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June 11, 2013 at 4:10 PMComments: 10 Faves: 0

Trading Pleasure for Guilt: The Senselessness of Pop Culture Insecurity

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

Own It, Baby

The term "guilty pleasure" gets thrown around quite a lot, and it seems that our opinions of what belongs on such a list continue to grow with each passing day. Oddly, we take this notion for granted and feel the need to abide by its inherent restrictive nature. Why should taking pleasure in an innocuous piece of media entertainment make us feel guilty? It shouldn't, which is why I'm a firm believer that these two words need to be permanently severed from one another, and that the brief idiom should be discarded for (what remains of) eternity. Although I'm certainly prone to referring to an embarrassing interest as a guilty pleasure, the stupidity of such an inane concept deserves further examination before we accelerate its particles into oblivion.

If you like something, own it. There's no need to hide from our interests, regardless of how pithy, cliched, square, or nerdy they may be. Across this vast horizon of contemporary entertainment media, tolerance and acceptance should be values praised just as highly as they are in all other facets of life. Racists are now firmly on the wrong side of history, as are misogynists, and homophobes will soon join them. With this enlightened progression, why do we feel the need to demonize someone because of what sort of expressive art forms they value? There's no need to be embarrassed about what authors you prefer or the types of movies you watch, yet we all are; we all have pop cultural skeletons in our respective closets. They're getting cramped, and they want out.

Skull

The Inauthentic "You."

There's one distinction here that must be observed for this argument to gain any forward momentum: All expressions are equally valid, but that doesn't mean that they are necessarily equal. This idea holds true for all areas of life. Recognizing equal validity across the board refers to the idea that everything's right to exist should always be maintained - fought for, if necessary. Conversely, recognizing everything as equal implies an impulse or desire for stasis, which can only lead to total entropy and absolute zero. Everything in this world has value, some things more, others less, but that doesn't mean that certain things in this world are essentially undesirable, only that we determine that status through some unnamed, inexact socio-cultural process.

Keeping with this line of thinking, I recognize Nikki Minaj's right to exist as an "artist" and to propagate her "art" on the world, but that doesn't stop me from rolling my eyes at how she abuses those rights with her ridiculous personality and horrid music. Still, regardless of what writers, critics, award shows, or your friends will tell you, art is entirely subjective. If it weren't, no would know who Jackson Pollock was. (If you don't already, don't worry about it too much, you aren't missing anything... Irony's right to exist is one of my favorite examples of this theory.)

This isn't to say that people aren't allowed to have their opinions (obviously I do), but that they should stick to them despite what others may think. We've all eaten some crow, and we've all had to wipe some egg from our face, but did those experiences kill us? Or, did they make us stronger? If you're into Ms. Minaj, more power to you, but don't hypocricize yourself and claim not to be. Embarrassment isn't a valid excuse for presenting an inauthentic version of "You" to the world. Not that you necessarily owe the world anything. Actually, I suppose it's entirely possible that an inauthentic version of You is authentic, depending on how far down this rabbit-hole you'd like to venture.

RH

The Ontology of Shame

Perhaps the most interesting element of the idea of a guilty pleasure is not what we feel guilty about, but why we feel guilty about anything in the first place. What are we so insecure about that we don't feel capable of consistent authentic expression? Are any of us really so unique that 99.9% of our Earthly experiences haven't been shared by every other person on the planet? Contrary to what your mother told you as a child, probably not.

We are far more united by what we have in common than we are divided by what we do not. We all have the same basic needs, and those needs have brought us together over the course of our species' evolution to the point where we now have what we consider a global society, one made all the more homogenous with each new technological advance. We all breathe oxygen; we all seek nourishment, shelter, and love. We all need to rest roughly 6-8 for every complete spin of Earth's axis, and we all need to communicate in some form with other organic entities. Not just some of us, all of us. Not to oversimplify the dilemma, but what's so embarrassing about being nearly identical to every other human being?

