Question from Karl: “Back in 2002, I was fortunate enough to interview El-P during the height of Definitive Jux’s fame for my college newspaper. Aside from being extremely gracious with his time and enduring what I’m sure were, in hindsight, relatively inane questions, there was one thing he said which has stuck with me since to this very day. When I asked about his “”guilty listening pleasures,”” he rightly and summarily dismissed the notion, saying if he genuinely liked something, he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Really changed some of my attitudes towards music. What are your views on”guilty listening pleasures,” and assuming you once subscribed to this notion, how and why has it evolved over the years?”

Answer: Through the wonders of text search, it seems that the last time I used the phrase “guilty pleasure” in a Soul Sides post was circa 2006, in reference to this:

Looking through old emails to editors and colleagues, I use the phrase sparingly. Besides the 2006 post, the other most “recent” usage I found dates back to a 2001 email where I applied it to the remix of “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Jay-Z).

For people who frequently write/talk about culture, “guilty pleasure” serves as a useful shorthand for describing “something you like even though you feel self-conscious acknowledging that you like it lest other people find it in poor/questionable taste.” That last part is crucial: the notion of taste is absolutely essential to making a phrase like “guilty pleasure” remotely meaningful to begin with, at least when it comes to culture. Without hierarchies of taste, why would anyone need to feel embarrassed about the kind of music/film/food/books/etc. they like?

So, to answer your question, I think my ultimate abandonment of the term has come through two different realizations:

1) As El-P noted to you, why should anyone feel guilty about liking something that gives them pleasure?1 Not to get overly philosophical about this but I think part of this stems from a fear of pleasure itself: of acknowledging it, of embracing it, or pursuing it. Pleasure may seem (take your pick): indulgent, frivolous, privileged, soft, et. al.2 And as I’ve gotten older, beginning probably around the time I turned 30, I became a lot more self-aware of my hedonistic tendencies and began just embracing them for what they are rather than trying to pretend as if pleasure doesn’t matter to me, let alone something I should feel guilty about enjoying.

2) The second part of it has to do with abandoning – or at least easing off of – judging others around questions of taste. If you haven’t read this, I can’t recommend Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love more highly. It’s a slim book (in other words: a quick read) but an incredibly poignant and profound discussion about musical taste that definitely had an impact on me and other music critics I know. It’s not that I’ve jettisoned the idea of taste for myself – I definitely have preferences in what I like and don’t like – but I’m not interested in applying those preferences to others. So it’s not all that compelling or interesting to me to talk/write about music through the lens of “good taste/bad taste.” I’m interested in figuring out why I like a song. I’m also interested to figure out why others like a song, even ones I don’t like personally. In that context, guilty pleasure is also meaningless because if you’re not invested in policing (or being policed) around questions of taste, then there’s nothing to feel guilty (or self-righteous) about.

Moreover, I also think you arrive at more interesting conversations and ideas once you get past guilt/taste. To explain to someone, “I like that [thing] as a guilty pleasure” isn’t actually an explanation at all. It’s a way of avoiding an explanation. It saves you the trouble of having to actually think and articulate why you like what you like.

I mean, that has its convenient uses; maybe you’re at a painful party and you don’t want to explain to someone why you watched every season of Entourage non-ironically. But if you cease to think of anything as a guilty pleasure, then you’re opening yourself up to thinking more about what the nature of pleasure is, why certain things give you pleasure. And maybe that helps you understand what other people find pleasurable.

So I suppose if I were to interview an artist and I wanted to ask them something similar to what you asked El-P, I would frame it more like: “what’s a song or artist that the other people in Def Jux can’t stand but you love? And why?”

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  1. Unless this involves torturing kittens or something.
  2. I recently read some asinine comment online about how celebrity/tabloid culture only exists in first world countries because the rest of the world is too busy struggling to waste time like that. Not only is this completely, factually false in practically any part of the world I can imagine, but it’s also a deeply elitist idea since it presumes, on a certain level, that cultural pleasure is the domain of the most privileged societies. I’m not saying that “Honey Boo Boo” isn’t some kind of atrocity to humankind but I’m pretty sure you can find the equivalent to that show in most societies on the planet, in some form or other. We are social creatures and gawking is a deeply social act that helps bond us together, regardless of our state of economic development.