When we lie prone on the couch for three hours watching “Love Island,” what is that?
Earlier this year, my roommate and I watched the entire Kanye West-Joe Rogan interview on a Tuesday afternoon long after we had deemed it to be of dubious value. Kanye was going on tirades about owning your masters (rights to your music), laceless shoes, the cost of the earth and so on. As Rogan supported his every thought, my roommate and I slowly lost our wits.
This one type of guilty pleasure — overstimulation that deteriorates into a giddy neurosis — is probably the same type of pleasure that arises from hours on TikTok, Twitter or the Instagram Explore page. Adjacent to this category would be the pleasure associated with watching reality TV: absurdity that takes the edge off reality.
This freeing rush of dopamine seems to characterize guilty pleasures in general. It’s the same feeling you get when you go to clean your room and come across a long-lost artifact of childhood. Having re-discovered it, your brain summons up a whirlwind of suppressed memories — of Barbie and Ken Dolls, Hot Wheels running on tracks, your old bean bag — making you want to go rummaging for more. After several hours down this hole, you notice how much your neck hurts and you go sit on the couch.
This kind of pleasure could be called nostalgia-binging. Having sufficiently partaken in that, maybe you’ll have a light dinner. Or maybe you’ll sit with that gluttony just a little longer and have a big dish of spaghetti carbonara instead. With your dinner, you’ll watch compilations of people passing on the street in the ’90s as bouncy house music reminds you of better times.
And what would be so bad about any of these things? Did your room really need to be cleaned that instant? Who cares that you got a big belly for the night? So what if you added to the viewership of a video that filmed people without consent 30 years ago? They were happy in front of the camera!
This all being said, are any of these “guilty pleasures” really worth feeling bad about? It seems like at this point, we’re able to see how this term fits among the many ways society ploys us into a constant state of productivity. Maybe, for example, our pleasure is “too lowbrow.” Those “Real Housewives of New Jersey” are far too dumb, far too tacky for you to reasonably take interest in them. Eating Jimmy John’s for lunch every other day shows an unrefined sense of taste. “The Hunger Games” was great before it became a palatable movie trilogy.
Or maybe the pleasure is morally reprehensible. Like I said before, that video of people on the street from the ’90s, where the camera frequently pans to women’s butts, reads very differently in 2021. Also, Kanye’s music might be “important,” but it demeans women and he’s against abortion. Hummers are gas-guzzling bombs on wheels. Air travel? So 2010s!
Weed’s cool now though. Yeah, no, weed’s healthy. But several years ago, it would have fit at the top of the list of the definitive catalog of guilty pleasures. So what does this all mean?
It means that the term “guilty pleasure” is as fixed in meaning as any of the behaviors it describes are shameful: not at all. The wide range of pleasures unraveled in this B-Side underscore this. If we can take the phrase lightly, and not actually feel guilty for giving ourselves a mental and physical reprieve from our daily toil, then it can continue to exist as a benign figure of speech (or, should I say, a guilty pleasure).
Daily Arts Writer Ben Vassar can be reached at email@example.com.