I’ve always loathed the term “guilty pleasure”. If I enjoy watching/listening to/reading something – and it doesn’t harm anyone else – why should I feel guilty for enjoying it? In the past year, with COVID-19 forcing us to stay at home, entertainment has become an even more critical component of our lives. Some of the media I’ve consumed lately is excellent; my husband and I recently started watching Fargo, and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. We also thoroughly enjoyed the exceptional Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit. But “excellent” isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for the enjoyment of a piece of media. Here are some of my favorite not-so-guilty pleasures.
Growing up in the 70s, I fell for Olivia Newton-John. She looked like an angel and she had the voice of one, too. I had seen Grease in the theater and loved it, had worn out the grooves on the double album soundtrack. So when Xanadu was released, I was 100% the target demographic. Xanadu is a terrible movie, and I love every moment of it. The plot is preposterous: Newton-John plays Greek muse Kira, who is sent to earth to inspire down-on-his-luck artist Sonny (played by Michael Beck). Sonny, aided by big band leader Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly, in his final film role), decides to open a nightclub named Xanadu. Sonny and Kira naturally fall in love, which is complicated when one of the lovers is, you know, immortal. In the end, the plot is just an excuse to put together a series of gloriously over-the-top musical numbers, set to music from Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia herself (the vastly underrated The Tubes also appear). Fun fact: Robert Greenwald won the Worst Director award at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards.
- America’s Next Top Model
People often speak of reality television derisively, but like every genre, there is a vast difference in quality from show to show. Series like Survivor, Top Chef and Project Runway have won Emmys and other awards, and have ranked with the best of television over the past two decades. Then, there’s ANTM. Ostensibly a competition to find, well, America’s next top model, ANTM is really just an excuse to put a bunch of young women together and hope for some drama. The young women ALWAYS deliver. The truth is, I enjoy the show for the actual modeling, not the drama. I love the creativity of the photo shoots, like when the models each had to represent one of the seven deadly sins:
Or when they portrayed different types of dolls:
Or when they were circus freaks:
The point is, I’m willing to wade through the drama to get to the artistic segments. But if you watch ANTM (or any other show) just for the drama, you’ll get no judgment from me.
By the way, Cycle 5 contestant Kyle Kavanaugh is from my relatively small Midwestern town, and she literally worked at my hometown Dairy Queen. That’s about as wholesome as it gets.
- Stephanie Plum series – Janet Evanovich
We all have our literary guilty pleasures: perhaps yours is the romantic melodrama of Nicholas Sparks, or bodice rippers, or even cocaine-era Stephen King (seriously, The Tommyknockers is batshit insane). Whatever your tastes are, there’s something out there to satisfy them. One of my indulgences is the Stephanie Plum series. Stephanie is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess. At the beginning of the first novel in the series, One for the Money, Stephanie is out of work and has resorted to selling off her belongings to pay the bills. She convinces her cousin Vinny to give her a job at his bail bond business, thinking she’d be a filing clerk, but the only position available is as a bounty hunter. Each book follows the exact same formula: Stephanie gets a case, she screws it up several times before she finally gets it right, and she spends the rest of her time wavering between the two gorgeous men in her life, fellow bounty hunter Ranger and cop (and her high school boyfriend) Joe Morelli. It’s utterly ludicrous, and I love it.
- Twister (1996)
It’s not that Twister is a BAD movie, it’s just that I love it all out of proportion to its quality. Cinematographer Jan de Bont’s work on films like Die Hard helped him make the leap to directing. Speed, de Bont’s directorial debut, was so wildly successful, he basically received studio carte blanche for his follow-up feature, 1996’s Twister. A $92 million budget allowed de Bont to utilize the most cutting-edge special effects and sound techniques. And that cast! In spite of being hamstrung by a clichéd premise and corny dialogue, the actors are more than game, particularly the members of the supporting cast – Lois Smith elevates everything she’s in, Alan Ruck is a god damn delight as Rabbit (“Rabbit is good, Rabbit is wise”) and the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman chews every bit of scenery as storm chaser Dusty.
