Gram Parsons, who had a greater claim than Michael Nesmith to being the real pioneer of country-rock, once described his musical inheritors, the Eagles, as “bubblegum,” saying that their music had “too much sugar in it. Life is tougher than they make it out to be.” While the Eagles may have deserved his derision, his words could be taken to imply that great music should be difficult and harsh rather than sweet or consoling. Early country and folk music had in fact always mixed up tragedy with comedy, murder ballads with dancing songs and absurd entertainments. Music in hard times often plays the role of allowing mental escape and momentary joy as well as reflecting the people’s suffering. Gram Parsons clearly knew this — even the heartrending, brilliant Grievous Angel album is a bravura mixture of tragedy and wry comedy. What he was really objecting to in the Eagles, apart from their imitation of his own sound, was that they were too smooth and flawless to be genuine country. But in looking for the words to attack their music, he took the easy path of attacking them for not being serious enough, echoing the Lennonesque idea that being purely popular or entertaining was in some way dirty or wrong. Perhaps it is the luxury of a more affluent age to see suffering and misery as glamorous or authentic attributes. Whatever the reasons, from the 1960s onward the retrospective quest for authenticity tended to disregard the light and frothy aspects of earlier music, focusing only on the serious, tragic or intense.
But pop songs don’t exist only to change people’s lives or to change the world. They can also convey simple, banal emotion, and a stupid song like “Sugar Sugar” can sometimes light up the day like a moment of condensed happiness and light, without our needing to think any further about where this song comes from or why it makes us happy. There is no good reason to despise the song for making no attempt to do anything other than this.