It’s ‘Okay to Like’ Guilty Pleasures


“It’s okay to like your favorite shows again, even if they have no cultural value or societal significance,” a person informed my friend.  “As long as the preference for the show is characterized as a guilty pleasure.”

After receiving permission to enjoy the show my friend once so enjoyed, she began binge watching the show on Netflix. She watched this show in the manner of one catching up with an old friend, after a prolonged absence. She knew the show was a silly sitcom, and she also knew that the premise of that show –though somewhat relevant in its era– had become dated and insignificant. So, even though she had always loved the show, she stopped watching it, even in private, until that friend of hers ‘gave her permission’ to end that prolonged exile, informing her that ‘it is now okay’ to enjoy that show again.

o-GILLIGAN-facebookAs with ubiquitous idioms of this sort, I heard the terms ‘given permission,’ ‘guilty pleasure,’ and ‘it’s okay to like’ before. When everyone begins saying such things, however, I’m left wondering where I was in the gestation cycle of the phrase. I didn’t think the phrases funny, when I first began hearing them, or if they were intended to be funny. I didn’t think they provided an interesting twist on the art of decision-making, and I didn’t think that I would ever be incorporating them into my decision-making process, or the explanations to others regarding my choices.

I just thought it was an odd way for one person to frame the dietary decisions she had made, and that’s where it started for me.  I’d heard people, largely women, framing dietary cheats this way. ‘I’ve been good,’ they would say before they took a bite of something they knew damaged the discipline they had exhibited to that point. They then gave themselves permission to eat what they wanted based on that established discipline, and they called those cheats guilty pleasures. At some point, these phrases made a crossover into other decisions, until people began framing all of their decisions with these qualifiers. They also began informing me that I should frame my decisions in this manner, that I should give it a spin, as it were, and that with these qualifiers, I could now make my decisions free from the guilt associated with prying eyes.

“Why wouldn’t it be okay for me to like the television shows I enjoy?” I would ask when the phrases began crossing over into entertainment choices. At this point in the gestation cycle of these phrases it was obvious that something had already happened. I didn’t know if it happened in the shows I never watch, some movie I missed, or if the phrase had been repeated in a commercial, or a number of commercials, but some vehicle had imprinted these phrases so deeply into the craniums of the people I speak with that they were using the phrases without knowing why. I’ve often found that the best way to cut to the heart of the matter is to ask a question so obvious that no one ever thought of it before.  ‘Why isn’t okay for me to like what I like?’ and ‘Why am I then required to qualify my choices in a manner that prevents you from thinking less of me?’ I began asking variations of these questions of those that posed these notions to me, and as with most idioms of this sort, no one knows why. They just hear other people framing their decisions in this manner, until they find themselves doing it.

After questioning a number of these people, I made the mistake of dismissing these phrases on the basis that no one understood why they did it, and I assumed that it would have a very short shelf life, until everyone I knew began repeating these phrases in almost the same context, and Google searches began revealing websites that were being built around the idea that ‘It’s ok to like’ this today, and ‘it’s okay to dislike’ other things. I even found a Twitter page that gave its visitors permission to like some things and to like other people that like other things. It’s difficult to determine how tongue-in-cheek these grants of permission are, or if these people enjoy being on the cutting edge of cultural trends.

Then, I hear that my friend is now binge watching her favorite show of all-time again, and she’s characterizing it as her ‘one guilty pleasure’. She drops that phrase, I could only assume, to prevent me from thinking less of her for watching such a dated, irrelevant show. She cared what I thought of her, in that instance, and I rationalized that unless we have a master plan of dropping out of the human race, we all care what others think to a point where we need to develop some kind of shield to protect our inner sanctum from prying eyes. Those that have attempted to loft the very high school era idea that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them have inevitably run into the ‘thou doth protest too much’ wall that reveals that they probably care more than anyone else. One could say that this ‘guilty pleasure’ allowance has not only ‘given us permission’ to enjoy the shows we enjoyed so much at one time, it gave rise to an industry in which cable channels like TV Land could prosper, and a Netflix was born, and the whole idea of binge watching became a permissible and acceptable guilty pleasure.

