’s good,” except maybe for Lost Horizon. Most are professional pieces of work, at least within the limits that they’ve set for themselves, and even the ones that fall short of their own standards, like Beyond the Sea, make me feel oddly protective, almost paternal: I can’t condescend to them, because I understand them. I know what Spacey was trying to do, and I respect him for it, even if the result is less a good movie than an ode to the genial fakery that he brings to even his best roles. Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen. I love Beyond the Sea because it’s literally about nothing else. But that doesn’t mean you will.
Another factor that many of these works have in common is that they’re travesties—imitations, remakes, or derivations of earlier, obviously superior efforts. Kevin Spacey is a travesty of Bobby Darin, no matter if he sings as well or better; Lost Horizon is a travesty of the novel and classic movie; “Whatcha Say” is nothing if not a travesty of “Hide and Seek.” This means that they dramatize, in particularly stark terms, something fundamental about the guilty pleasure: the idea that we’re choosing to indulge in something bad, instead of a world of better options. That’s where the guilt comes in. It operates under the assumption that our lives as readers, viewers, and listeners amount to a zero-sum game, and that every minute we spend on junk is a minute that we can’t devote to something more worthwhile. This might be technically correct, but it misses the larger point. There may not be world enough or time for us to take in every great work of art, but we can experience pretty much all of it, if we’re so inclined, and it leaves us ample room for the mediocre, or worse. You could even argue that works that leave us unchanged, and that do nothing more than fill a pleasant five minutes or an hour, are part of a balanced diet, as Morley noted. The nice thing about “Whatcha Say” or The Hills is that it doesn’t get in the way of anything else, and it satisfies me in uncomplicated ways that leave me available later for more complex pleasures. And at the end of my life, if you ask me if I’m happy with how I spent my time, I’ll gladly quote Imogen Heap: I only meant well. Well, of course I did. And it’s all for the best.