“What a Fool Believes” – The Doobie Brothers (Words/music: Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, available on Minute by Minute, Warner Brothers 1978)
Liking something ironically and having a “guilty pleasure” are cousins of each other; they are both ways that we try to maintain enough distance from something that we think might sabotage our taste. I’m not sure which one is worse – the “so bad, it’s good” argument of liking something ironically or the “I’m too cool to like this” suggestions of deeming something (like a Michael McDonald song) as a “guilty pleasure.” In most cases, these are both excuses for liking something that other people would write off without much thought – a way to protect ourselves from our friends’ judgmental glances. More often than not, we like these things far more than we want to let on and something inside us gives the need to qualify our decision to enjoy it. It’s kind of absurd – we either like something or don’t like it, regardless of the reasons why. If you like watching the kind of movies the robot puppets watch on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 then you are enjoying the movie watching experience (and, in a sense, you’re enjoying the filmmaking process even more than in a movie where the production quality isn’t the most interesting thing). If you like a pop song that maybe doesn’t fit in with the bands that you normally tell people that you like, doesn’t that mean that the song is done so well that it overcomes your aversion to that genre? In that sense, these are backhanded compliments that shift the focus away from the work and towards the critic; we’re not making comments on what we like, we’re trying to play damage control with our taste.
I’m not immune to this tendency, although I’ve become better about it over the past few years. My personal relationship with “What a Fool Believes” probably started this way around the time that Michael McDonald made his pop cultural resurrection, and even its staunchest defenders must acknowledge that production tastes have changed since 1978. Even with its slick exterior, “What a Fool Believes” boasts an immaculate arrangement. McDonald and Loggins (hilariously parodied in the first episode of the web series Yacht Rock) take their tale of a lovesick gentleman and drape it in McDonald’s distinctive falsetto and the signature keyboard riff. The arrangement works to maximize these two elements, in particular in the pre-chorus section. This is where McDonald gives his best vocal performance by wringing as much as he can out of each note for a few lines. After McDonald’s melodramatic phrase (remember, melodrama and heartbreak are frequent companions), the arrangement drops down to the bare essentials for a couple lines. Only the piano, bass, and hi-hat accompany McDonald as he catches up the story before the main riff comes back and whisks the song into falsetto heaven. Sure, this isn’t a challenging work of popular art, but it’s a damn good song – and the sooner we can stop feeling guilty about liking a song that has a killer medley and lends itself to hilarious amateur renditions, the sooner we’ll all be happier.
Then again, that might just be what a fool believes.