„You can criticise Taylor Swift, but not George Michael”

Yaroslav Blokhin

Once frowned upon, pop music has become a must for every music connoisseur. You get suspicious looks if you don’t have guilty pleasures, says music critic Carl Wilson in our interview and explains how we have come to love what we used to hate.

In your book ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ that came out in 2007, you analyse Céline Dions famous album of the same name and take it as a starting point to ponder the meaning of bad taste and what makes us feel ashamed of certain things we like. Do you have a lot of guilty pleasures?
I don’t have that experience with music very often anymore. Probably because I have thought so much about it over the past years. But I do get it with TV, when I see something really cheesy or fake that somehow still gets to me, like a teen soap opera. There is a vague feeling of embarrasment, when I like it. But it’s not necessarily shame because of me liking it but because of the question, if something is worthy of your time or not. Are cheesy romcoms really the best way to spend my free time?

You feel it’s a waste of time?
Not so much a waste of time but just not the best option. Instead of scrolling on Facebook I could read a book instead or spend time with my friends or family.

The philosopher Kenneth Goldsmith actually challenges the widespread assumption that “wasting time on the Internet” is a waste of time. He argues that it demands active engagement and thereby makes us more social and creative. Do you agree?
I agree, but it’s a question of proportions, I think. The complete refusal to use Facebook or watch TV because it can lead to procrastination is also not good. It’s a kind of puritanical reaction. We should be allowed to ‘waste’ some time.

Coming back to the feeling of shame. Usually you would feel ashamed of something you like but when George Michael died and I told people that I think he is overrated, I was criticized a lot and felt ashamed for actually not liking his music.
Shaming works in strange ways. At the height of George Michaels commercial success, you would have found plenty of people agreeing with you, that he is overrated. But when the artist is in the rearview mirror and no longer a ‘threat’ to the hierarchy of taste, when he or she is not part of the current popculture debate anymore, then people become far more soft on them. Taylor Swift? Sure, you can criticise her, but George Michael? We have developed our own rituals around celebrity deaths now and they do not include criticism. It’s purely based on paying tribute. That reinforces the unspeakability of any negative feelings about that artist. When Elvis died in the 1970s, it was much easier for people to privately criticise him, but now the mourning happens in public and sharing negative feelings about a deceased musician is like voicing criticism at a funeral. It’s just not allowed.

The feeling of shame vanishes over time and we now celebrate the popstars that were detested at the height of their success . Do you think that reinforces a higher acceptance of today’s bubblegum pop?
I am not sure. Take the EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers for example, they have a lot of critics, because they are changing the trajectory of pop music. When “Let’s Talk About Love” hit the shelves ten years ago, Céline Dion was still a pop figure that people talked about and attacked. But she was granted immunity a few years back, because she is no longer an active part of the debate. Modern-day pop acts are not as fortunate. They don’t have the benefit of nostalgia.

Because nostalgia makes everything better – even a past we disliked.
Exactly, Céline Dion also represents Titanic and 90s fashion faux pas and especially for people between 30 and 40, she also represents their youth.

Why do you think guilty pleasures are such a big part of our current culture? Is it just nostalgia?
No, that would be too simplistic. Our taste is also our identity. We define ourselves by what we like. Taste can be at the core of a group identity as well. It is such a strong instrument of differenciation. Then there is also the perception, that art is supposed to be enlightening instead of just hedonistic. That makes it hard to openly like something that is not considered high-brow culture. The guilty pleasure is a way around that.

But you have to earn it. The guilty pleasure is only allowed because you have proven that you have good taste. As in listening to five Sonic Youth songs allows you to listen to one song by Britney Spears.
That’s a way musical taste has evolved in the past decade or two. Guilty pleasures were not a thing in the 70s or 80s. It would have been dubious. Because you had your musical genre, and you stuck to it. But if you only listen to what the cool kids listen to today, it makes you seem narrow-minded. Pop has become an obligation for music nerds. Your taste profile needs a broad variety of styles, not all of them should be considered good.

