by: Patrick Gill and Nico Lang
I learned an important lesson from someone named Ella. I couldn’t have seen her more than 10 times. I met her my freshman year of college, the year where you make so many friends you can’t count them; and they are the kind of people that after years, you’re lucky if you have one distinct memory of them — even if it’s an amalgamation of all the times you hung out together.
My memory of Ella, hazed in her hornet’s nest high, crunchy bottle-blonde hair and watery gray band tees, in her dispersion of the “Minnesota Nice” myth and talk of her mother making state fair award winning cookies, is actually summed up nicely in a few sentences: “No pleasure is a guilty pleasure. I mean fuck, if you like it you should like it and not give a shit.”
I stutter even now when I think about her bluntness. I believe she was talking about how she liked that Plain White Ts song “Hey There Delilah,” something that clashed with my vision of her has a rough, pissed, shrill and cool dame. Her jeans weren’t bought intentionally ripped and had to have been older than second hand. But she said it was a fine pop song, sweet and they performed it well. So fuck me, after I said I thought it was trite and terrible and I tried to give her a little shit for it, and fuck anyone else who would try to do the same. Fuck me, indeed, Ella.
Like I said, we couldn’t have hung out a handful of more times after that. We never really managed to see each other around and had settled a little more into different groups of friends before we could really consider each other as such. However, I remember her telling me this, even if I can’t distinctly remember what we were talking about, I remember her indignation at anyone trying to devalue her taste, even if it was something that didn’t appear to jive with her aesthetic.
I keep these words, “No pleasure is a guilty pleasure,” locket-over-my-heart close — because as abrasive as they were at first, they settled into being a source of strength for me. I grew up a people pleaser, be it that through most of my early childhood I grew up without neighbors — necessitating that my limited interactions with people go smoothly; this isolated instilled in me a desire to present myself and my kin well. I like this about me, but I recognize it also hindered a lot of my genuine development. I felt I needed to be palatable to people.
As I matured, I realized I was strange for a whole host of reasons. I invented a lot of the shame because of this and thought I could cultivate from that an identity that blended who I was and who was understandable to the general public. I would voraciously devour cultural idioms and symbols as I grew, in an attempt to be a passable version of “different.” I did find things I genuinely loved, punk and hardcore music, thrift store clothes, Sylvia Plath, painting and sculpting; however, I made sure the things I publicly presented as liking could mesh together, without presenting clashes that caused further scrutiny of who I was. There was no telling people how much I loved Jefferson Airplane, that I wrote my own poetry, that I didn’t drink or do drugs because I was afraid I would admit to being attracted to men and that I just wanted to drive around by myself singing Billie Holiday most nights.
I knew normal was just too hard to swing. I could have an edge, but not too much of an edge. Because I recognize how false and harmful this is — never allowing myself to feel safe and to enjoy myself — this has been the thing I have most ardently pushed back against personally. My need to fit a right and alternative bracket has disintegrated for the most part. I reflect on the saying no pleasure is a guilty pleasure because it allows me to break down brackets more and more and open up about what I truly like. When I say something is good, I actually believe it now, and I am entrusting with you my taste, what I thought would isolate me or bring pain to me for years.
I get a little heated when people tell me the reasons I like or dislike something. I will tell you what I like, even if I say “I secretly like” it through a bubbling grin. I have said that so many times that many of the things I admit to are not even close to secret. I’ll tell you what I like, because it’s one less avenue of invented shame to keep secret; it’s something that we can maybe share; it’s something you can learn about me through. And more and more, I want you to know me. I want to feel safe. I want to be liked for who I am and what I like. It’s a part of me.
I learned the philosophy of “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” from Patrick, and it took me a long time to come around to agreeing with him. I think that the “guilty pleasure” label puts a shame upon liking certain types of things, playing into the rhetoric of highbrow and lowbrow culture. It’s okay to like the films of Woody Allen, but not to embrace the joys of Gossip Girl or Cougar Town — because Allen’s films are literate and high-minded and Cougar Town is about older women getting laid in Florida. But the clear problem here is that Cougar Town is a lot better than most of Allen’s recent films, especially When You Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Scoop and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, movies that the less are said about, the better. Esquire magazine talked about this problem a couple years ago, when they discussed why many recent Elastica albums are better than Bob Dylan albums. It might be true — because Elastica doesn’t try as hard to be great and can just focus on being enjoyable — but you can’t ever say that, even if you think it.
