Guilty Pleasures

I haven’t imposed many blogging rules on myself, but here’s one I think I’ll honor more in the observance than the breach…

“Any sanctimonious post must be followed by one that embarrasses the blogger”

So, having spent yesterday’s post up on my high horse defending denominations less by pointing to their virtues than by decrying the basest tendencies of their critics (sectarianism, individualism, presentism), today’s post will be devoted to puncturing myself. Ladies and gentlemen: behold…

My guiltiest pop culture pleasures

Smash

Katharine McPhee
The New Yorker is also pretty hard on Katharine McPhee, who’s got a pretty thankless role as the Iowa ingenue — Wikimedia

I’m not sure that I engage in “hate-watching” — as the author of this New Yorker post describes her Monday nights with this NBC drama about the making of a Broadway musical, but I share most of her dislikes (Ellis, Dev, the “Micronesia” speech, the “Times Square sing along,” and every annoying thing about the home life of Debra Messing’s character), add one more (I don’t think that Megan Hilty has managed to rise above the awful plots inflicted upon her character), and agree entirely with this bit of self-analysis:

I mean, why would I go out of my way to watch a show that makes me so mad? On some level, I’m obviously enjoying it. Maybe I secretly love “Smash,” at least in that slap-in-the-face “Moonlighting” way.

Well, it’s not much of a secret if you profess your love in The New Yorker (or The Pietist Schoolman), but I will admit to enjoying Smash on two levels: (1) because, for a few months at least, I’d rather watch a promising show sink into utter silliness than snore my way through another police procedural; and (2) because the show-within-a-show is actually pretty fantastic. I’m not sure why this hasn’t occurred to the writers and producers yet, but Smash is really good when it’s actually about the musical that it’s supposed to be, you know, about. Even throwaway bits from Bombshell (the Marilyn Monroe musical they’re theoretically bringing to the Great White Way) are keepers.

My favorite: for no really good narrative reason, when the excellent Christian Borle’s composer Tom steps away from the piano to take the lead in rehearsing a song (“Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking”) that has Daryl Zanuck in a steam room explaining the Hollywood studio system. It was catchy, witty, lightning-quick with crisp choreography to match, and underscored how stupid the show is to waste time on, say, OneRepublic guest appearances.

TV Tattle

What’s all the more shameful about my relationship with Smash is that I come across critiques of it like the New Yorker piece because most every afternoon I check out a blog so venerable that it still calls itself “a weblog of TV news and criticism.” I try my best to stay away from the gossip pieces (hey, did you know that the host of The Bachelor is getting a divorce?) and focus on news and criticism that will help me keep my finger on the pulse of the students I teach.

A historic guilty pleasure within a guilty pleasure: for the same reasons that I read TV Tattle, I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly for the better part of a decade.

The Thing Called Love (1993 film) and Little Women (1994)

What do these two — one a laughably bad Peter Bogdanovich movie about aspiring country music singer-songwriters (one played by a young Sandra Bullock), the other an objectively good adaptation of a classic American novel — have to do with each other? From easiest to hardest to guess:

Little Women poster1. Each features Samantha Mathis in a key role: River Phoenix’s love interest in the former; the slightly older, non-Kirsten Dunst version of Amy, the youngest March sister, in the latter.

2. There is no reason on Earth that a college-aged, Nirvana-playing male like my early Nineties self should have had any interest in either of these movies — let alone watch them at least once a year for a decade.

3. My sister Suzie and I bonded over them. So I really shouldn’t feel all that guilty: anything that can bridge the six years separating a 19-year old from a 13-year old must have redeeming qualities.

But c’mon… I’ll take this Little Women over any other filmed version (and I know that that means I’m picking the one with Winona Ryder as Jo over the one with Katharine Hepburn in that role, but remember: I was a college-aged, Nirvana-playing male in the early Nineties… A crush on Winona Ryder was standard issue), but its cinematic merits are lost on people like my sister and me, who spend the movie quoting lines like “Don’t be such a beetle!” and eagerly awaiting the inevitable death of Claire Danes’ Beth (whom we, unkindly but gleefully, called “Death Girl”). So it’s not the movie, but the way we watch it, that is a guilty pleasure.

The Thing Called LoveThen there’s TTCL. I still don’t think that Suzie’s husband can truly believe that he sat through part of it with us. It’s absolutely terrible: from the plot (somehow both trite and unbelievable) to River Phoenix’s leaden (and, sadly, final) performance to Mathis’ character having the last name of “Presley” (which, believe it or not, inspires a road trip to Graceland!) to the songs themselves — mostly written and performed by the actual actors, with all the verité and tunelessness you’d expect.

And yet we not only watched the movie religiously, but for a brief time, actually talked ourselves into starting a brother-sister country duo. Alas, I couldn’t find a cowboy hat big enough to fit my nearly size-8 head, and the dream died.

And then, speaking of this genre of music, there’s…

Taylor Swift, Speak Now

I managed to pay no attention to the Taylor Swift phenomenon for the first couple of years, then heard “Love Story” on some awards show, managed to get past the off-pitch vocals, and — is this post over yet? — found myself eagerly anticipating her next album.

And what can I say? I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times and almost never skip a track.

I have friends who, if they’re reading this, are reevaluating that relationship right now. But I’ll be honest: of all the items on this humiliating list, this is one pleasure I’m not actually sure I should feel guilty about.

One of my slightly younger colleagues at Bethel gives me grief for having very indie-rock (read: glum, cynical) tastes; she, by contrast, listens to this group without shame or irony. But I do appreciate pure pop songcraft, and I’ll be darned if Ms. Swift (as the New York Times called her in its admiring review of Speak Now — see!) isn’t actually some kind of genius when it comes to writing, arranging, and producing hook-laden pop songs. And even her performing them has become a bit less grating as she’s started to mature as a singer.

So there they are: my guiltiest pop culture pleasures.

That I’m prepared to reveal for now… We’ll save the rest for the next time I get a little too full of myself.


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