When it comes to pop culture, I dont believe in guilty pleasures. Its always seemed silly to me—or worse, elitist—to suggest that anyone should feel guilty about something that gives them pleasure or joy. The term, particularly as it pertains to music, is loaded with snobby implications. It suggests that theres objectively good and bad music, and that if you happen to enjoy something a bit less highbrow than OK Computer, you should acknowledge its inferiority, and feel sorta bad about it. Thats utter nonsense.
Daryl Halls got my back on this one. Hall—half of the famed Philadelphia pop duo Hall and Oates—doesnt care much for the idea of guilty pleasures, either. Thats a horrible expression, he said in a 2010 Chicago Tribune story. You should never feel guilty for your pleasure.
Hes right, you know, as long as were not talking about genuine depravity.
Its likely a lot more personal for Hall than it is for me, because for as long as anyone can remember, Hall and Oates have been synonymous with guilty pleasure. Admittedly, its understandable how that got to be the case. In the 70s and 80s, the duo flooded the airwaves and eventually MTV with camp value— glossy production, cheeseball saxophone, melodies that are Ken-doll smooth. And as catchy as a song like Shes Gone or Sara Smile might be, Ill be the first to admit that theres little edge or boundary-pushing going on in these ubiquitous hits.
Daryl Hall & John Oates play Oct. 25 at Open Air Theatre at SDSU
Change the focus to the very literal image theyve put forth since the early 70s and the camp meter rises even further. The cover of their 1975 album Daryl Hall and John Oates borders on self-parody, the duos smoldering mugs slathered in so much makeup, they practically went kabuki. And their videos—especially Private Eyes (clap, clap)—were often unbelievably silly, which can be attributed partially to everything in the 80s being unbelievably silly. Then again, outside of Magnum P.I., John Oates mustache has no competition.
Pick and choose certain moments from throughout Hall and Oates career, and youll come away with a pretty ridiculous picture. But whether you choose to ignore this or embrace it, it doesnt overcome one important fact: As songwriters, Hall and Oates have a résumé thats hard to argue with.
More specifically, Hall and Oates nineyear run from 1973 to 1981 is particularly strong, beginning with Abandoned Luncheonette, often regarded as the duos best. Its undoubtedly a product of the 1970s, its silky melodies built around breezy acoustic guitars and the warm caress of Rhodes piano. As pop records go, Abandoned Luncheonette is easy like Sunday morning, but its also a marvel of sumptuous sound; soak in the shimmering keyboards on Shes Gone and you might find yourself on a bearskin rug with a snifter of brandy, asking, How did I get here? But when you make it the porno-funk wah wah of Everytime I Look at You, you likely wont want to leave that cozy spot.
As Hall and Oates entered the 80s, they adapted admirably to the times, starting with Voices—an album thats arguably even better than Abandoned Luncheonette. Yet the smoothness here has been partially phased out in favor of a more jangly, streamlined new-wave sound. And do they ever nail it; the opening trio of How Does it Feel to Be Back, Big Kids and United State is a series of punchy, high-energy tracks that share more in common with The Police or Joe Jackson than Bread. Not that their ability to spin keyboard licks into pop gold was dulled in any way by the sharper sound of guitars; Kiss On My List is the runaway standout of its singles (though You Make My Dreams is arguably catchier), and though Paul Young turned Everytime You Go Away into an even bigger hit a few years later, H&Os version is the richer and more soulful of the two.
And then theres I Cant Go For That (No Can Do). A return to the ultra-smooth style that Hall and Oates built up in the 70s, with a contemporary R&B twist, the song finds the duo going all-in on their campiest qualities and ending up with their strongest hand. Calling it their best song might be too strong a statement, but Ive gone this far, so why back down now? Alright, then: Its their best song. The twinkling keyboards, the drum-machine patter, the head-nodding bass groove—which inspired Billie Jean, no less—it all adds up to pop perfection.
Now, not everything that Hall and Oates have done is amazing. The 90s didnt treat them all that well, for starters, and Maneater, even if tame by todays standards, is a wee bit sexist. But everyone is allowed some missteps here and there, and prevalence of guilty pleasure status aside, historys been pretty kind to Hall and Oates. Theyre the most commercially successful duo of all time and last year were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And if Joseph Gordon Levitts dance routine to You Make My Dreams in (500) Days of Summer is any indication, they won back some elusive hipster cred in the process.
Not that sales figures, awards or Hollywood should necessarily have that much influence on how you hear the band. Just get comfortable, put on your headphones, turn up I Cant Go For That and enjoy. But dont you dare feel guilty about it.