Guilty Ear

The new Phoenix album is Kevin Nguyen’s guilty pleasure, but why does he feel guilty at all?

As hard as I try, I can’t stop listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Ever since the French pop quartet’s album leaked in March, I’ve been listening to it compulsively, almost daily. I find that it evokes a disconcerting emotional response in me — sadness and disappointment, punctuated by glimpses of boyish glee over the course of 37 minutes of indie pop. They’re simple feelings, sure, but I haven’t had this kind of schmaltzy attachment to an album since early high school when I would hole up in my bedroom and listen to the Clash on headphones.

Every time I play the record, it sounds like exactly what I want to hear. The melody-driven indie pop is led by singer Thomas Mars, whose alto doesn’t carry but catapults the tune through a series of escalating hooks, each one catchier than the last. The guitars are sharp yet polished; the drum work is uncomplicated but effective; and the occasional use of synth provides a flawless swell or stab where needed.

And yet, I feel guilty liking an album so much, especially one with such low ambitions. It’s production-perfect music about the slushy remains of a melted heart.

Once the album officially released in May, I found myself trying to legitimize my affection for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by reading critics I hold in high esteem. I even sought comfort from critics I hold in low esteem. Even Pitchfork, despite its notorious reputation as both a tastemaker and outlet for poorly edited copy, published thoughtful words on the album. Reviewer Ryan Dombal said:

Much of the album’s internal conflict is laid out in its first couple lines. “So sentimental; not sentimental, no!/ Romantic; not disgusting yet,” sings frontman Thomas Mars on opener “Lisztomania”… Mars keeps this treacherous divide in mind throughout Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and the rest of the record successfully avoids mush while keeping its beating heart intact.

It’s hard to take Phoenix’s lyrics too seriously: they’re sometimes saccharine, sometimes silly, and often ambiguous. A friend of mine jokingly suspected that the band wrote the songs in French and ran the words through Google Translate. As Dombal rightly identifies, “Lisztomania” — no doubt a reference to Franz Liszt, the archetype of Romantic composers and performers — expresses the album’s central conflict: a yearning to embrace the sentimental without appearing sentimental.

Intentionally or not (I’m guessing not), Wolfgang Amadeus thematically reflects the friction I feel about liking an album that’s so unabashedly emotional. The music is nakedly Romantic in every sense — upper and lowercase R — and yet I’m self-conscious enough to feel guilty about my enthusiasm.

The phenomenon is widespread– not just with Phoenix but with the idea of the “guilty pleasure.” Last week, I stumbled across Last.fm’s “Most Unwanted Scrobbles” chart. The site’s users, whose iTunes play-counts are tracked and tallied, were grooming their profiles to reflect a personality that doesn’t enjoy Lady GaGa, Britney Spears, and Rihanna. The idea that anyone would be embarrassed enough to hide the fact they enjoy “Poker Face” is ridiculous because A) that song is great and B) nobody should be so self-conscious that they pretend they don’t like something when they do.

Why should anyone ever feel guilty about liking music? Among people who consider themselves discerning listeners of music — and perhaps anyone who consumes art in an overtly judicious manner — why does the concept of the guilty pleasure exist if it’s a pleasure at all? It’s a term that’s better suited to adultery.

Last summer, I got an argument with a friend after deriding him about the Fall Out Boy stickers on his laptop. We discussed the merit of music as an art, wherein I argued somewhat pretentiously that music is relevant if it progresses the medium and challenges the listener. He said he listened to emo music because it made him feel something. “What’s the point if it doesn’t affect you emotionally in some way?” he asked.

You can argue (unproductively, I might add) about the value of art all night, but I think the difference in our perspectives illustrates two opposing ways of listening to music. He would rather let himself be affected by lyrical soft-heartedness or the beat of a Britney track at a dance club, while I would prefer feigning discontent with a room full of Seattle hipsters who refuse to do more than sway at a concert. People (and I’m generalizing here) seem to fall on one side or the other.

Fittingly, the last track of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is called “Armistice.” Consider it a resolution between both sides. There’s no right way to listen to music, and we can at least try to embrace what we enjoy, uninhibited by our indie cred (read: egos). Wolfgang Amadeus might not be the great album of the year, but there’s something to be said about music that lets my guard down for a change.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.