Maybe it's not that we're united by our similarities, but rather that we are overwhelmed by them. The driving force of all human life seems to be difference (or differance for you literary Derridians), the idea that nothing can ever be fully determined because all forms of communication use a system of perpetual deference, setting off an infinite stream of comparison on which we predicate our entire existence. Therefore, we can know nothing to exist for certain, because we have no one universal signifier that transcends all others. Logically speaking, we have no fundamental truth. Therefore, if equality is shorthand for stasis (which seems like a self-evident truth), then difference must be the same for dynamism. All things being equal, except for one, we're naturally going to focus on the difference (and vice versa, I suppose, but this is much more rare in our universe), no matter how minute. To deflect this difference, we attempt to assimilate as much as possible. When we fail (i.e. when our difference becomes exposed), we become embarrassed. Anonymity is the key to success within a pack, but what if you don't get along with the pack and have no use for success?

Wolf

Pleasure, De-Guilted

So we all get embarrassed by our differences, but we all have interests that are, in fact, unique to us (or at least somewhat unique in that not everyone shares them). What are we to do about this? Create an identity, of course! We need difference, but we also long for belonging. To reconcile this issue, we seek out subcultures in society with which to identify.

For instance, I like rock music, postmodern literature, Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and ostensibly masculine professional sports. When I operate in contradiction to these interests, or rather, when I admit this exploration and celebration of contrary interests, I'm setting myself up for potential embarrassment. (It's not hardcore to discuss The Black Crowes at a Baroness concert, apparently). And the way that we deal with this embarrassment is the same way that we deal with anything uncomfortable: We name it.

We categorize our inconsistent behavior under the moniker "guilty pleasure" and we feel that this somehow gives us a pass for our shame. Classification equals disarmament. Guilty pleasures allow us to like what we like, while simultaneously claiming that we don't really like them, because they are outside of the realm of our created identity - the things that we talk about or enjoy with other people to gain a sense of acceptance within certain pockets of community. To that end, a guilty pleasure is really a basic, acceptable form of denying your enjoyment of what you admit to enjoying! (Aren't human beings fascinating creatures?)

Should I deny the fact that I'm a Vampire Weekend fan because my enjoyment of that band deviates from the identity that I showcase to the world at large? If you answered yes, then I have failed in writing this piece, and, for that, I apologize, but thanks for reading.

Once upon a time, I probably would have said yes as well, but now I'm on a quest to subvert the idiotic, outdated concept of the guilty pleasure. I love Disney movies, Stephen King novels, the sport of curling, and the occasional Britney Spears single. These are not guilty pleasures, these are part and parcel of what it means to be Kyle McCarthy. If you don't like it, crawl back into your closet with your claustrophobic skeletons, and leave me alone.

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10 Comments

  • But don't you find that, outside of your core group of friends, that to find acceptance you must find agreeing interests? I know that those of us that are introverted don't really care. I will happily show you my extensive iPod playlist, that makes me look like a schizophrenic psychopath. But, usually people need to feel accepted, which will prod you on to find common ground. I have friends that are Country fans, therefore, with them, I am interested in Country. We discuss the latest Taylor Swift album with a certain glint in our eyes that only comes from understanding her heartbreak. Then, I have a completely different set of friends that only listen to Progressive Rock. If I were to talk on and on about T-Swift to them, they would cast me out faster than if I were to say I enjoyed Ke$ha. Don't we hide our pleasure for social acceptance, needing to be part of the group? Do you expect people with no shared interests to be friends? I will admit this, it is much harder for me to socialize with my Country friends, because, although I do enjoy the occasional album, my focus is plainly elsewhere. I cannot go into deep detail with them regarding the entire genre, because I'm not a fan of most of it. So, should we develop a friend for each of our pleasures? That feels like a lot of people and I don't have that kind of time and patience. ;-)

  • There's nothing at all wrong with common ground, it's the fear of diverging from those commonalities that should be done away with. I think friendship should be much more about having an enlightening experience or trying new things than it should be just rehashing your common interests over and over again. One of my best friends in the world is a country music junkie who's also obsessed with the movie Armageddon. I have zero interest in either of these things, but I think it's cool/hilarious that he does, and I find THAT interesting.

