Feature :: Guilty Pleasures

May 14th 2013

We’ve all been there. Thom Yorke’s new African tribal fusion project has just dropped, you’ve gone out and bought it on vinyl, it’s sitting in your hands like a precious artefact staring back at you like it knows the answers to all your deepest and darkest questions… and yet you can’t seem to turn Neil Diamond off in the background.

Sometimes there’s something almost dauntingly dour about committing an hour to that avant-garde Icelandic post-folk/trip-hop group’s B-side collection, and although you do value it highly and know you should give it a proper listen, all you want to do is throw on a pair of headphones and some Matchbox Twenty, mime along and hope no one around you is that good a lip-reader. But why, when we rationalise some artists’ enterprises as more valuable than others’, do we feel the impulse to go against our better judgement and holler along to Hanson when no one’s looking?

Akrasia is (loosely) the state of acting against one’s better judgement.

Akrasia is a phenomenon that has been dwelt upon in philosophical circles since the ancient greeks who coined the term. It arises in all of our lives on a daily basis. It’s that ‘I know I shouldn’t smoke but I really want to’ thought process. In ethical reasoning, matters of health and other more weighty issues, akratic dialogue is often simply a matter of the right and well-reasoned coming at odds with base desires. In these situations, it’s clear to see how one ideally should act in response to such cognitive dissonance.

However, when it comes to aesthetic judgements there’s certainly less at stake, and the subjectivity of aesthetic appraisal only muddies the matter. Where having that cigarette is obviously and objectively unhealthy, listening to Natalie Imbruglia‘s ‘Torn’ on repeat whilst standing in front of the mirror doing man-ginas every Tuesday night just isn’t an objectively bad thing to do.

(… is it?)

The question of interest here is, how should we react to the akratic compulsion to feed our guilty musical pleasures in favour of devoting time to more highly valued music?

An obvious answer might be that these kinds of internal conflicts aren’t genuinely akratic at all; we aren’t going against better judgements when we indulge in our guilty pleasures because musical taste is a purely subjective matter – and so it makes no sense to talk of some music as better or more valuable than some other music.

However, this response seems unsatisfactory. I, for one, am not willing to suggest that we should forsake our attempts at qualifying certain music as more or less valuable simply because it is a subjective matter. While aesthetic judgements may never be – and probably should never be – seen as definitive or objective, there’s certainly a need for a healthy critical dialogue to hold artists accountable and encourage the production of art that is deemed to be valuable. Moreover, we make personal appraisals like this all the time, and rightfully so – I mean, I think ‘Gangnam Style’ is shit!

So why, when I find myself facing the mirror with my manhood tucked away, embroiled in Imbruglia, do I not turn to music more erudite, more highly valued?

Maybe the question I should be asking is, “Why do we so often adjudge the poppy, the soppy and the corny to be guilty pleasures?”

It mightn’t be the kind of music we’d take to the hypothetical desert island, but that doesn’t mean we ought to feel guilty about indulging in it. I mean, everyone still has their respective copy of Backstreet BoysBackstreet’s Back stashed away behind piles of (supposedly) better CDs somewhere, so when are we gonna stop feeling like our musical returns to our younger and simpler selves are journeys that ought to bear a burden of guilt?

(Well… maybe when the man-ginas cease, the guilt might subside… But still!)

I’m inclined to say, “Fuck that! I actually rate the Goo Goo Dolls!” – and while they may not sit in the higher echelons of my scale of aesthetic appreciation there’s nonetheless a place for them on the scale. More to the point, there’s a time for music that mightn’t subvert the form, challenge genre conventions or project interesting and intricate political or philosophical messages. There’s a time for music that takes you back, makes you smile and makes you punch the fucking sky like the dude at the end of The Breakfast Club. There’s a time for music that inspires one to tuck one’s knob and balls between their legs and love themselves a little bit more for it!


… isn’t there?



PS: If you’ve got as many guilty pleasures as Pat does, send ’em in to the Ugly Duckling – every Friday arvo with Sweetie & Shag.



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