The first question I would’ve asked this ‘guilty pleasure’ friend of my friend that granted her permission to like her favorite show again is, ‘How many guilty pleasures is one person permitted, and what happens to that person that violates the excessive quantity principle of the lack of quality edict?’ One would assume that the term guilty pleasure is intended to be exclusive to one, or at least a few, products.  Are these guilty pleasures exclusive within industries? Can one have more than one television show they consider a guilty pleasure, and if so, is it specific to genre? If one has more than one ‘60’s era, silly sitcom, that they characterize as a guilty pleasure, is that a violation of guilty pleasure principle, and if the person has too many guilty pleasures will they end up spending so much time pleasuring themselves that they may find themselves walking around with burdensome guilt? Would that person be deemed unimportant, and would that lead them to being ostracized from the hip, in touch groups in a manner reminiscent of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel?’ Who are these social architects that dictate to society what is and what isn’t okay to watch? And how did this need for the ‘guilty pleasure’ qualifier come about, so that we can watch what we want without undue scrutiny?

We’ve all been informed that The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island are okay to dislike, by these people, because these shows, and all shows like them, are impossible to take seriously. They say that these shows depict a silly and foolish era that we’ve all moved beyond, and ‘good riddance!’ they often add. At some point, however, they decide there is some quaint, retro glory in these shows, and they decide that ‘it’s now okay’ to go back and like these shows again, as long as the individual qualifies those viewings as a guilty pleasure. I would not listen to these people regardless how prestigious others deem them to be, but to those that do listen, I would ask, ‘What gives them the credibility to decide for you?’ It would seem to me that they gain their bona fides solely by making the claim that they know what it is that’s ‘okay to like’ and what is not, and what should be listed as a guilty pleasure.

***

My lifelong enjoyment of Gilligan’s Island could be called a ‘guilty pleasure’, if the term is defined as: “Something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” I know how dumb and silly the show is. I also know that in the broad, cultural sense it has no redeemable qualities. Yet, I do not feel guilty about any association I may have had, or will continue to have with the show, and I have no problem floating back in time to that place in time when I watched Gilligan’s Island every day for years.

This leads to that silly argument of extension that suggests that anything one is not ashamed of, must be something for which they hold such a sense of pride that they should be willing and able to defend, and those that don’t do either are taking the spineless, Switzerland position of critiquing both sides while trying to avoid vulnerability on the point. I understand that complaint, but remember we are talking about television shows here, and if I were forced to mount a defense for this television show –to avoid the spineless Switzerland position– it would be made in defense of silliness.

Gilligan’s Island was silly and dumb, as I’ve said, but so was one of the most celebrated, critically acclaimed, and award winning shows of our time: Seinfeld.  If we were to break this brilliant show down to its core, we would find silliness. The keys to Seinfeld’s success, it would seem to me, lay in its creative way to turn a phrase, and its ability capture a comprehensive thought with creative brevity. The writers were also hell bent on making a story flow through an arc and return to the theme of an episode with a “no hugging and no learning” themed resolution.

Gilligan’s Island could be said to be one of the predecessors of this “no hugging and no learning” theme that would later specifically be employed Seinfeld. It could also be argued that most of the shows of that era were based on this “no hugging and no learning” theme, and that the cultural relevance brigade with their “applause ready” soundbites, “poignant, thought-provoking, and very special” plot lines, with lots of hugging, and learning, and crying came later. It could also be argued that Seinfeld, and its “no hugging and no learning” theme was a return to that era when sitcoms didn’t try to be more than they were. They just wanted to make people laugh in an era when no one felt guilty about doing just that.

If the reader knows anything about Gilligan’s Island, and a growing number of people do not, they know that Gilligan’s Island would never be confused with having anything to do with cultural relevance. The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, stated as much when he said that if there was anything political about the show it existed in an intended apolitical theme. His exact quote, as listed in a Mental Floss piece on the show, was that Gilligan’s Island represented, “A metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.”

