Robyn, Adele and the Curious Case of the Guilty Pleasure in 2011.
Last week I wrote a blog post about a song I considered a guilty pleasure this year: Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend." I was immediately called out for shaming people for liking Robyn, as commenters seemed to focus on the guilt part of the equation way more than the pleasure, and helpfully listed songs I should have chosen instead, or helpfully told me to go fuck myself. Fair enough, but the idea that I was looking down on people for liking popular music, well, I just couldn't be defeatist about it.
Now, hopefully someone looked past the "guilty pleasure" part of the headline, read the post and realized that wasn't my intention at all. "Call Your Girlfriend" is an infinitely catchy song that made me feel ecstatic, that caused my body to contort in unnatural ways. Twenty years ago, that song would have been considered mall-pop, something I've become far removed from as I've aged. Perhaps that was part of the guilty pleasure of it, but the point of the post was that everyone's idea of a guilty pleasure is different, a personal experience, not an exercise in shame and degradation. There are websites and 900 numbers for that, if that's your thing.
"Call Your Girlfriend" is sort of an anomaly in a year of pop hits. Consider Adele, who sings with such a deep husk in her voice you'd think she's already lived for 1,000 years. "Someone Like You," one of the singles from this year's 21, is crushing, real. It's almost gospel. Contrast that with another ballad, Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," which is more vanilla in tone but still made me feel a twinge of guilt for liking it at first listen. Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston wrote a pretty great piece about Del Rey's ascent a few weeks ago, and how her personal life and model looks overshadow her limited musical output. The bigger question: Will anyone care in six months?
And then I think of the pop tart flipside, like Merrill Garbus, aka Tune-yards. She put out my favorite album this year, Whokill, a sharp, innovative view of violence from a woman's perspective. On "Riotriot," there is a break in which Garbus hollers, "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand, and like I've never felt before." Time magazine just picked the protester as person of the year, which makes the tone of Whokill feel even more relevant.
Same goes for Erika Anderson, who performs as EMA. This year's Past Life Martyred Saints, especially its single "California," looked up at pop music from the underground. "But I'm just 22," she sings. "I don't mind dying." In 2011, the political landscape became so surreal, with young people occupying wherever they could to send just that message. Perhaps that helps explain the guilty part of the pleasure I found in "Call Your Girlfriend," especially in a year when cops and government officials are treating protesters like cockroaches that need to be squished. There's more to be concerned about than the semantics of pop music.
Truth is, all of these artists could be considered guilty pleasures, not just the popular acts. Or they don't have to be considered at all. That's all part of the personal process of listening and sifting, of finding out what feels real to you and dealing with it. There's pleasure in that, if you let it happen.
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