When I first sought out to understand the University of Michigan’s students’ experiences with guilty pleasures, I expected to find an underbelly of U-M students dumping their parents’ credit cards into VTuber donations or OnlyFans subscriptions.
After seeing my post looking for interviews about the topic on Facebook, a close friend messaged me, “I do feel like I need to turn on a private Spotify listening session when I listen to Drake LOL.”
I responded back, “c’mon, DRAKE, who’s gonna bully you for that?”
Drake is one of the most popular artists of all time, I thought. What could be guilty about that? But as I began to ask more friends about guilty pleasures, I got more and more seemingly mundane answers. “The Bachelor,” a powerhouse media franchise with enormous cultural impact, was a common response. So was country music, an extremely popular genre. Not that obscurity makes something guilty — but if it’s something that makes you feel embarrassed, it couldn’t be mainstream, right?
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I should not be enjoying this right now.’”
Engineering freshman Tom Sherman is talking about Taylor Swift. Swift just won her third Album of the Year for folklore at the Grammys and ranks in the top 10 best-selling artists of all time.
“I’m sure when you looked at me, you weren’t thinking, ‘oh my gosh, he’s like, (a) Taylor Swift fan right here,’” he said.
Sherman was right — I wasn’t expecting his guilty pleasure to be Taylor Swift. But that was because I was expecting something more … unexpected, like a shoujo manga obsession or a Bella Thorne OnlyFans subscription. If he were a writer for Daily Arts, liking Taylor Swift would practically be a prerequisite. As we began to talk about it a little more, though, I started to better understand why it might be a guilty pleasure for him.
“When I was rushing fraternities, I wasn’t advertising it there … Judgment is part of school. I rushed, and I applied to all these clubs this past semester,” Sherman said. “The reality is, there’s a lot of times when there’s a certain number of spots, and not enough room. And if you say something that is a little off-putting to one person, it could cost you.”
Listening to Sherman’s experience, I began to recall my own time as a freshman at the University doing my best to get involved on campus. In my first semester, I applied to five consulting clubs, all of which denied me after stressful interviews. I also attended the mass meeting for a business fraternity that I walked out of halfway through, in tears on my way home from the League.
The pressure to impress people was so terrifying for me that I couldn’t share a shred of my personality. At the root of it? A gnawing fear that my (very mainstream) interests were lame.
That I wasn’t what people were looking for. And in that context, I understand how Sherman’s Taylor Swift addiction is one that he preferred to keep on the down-low during rush.
To Sherman, it was his male identity that made him feel guilty for liking Taylor Swift so much. I could see how in the judgmental context of rush and club recruiting, Swift could suddenly feel like too feminine of an interest to celebrate.
“I think the only reason it is a guilty pleasure is because of my demographic,” he said. “If I was different, it wouldn’t be a guilty pleasure. It would just be a pleasure.”
Sherman’s experience felt tied to the pressure of fitting a masculine image or narrative. When he felt comfortable with his own enjoyment of Taylor Swift, he happily shared it with some friends. It was in certain campus contexts that he felt hesitant to open up about it.
But what about the guilty pleasures that genuinely feel like a moral compromise to enjoy?
LSA senior Isabel Saville described her first guilty pleasure, fantasy novels and worldbuilding, similarly to how Sherman spoke about Taylor Swift — just something you enjoy that you feel hesitant to tell some of your friends about. Her other guilty pleasure is more complicated.
“I think that one (guilty pleasure) that I would feel shame for no matter what is music that’s derogatory towards women,” Saville said. “When you’re working out or you’re in a group setting and you’re listening to music that’s like, ‘fuck bitches,’ you know, it just feels bad.” Saville cited Tyler, the Creator’s early music (full of violent and abusive lyrics, often directed toward women) as an example of music that felt guilty to enjoy: “That is a guilty pleasure, because I don’t like what it perpetuates about me.”
Saville’s experience can’t be uncommon. Sexism in music is so pervasive, and often swept under the rug — it’s not as if men are privately enjoying lines like, “If she’s sucking on the barrel, you can’t hear her scream,” from Ameer Vann on “HEAT” by BROCKHAMPTON. Frankly, I have the song on all my party-hosting playlists and never thought twice about who I play it around, or what it means that I enjoy it so much. I didn’t even notice the line until Saville quoted it in our conversation.
“It’s emotionally draining to hear things like that and notice them, recognize them and have to work through them,” she explained.
For myself and other men, listening to music tinged with sexism rarely requires turning your brain off to enjoy. The casual “fuck bitches” lines are still practically invisible for me, although in the last couple of years, I’ve begun to feel shame for some songs I used to enjoy. I’d find myself listening to tracks like “Xxplosive” by Dr. Dre and doing a double-take at sexist lyrics that are so heinous they make Ameer Vann’s edgiest lines sound PG-rated.
There are two sides of shame that come with both enjoying and recognizing problematic music. Internally there is shame for enjoying it, but there can also be external shame for voicing that discomfort. Despite Ann Arbor’s self-proclaimed wokeness, trying to open a dialogue isn’t always welcomed with open arms in Saville’s experience.
“It’s always really annoying when I try to enter conversations with friends who are like, ‘you’re just being the progressive feminist all the time,’” Saville said. “It’s just like, ‘you all say you’re feminists too! And I know you support equality.’”
Paraphrasing one of her professors, Saville explained, “The music we listen to perpetuates cultural norms and ideas, so it’s important to listen to things that echo how you feel.” I share that sentiment — it’s the dissonance between the music we listen to and how it makes us feel that can make for a guilty pleasure.
I don’t doubt there are some people on campus secretly engaging in my hypothesized VTuber-donating and OnlyFans-subscribing behavior, though I recognize why they would be hesitant to talk to me about it. But I do think I understand a little better why my friend feels the need to open a private Spotify listening session to listen to Drake.
The campus community can be judgmental. It can feel shameful to enjoy something that doesn’t match the norm for one group of people or even to enjoy something that’s not obscure or indie enough for another group. Country music may be popular, but it has just as many haters as it does fans in Ann Arbor. Popularity doesn’t necessarily mean everyone likes something — just that everyone has an opinion about it and the people who do like it, good or bad.
Still, I think the campus community is more forgiving of people’s guilty pleasures than it seems. Sherman found that liking Taylor Swift was an asset that set him apart in some groups, and he could find common ground with people different from him who shared interests that deviated from the norm. Saville got to take a dark fantasy class through the English department that brought together lots of like-minded fantasy geeks on campus, where her interest was both normal and celebrated.
Pleasures that feel at odds with our values or our image of ourselves can be more difficult to reckon with than the simply embarrassing ones. In my experience, it was the critical thinking encouraged in my classes at the University that first made me aware of the gap between my values and interests. Acknowledging the problematic nature of the things we enjoy helps take away its impact on us. The guilt might be healthy.
Sure, some things are best kept to yourself. But if someone is beating themselves up over a guilty pleasure, they may find some catharsis in opening up about it. No matter what you enjoy, there is a space where it will be celebrated rather than shamed, even at the University of Michigan.
Daily Arts Writer Dylan Yono can be reached at email@example.com.