Trading Pleasure for Guilt: The Senselessness of Pop Culture Insecurity
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.
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.
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?
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.