- The Brady Bunch
The Brady Bunch was a Gen-X rite of passage. An idyllic world where an architect can comfortably support a family of nine (let’s face it, Alice was part of the family) and every problem can be solved before the final commercial break, the Brady family’s existence seemed far removed from the strife of the real world. Never were race riots mentioned in the Brady home, or the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Once in a while a Brady child dabbled in naughtiness (Greg smoked! Cindy’s a tattletale!), but they always saw the error of their ways by episode’s end. It was an endearingly naïve world, and we gobbled it up. The Brady Bunch was one of the first series I watched in syndication, years before cable networks like Nickelodeon and Ion Television existed. By the time I was in college, TBS was airing the show each weekday at 4:05 and 4:35, and my roommate and I would make a game out of who could guess which episode it was faster.
- Yacht rock
It wasn’t called yacht rock at the time – it was referred to as Adult-Orientated Rock (AOR). This style of soft rock music was absolutely inescapable from the mid-70s to the early 80s, and why would you want to escape it? The term “yacht rock”, intended pejoratively, was coined in 2005 for an online video series of the same name; the term is derived from the idea of the stereotypical yuppie yacht owner listening to smooth rock while sailing. Typified by artists like Loggins &Messina (and later solo Loggins), Seals & Crofts and Christopher Cross, yacht rock is as easy as listening gets, and I adore it.
By the way, Spotify seems a little confused as to what constitutes “yacht rock”; no, Rockwell is not yacht rock, and neither are Tears for Fears, Joe Walsh or The Police. This playlist I created with my bestie gets a lot closer to the essence of the genre: breezy, cheesy, easy listening.
- Flashdance, Footloose and Girls Just Want to Have Fun
The 1980s certainly didn’t have a monopoly on cheesy romantic-musicals, but it sure was a fun time for them (see also: the first entry on this list), and Flashdance, Footloose and Girls Just Want to Have Fun are three of my favorites. Released in three consecutive years (1983-1985), these films have one primary thing in common – all three have main characters who just want to dance! Flashdance‘s Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is a welder by day and an exotic dancer by night, but what she really wants to be is a ballerina; she’s just too scared to audition. In Footloose, Kevin Bacon plays Ren McCormack, who’s just moved to the small town of Bomont with his newly single mom, and is appalled to find out that dancing has been outlawed in the town. And in Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Bacon’s Footloose co-star Sarah Jessica Parker plays Janey, who wants to be a regular on Dance TV (for those of you who were around in the 80s, think Solid Gold), but must defy her retired Army dad to get to the competition (with a little help from her friend Lynne, played by a preposterously young Helen Hunt).
As I discussed in an earlier post (https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/03/05/talkin-bout-my-g-g-g-generation-x/), one of the ways MTV impacted the larger culture was in how movies were made; musical montages, where wordless sequences were set to pop music, became de rigueur, and these three films helped popularize that trend. None of them are what you would call great films (though Footloose comes closest, in part due to the presence of the sublime Dianne Wiest and John Lithgow), but they all bring me joy.
I will never apologize for my love of disco music, and if you think I should, boy are you on the wrong blog. I grew up going to roller skating rinks, and disco was a 70s roller-rink staple. Disco was one of the rare genres not ruled by straight white men, and that diversity meant music fans could love anyone from ABBA to S.O.S. Band, from Brothers Johnson to Sister Sledge.
Even The Rolling Stones got in on the disco act in the late 70s. Listen to this and tell me it isn’t 100% a disco song:
“Miss You” aside, one of the beautiful things about disco was its inclusivity: it was a place where LGBT folks and black women were welcomed, and the popular songs tended to be anthemic, songs of empowerment. Of course, a lot of disco songs were just about getting down, and that’s okay too. There’s a place in this world for both types of music. So whether you want to say “fuck you” to the establishment or shake your bootie all night long (or both), disco has the perfect song for you.
Readers, what are YOUR favorite guiltless pleasures?