It’s fascinating how bad taste has become an extremely positive concept. There are bad taste parties celebrating the absolute worst of the worst. It has stripped bad taste of its own meaning.
It’s a countercultural battle that was fought and won. The tag bad taste is now owned by people that are very proud of their taste and consider it good. Bad taste has become a transgressive phenomenon. The director John Waters has used the term to delineate who’s square and who’s edgy, for example.

But what is then, objectively, bad and how can you differentiate between good bad and genuinely bad?
That’s a hard question but I think that we are in a much more sophisticated place today when it comes to taste because we are being exposed to so much more. There is no scarcity of culture anymore and so we have come to accept the validity of different worlds and trends. That also means, that we are no longer so serious about our own taste and think we have to defend it at every occasion. That was certainly different a few decades ago. I think that also resulted in us not being so bent on judging everything straight away. There is still genuinly bad taste but we show mercy a lot of the time. Also, shame doesn’t need to be a bad experience.

How so?
In the same way that sadness is also celebrated or at least positively connoted. It’s a human reaction that tells us something about ourself. It’s not really a utopia for me if everybody has a wide-open, let-it-all-hang-out-sense of culture. Shame has its place in culture. The problem starts, when we start to take advantage of things in a hostile way, when we start shaming and attacking others.

I recently read about the Disco Demolition Night. A radio station called upon its audience in 1979 to destroy disco by publicly burning disco records before a local baseball game. The promotion stunt ended in a riot and was expressive of racism and homophobia. That’s the shaming that goes too far.
At that time, disco was extremely commercially dominant. The strange thing is that it was music for the marginalised: gays and the black community. Then there was a white, homophobic backclash because of others gaining ground. The same happens today with the Trump presidency.

Is it fair to say that although pop music is more generally accepted today, it is still the primary target for critique?
It’s an easy prey. Pop music is like parents: you hate it when you are young and then you patch up things as you get older. It’s also by definition the most mainstream music and we live in the most egocentric of times. Individuality is sacred and pop is the opposite of that. Also, pop is predominantly understood as a female genre because of its focus on feelings and emotions. Most men do not want to be associated with that. Those prejudices persist.

I think it also comes down to authenticity. Emotions are also the centre of all other musical genres but the perception is different. Listening to Björk sing about heartbreak feels more genuine than hearing Céline Dion do the same thing.
It depends on how you see the world. Many people do not question the facade of the pop commercial world. It feels genuine. Connecting to a sad Björk song is probably something that most people do alone and in their own way. But pop music is more social and it is an experience you share with many people. It evokes the presence of a public, even when you are alone. Pop is not an introspective form of music. It is not a dark night of the soul.

Would you describe artist like Björk or Nick Cave as authentic?
They are definitely genuine but it depends what you mean by authenticity. I mean Nick Cave is a master of theatrical performance. You don’t go to a Nick Cave gig in order to find truth. His fans prefer his kind of artificiality over the one that pop acts put on. It depends on what you are willing to believe.

Then again, an artist like Father John Misty uses ‘fakeness’ in order to create an authentic stage persona. He is honest about being fake.
That is the oldest trick in art: putting on a mask to tell the truth. Father John Misty opens the engine room of showbusiness and shows us, in a very ironic manner, how artistic showmanship works. Spontaneity is a rare occurrence in performance and he is not trying to hide that.

And irony helps him get away with it
Irony is an aquired taste. Father John Misty appeals to people that like art from a safe distance. To other people, irony can seem hostile.

Could Céline Dion pull off irony?
Her fans like that she has a sense of humour about herself but she is serious about what she is doing and would never mock the performance and the audience for believing in it.

We talked a lot about bad taste. What, in conclusion, do you think is good taste then?
Good taste is probably more individual than bad taste. I don’t think there is objectively good taste but there is consensus taste: Things that you and the people around you can agree on. Sometimes that consensus is quite big, other times it is not. But it is never a given.

Carl Wilson is Slate’s music critic and the author of several books.

Filed under Shame
Max Tholl
Author

Max is a journalist writing about pop culture, society and politics. His free time is spent digging through record bins and perfecting his karaoke version of Elton John's 'Rocket Man'. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram.