It’s Time To Stop Calling Pop Music A ‘Guilty Pleasure’

Sexism lies at the root of people’s loathing of pop music.

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When I started online dating a few years back, I insisted on a caveat that has remained with me to this day: “no pop snobs”. Whatever other quirks or niggling faults a person might have, nothing is more insufferable and boner-killing than the holier-than-thou rants of a bloke with an eyebrow ring and a misplaced hatred for Britney Spears.

Sure, it’s normal to be kind of anti-pop when you’re a teenager. Adolescence is a stormy time, and you’re looking to rebel against the status quo; everything becomes decidedly less nuanced, very “us versus them”. I, myself, was a snotty punk at sixteen, going into Supré stores to make fun of the “girly” clothing and referring to swathes of ordinary, perfectly nice humans as “conformist sheep”. Can you tell I listened to a lot of Tool?

But there’s no place for nonsense like that as an adult. For one thing, life is too short to care that people like Eurodance. Once you hit your late twenties, you realise it takes an awful amount of effort to divide your tastes into arbitrarily acceptable boxes. It’s a waste of time. Why pretend to like Radiohead when you’d rather be listening to Mariah Carey? There’s just no sense in the coolness hierarchy, especially since it is entirely objective, and wholly at the mercy of passing trends.

mariah xmas

One of history’s most glorious pop tunes (and red onesies).

Of course, part of the snobbery and loathing around pop music comes from the idea of it as a commercial enterprise. Which it can be, make no mistake. For music to be a sustainable career for the artists, it must make money. This is true of all genres, and most artistic pursuits.

There’s always a pervasive idea of romantic poverty, as if an artist’s material suffering might materialise into greater, deeper art, so people who want ‘authentic’ art want their musos as ‘authentic’ as possible. Do you imagine that Bob Dylan somehow pays his mortgage with the love of his adoring fans? (Actually, he does strange lingerie commercials, but whatever.)

Indeed, of the top twenty highest-earning artists of 2016, at least six are bands that boring men have told me I ‘should’ be listening to.

Girls To The Front

Pop is seen as ‘women’s music’, the feminine to rock and roll’s masculine.

The stereotype goes that pop music has a flamboyance and fizziness to it (and, therefore, less meaningful substance) that is often attributed to the effeminate, whereas rock music, say, has grunt and gusto, and keeps its emotions in check, making it worthy of pride of place on the Man Cave mantelpiece. Considering we don’t live in a giant BBQ Songs CD set, we can probably do without these hackneyed clichés.

Sexism lies at the root of people’s loathing of pop music, and I know, because I was once a part of that awful cadre. As a former asshole myself, I know full well the inner machinations of the people who, when they ponder the Worst Things About Society, often simply picture Jessica Simpson’s jiggling norks, or Carly Rae Jepsen’s cute-as-a-button cantillating.

“Sexism lies at the root of people’s loathing of pop music”

It’s really no coincidence that these people don’t hate Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars the same way that they hate Selena Gomez. Why is this? A sexist society loathes an independent, sexually free, confident woman and pop music is chockers with babes of just that ilk.

It’s the same with female pop fans, of course. Anything that women and girls love is tarred with that superficiality brush; we are deemed hysterical for our fandom, even though men and boys might have the same level of passion for an artist without being considered ‘frenzied’ or ‘mad’. Photographs of female Beatles fans in the 1960s are used to prove this supposed phenomena, because women and girls aren’t allowed to enjoy things, even Ringo Starr.

beatles fans

Women have to prove their allegiance to a band or artist — if you’re wearing a band t-shirt in public, be prepared to be accosted for it. You’ll be probed with questions: what was the band’s first album? What’s the name of the drummer? Who styled the singer’s hair between 2004-2006? What is Chino Moreno’s blood type?

“Women have to prove their allegiance to a band or artist; if you’re wearing a band t-shirt in public, be prepared to be accosted for it”

Oh, how many times I have had to “name three of the albums” of bands whom I dared to call myself a fan of. Does knowledge equate to real love? Does being able to rattle off their discography mean you’re a “real fan”, or just a snob with a good memory? Can I love Phil Collins’ music without being able to remember what year No Jacket Required came out? Why do you, snobby music-questioner, even care?

Express Yourself

We use the term “guilty pleasure”, as a society, as a shorthand for something we are not supposed to enjoy; something that social circles or the media might deen uncool or naff, and therefore professing love or like of it would equal social death. We’re told what is okay and not okay to like — based on our age, gender, class — and the only way we can cover our asses if we decide to stray is to do it without really seeming to do it.

There’s a difference between enjoying the cringe factor, and seeing a piece of work for what it is. Celine Dion might seem a repulsive choice of music for a thirty year-old, but if you claim you enjoy the absurdity or silliness of it, rather than genuinely enjoying an — I’ll say it, magnificent voice — it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Is it more important to be cool than happy?


What’s not to love?

Through a film of irony is a terrible way to enjoy things. The term “guilty pleasure” itself implies that you should feel bad for your enjoyment — how is that any way to live? Do we require Catholic shame to get us through our CD collections? “I shouldn’t like this, but I do” — why not? Music hits us all on unique levels, and if you enjoy something, soak it up.

“The term ‘guilty pleasure’ itself implies that you should feel bad for your enjoyment”

Good pop music is a work of art, it truly stands the test of time. The late 80s/early 90s period of Whitney Houston’s discography is a thing of unparalleled beauty; every pre-millennium Spice Girls single is a pop dynamo; a Billy Joel singles collection is a must for any car stereo.

George Michael said: “I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.” And, damn it, I think he was onto something.

Let’s be real about this: Spice Girls may sing “zig-a-zig-ah”, but the Beatles sang “ob-la-di, ob-la-da”. Just let people enjoy things.

Lisa Dib is an events producer, freelance writer and podcaster. She tweets at @LisaDib1  and just wants to pat a fox.