As a political person that has been reminded, throughout my life, how divisive politics can be, I think we could all benefit from more “no hugging and no learning” shows. The problems with such shows is that no one feels important watching them, and we all have a need to feel important. Some of us even strive so hard for importance that we claim that we watch shows we never watch, read books we have not read, and listen to important music that no one listens to. Silly shows will never make a person feel important, they will not win awards, TV critics won’t talk about them, and water cooler speakers don’t often talk about “no hugging and no learning” shows, or if they do, it’s not reported on by TV critics that consider these type of shows guilty pleasures.

Seinfeld is the exception to all of these statements, of course, but that show developed such a groundswell of popularity that it caught people by surprise. The quality of the writing on the show was never in question, but there was never a “very special” plot line that critics could wrap their arms around. Critics sought a seminal episode to explain the ethos, and the manner in which it intertwined with the culture, explained it, or rose above it. When none of that happened, they decided to ‘give us permission’ to like she show based on the ‘guilty pleasure’ of watching a show about nothing.

The problem for the other silly, non-award winning, and panned by TV critics’ shows, is that quality writers don’t want to write for them, as most formulaic shows that eschew politics in their “no hugging and no learning” apolitical themes offer little in the way of sprucing up resumes.

What’s hilarious about the world these cultural doyens draw up, with their ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’ parameters, is that they’re often aghast when a cultural figure from the other side of the aisles decree that there are shows ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’, based on that cultural figure’s political and psychological underpinnings. With no objective understanding of what they do, the cultural doyens chastise the cultural figures for having the temerity to suggest that they can dictate what anyone should or shouldn’t watch. These people then ask us to join them in directing a “very special” special finger at the dastardly decision makers that they believe should be granted exclusive rights to that finger. Yet, I believe if we viewed these arguments in an objective manner, we should be able find a “very special” place in our hearts to provide both sides that finger.

As Jennifer Szalai details in her The New Yorker piece, the term guilty pleasure is almost exclusive to America. She provides an example in the way of a Frenchman interviewing for a job in America, in which he was asked what his guilty pleasures were. The Frenchman was confused. He claimed that he had never heard the term, and that the best translation he could find applied to matters no one he knew talked about. If a Gilligan’s Island was popular among the cultural elites in France, in other words, no one would knew it, because they didn’t talk about it. In America, on the other hand, it’s something we enjoy talking about almost as much as we do watching the shows.

“You make sure to talk about (your guilty pleasures) –which is why the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn’t announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you’re most comfortable in the élite precincts of high art, but you’re not so much of a snob that you can’t be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch (a show like Gilligan’s Island) implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust.”

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The Uncompromising, and Unsuccessful, Band Called Death


“Sometimes, your convictions are just wrong,” is the theme, the moral, and the import of a movie called: A Band Called Death. This line is so integral to this movie that it would have been a pertinent, provocative subtitle for the movie.

This movie tells the story of how a man of strong, artistic convictions –and the rest of the loyal band mates, that backed his conviction in public– decided to tell one of the most powerful men in the music industry to go to hell … and how that decision ended up destroying what could’ve been a career in music.

A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death

I realize that I’m not in the business, and I don’t know what sells, but this theme seems so integral to the movie that the producers should’ve considered for the byline to distinguish it from the movies of the week, documentaries, and docudramas that focus on the theme of how a man of artistic integrity fought against the man, the industry, and the corporate execs “that don’t know music” and won. 

Such feel good stories are legion in our culture, because they appeal to the very American “underdog” mentality, and they allow us to dream of a day when we, too, stand up to the man, tell him to go to hell, and win out with our visions of uncompromising, artistic purity. These are very romantic stories that involve little guys proving that their instincts were right in the end and the man’s (Clive Davis in this case) were wrong.

A Band Called Death is not one of these stories.

