No more talk of ‘guilty pleasures’, please.

I had an epiphany last week when my friend came over for dinner and played ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears. I always thought it was just a cheesy 00s pop hit. Nothing more, nothing less. I’d heard the song time after time. Either as background noise while in the gym, or as a muffled sound from the smoking area of Jimmy’s. Thinking it was overplayed and unsophisticated, my pretentious knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss it.

But this time when it started playing, I actually listened to the track; I realised how intelligent the production was, how evocative Britney’s vocal are, how surprising that EDM twist is on the final chorus. Slowly but surely, it dawned on me: this is quite possibly the best song of the 21st century. I said this to my friend without exaggeration or irony, and he agreed – it really is an unbelievable track.

But then, the guilt crept in. How could I – a supposed lover of gritty post-punk, experimental hip-hop and the occasional symphony when I’m really feeling pompous – stoop so low as to admit that ‘Toxic’ is a masterpiece? I thought I’d have to take a long, hard look at myself. This track truly was a guilty pleasure. But in actual fact, I realised pretty quickly that the whole concept of a song being a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a completely bogus one.

Ultimately, music is to be enjoyed. And in my opinion, music’s main strength is that it emotionally engages the listener with an immediacy that a novel or a cryptic abstract painting cannot. What is so fantastic is that often you don’t have a choice as to whether you will like a song or not. You engage with it on a far more intuitive level. There is no need to understand the philosophical significance of some symbol to appreciate it, you do not have to understand the rules of rhythm and metre in order to unlock the meaning of the words. There is no requirement, whatsoever, for any intellectual engagement with a song in order to enjoy it. You just listen, and in some magical way – with probably lots of neuroscientific explanations I don’t know – the song feels good to your brain.

This is why we should never say an enjoyable song is a ‘guilty pleasure’. There should be no need to blast ‘Crazy Frog’ in your headphones and then walk to the library in terror – petrified one of those people who ask, ‘What are you listening to?’ might approach you and make you confess.  Because to lie that you don’t like a song when you do, or add the caveat of guilt to your enjoyment, implicitly suggests that your music taste is just a projection. You want to be seen by others condemning music they dislike, while you only enjoy music that others consider cool, or trendy, or against the grain.

Ever had a friend get annoyed at you for playing a song that ‘They showed you first’? Or have you ever quickly skipped a song that you love in your playlist because you imagine others around you won’t? Don’t let music get treated this way! Music should never be a social marker. It should excite you, comfort you, challenge your preconceptions, expand your tastes. Above all else, it ought to be appreciated for its own sake. So, let’s call for the death of the ‘guilty pleasure’ – long live unapologetic musical enjoyment!

(Photo from Katie Whittaker on Flickr)

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