In general conversation, the guilty pleasure is a simple enough concept: it describes something you might like but, well, feel guilty about liking, presumably because it isn’t otherwise up to your standards of taste. Over the past ten or so years, with pop critics taking traditional guilty-pleasure strongholds like teenpop and Southern rap more seriously, the concept itself was put to closer scrutiny. To summarize a decade of articles, blog posts and message board debates, the term “guilty pleasure” was revealed to conceal biases running along the lines of class, race, gender and age. Why should someone enjoy [choose your personal white/male/middle class fave] as a “serious” work of art, but listen to, say, the new Rick Ross or Britney Spears record only after using guilt to create some distance? And if pop music exists to bring you pleasure, why feel guilty about taking it?
This logic has its own assumptions, but it’s good enough to bring us up to around the time “Tik Tok” was racing up the charts. Initially, this was my line on Ke$ha—the beat knocks, the woman is a talented performer, why not just enjoy it? And I still believe that to a certain extent, but by the time of the surprisingly good Cannibal EP, I was beginning to think that it’s impossible to understand Ke$ha and her appeal without reviving the notion of the guilty pleasure. The funny thing about “Tik Tok” ‘s chart success (not to mention the similar successes of “Your Love Is My Drug” and the motivational “We R WhoWe R”) was that even when she had the biggest song in the country, it was hard to find a correspondingly large number of people who would openly describe themselves as Ke$ha fans, save a few post-guilty-pleasure pop critics.
This is standard—what makes Ke$ha so smart is the way in which she plays with, even embraces the listener’s initial disgust, challenging that listener (in a way that’s almost Brechtian) to disavow her tunes, to concede that they like the music even though they “know” it’s particularly good. What’s odd is how this disavowal actually makes Ke$ha’s music more pleasurable; it allows the listener/dancer/party sing-a-long-er to enjoy Dr. Luke’s four-on-the-floor handiwork without worrying about dated concepts like taste and aesthetic quality. To take a line out of the handbook of seemingly half the marketing execs in the city, it allows them to indulge.
Ke$ha isn’t the only artist doing something like this—tour openers LMFAO are obvious brethren here, even if Sorry For Party Rocking shows them creeping towards respectability—but the better comparison might actually be found in the marketing world, where more and more ads implore the recession-battled consumer to let their inhibitions go. Here, the re-reconsideration of the guilty pleasure seems to be well under way, and not only is it driving Kesha Sebert to the top of the charts, it’s pushing everything from Ben & Jerry’s to bacon.
Ke$ha and LMFAO play PNC Bank Arts Center tonight and Nikon at Jones Beach theater tomorrow.