Let’s Stop with This Whole ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Nonsense, Please
Pop music – short for popular, right?
A fairly obvious but often forgotten statement, divulged by none other than Harry Styles in a Rolling Stone interview, is part of the interesting great debate about pop music and its value. Pop music is increasingly looked down on by ‘music lovers’ and critics alike as merely a guilty pleasure. This is arguably the most humiliating step for an artist as it seems to confine them to merely a filler in a ‘cheesy’ hits playlist. Apple Music offers us ‘Ultimate Cheese’. Spotify wants you to join the 458,136 listeners who already follow the rather over-enthusiastically titled ‘Cheesy Hits!’, complete with a literal cheesy icon of some melted emmenthal on toast. But what exactly makes a song ‘cheesy’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’, and is it time we scrapped those labels?
A quick (and arguably peppy) trip through these playlists soon indicate a pattern of recurring themes: having a good time (‘We’re Going to Ibiza!’, ‘Best Day of My Life’), love to the point of infatuation (‘Teenage Dirtbag’, ‘She’s So Lovely’) and the wedding party floorfillers for the relatives and friends to dance the night away to (‘Macarena’, ‘Rock DJ’, need I go on?).
Whilst it’s unlikely the creators of these songs will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon, they are influential in their own charming and catchy way and ultimately, they do no harm. Usually, we don’t remember the first time we heard them – they’ve just always been there; they’re almost a part of the furniture. For many, they’re even often associated with certain memories and points in our lives, or markers in national history.
Spare a moment and think about some classic examples of these so-called ‘cheesy hits’. Although a satirical take on the boom in cheap package holidays in the early 80s, Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ told us “don’t worry, you can suntan!”, in a track which wouldn’t have found success in any other decade.
Likewise, amidst the Madchester movement of the early 90s and the Britpop dominated world of Blur, Oasis and countless others, ‘Wannabe’ saw the the Spice Girls burst onto the scene with their debut single in a manner similar to how they upend the classy bohemian party in the track’s video. Despite how it’s often met with a raised eyebrow when played, ‘Wannabe’ is undoubtedly an audible zeitgeist emblem of the mid-1990s in the UK, and won British Single of the Year at the 1997 BRIT Awards and has become a symbol of female empowerment. Whilst it’s easy to dismiss these songs as soon as they’re added to these infamous playlists, it should be remembered that often, what they represent has a significant role in the canon of our history and culture.
It’s also worth commenting at this point on what happens when one or more members of a hugely successful pop act embark on a solo career and break away from the associations of their previous success. Two classic examples of this are Harry Styles and George Michael – hugely appreciated as solo acts, yet their group efforts as One Direction and Wham! are disregarded as cheesy and substandard.
Naturally, solo and group work understandably takes on different styles and forms, however it creates an argument in itself when a musician enhances part of their previously hidden talent and allows it to blossom into a solo career. If they simply build on what worked before and use it to start something new, this surely adds confusion as to what exactly is being analysed in the big picture of the argument.
The vocalist on ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ is the same man who performed on ‘Praying for Time’ six years later, on a sombre and sobering reflection of societal ills and injustice. Similarly, Harry Styles’ 2017 solo breakthrough ‘Sign of the Times’ is written from the point of view of a mother in labour with complications, six years after the fun of One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’. These earlier and playful hits often lead to something greater or mature from the same artist, and although they’re usually quite contrasting to the tracks released later in a career, they’re a useful reminder of how far an artist has come, and therefore don’t deserve to simply be discarded as ‘cheesy favourites’.
Of course, that’s certainly not to say all pop music is necessarily ‘highbrow’, or even deserves to be viewed as such. Often, it simply pulls off a good job of doing just what it says on the tin, becoming popular and gaining fans across the world having created a recipe for something hard to perfect. If these tracks also turn out to be memorable numbers of a particular summer, year, or even decade, I don’t think there’s any harm in that.
Perhaps it’s about time to shed the labels and appreciate these pieces for what they are, as it’s unlikely the world of pop music will stop trying anytime soon. Personally, I’m quite excited to see who’ll be next in the coming years to try and have us dancing in the moonlight or telling us to reach up for the stars. Don’t stop believing, I guess.