On Guilty Pleasures
Every now and then, someone will ask me about what my guilty pleasures are. But I don’t actually have any.
Not because my taste is pure sophisticated perfection, no. I like pop tarts and velveeta and happy bubblegum pop songs (some of them, anyway) and popcorn read-em-once adventures just fine. And I have no difficulty telling the difference between a pop tart and a gourmet pastry, velveeta and some of the certifiably best cheese in the US.
And not because I think there’s no such thing as standards–just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. I don’t think it’s some terrible injustice that Velveeta hasn’t got a pile of gold medals from the World Cheese Awards. It’s just, sometimes I love me some velveeta-covered mac and cheese, or a nice frosted blueberry pop tart.
I would say I don’t understand what there is to be guilty of, in these supposedly guilty pleasures, but sadly I know all too well what that’s about.
Velveeta? Is mass produced. That mass production makes it relatively inexpensive, and easy to get your hands on. It’s easy to cook with–you basically just melt it into whatever you’re making. It’s salty, it’s filling, it’s cheesy-tasting enough, as these things go. Little kids like velveeta. It’s not exactly a sophisticated taste to have.
That cheese I referred to above? If you don’t live in the vicinity of Bloomsdale, Mo, you’ll likely have a tough time getting your hands on some. Me, I can get a few ounces of it just by heading for the nearest farmer’s market, but it’ll cost me as much as two or three big blocks of velveeta. It’s totally worth it–they didn’t get that gold medal because the goats are cute. (Although the goats are super cute.)
I can like both of these, in different ways, for different reasons, but I’m supposed to feel ashamed of admitting the one. Why is that? Why are my personal preferences, some of them in such viscerally basic areas of my life–the taste of food!–subject to what is essentially a moral judgement? Why am I only supposed to admit liking what’s publicly valorized, and ashamed of liking what’s not?
And isn’t it funny how the stuff that I’m supposed to be ashamed of liking is inexpensive, mass produced, and easy to obtain? Isn’t that interesting?
Isn’t it funny how so much of the music and reading material that’s most heartily sneered at is loved by teenage girls? The bands or solo singers those girls fixate on in crushes of one sort or another, depending on a girl’s preferences and inclination, as fantasy romantic or sexual figures, and/or figures of hero worship, oh those are all horrible and stupid, aren’t they. The music is empty formulaic crap, the performers bland and pretty and plastic, and what are these girls even thinking, looking up to Taylor Swift! Never mind that adolescent girls have as much need as anyone for working out who they are and what they like, and the young, unthreatening folks who tend to make up those pop acts are entirely appropriate for the purpose. Sure, a lot of the music is disposable (and these teens react to it as though it’s earth shattering and profound and not cliche at all! How childish!) but some of it is better than it’s given credit for. And even if it weren’t, it’s no worse than ninety percent of everything else that hits the airwaves. Why the sneers? Why the hatred?
Or Romance. Romance isn’t one of my things, right, but let’s be honest, a crappy detective novel or a crappy SF or Extruded Fantasy Product is just as bad as a crappy Romance. When it’s SF we’ll protest that no, that’s just a bad one, the whole genre’s not like that, but Romance? Romance is just stupid, man.
Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that poor people like–or tend to buy or use because it’s cheap. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that teenage girls like, or women. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things we liked when we were kids.
I’m not saying that nothing can be criticized–there are surely bad Romance novels. Taylor Swift is a pretty good songwriter who has done some very admirable things, but she’s also had her less than admirable public moments. Velveeta doesn’t come out well in a comparison with really good cheese (unless its a competition for what will make the easiest mac & cheese, given only three minutes and a microwave to work with), and it’s probably not very good for you. I’m perfectly willing to criticize things I like, or consider criticism of those things, and still like them.
No, I’m talking about that weird, moral dimension to likes and dislikes. You like pumpkin spice anything? You should be ashamed. You should feel guilty, because you’re not supposed to like that, smart people don’t like that, people who like that have something wrong with them.
So much of what we like or dislike–what we’re publicly supposed to like or dislike–is functioning as in-group identifiers. You go to Starbucks because there are a zillion of them and you’re the kind of person who drinks lattes. You sneer at Starbucks because you’re not one of those sheep and their coffee is terrible, you go to the indie place where they serve you your latte in a mason jar, or in a puddle on a wooden plank. (I kid because I love–not long ago I was served dinner in half a dozen heaps on a wooden plank, and it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had. But there is something a little silly and super trendy about that kind of presentation.)
Or maybe I belong to (or aspire to belong to) a group that marks identity by reaction to the more widely valorized tastes–I’m sophisticated enough to prefer a cheap, canned beer (not just any cheap canned beer mind you!) or tea instead of coffee (again, not just any tea). Or maybe I’m sure someone is sneering at me, so I pre-emptively sneer at them, those snobs and their fancy moldy cheese and wine that’s no better than two buck chuck if you cover up the label and tell them it cost a lot and won some prizes.
All of it’s an advertisement for who you claim to be, in public. Being seen liking (or disliking) the wrong things can get you marked as an outsider, or as a member of a class you desperately don’t want to be part of. Sweet Mother of God don’t let anyone think I’m too much like a woman or a poor person or a gay guy or a lesbian or an elitist college educated liberal or…
Anxiety. Fear of being mistakenly–mistakenly, I swear!–placed in a deprecated category. Or just contempt for people in those categories. It’s not really about the art, the food, the coffee. If it were, you could talk about it without the sneering, without implying that anyone who would like this crap is deserving of mockery. Without talking about liking such things as though it were something you should feel guilty about.
It’s entirely possible to criticize things you like. It’s entirely possible to like bad things and dislike good things. It’s entirely possible to be a smart, educated, decent human being who likes pumpkin spice flavored stuff, and velveeta.
And while I know it’s difficult, it’s absolutely possible to criticize things without sneering at the people who like them. It’s harder than sneering, it takes some thought. And no, you don’t have to do it just because I’m saying you can. You can do anything you want. You do you. Just maybe think about it next time you’re about to say that something is a guilty pleasure.