“Do you feel ashamed when you hear my name?”: The Case Against Guilty Pleasures

Illustration by Tina Tao

As a deeply insecure 14-year-old who was obsessed with the persona around indie music listeners and “not being like the other girls”, Spotify’s “private session” feature was my saviour. With this magical switch, nobody knew I was listening to the Riverdale soundtrack instead of Mac Demarco. Although I still firmly believe that the first season of Riverdale was quality television, I’m a lot less sure of why we care so much about other people’s opinions on our listening habits, and vice versa; it seems we’re a lot more willing to accept someone’s unexpected taste if they admit to embarrassment. I’ve never really understood why we’re okay with reducing an artist’s work to a guilty pleasure, as if our enjoyment of it is less valid because of the judgement we fear we may receive.

What makes something a guilty pleasure? A common stereotype is a ridiculously boppy pop song with lyrics that are lacking in substance, yet we can’t help but dance and sing along. Although when I describe it like that, I don’t understand what’s so shameful about it. Surely we’re enjoying the music while we’re listening to it; why else would we put it on? Music is personal and meant to inspire emotions; whatever you’re trying to feel, the experience is inevitably changed if you’re worried about who might be watching. I think it’s safe to say, then, that the guilt only comes when we tell someone else about it; when we question whether or not to mention it; when we weigh up how they might respond; if we feel like they might criticise us. And at the end of the day, that’s what it really comes down to—our fear of other people’s judgement.

A couple of months ago, I saw a TikTok that said “to be cringe is to be free”. As this girl danced around to the Electric Lady Studios recording of ‘Bags’ by Clairo (a banger), I reflected upon the years I spent preoccupied with how other people would perceive my taste in music. This TikTok, while a little silly on the face of it, perfectly sums up why I’m generally against the idea of guilty pleasures. If we like an artist, why should we let someone else’s idea of what it means to listen to them impact our own enjoyment? The general assumption of what an artist’s fanbase looks like plays a large role—there might be a stereotypical “Swiftie”, but not everyone who listens to Taylor Swift fits that assumed identity. A quick Google search for “guilty pleasure music” brings up article after article listing “the best guilty pleasure songs”. A recurring theme in these articles is the prominence of female artists and boy bands. In other words, artists with predominantly young female audiences are more likely to be considered guilty pleasures. This is just another example of society hating on something girls and young women like. This speaks to our collective internalised misogyny and the desire to criticise something or reject our own enjoyment of it because it is considered inherently “feminine”. 

On the other hand, when I asked my sister what she considers to be her musical guilty pleasure, she said, “fuckboy rap music”; specifically because the lyrics often degrade women. This is a really interesting contrast to what mainstream media promotes as guilty pleasures: rather than undermining a genre of music that is often targeted towards girls and young women, the guilt comes from listening to songs with lyrics that may be offensive. This made me take a step back and consider some of the other reasons certain songs and artists may be considered guilty pleasures. While this may not be the common perception of what a guilty pleasure is, it’s worth noting that we have seen a lot more discussion over the last decade around the morality of separating the art from the artist. Whether this falls under the umbrella of guilty pleasures depends on how much the listener feels an artist’s character or behaviour impacts the enjoyment they get from consuming their music. For some people, this is not an issue, and they are able to completely separate the two and continue listening with no problems. For others, their enjoyment can become riddled with guilt if they feel like an artist has done wrong. There are links here to modern “cancel culture”, since an artist’s wrongdoings can and will be brought up more frequently in public discourse. This matters more to some than it does to others, and I’m not in the business of telling people who or what they can and can’t listen to (at least, not in such a public format). But having these conversations has made me realise that in some situations, the guilt might not wholly stem from the fear of someone else’s judgement: we also judge ourselves when our listening habits don’t align with our morals.

Taste in music is so subjective: one person’s favourite artist is another person’s guilty pleasure, and vice versa. I think it’s worth discussing why our fear of judgement so strongly outweighs our willingness to publicly talk about our taste without quickly following it with an admission of guilt. Enjoy the music you love, because there’ll always be someone who disagrees with you, no matter what it is. Life is a lot more fun when you stop caring about the pretentious kid in your tutorial who judges you for listening to anything “mainstream”. Whatever you listen to, I hope you don’t feel too guilty about it in the moment.

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