To escape embarrassment, I might pretend indifference, but more often than not, I will succumb to my guilty pleasures.
I feel slightly self-conscious while watching ANTM, that’s America’s Next Top Model for those in the know. And yet, however unfortunate it may be, I still like watching the models complain and cry in response to their often inane make-overs. I like watching Tyra Banks behave as though she single-handedly runs the modeling industry. I like the exotic and moronic photo shoots because they remind me just how artistically complicated and compelling an advertisement for lip gloss can be, and just how artificial every little bit of what we consider beautiful or stylish or artistic is. The taste makers might very well be telling an elaborate joke. Every time we buy in, we serve up the punch line. Just ask the emperor’s tailor.
Another seriously guilty pleasure back for another season is Downton Abbey. I am devotee, so much so that actually put the date and time of the premiere on my calendar. Despite the fact that it airs on PBS, via the BBC, high art it ain’t. The use of mythological (sword of Damocles, anyone?) and literary references (this week’s shout-out to Jane Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice) can’t conceal the bodice ripping underneath. Posh accents, opulent rooms, and rich costuming aside, it is a soap opera.
What makes a pleasure (or preference) guilty? It must be common, low (as in the equally problematic and xenophobic term “low brow”), or beneath us. It is most certainly not good. At best, it may be kitsch, or is it camp? In order for a pleasure to be a guilty one, we must sense that the thing itself—usually some artifact associated with pop culture—is somehow bad. Maybe we might even like it because it is bad.
The “guilty pleasure” leads is to an investigation of and interrogation of taste. Good taste pretends to dictate a hierarchy. Certain things like bad television, schlocky pop songs, unconvincing actors might be popular, but they are not what we know to be good.
My friend and artist Matthew Schlagbaum explores the nature of “good taste” in his work. A book he’s consulted Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste has some interesting things to say about Celine Dion’s worldwide popularity. Like any true artist, Matt reminds me to contemplate ideas and draw my own conclusions rather than relying on external judgments.
Countless television programs, songs, and films are dismissed as crap, but remain beloved nonetheless. Good or not, we know what we like.