Matt Y. and Atrios both weighed on the concept of "guilty pleasures", basically denouncing the concept by focusing on the notion that one should feel guilty about liking something. I'm a little less hostile to the phrase, for a couple of reasons. One is that I think arguments about it veer a little far off into the irritating modern tendency to argue that anything non-quantifiable is so far out of reach that you can't actually render a judgment on it. This argument gets trotted out a lot by people who have been exposed to someone mocking as crappy something they like, and rather than thinking about it, sucking it up, or leveling an interesting defense of their taste—aka, the grown-up options—they try to derail by claiming that since taste is subjective, it's functionally meaningless and no judgments can be rendered at all. This is irritating because it's an argument that tends to be offered in bad faith, since the people making it probably do make judgments all the time, just about other people's taste. But it's also irritating because, as big a fan of empiricism as I am, I think there's limits to it and that doesn't mean that we should simply shut down entire avenues of thought and discourse because you can't "prove" something beyond the shadow of a doubt. What makes discourse about art fun, as long as you follow the rules of being a grown-up about it, is that it's beyond absolute proofs. And unlike with discourse about god and spirituality, art is real, and so you escape the problem of making it up as you go along.
The other reason is that the phrase "guilty pleasures" can tell you a lot about how the concept of "good taste" is created, how diverse views are about what constitutes good taste, what the flaws are in those views, and therefore how to improve the concept of "good taste". While Atrios and Matt both rejected the concept of "guilty pleasures", they both immediately knew what they would consider a guilty pleasure. I find myself reluctant to abandon a concept that has such immediate meaning to people, instead preferring to analyze what it says about their personal models of good taste.
So, for instance, Matt's examples of guilty pleasures—even as he rejected the concept—were Lily Allen and Katy Perry. In other words, he went straight for young, cute, female pop singers. He saw the connection between the two as obvious because they have these things in common. But it would never occur to me to group those two together, and not just because I like Lily Allen and loathe Katy Perry. It's because Lily Allen writes her own material, can actually sing with verve and style, has a lot of wit to her lyrics, and because she doesn't seem to feel the need to act in a submissive, unthreatening style to be considered sexy. Now, I'm not saying Matt is wrong to group one way or that I'm wrong. I think it's more interesting than that; how we group these artists tells you a lot about the kind of models we're exposed to in defining good taste. Probably, for one, I just spend a lot more time in virtual spaces where genre-busting is considered vital artistic work, which would make Allen more interesting for being self-directed rather than less interesting for being pop. Also, I have an obsession with bold, brassy female musicians, and that model is in play when regarding pop artists like Allen or Perry (Allen definitely fits it and Perry definitely does not). But, at the end of the day, I'd probably not group them together just because when you put on a Lily Allen song, there's just more there there. You could replace Perry with someone who looked like her, tweak her voice in the studio, and most people wouldn't notice the difference.
Atrios's definition of guilty pleasures, on the other hand, was defined along the lines of how challenging something is, which he again denounced as being just unfair to what people out there really need in terms of entertainment. I agree whole-heartedly with him that there's a lot of people who use "complexity" as a measure of quality. Ironically, I would say these people are generally lazy people who, at best, want a nice, simple rule to guide what is quality and what isn't so that they don't have to develop their aesthetic muscles. The most obvious example is people who say things like, "Turn of the TV and pick up a book," even though that could very well mean turning off "Mad Men" and picking up some mindless, poorly written airport novel. I particularly love the people who wring their hands about TV being "passive", as if sitting there reading a novel isn't also passively absorbing someone else's story-telling. "But, but, but!" I can hear you say, and you're right. When you read a book, you're often thinking in depth about themes and character, and it's not passive at all. TV can be watched this way, too, and often is—thus the idea of the watercooler show. And books can be read mindlessly by people who get nothing out of them but a way to pass the time.
But one thing I've learned from the concept of "guilty pleasures" is that a lot of people's rules of what constitutes good taste are, sometimes unconsciously, built along class, race, and gender prejudices and often other arguments about good v. bad taste are employed to cover up what's going on there. I think it was interesting, for instance, that Matt picked female artists as his guilty pleasures while denouncing the concept, and suspect that he experiences, as a man, a lot of subtle discouragement against taking women as seriously as men, and he's rebelling against that. Since I've gotten onto Turntable, I've been exposed to a wide range of the unconscious rules people employ when determining what they think is tasteful and what's not. Turntable is especially good for this, because people play not just what they like but what they think will reflect well on them in front of others, but also the concept of "guilty pleasures" gets a lot of play because periodically in rooms people will declare that it's time for everyone just to play some their most indulgent crap and everyone gets a chance to show off what their bad taste is, too. So you learn a lot.
Certain patterns have come out that I find really fascinating. For instance, there's an entire subset of people, and they are mostly dudes (in my experience, exclusively dudes, but I haven't dealt with everyone so I'm not going to go on the record with an "all" here), who are belligerent about the notion that the best music in the whole world is sleepy indie rock by earnest white guys (and occasional women) who have never flicked a pelvis in public in their lives, and these guys play this music in any room that's indie-friendly even if everyone else is playing stuff that you could fuck to. And they're often surprised if people grouse about it. I find this hilarious, but as of yet have no real understanding of this particular dynamic. On the flip side of it, if someone feels that 80s dance and New Wave music is appropriate for every occasion, there's a 95% chance that person is female.
But when it comes to the subject of bad taste or guilty pleasures, some times it's remarkable what kind of prejudices you'll unearth. I got into a room with some folks who were playing all sorts of stuff, and I cheerfully dropped a rap song—I forget which, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that for some reason, two of the dudes in the room started to get angry and—in 2011!—started grousing about how much they don't like hip-hop. Like, as in all hip-hop, though one begrudgingly said he liked Outkast sometimes. In the chat bubble, he, and I swear you could hear the sniffing, said that he preferred stuff like French house music, you know, like Daft Punk. And this was the kicker, when those of us on the side of the angels pressed him about this, he called hip-hop "simple". You could tell that he could tell what we were thinking about him at that moment, and so things got a little weird and everyone went their separate ways, though as soon as he left the room, I think I said something like, "I'll bet the guys in Daft Punk have HUGE hip-hop collections."
Anyway, this is becoming a long, digressive post, but I think there's some interesting stuff to ponder here. The classifications of "indulgent" or a "guilty pleasure" or even just "bad taste" are often influenced strongly by certain prejudices. In some cases, it's just blatant racist or sexist or classist prejudice. But I've also noticed that some music gets classified as less tasteful because it's music that provokes one's more "animalistic" desires to dance and party and fuck, instead, I don't know, sit around drinking coffee and thinking deep thoughts. In other cases, "guilty pleasures" don't have that kind of political weight at all, and instead the category is more like "music you know is silly, childish, soulless or poorly performed but you like anyway because it provokes a pleasant memory". You know, like Hanson or something. Eliminating the phrase completely would probably make it harder to understand the various and often conflicting models in play.