These romanticized stories are told so often, most often in America it seems, that some of us make the mistake of believing that they are common in an artistic industry like the music business. They’re not, and some part of us knows this, but those same parts of us wish they were true more often, and that’s what makes them so compelling.

What is more common, as illustrated in the movie A Band Called Death, is that the music industry executive, and the man in general, knows more about the industry than the uncompromising, twenty-something artists.

“Nothing against (the corporate, industry honchos),” you often hear the good-natured, ‘no hard feelings’ little-guys-turned-stars suggest. “They know the music industry, but they just did’t understand our music, and our fans, and they couldn’t see what we were trying to do. They were more interested in the cookie cutter band that do things in a more normal, more popular manner to appeal to Middle America. We held true to our convictions, and the rest is history, our history, baby.”

This history, in this case the history of modern music, would be written without a band called Death in it, because they refused to compromise, a decision that left them in the large slush pile of the uncompromising.

Clive Davis heard the band called Death, and he enjoyed their music so much that he decided to sign them. Even though their music, punk music, was outside his particular area of expertise, he decided to give them a chance. He decided to pay for them to have the studio time necessary to record an album, he offered them a recording contract that amounted to them receiving $20,000 a piece, big money in 1971, and a man like Clive Davis doesn’t make such offerings without first knowing how tempestuous musicians can be. He didn’t want to change their act, and he believed in them and what they intended to do, but he did have one misgiving: the name of the band.

The other members of the band called Death were not married to the name. They appeared to like the name, but their convictions did not extend to the point that if a man like Clive Davis informed them that he did not like the name they would not change it. Guitarist, and founder of the band, David Hackney, was another matter. The name of the band, and his whole reason for forming the band. The name was based on the death of Hackney’s father, and David developed themes and created designs built around the name. He even went so far as to have T-shirts made. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to change the name of the band no matter what. At one point, Hackney even went so far in the presumed, yet not detailed negotiations, as to tell someone involved in the negotiations to tell one of the most powerful men in the music business, Clive Davis, “To go to Hell!”

Before any reader leaps to their feet in applause, they should consider the fact that Clive Davis had enough experience in the industry, and in the market, to know that some artistic convictions just will not work. Before anyone raises their fist in solidarity of Hackney’s provocative rebellion, they should consider that anyone who worked with talent for as long as Davis had, understood artistic temperament, and that artistic variation was his life’s blood. They should also consider the fact that the man worked with a wide array of artists including: Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow, Carlos Santana, and Aretha Franklin. A man who has worked with such a wide array of talent doesn’t do so with an uncompromising ego. We can guess that he was forced to indulge artistic temperaments throughout his career, and that he may even have encouraged obnoxious rebellion to his requests, but that he learned, somewhere along the way, that the road to success occurs at a crossroads between artistic idealism and the realities of the industry.

Davis, like any talent executive, knew talent when he spotted it. He knew that all talent can be tweaked, but that there are some vital ingredients to all artists that makes them unique. He knew that if one tweaked that natural talent too much, they could end up losing the unique quality that made them the exceptional talents that he had decided to sign. A man like Davis couldn’t have achieved half of what he did in the music business, if he wasn’t able to recognize when to tweak and when not to tweak.

As a man that existed in the industry decades before a band called Death, Davis encountered all sorts of artistic convictions in the music business too, and one has to imagine that his well-honed instincts told him that some of them don’t work. One has to imagine that he stood aside while some of these artists pursued their artistic, idealistic ideas, and he was even surprised when some of them worked. One has to believe he allowed his artists to pursue some loony ideas, as long as those ideas would be supported by investors, and the other segments of the industry. One has to imagine that he also learned that he shouldn’t nix or approve such ideas on his own, and that he made some mistakes along the way with regard to his own instincts prior to spotting a band called Death, until it dawned on him that he would need a team of advisers to provide a check on his decision making process. One has to imagine that Davis didn’t like the idea of the name Death for a band, but he was willing to put it to his investors and advisers, and that they nixed the idea too. It’s great for an outlandish artist to be different, and somewhat loony, in other words, but there are lines in the sand drawn by segments of industry, that know their customers’ lines in the sand, and that those lines were far different in 1971 than they are today.