    But don't you find that, outside of your core group of friends, that to find acceptance you must find agreeing interests? I know that those of us that are introverted don't really care. I will happily show you my extensive iPod playlist, that makes me look like a schizophrenic psychopath. But, usually people need to feel accepted, which will prod you on to find common ground. I have friends that are Country fans, therefore, with them, I am interested in Country. We discuss the latest Taylor Swift album with a certain glint in our eyes that only comes from understanding her heartbreak. Then, I have a completely different set of friends that only listen to Progressive Rock. If I were to talk on and on about T-Swift to them, they would cast me out faster than if I were to say I enjoyed Ke$ha. Don't we hide our pleasure for social acceptance, needing to be part of the group? Do you expect people with no shared interests to be friends? I will admit this, it is much harder for me to socialize with my Country friends, because, although I do enjoy the occasional album, my focus is plainly elsewhere. I cannot go into deep detail with them regarding the entire genre, because I'm not a fan of most of it. So, should we develop a friend for each of our pleasures? That feels like a lot of people and I don't have that kind of time and patience. ;-)

  • Sorry, copied and pasted your response so I could reference it easier...

  • I agree with your point that we should not rehash old experiences. But I can gather with my Rock friends and discuss the newest and upcoming albums, the shows we want to see, and the new types of music coming out. We are organic, growing together. But if you put me in a convo with a jazz lover, it will be like we are speaking different languages. He will be trying to tell me about John Coltrane, (of whom I've never heard one song), and I will try to tell him about my latest musical love, of which will sound like banging garbage cans together to him. What hope is there for conversation in that situation? I know, I have fallen off-topic. But, to bring it back around, when I am sharing new music with my rock friends, I am not about to bring up the new Pop diva that I have secretly been enjoying, because it will sound like Greek to them. I think guilty pleasures are guilty only with the company you keep. I know people who love Pop, so in those groups it is my Post-Hardcore that is the taboo subject.

  • Yeah, I can see that for sure. But, I think we may be talking about two different things? It's one thing to base your conversation on cultural context, but it's another to fear exposing your interests due to potential ostracism.

  • While making friends and having plenty in common with them is all nice and good, it never really progresses us as human beings, does it Reximus? If we all decided to group up with the people that share common interests, well, we would be exactly where we are today...mediocre and permanently bored. Conflict and contradiction force us to adapt, to think differently about the way we view the world. Any time this happens, we tend to evolve as human beings. And evolution is the point, is it not?

    The problem is: conflict is difficult. We repress all that is different about us to avoid having to justify our existence, leading perilously to a lack of individuality and rampant conformism. I dig what you are laying down McCarthy...even though your interests suck.

  • With regards to your first point, I don't know that conflict is the best way to grow as humans. I think that seeking out those that agree is the greater challenge, since so few agree. The hunt for like-minded individuals allows us to use those people to grow and expand, within our realm of enjoyment. As you pointed out in the end of your thought, EM, you disagree completely with Kyle's pleasures. This shuts off communication with him. You will not be going to listen to the few songs that he finds worth his time, because you like what you like and that is that. And, you said "justify our existence." I cannot with the so-called "guilty pleasures" I have. They are just awful, awful, awful. But, I love them. I can't justify why. I can't explain what it is that is happening inside my mind that makes me go, "yeah, that is a song I want to listen to over and over." But, since I cannot fully explain the musical depths which led me to that song, I hide it. I call it "guilty" so that I don't have to explain it. It allows me to like something without explanation.

  • I call it "guilty" so that I don't have to explain it. It allows me to like something without explanation.

    It seems that we at least agree on a fundamental premise; we just have different approaches.

  • Sorry Reximus, that last comment was meant as a joke. A difficult endeavor when speaking through a comment box.

    I can't jump on board with the idea that conflict is detrimental to humanity. So much of who we are, and who we become, spawns from the challenge of ideals. If we only search for those things that are easily understandable we can not progress ourselves.

  • Let's admit it, we all love Katy Perry

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