I think that when we start chaining ourselves to this pop vs. art divide, we keep ourselves from liking a bunch of things we might otherwise really enjoy, even more than stuff we are supposed to like because Pitchfork or Robert Christgau do. For instance, I know a lot of people who seem to hate Justin Bieber for strange reasons that have little to do with his music, when some of his music is actually not terrible. “Baby” placed high on last year’s Pazz and Jop poll, just as Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is sure to this year — even if Patrick hates that song.
In the case of each, a part of me wanted to instantly hate them, because (as a recovering snob) I have a natural bias against hired-hand radio jams (aka. the Dr. Luke Factory), but to simply dismiss what is popular or wouldn’t be fair to the artist or to music criticism. The more I listened to Jepsen’s now-ubiquitous tune, the more I realized there was nothing guilty about it. While reminding me of the throwaway bubble-gum pop of the late-1990s, often described as guilty pleasure nostalgia jams for folks who grew up during that era, the strings in the background remind me of all the disco music I really love. It most reminds me of the song “Doctor’s Orders,” a classic Carol Douglas tune about the innocent joys of love. When we look for everything to be as deep as Radiohead’s Kid A, we squander what can be fun and joyous about music that isn’t looking to be intellectual. Jepsen just wants to have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
We don’t have to instantly dislike things because they are poppy, on the radio or popular — and if we do dislike them, it should be for reasons that are more interesting than that; good criticism merits it. For instance, I could go on forever about why I hate Katy Perry, but I won’t.
Recently, I talked to a guy who said that he didn’t like Fight Club anymore after he heard other people talking about it. It just wasn’t special to him anymore, like finding out everyone else slept with a girl you liked. Similarly, now that Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a massive success, I know a lot of people who liked the song “before it was popular” are turning against it. Why is that a thing? Why do we only want to like things when other people don’t know about them or they are made by two RISD dropouts and their cats in a cabin in Minnesota? Is it such a crime to be on the radio, to be…gulp…successful?
Listen up, hipsters and snobs: Nothing we like can ever be special to us. Your music taste isn’t special, and someone out there likes what you like. Anything you like or find interesting will also be enjoyed by an entire community of people on the internet who also obsess about that very thing, especially if that thing is Community. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s better that way. The communal nature of enjoyment can make something more interesting. When we submit our tastes to a public forum, that gives others the ability to add to the experience of enjoying something through re-interpreting it or giving us new information; it’s like having someone be the Director’s Commentary for you. Remember when you learned that “Every Breath You Take” by Police isn’t about love, it’s about being stalked, and you remembered that people play that song at their weddings? It blew your fucking mind. Sharing our tastes is like that. It’s called learning, and we can only do it when we interact with others.
When we keep things to ourselves and pray the radio doesn’t find out about them, we don’t enjoy music; we hoard cultural capital naively, and we don’t allow our tastes to grow. In doing so, we won’t be challenged to think outside our critical boxes or to allow interplay between what is considered “high” and “low.” I remember the first moment I heard Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals, his second album of samples and mash-ups, my brain exploded when he used the hand claps from Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” as part of the beat to a rap song I really enjoy. And throughout, I lauded the way he was able to blend old and new, high and low into something seamless and incendiary. This was what making and enjoying art was, and it did not discriminate between popular and obscure, public and private. All was worthy of enjoyment and regard.
I always hear people say that music now isn’t as good as it used to be or isn’t as good as _______, but I have a really hard time believing that. Although some years (like 1967, 1991, 1993 and 2010) are exceptionally good, whereas others (like this year and last year) are slow, there’s more music in the public market and more ways to consume than there ever were before, and little excuse to complain. How can you not find a plethora of different things you like? We have Pandora, Spotify, ITunes, mixtapes, SiriusFM, CDs, records and the radio to constantly feed us new genres and bands we’ve never heard of, and the more we close ourselves off to the multitude of cultural universes out there, the more we make our tastes insular and boring. The music landscape is changing and growing every day, and when you look at the Pazz and Jop winners every year, the list doesn’t delineate between our Britneys and Animal Collectives. If we do, we look even more shallow than the music we purport not to like — just because other people like it.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, the New Gay and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.
Patrick Gill is the Co-Creator of In Our Words, as well as the Co-Founder and Host of the queer reading series All The Writers I Know. He is a poet, essayist, short story writer and occasional performer. Patrick writes the column “B*tch, I’m Miley Cyrus” for HEAVEMedia, is an alumnus of DePaul, has developed LGBTQ-centered anti-bullying curricula for CPS schools and is currently working on LGBTQ friendly children’s books. Patrick is doing so in order to be cute and endearing once again. He is a semi-professional word-hustler and a burrito hunter. His mother thinks everything he is doing is a fun thing to do.