Clive Davis was later proven correct when the members of Death attempted to release a single without him, and they were greeted with rejection every step of the way. The members of the band told the documentarians of A Band Called Death that the rejection they faced had little to do with the music, or their overall talent. The rejection, they said, had everything to do with that moment when they were forced to reveal the name of their band to the various outlets they pursued. One of the band members claimed that after a time, he would cringe when the name of band would arise. He stated that he had nothing against the name, and he knew Hackney’s drive to maintain the name, but the band member experienced negative reactions to the name so many times that he would cringe when it came up. 

After enduring years of such rejection, Hackney finally relented. He changed the name of the band to The 4th Movement, and the band changed their form of music from punk rock to gospel. After this proved unsuccessful, the other band members formed a reggae band called Lambsbread. The band called Death would eventually receive some of the notoriety they felt they deserved, thirty-five years later, and eight years after David Hackney’s death. 

As with every other musical act in existence, it’s possible that Death may have never achieved fame, but the prospect of having the Clive Davis name behind them, his pocketbook, and his promotions team must have caused some internal squabbles and sleepless nights among the Death members. When the final realization struck that their window had indeed closed, one can only cringe when we think about how close they were. That cringe becomes almost painful when we try to imagine what David Hackney must have went through when it finally became clear to him that his righteous, rebellious conviction was wrong, and it wasn’t just Clive Davis who disagreed with him. Everyone did, and it cost him what could’ve been. By the time he finally realized the errors of his way, it was too late. His window of opportunity closed.   

It’s easy for those of us watching the movie A Band Called Death to criticize David Hackney, in hindsight. It’s easy for us to cringe when we learn that the members of his band told him, in private, that his decision to stick with the name of the band was beyond foolish. Hackney believed in his band, however, and he believed that the name Death, and the theme that spawned from it, was the comprehensive idea behind the band gelling so well together. The idea of listening to Clive Davis, however, selecting a different name, and moving onto a career with a different name, may have felt “plastic” to the 1971 Hackney.

We can also assume that the impulse to tell Clive Davis to go to hell felt so right to Hackney, in the moment, based in part on the age he lived in. In the 50’s, music execs controlled the music world, and the stars did everything their handlers told them, because they felt fortunate to be in the position they were in. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the climate began to change, and more bands began carving out their own niches, telling those in authority positions to go to hell and succeeding after doing so. Hackney may have considered the idea that he would, one day, be rubbing elbows with Pete Townshend, Alice Cooper, and all the other top stars of the day, and he may have thought that the act of telling Clive Davis to go to hell would be a point of appreciation among them. We can assume, Hackney loved all the same stories we’ve all heard of rock and roll stars believing in what they did so much that they were willing to tell those who opened doors for them to go to hell, and that romanticized notion may have driven Hackney to do it. We can also assume, he didn’t consider how many of these stories were myths created by the band, or even the record executives, to bolster the renegade, rock and roll image that fans almost require of their rock and roll heroes.

The theme, and moral, of the story of The Band Called Death is that some of the times, some of your uncompromising convictions are wrong, ill-advised, and just plain dumb. Some of the times, the man knows more about the matter at hand than we do, and as much as it makes us feel like a tool to do so, some of the times it’s better to listen to him. Some of the times, the difference between landing in the slush pile and success involves making some compromises, even when it breaks our heart to do so.

In truth, we don’t know how many of our favorite rock stars made compromises to get to the top, as it does nothing for them, or their industry guys, to reveal such information to us. We just know the myth of their uncompromising rise to the top, and their uncompromising attitude, and we love those myths, and a part of us wishes that we were lucky enough to be in the position of a David Hackney, so that we could tell a Clive Davis to go hell, and join him in the slush pile of all of the uncompromising artists that were never appreciated in their lifetime.