Is One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" the song you want engraved on your heart when you die? Probably not. First, they're a manufactured boy band from The X Factor. Second, being the first British act ever to go straight to the top of the US album charts, they're way too popular. Third, from that suspiciously "Summer-Nights"-like intro to its generic college, bubblegum pop/rock chorus, it feels like one of those songs shamelessly created by a Stock-Aitken-Waterman-like production team in order horribly to manipulate you.
But did you know that in the future things will be very, very different? In 2037, to be precise, it will be featured in the finale of the acclaimed seven-series vidcast The Gargleplexes about the bloody adventures of a mob family operating in New New Jersey in the Crab Nebula. The enigmatic final minutes will show the hero Tony Gargleplex debating over which song to play as his wife joins him for a synthiburger in the cantina. His finger hovers over Black Lace's "Agadoo". Then Jason & Kylie's "Especially for You". But at last he settles for One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful". And lo, the song will immediately assume the status of a 24-carat eternal classic!
Well, it worked for Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" in The Sopranos, didn't it? Yes, I know you're probably thinking that that particular song was always a classic, but it really wasn't, you know, at first. When it came out in 1981, it was an undeniably catchy but hideously dated and lamentably uncool schmaltz-fest, produced by one of those blow-dried refugees-from-the-Seventies bands who now looked utterly irrelevant in the new synth-pop era of The Human League's "Dare". Thanks only to the combination of nostalgia and association with a deeply credible, arthouse-gangster TV series did "Don't Stop Believin" (dig that missin' final "g"!) acquire its current status as one of the greatest pop songs since the dawn of time.
That's the odd thing about the musical genre known as "guilty pleasures": the line dividing a song from being tacky, manufactured, chart-friendly dross and being sublime, insta-classic pop genius is often exceedingly narrow. The ground is constantly shifting and there are no rules.
Let's consider a few more cases. The Stock Aitken Waterman reunion gig. Is it a bad thing or a good thing, do we think, that Steps, Jason Donovan, Sinitta, Sonia, Rick Astley, Bananarama and a host of other manufactured or quasi-manufactured bands from the Hit Factory will be joining the line-up at the 25-years-of-SAW celebration in Hyde Park this July, quite possibly implanting in the heads of vulnerable children, annoying ditties such as "I Should Be So Lucky" ("Lucky, Lucky, Lucky. I Should Be So Lucky in Lo-o-ve")?
Well the answer, I suppose, is both. Even in their heyday in the context of "the decade that taste forgot", SAW and their compositions were always quite intensely irksome. They seemed to operate on a principle similar to the "Go Compare" ads: they're facile, they're repetitive, they're subtle as a dead horse, you hate them but they stick in your head and become weirdly, masochistically addictive. Racking my brain to think of a SAW composition which is actually good, the only one I can come up with is Dead or Alive's first number one single, "You Spin Me Round".
And yet, and yet ... I was listening to the radio a few months back and on came Rick Astley singing "Never Going to Give You Up". Instead of heaving, I was surprised to find myself experiencing a warm, fond glow not just of nostalgic recognition but even mild enjoyment. He had a pleasant, rich, almost Spandau Ballet voice; and that tinny bassline, so predictable and ubiquitous at the time, now sounds almost as classic and credible as early New Order.
That's certainly not how it looked, though, when it came out in 1987. Hating Rick Astley came so naturally pretty much to all of us that it was more a reflex action than a considered position. He was the tea boy who'd been promoted way above his station; he was SAW's little puppet; he couldn't write his own material. (Actually, he wrote a fair few of his hits and he's sold over 40 million records, so he's probably not worried what we think).
But time works its healing magic in two ways. First, it turns what sounded hackneyed and lame in its day into something fashionably retro. Second, nostalgia. It's a fair bet that quite a few of those dancing and smiling through their tears at the SAW reunion couldn't stand the stuff when it was first released. But it does it for them now because it conjures up the days when they were young, slim and sexually adventurous. They're revisiting their tragically lost youth.
This, essentially, was the canny insight of music fan and radio broadcaster Sean Rowley. When Rowley launched his Guilty Pleasures compilation albums a few years back, many of us thought – I did – no one's going to pay good money for warmed-over, repackaged chart atrocities. But they did. Rowley's Guilty Pleasures have blossomed into a mighty and lucrative empire of naff, in which partygoers and clubbers can enjoy cheesy old hits with none of the shame they felt first time round, because this time it's all ironic.
What's even cleverer about the guilty pleasures concept is that it's so elastic. Obviously there is some music that will never qualify. No one is ever going to confess, rueful and red-faced, to having really once quite liked The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" or Led Zep's "The Rain Song". But there are plenty of borderline cases, Abba, for example. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson were as great and inspired a songwriting partnership as Lennon & McCartney. That never quite allays, though, the nagging suspicion as you listen to the disco-ball schmaltz of, say, "Dancing Queen", that you're only doing so in inverted commas to admire the retro kitsch.
And where, exactly, are we to place Take That? In their early years, they were just another intensely irritating, manufactured boy band in the manner of New Kids on the Block. But they had two secret weapons – Robbie Williams and singer/songwriting genius Gary Barlow — and they've since produced a body of work, notably their astonishingly good 2010 album Progress, which means you dismiss them at your peril.
The Monkees, you might argue, experienced a similar mutation. When they were put together, it was sneerily noted by the cognoscenti that they were just America's fake answer to The Beatles, and that, what's more, they couldn't even play their instruments. But The Monkees went on rather to confound this image by a) learning to play their instruments, b) graduating to really quite out-there projects, such as their whacked-out experimental album Head and c) recording several of the most infectiously catchy singles in pop history, four written by my personal favourite guilty pleasure, Neil Diamond.
I believe Diamond is among the very best pop songwriters of the last half-century and it saddens me that I only dare mention this in an embarrassed whisper. It's those frilly shirt/hairy chest/flare combos, I suppose. And his popularity with women of a certain age. And the fact that unlike, say, Johnny Cash, he never quite evinced enough hinterland, darkness or druggy torment to secure his rightful place outside the guilty pleasure ghetto.
So no, I don't think I will be trying to blag tickets for the Hit Factory reunion gig. Not even for a glimpse of Dead Or Alive so as to find out what Pete Burns's face has been up to recently. And that prediction I made about One Direction's hit becoming cool one day: I don't really think that's going to happen, not even in 2037. Neil Diamond on the other hand – he's a Journey in the making. One day, the whole world will learn to sing along to Sweet Caroline. And they'll do it without a trace of irony because by then, they'll know, as some of us have known for ages, that Neil Diamond is quite simply God.