Friday, September 16, 2005

Guilty Pleasures, and Their Opposites

My literary crush, Sarah Vowell, said in an interview recently that one of the themes of her work is the gap between the stuff we like but aren’t supposed to, and the stuff we’re supposed to like but don’t. Guilty pleasures, and their opposites (guilty pains? guilty annoyances?).

Like most of what she says, it got me thinking. Why, exactly, are guilty pleasures guilty? I don’t mean the obviously harmful ones, like mistresses or heroin, but harmless ones. Why do I feel bad about liking minor-league baseball, or sausage pizza, or Pat Metheny (whose music one ex-girlfriend memorably described as “good for the digestion”)? And why do I feel vaguely bad about finding the Godfather movies slow and self-indulgent, or finding much of the scholarly work in my field unspeakably turgid and pointless? Haven’t I earned the right to opinions? What’s going on here?

I don’t know this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that academics are particularly prone to this sort of thing. So much of grad school is about acquiring taste for, well, acquired tastes, that we get used to thinking that way. Failure to acquire a taste is a sign of failure to do your work. The sophisticates believe that Authority X is the cat’s meow, so if you don’t, you just aren’t sophisticated. Since grad school is all about entering the ranks of the certified-sophisticated, the sense of guilt or inadequacy is real.

Perversely, in some circles, some lowbrow pleasures are signs of sophistication. In the political press, liberals are taken to task for failing to appreciate NASCAR. Well, excuuuse me. NASCAR is traffic. Fast, circular, right-back-where-you-started traffic. If I want to see traffic, I’ll drive to work. I’m not going to try to double back on my opinions and acquire a guilty pleasure in organized traffic as some sort of populist gesture. True NASCAR fans, I’d imagine, wouldn’t want any part of anyone who did.*

Stuff I’m supposed to like, but don’t: Jane Austen (get jobs, people!), Beethoven (sorry, but pompous is pompous), Hip-Hop (melody exists for a reason, people…), Scotch/Bourbon/Whiskey (I know paint thinner when I smell it), the films of Tim Burton (okay, okay, you’re skinny and goth and misunderstood, I GET IT).

Stuff I like, but I’m not supposed to: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup (you scoff, but is there anything better for lunch on a dreary gray day?), Courtney Love (probably insufferable in real life, but great fun to watch), Bob Newhart albums from the 1960’s (the bus driver routine reduces me to helpless laughter).

I’m not saying that these opinions are right, or that anyone else needs to hold them; I’m just saying that I don’t know why I’m supposed to feel bad for holding them.

Two questions for the blogosphere: what are your guilty pleasures, and what’s the term for the opposite of a guilty pleasure (something you’re supposed to like, but don’t)?

*My satellite radio service has a NASCAR channel. Can you imagine? “vroooom. vroooom.” That’s almost as bad as radio golf.