Friday, May 21, 2010

On guilty pleasures

Kevin Dettmar recently asked his readers about their "guilty pleasures." He was talking about pop music, but sadly, I don't really have any pop music guilty pleasures, unless you count Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," which I for one do not. (Genius, people!)

I do have some guilty blog pleasures, though.

They are Regretsy and Unhappy Hipsters.

Regretsy, aptly self-described as "where DIY meets WTF," mocks poorly wrought and/or ill conceived items on the popular DIY site

Unhappy Hipsters makes fun of the restrained elegance of those beautiful, unaffordable-by-normal-people homes in magazines like Dwell.

The author of Unhappy Hipsters has a hilarious knack for reading sinister motives into Scandinavian furniture. Regretsy is both vulgar and mean-spirited (I really mean it; do not show this blog to your kids), but the unapologetic intensity of April Winchell's mockery is likewise brilliant in its way, even subversive.

I have genuine misgivings about both of these blogs (Regretsy in particular). But I also like them.

Kevin points out the weird moralism in the very idea of a guilty pleasure, and I think he's right to suspect that there's an intellectual cop-out happening when we pre-ironize our own "low" tastes by disclaiming them as "guilty pleasures." We ought to be able to take a good hard look at our own aesthetic pleasures and say why we like things that we're supposed to know better than to like (because they're too predictable, too boilerplate, etc.).

Kevin gives a great example of this in his discussion of the "military Telephone" video. Kevin contrasts the first half of the video, which manifests what seems to be sincere pleasure in the pop song (with its incredibly clumsy scansion!) with what he calls "the self-consciously 'camp,' second-rate Village People section of the video." It's the earlier, sincere section of the video that's subversive, not the pre-ironized latter section. Unrestrained pleasure is a little frightening.

The other smart discussion of guilty pleasure that leaps to mind is Anne Cheng's "Beauty and Ideal Citizenship," the first chapter of The Melancholy of Race. The guilty pleasure that she names (and which I entirely share) is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1961), and the ostensible reasons for guilt lie in the film's problematic racial politics. Look at the cheesy fake Chinese lettering on the DVD cover, the stereotyping of Chinatown, the casting of all sorts of Asian Americans in the rĂ´les of Chinese Americans (including Japanese Americans as both the male lead and the ingenue), etc., etc. Look at how none of the many Asian Americans cast in the film ever really became a star. What does liking Flower Drum Song say about my politics?

But I think it's where politics intertwines with aesthetics that the guilt comes in. We don't make a habit of apologizing for liking What Maisie Knew, even when we acknowledge that there's an incredibly racist element in it. Somehow James's command of his craft makes it possible to acknowledge, and even condemn, the racism, but also to bracket it. There's a racist element in Uncle Tom's Cabin, too, but we're more likely to apologize for it because it's sentimental--and Stowe's racism is just a cover for our aesthetic embarrassment. Flower Drum Song is problematic, but it's when we add in Oscar Hammerstein's dubious talents as a librettist and the funny 60's dancing that we have ourselves a guilty pleasure. How deeply taste matters.

Cheng sees the forbidden character of Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) as the greatest locus of pleasure in Flower Drum Song. Linda is the definition of a guilty pleasure--beautiful, self-involved, transgressively successful at being both Chinese and American (her "You Be the Rock, I'll Be the Roll" number with Patrick Adiarte's Wang San is perhaps my favorite), in every way politically troubling, transgressively aware of the ways in which she performs gender, she "enjoys being a girl" and dances for her own pleasure in front of a three-way mirror. Flower Drum Song is a parable about rejecting the guilty pleasure, about letting go of Linda Low.

And yet, as Cheng points out, the film can't let go of Linda Low; it has to reject her in the narrative, but she's still the center of the spectacle. When visual pleasure meets narrative cinema, visual pleasure wins. That's why it's Nancy Kwan (in an absurd hat) on the DVD cover, not Miyoshi Umeki. The guilty pleasure that is Linda Low is at the heart of the guilty pleasure that is Flower Drum Song. Which makes Flower Drum Song also a parable about rejecting Flower Drum Song.

Perhaps what's so great about Regretsy and Unhappy Hipsters is that they take the paradigm wherein one is too self-aware to ever endorse anything fully and just go the whole hog with it. Unhappy Hipsters makes fun of the disaffected, joyless, too-cool-for-clutter aesthetic of modernist architecture (and make no mistake, I love this architecture, and very much suspect that the author of Unhappy Hipsters does too). It makes something presumed ironic into something deeply sentimental. Regretsy makes fun of earnestness with its own passionate earnestness. They're politically compromised but aesthetically committed, and it's not the compromise but the commitment that's challenging.

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