Stop calling it guilty pleasure: Chilly Gonzales wants us to embrace our tastes without the fear of judgement
‘There's power in also hating something,’ says the shape-shifting, self-described musical genius
If enjoying Enya is wrong, then Grammy-winning Canadian musician Chilly Gonzales doesn't want to be right. And while his latest book on the Irish artist might mislead people to think he's a stan, Gonzalez says that's not why he wrote the book.
"I chose her to write the book about because she was this touchstone … I had enough detachment to be able to write about myself. I wanted to write about how my true musical taste was hidden under all of that intellectualization and all of that ego stuff," he told Piya Chattopadhyay, host of The Sunday Magazine.
From booming rap, to delicate, solo-piano gems, Gonzales has produced a variety of music and collaborated with artists such as Daft Punk, Feist and Drake. His new book, Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures, explores why people would rather label their tastes as "guilty pleasures" instead of embracing them wholeheartedly.
"If I'm really honest, I'm not that big of an Enya fan," he said. "I'm not really obsessed with her on a musical level. I don't want people to picture me, you know, getting into the bath every night with candles, listening to Enya. It has happened. Don't get me wrong."
He spoke to Chattopadhay from Berlin, elaborating on the ideas he wanted to explore, including one many people can identify with — guilty pleasures.
Here is part of their conversation.
There's a rhetorical question on your book jacket — does music have to be smart or does it just have to go to the heart?
That may not be the right question to ask because it needs to be both. It needs to come from the heart … but then that second phase, the brain has to get involved. You have to calculate a little bit. Just because a song seems like it was irresistibly engineered to get you humming it and you resent how much you like it, that leads to people calling it a guilty pleasure. But what they're really saying is that they don't have confidence in their own taste.
The reason they don't have confidence is because the guilty pleasure lives between two different kinds of taste. One, your true childhood taste, which is completely involuntary and has to do with goose bumps — just as a child reacts to food or basically anything else. But then when you become a teenager, your taste becomes an expression of your social group. It's a self-definition exercise. You want to listen to different music than your older brother or belong to a certain kind of subsect of your school. So you decide to listen to music for that reason. When those come into conflict, there lies the guilty pleasure. "Oh, I like this. My childhood true taste is reacting to this. I'm getting goose bumps. But my social group or my self-definition forbids it. What do I do? Well, I'll just create this third category called the 'guilty pleasure'." But to me, that's a sign of weakness and we should be able to enjoy those things without guilt.
If you type in the term "guilty pleasures" into Spotify, you'll find a playlist of smash hits by Elton John, Hall and Oates, Duran Duran. What do you think that says about what we consider "guilty pleasures" to be?
It's a combination of projecting onto commercial success — a sort of desperation to be liked. It makes us cringe a little bit to think that someone was so desperate for their song to be successful that they made it a genetically engineered, irresistible juggernaut. So desperation, commercialism, the idea of calculating. We imagined that real artists have what I call, "Whoops. I'm good. It's all an accident. I do what I do for myself. I'm a real artist. I'm uncompromising. And if people like what I do, it's a bonus."
That's kind of an illusion — or a delusion may be the better word for it — because in the end, there should be nothing wrong with a mix of surprising yourself as an artist in the very beginning moments of making something … You shouldn't have too much awareness of how that all works. You should have the opportunity to shock, provoke, please, offend, surprise yourself. But there is a moment where you have to think of how that meets the world. We look at that second objective phase of creativity as something tainted, as if we should all be these pure artistic creatures who never think about how the music will eventually go out there and reach people. I've always thought, especially since moving to Berlin, to really be more myself. I decided I'm going to make that second part of creativity — take joy in it, treat it as an equally important part of creativity. It's not that I'm saying I think marketing is artwork, but something pretty close to that. Because when you're thinking of how this is going to meet the world — the title of your song, what the visual might be, how you're gonna talk about it — all of these things make the music more powerful if you do them right.
You have been running a program for musicians in recent years called The Gonzervatory. And one of the things you ask applicants on the questionnaire to do is to name an artist they don't like. What are some of the answers you've received?
I can't really trust an artist who seems to like everything because there's power in also hating something … What we hate is just as important as what we love. In The Gonzervatory, I said, I'm going to learn about people to see if they'll be honest with themselves because there's certain musical icons that nobody would dare say a bad word about. I'm very curious when I meet someone who hates one of these artists.
One of the people applying for The Gonzervatory wrote Prince. This actually offended me … I can't think of a single musician who wouldn't idolize Prince. And yet here was this person saying they hated Prince. And I immediately put them in the short list. That takes some real balls to say you don't like Prince. Some people just wrote Justin Bieber. And I thought, that's too easy to hate the biggest pop sensation of the moment. That's again, the kind of thinking that gets you into — guilty pleasure. It's an automatic knee-jerk reflex against anything commercial. I have no time for that. But you tell me you don't like Prince, then I'm interested.
Did that person get into The Gonzervatory?
They did not. Maybe they need to listen to Prince.
What artists don't you like that you would put on the application?
Depends what mileu you're in. Everything is sort of relative … you can't intellectually convince me to like something I don't like, just as I wouldn't try to convince you that you like bananas when you tell me you don't. So the discussion around taste could be as simple as talking about bananas. And yet it becomes this battleground in which you are meant to — almost like a lawyer — prove to the other that they're wrong.
I really don't like it if people say, what are you listening to lately? … I don't want to be on trial for what I like and don't like. So I often just demure and say I use music as functionally as possible, to get energy, to dissipate energy, to calm myself, to inspire myself. But it's very rare that I have a lot of intellectual reasons for liking something. I'm quite proud of that. I feel like I've evolved to someone who doesn't need to think about guilty pleasures, but only the function of the music that will give me pleasure for the situation I'm in. It's not even about I love this artist — I love the music of this artist when I'm in this certain mood.
Part of why people don't want to unleash their guilty pleasures into the world or say it out loud is because they're fearful of being judged. What do you say to that?
You can be embarrassed of having an unpopular opinion just as much as having a popular opinion. Some people pretend to like things because … all of a sudden everyone's talking about one TV show [like] Tiger King. You're suddenly inundated with how everyone loves something that you don't get a clear shot at, knowing whether you actually would like it or not.
The hive mind has basically precluded you from being able to listen to yourself. You're essentially robbed of the chance to react. It can also be quite embarrassing sometimes to see people jump on certain bandwagons … I've chosen to not be embarrassed about anything, about things I like and things I don't like. What you don't like defines you in its power.
Before social media, this was less of a problem. The irony, of course, was that everyone was supposed to have a voice in social media, to make us more democratic, more individual. And yet the obvious evidence is it has made us conform even more. How tragic.
Not feeling apologetic for anything — does it feel even more freeing to put it on the page and send it out into the world?
It was kind of satisfying … I would say to people, try to avoid getting into the taste discussion. Try to avoid falling in the "convincing someone else to like the bananas" trap. Don't let yourself be convinced. Don't try to convince, especially if you're an artist … Your real taste is already there from a time you can't even remember having it.
All that struggle and frustration that I had with my failed major label career in Canada suddenly became clear … I was trying to find some niche amongst all this very intense awareness that I had about what other musicians were doing. [When] I got to Berlin, I couldn't even know what other musicians were doing, much less saying. I didn't speak a word of German. It drove me into myself. All my curiosity was put inward and all of a sudden I had something to say and people were listening. It was a great revelation. And it all happened because I stopped thinking of my taste as something that would define me. It's already there.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Peter Mitton.