In a recent review of an essay collection entitled Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, Robert Walser questions the very idea of the book's premise, citing Dave Hickey and Christopher Small and their approach to contextualizing and taking seriously people's genuine pleasures that other critics flatly dismiss.* Guilty pleasures in popular culture are inherently about class and privilege. During my years as a graduate student there have been flare-ups and heated debates about this topic –– among my fellow grad students, in the classroom when I lead discussions, and in much more public forums like seminars and conference panels. It's an intense topic and some people take offense at the very idea of ironic cultural appreciation (i.e. "oh I love Fergie, but only ironically") and guilty pleasures. As a case in point, just a few days ago I noticed that two of my facebook friends joined a group called "Against the concept of guilty pleasures." Thus, the debate rages on. But it brings me to a larger theme in the academic study of music: for many music scholars (by no means all of us), there is the music we passionately enjoy, and then there is the music we study (which, no doubt, has its own passions).
I know of a few music scholars who study pleasures that they consider guilty and a few others who refuse to study the music they love. Some keep these divisions separated in their lives by period (i.e. an 19th century music scholar who is passionate about EMO, the medievalist who is obsessed with Beck), while others have their loves and objects of study in much closer temporal and geographic proximity (i.e. the Brazilianist with a strong interest in contemporary art music, the North African music scholar with a love for jazz, the rock music scholar with a secret passion for Film Music). I even know one ethnomusicologist who began his dissertation research on a particular genre simply because he so passionately hated the music that he wanted to understand its popularity. He's upfront about this, and sometimes I wish others of us would be clear about our motivations in our work. Surely we all make our choices for our subjects of study for a variety of reasons, but I want to challenge this separtion a little bit more.
Just the other night, I ran into some ethnomusicologists at a jazz/fusion show. An old friend of mine was playing with his band and I decided to see them again after numerous prodding emails and phone calls. The show was great as usual, but seeing my colleagues was, well, a little awkward. In one sense, it forced me to read the concert ethnographically and even hindered the experience for what it was. In another sense, none of us was there because we study this music. I know that one of my colleagues was there because he, too, is friends with a member of the band, while the other one simply told me, "yeah, these guys are great! More people should know about them!" Jazz/fusion shows tend to draw a certain demographic, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the fact that as a woman, I was in the minority. And I love this music, but I am extremely uncomfortable studying it. Before I decided to specialize in Brazilian music, I thought I was going to work on the intersections of jazz and electronic dance music. (Ask me some time about my MA exams or my MA thesis...) I changed specializations for many reasons, but among them was that I did not feel comfortable analyzing the musical cultures of my closest childhood friends.
Similarly, I discovered during my second year at my MA program that I am incapable of studying music for which I have intense emotions, especially the music I connect with my adolescence. When I decided that musicology was for me, I knew that I would eventually run into this problem – I just never predicted the multitude of ways that it would present itself in my life and in academia. In fact, during my first years as an undergraduate learning about musicology, my mentor told me that for many people, "popular music is either too important for intellectual discussion, or not important enough." Have I fallen prey to the very values that make it so difficult for popular music scholarship to attain the same prestige as, say, the canon?
But these choices and personal observations are my own; they do not apply to everyone. (For example, I know of plenty of excellent scholars who study what they love, regardless, or even because of, that personal attachment.) I have a feeling that many of the essays that caused Robert Walser to react so strongly to Bad Music have to do with scholars attempting to intellectually reconcile the music that causes them mixed emotions and abject reactions with the charge of being popular music scholars. Theoretically, we should take one-hit wonders as seriously as we take Louis Armstrong or jazz/fusion bands, and we should surely be able to study the music that is most dear to us. I guess the question for many of us is whether or not we want to go down that particular rabbit hole of personal taste verses intellectual duty. I'm still unsure myself.
* Robert Walser, Review of Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derko, New York: Routledge, 2004, Journal of the Society for American Music 1 (2007): 511-516.