By Clayton Ambrose
It’s probably happened to you before. Through some means, you’ve come in contact with a song that lies outside the range of what you consider to be “good” music. However, the song draws some sort of positive reaction out of you, maybe born out of nostalgic attachment or some vague interest in the melody. You may even find yourself singing along. Later, when recounting the experience to yourself or to your friends, you distance yourself from the genuine feeling of enjoyment you felt, using your self-awareness to peg your pleasure as an ironic instance where you found joy in the so-bad-it’s-good quality of the song. The phrase that neatly captures this feeling is “guilty pleasure”, and it’s used for pretty much any form of entertainment that you feel might damage your reputation if anyone found out you enjoy it.
The idea of the “guilty pleasure” song is something that I believe to be symptomatic of a larger problem among certain music listeners, especially those who tend to think of music in terms of objective evaluation. Some, including myself, often pigeonhole themselves into a position where they can only show vocal support for music that the higher powers (review sites like Pitchfork) of the industry deem to be of exceptional quality. The blame for this is not on the reviewers themselves, but on the importance placed on the reviews by listeners who seek to separate themselves from the masses whose tastes, which often include pop music among other popular artists, they’ve determined to be beneath them. So, when someone with this mentality comes across a song or album they enjoy that conflicts with the world of top-tier music that they’ve created for themselves, they hold these feelings at arms-length, lest they be associated with plebeian tunes.
I see this pattern of behavior as harmful because it causes the individual to suppress genuine feelings of enjoyment and pleasure in favor of turning their musical experience into an endless, meaningless puzzle where you only express interest in music that fits into your arbitrary guidelines. Enjoying music should never be so mechanical. The celebration of the music should never be downgraded to the cold calculation of what is and isn’t acceptable to love. I do think the discussion of music’s quality and the subsequent evaluation of those aspects is not a bad thing in itself. Being able to passionately engage with this art form is being able to critique it and break it down to its inner organs. The problem arises when you begin to only see music from that perspective, and that creates this culture where we base our opinions off of what The Needle Drop says rather than how we truly feel about the music.
The fact that a majority of “guilty pleasure” songs are typically radio hits or pop songs from another era is no coincidence. If you’re like me, you remember getting into music in your early teenage years and getting caught up in the anti-pop hysteria that were the early Justin Bieber years, where everything that was on the radio was trash and they didn’t make good popular music anymore. Some grew out of that mindset as they matured, but some of the stigmas still remained, reinforced especially by those who still hang on to that juvenile hatred of every piece of music that didn’t align with their narrow world view. Some of these people were your friends, and while they grew into a newer kind of snobbery and pretension, they stayed your friends, so when you listen to one of these songs, you feel guilty because you think of what your peers might think instead of what you think. You feel guilty because that little voice in the back of your head tells you that this song is not worth your positive emotions, that you know this song is bad. So you conceal yourself in a bulletproof shroud of irony, where you can’t be harmed by insults because you don’t really enjoy it (although, you do), you just like to act like you enjoy it.
Generally, I think more people should take genuine pride in the art they enjoy. You should never feel bad for liking something as innocent as a pop song just because you run with a group that shuns the non-critically acclaimed. In the realm of music, “guilty” is not a word that should describe the feeling you get when you hear a song that you gives you a feeling of excitement, nostalgia and unbridled joy. When you’re relaying an experience you’ve had with a song or another piece of art, it should come from a place of utmost sincerity, because you deserve better than to constantly hide behind the mask of irony that keeps you from displaying true emotion. This cynicism is a small instance of toxicity that threatens to poison a larger well. Work against it.