By Timothy Dillon
Guilt is a tricky emotion. There are times when it makes sense to feel guilty. Finishing your roommates OJ or forgetting to do that favor you promised to follow through on. Or when we commit more heinous acts like arguments that go too far, or even physical confrontations. Guilt is normal in these sorts of situations. Where guilt has no business rearing its ugly mug, is in what makes us happy and doesn’t hurt anyone.
I’m talking, of course, about our guilty pleasures. I am a fan of more than a few things I’m not willing to admit (Matchbox 20, Boyce Avenue, Fall Out Boy, to not name a few). I have playlists that are anonymously named to both conceal certain artists and deter others using my phone from selecting them. I have stayed up late to purchase concert tickets and tell people I’m going to be visiting family on an odd weekend away. What’s strange though, is that I am not alone in my fanaticism.
There are plenty of people who consider themselves fans of these bands who I am so ashamed to associate myself with publicly. Why then, if I could choose camaraderie, do I instead turn to isolation and secrecy? Aesthetics are just our preferences, what tickles us, what makes us smile. They are not set in stone, yet there is this perception that I will be judged against some grand doctrine of taste: of what is good and what is simply trash.
I know this phenomenon is not unique to me. A good friend regularly attends Dave Matthews Band concerts in Hartford, and while he enjoys going to the infamously riotous annual jam session, he continues to be discreet in his affections. In the age of social media, we find a constant anxiety of what information is available about us. There is even advice available on how to be a fan on Facebook and not let anyone know. Why are we so ashamed to openly like some things?
Perhaps the most relatable of reasons people avoid sharing their guilty pleasures is the fear of being judged. Schadenfreude is the pleasurable feeling we experience at seeing another persons anguish, whether it be mentally or physically. Critiquing someone’s taste can often be a justification to enjoy watching them squirm as you berate them for enjoying something different. This anxiety is a fear of schadenfreude.
“People don’t want to be the butt of the joke.” says Susan Haggerty, a graduate student of psychology in Maryland. She continues, “It doesn’t exactly trigger agoraphobia in every person, but it would be silly to think that people aren’t sensitive to it.”
The fear of being persecuted for your affection is enough to keep you a closeted fan. Haggerty points to the need to be socially acceptable to your peers. Much like we may hide our likes and fan pages on Facebook, we as people, control the flow of information outward in order to protect ourselves.
But let’s be reasonable for a second. No one is getting fired or losing friends because you happened to enjoy Stephenie Meyer’s books. So beyond the social anxieties, are there other reasons I keep renditions of “Unwell,” “Grand Theft Autumn,” and Yellowcard’s “Lights and Sounds” to my morning shower and toothbrush microphone routine?
In the endlessly fascinating read This Is Your Brain on Music, cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin dissects the beats and measures of our internal metronomes and presents us with mysterious yet enticing reasons why music resonates with all humankind. It has been observed that even from conception we begin to take in auditory information and can even distinguish music from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Yet the most important development comes during the teen years.
Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.
Now, I did not have such a developed understanding of musical taste when I was 15… or even 17 for that matter. That said, I didn’t have to know that to know what I liked. So while I may be protecting myself from people judging my mental maturation, part of me just wants to keep my experience of self-awakening to myself. After all, it’s mine. It can, for some, be less about being judged, and more about wanting your privacy. It is difficult to understand how shame and privacy can be mutually exclusive, but it would be naive to say that all people are ashamed of their private lives. It’s just not the case.
Of course there is one other avenue here we have not explored. Have you ever been in cahoots with a friend or colleague? Been in-the-know of some sought after information? There is a rush we experience when we keep something a secret. Just ask any street magician or con artist. There is joy in feeling like you pulled a fast one on your peers.
The reason I keep my love of the occasional Big Mac to myself is because I think it makes it taste better. Besides the salt and fat content, there is something about everyone thinking I don’t consume fast food that makes it that much more savory. The special sauce becomes truly special and not just some amalgam of thousand island dressing and pre-cancer.
The music and things we are fans of can take on the same status. We put something on a pedestal to place a higher value on it. This exclusivity helps us feel special and now our guilty pleasure has shifted to simple indulgence. Super indulgence even.
“It may seem like we are ashamed, but in that case, it’s what we want people to think,” Haggerty explains.
Indeed, there is a silver lining to being the victim of someone else’s schadenfreude, especially when it is misplaced. Part of what we know about schadenfreude is that it is experienced more by those who have low self-esteems. Furthermore, it can be motivated by jealousy, envy. If this same person sees you as the victim of their judging, at least they no longer envy you.
But our guilty pleasures do not define us. They are just the quirks that round us out as people. We may keep them to ourselves to treasure them, elevate them, or protect ourselves, but these are only facets of our taste. Perhaps this confessional piece will help me get over some of my own embarrassments. That said, you won’t find me doing any karaoke versions of “Ant’s Marching.” That rendition is saved for a solo car ride up I-95.