The Only Guilty Pleasures
In my early 20s, I wanted to be John Cusack in Say Anything, the hangdog romantic with a knowing light behind his eyes.
In my late 20s, I woke to discover myself as a younger acolyte of Cusack in High Fidelity, arms folded across my chest, face fixed and glowering at anyone who assigned Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible lesser status or knew Jimmy Eat World as “the band who sings ‘The Middle.’”
I felt sure that friends who elevated pop flavors of the day above rock, jazz and soul classics deserved my disapproval; those whose tastes curved around the arthouse and into the multiplex obviously earned that askew glance or furrowed reply.
I attributed my attitudes to a righteousness in the marrow. An inevitable, long look in the mirror revealed otherwise. Guilt, not virtue, weathered my countenance. Guilt internalized whenever I sinned and fell short of the glory of tastemakers; guilt I hoped to off-load upon other disappointing souls.
If you don’t get certain things right with God by your 30s, hardness sets in. Afraid of the man I might become, I stopped kicking against the goads of other people’s loves. The world has enough moral trouble of its own without me casting my preferences in iron. No more rolling eyes.
When guilt is banished, the relief runs in every direction. Quit judging others’ tastes, and you stop sweating your own. No more guilt attached to the Bryan Adams CDs my wife periodically offers to box up for Goodwill, the ones full of junior-high poetry and far too much cowbell to be cool. No more guilt after reading—and finding myself—in the poems of Billy Collins, who seems to turn off a sizable portion of poetry Twitter.
21st-century writers experience a love-hate relationship with their Notes app. A few weeks ago, in a fit of contemplation, I entered the words “The only guilty pleasures are ...” letting the thought hang incomplete. For all the resettled angst, the questions stuck.
Do we ever stand guilty on account of songs that won’t leave our heads? Are we damned when we laugh through shoddy movies in spite of ourselves?
If I strip my life of aesthetic “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” only two commands remain. Love God with every fiber of your being; the second, made of the same substance, tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Guilt, or something like it, should only attend the artful pleasures which lead us to break one or both of these commandments.
The first sin seems obvious. We forever ride the line between sating our hurting souls with evidence of God and numbing ourselves with those proofs until we blot out God himself.
For all this bending toward idolatry, we are much more likely to violate the second greatest commandment. We use slivers of culture to create borders, excluding others on the basis of what they do or don’t like, not who they are.
At its best, art magnetizes people. Deadheads, Taylor Swift stans and midnight movie die-hards will testify to moments when community crescendos, drowning out—and completing—the art itself. Ever intent on spoiling the good, we use the same art that builds affinity to fence in our newfound communities.
We know the sting of sitting silent at a party, shifting our eyes to the floor when someone badmouths our favorite band or mocks the novel which left us trembling. And yet we wound others, with similar words and devastating deeds, for the sake of having something to treasure, for a chance to belong.
The stakes shift when we cling to art that actively diminishes our neighbors. Questions of who tells which stories—and in what fashion—often come with context and complication. And sometimes we just know. We see an artist make a meal of misogyny or cast false light on a group of people—and we watch the poison leak into the well.
Choosing to champion that art anyway speaks a poor word, and should spur conviction if we aren’t too hard or frozen to sense it anymore.
Permitting any artistic pleasure—as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else—seems more libertarian than I am anywhere else in life. But something greater, something positive, not just a cheap peace, suffuses this posture.
Admitting each other’s loves, we flourish. We accept pop songs and operas, poems and stream-of-consciousness essays, color studies and crude landscapes on their own terms. And that frees us to accept one another on terms that are simpler, yet somehow far higher.
Don’t misunderstand me. Duke Ellington wasn’t far off when he identified two types of music—good and bad. Perhaps more careful and more careless art are truer categories. But who needs to feel guilt reciting a sentimental poem to themselves, nestling into a favorite movie—even singing along, lungs on fire, to the hits of Bryan Adams?
The only guilty pleasures are ... ones which break the bonds art exists to create. Otherwise, to steal from—and possibly profane—St. Mary Oliver, you don’t have to enjoy good art. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”