Guilty Pleasures – Why Do We Listen to the Things We Listen To?

Here’s another of the blog topics I set for my College students – we got onto the topic of ‘guilty pleasures’ in class, so I asked them to write about it.

What do we mean by guilty pleasures? Guilty of what? enjoying it? of not acquiescing to the groupthink of our particular subculture? Of not knowing what ‘serious’ music fans ought to listen to? Are we guilty because we know its wrong, or because we’re concerned about getting caught?

All of those – admittedly trivial – concerns miss a much bigger question, about WHY we listen to music. Much as we’d love to see ourselves as objective connoisseurs of musical worth, there are way to many factors at play to make any sense of ‘transgressive listening’ remotely meaningful in relation to the music as opposed to the sub-culture.

Vilifying people for listening to ‘bad’ music misses the point that we don’t primarily listen to things because they’re “good”, we listen to them because of the meaning they create. Trying to find all the ‘good’ music would be a thankless, frustrating and futile task. There’s way too much of it. So we choose our soundtrack based on other criteria, including:

  • Belonging
  • Nostalgia
  • Environment
  • Emotional support/enhancement
  • Learning

Our sense of ‘belonging’ comes from a shared soundtrack with our peers. We define ourselves by what we choose to listen to and also what we definitely WON’T listen to (hence the guilty pleasure of great music outside of the group soundtrack).

Nostalgia is an INCREDIBLY powerful force – it’s drives the selection process for pretty much all the songs that are sung by the hapless people who end up on TV karaoke contests like X Factor. Pick a song that reminds your audience what it was like to be a teenager. Vary the time frame so everyone gets a stab at feeling like a teenager. 60s/70s/80s hits. It’s the mass media equivalent of being a wedding DJ.

Environment – we soundtrack where we are. Things that sound great on the train on the way to work don’t work on the stereo at home when we get in. The music that plays over your phone’s built in speaker while you’re in the bath might not fit at a party. We choose ‘appropriate’ music for an environment. Being ‘good music’ is one factor. Being acceptable music, music that ‘fits’ is a much bigger one.

Emotional support – with strong overlaps to nostalgia and environment, music can reflect or shape our emotion. I know a LOT of otherwise arch cool types who retreat into the world of balladry when confronted with emotional turmoil. When a relationship ends, a lot of music we love normally ceases to adequately reflect our mood. We want to feel understood, so we go to the music that speaks to us. It’s OK for this to be truly dreadful music. It’s doing its job, it has ceased to be dreadful.

Learning – musicians have a habit of listening to twiddly, complicated music because it gives them technical goals that are far easier to reach for than ones that are to do with how music makes us feel, or how it connects with one of those subcultures of belonging. It’s really tricky to teach someone to write music that goths will think is cool. It doesn’t work like that because the music isn’t the only factor. So instead, we learn to shred because that’s measurable. But we end up listening to a load of music that we wouldn’t be caught dead playing to our non-musician friends, by people with really bad hair.

It’s all got so little to do with any meaningful measure of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that the notion of guilt becomes a little meaningless.

Sure there’s a lot of music that I can’t fathom why other people listen to it, and there are trends in music that seem to be objectively damaging the experience of music (see The Loudness War), and there’s a lot of music that feels deeply cynical in its construction (that’s my own aversion to some formulae while being quite happy with others… Motown good, modern pop bad?) – but none of it is remotely set in stone.

All of those reasons are great reasons to listen to music. I indulge all of them at various points in my week. But I feel guilty for none of them. Perhaps that’s part of the joy of being 40 and no longer giving much a shit whether someone digs the music I dig or not (it’s something of a survival necessity for a solo bassist 😉 ). Perhaps it’s the result of writing and thinking about music.

Weirdly, the thing about which I feel the most ‘guilty pleasure’ pressure is listening to my own music. We – specifically British culture – regard enjoying our own art as a somewhat narcissistic pursuit. We’re generally all to eager to point out its faults when asked about it, and shouldn’t really admit to enjoying it. This baffles me no end, perhaps because I’ve always released my own music, of my own volition, so the idea of not loving it seems bizarre – why the hell would I make art that I don’t want to enjoy? It makes no sense to me at all. So I spend an awful lot of time listening to my own music, and enjoying it, but am deeply conscious of the impression that creates amongst some people that I’m insufferably self-absorbed. Ah well.

I do still have fantastic and heated arguments with Dubber about whether or not he or I are morons for liking/disliking certain things, but I wouldn’t expect him to feel guilty about liking really bad music. This is the internet, after all, you’re allowed to be wrong.

3 Replies to “Guilty Pleasures – Why Do We Listen to the Things We Listen To?”

  1. For decades I avoided pop music tossing it into the “bad” music catagory and stuck with prog or jazz or hyper-literate folk or classical or americana. Only in recent years have I admitted that a well crafted pop song can be a lovely thing.

    1. hi Dan!

      I’ve always had a weird set of criteria for ‘pop that’s acceptable’ vs pop that isn’t. I’d come up with phrases like ‘honest pop’, ‘believable pop’, whatever else… The simple fact was, most of it was music that I connected with in some way, and the need to validate that was retroactive. ‘Oops, I like this really catchy pop song, how am I going to explain it, given my chosen presentation of self as a music connoisseur?” …of course, I never phrased it like that, that would be supremely weird, but that was the dialog that was happening 🙂

  2. “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.” Miles ~Davis.

    There is no bad music, there is just the wrong mood.

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