The Importance of Listening To Your Ears: How “Guilty Pleasures” Stunt Young Listeners’ Musical Growth

Written by Emily Balcerak

I originally wrote this piece for MTV Founders. It was rejected because of its tone. I get that. However, I still find it to be of value and a reflection of my personal experience.

It’s 8:43P.M. on a Thursday night and after a day of enough typing and internet grazing to fry my brain, I flip absentmindedly through a Spotify playlist, hoping a melody–any melody will catch my ear’s attention.

To no avail, my ears can’t settle their internal dispute. Springsteen? “No, I don’t have the capacity to feel that motivated right now,” I thought. “Maybe in the morning when my brain is fresh.”

What about that new Culture Abuse record? “Nah, I don’t really want to listen to something new right now. I want to listen to something familiar.”

The entire discography of nearly any artist imaginable at the tips of my fingers, and yet nothing. Nothing.

After a day of saturating my eardrums with high-velocity garage, punk and alternative music in rotation, they refuse to listen anymore. They are exhausted. They would like something lighter to listen to, so I listen to them. I listen to my ears.

I don’t want my mood to shift from content to sullen in a stint of late-night sad-f.m. with the likes of Elliott Smith, and I am certainly not in the mood to reflect on my most recent mistakes and stew in regret as per accompaniment of Sorority Noise, a punk-meets-emo outfit; I want to have fun.

After all, it’s what girls just want to do, right?

That’s right. I frantically type in, “Cyndi Lauper” and entail on a three-hour long binge of 80’s pop all the way to ‘90s one-hit-wonders like Tal Bachman’s, “She’s So High” with a hint of Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me” thrown into the mix for good measure. The songs that have been noted to only be acceptable if you’re young and in lust, or drunk and at karaoke–only to be sung with an air of irony of course.

I’m enjoying myself enough that the songs pass my ear’s musical litmus test, and drag and drop them onto a playlist. I attempt to type, “Guilty Pleas–” before reluctantly backspacing, knowing I’m not being authentic to myself.

For years, I fell into the trap of feeling obligated to listen to what my peers listened to, and still feel that conditioning from time to time. There’s a shame associated with liking something that is not approved by your peers, which ultimately, inhibits and reduces the true beauty in a musical preference; exploring and making it unabashedly your own.

In lieu of the ever-joked about topic of, “What’s punk” and what’s not spurring seemingly from punk itself’s delivery room in the ever-debated timeline of 1970-something, the inherited anti-commercial sentiments that couple the genre inevitably manifested into being about the self, rather, the ear. Paradoxically, image became more important, and that has undeniably carried over through today.

From generation to generation, the myth of the, “guilty pleasure” seemed to penetrate every foray and niche of cheap dive bars, basements and backyard that created the repertoire of, “What’s cool” and “What’s not.” In punk, the early prerequisites for coolness are the Ramones and the Misfits. If you pass this test, may you never be able to walk without the full knowledge of every move Iggy Pop has ever made in case you’re quizzed. If you’ve found your way into 80’s New Wave, I hope you have hard opinions about New Order vs. Joy Division, and god forbid you step foot on ‘90s territory without a thesis of shoegaze to prove yourself highly apart from the Radiohead-listening crowd.

Today it’s being expected to know and like every single up and coming band before it’s picked up by a major label, and before the colored vinyl pre-orders sell out.

This is where saying, something is just a “guilty pleasure” becomes crucial to protect yourself, because the people that make these rules equate your musical taste solely with your personality, and passing their tests should make you feel like you’re wearing a badge of honor.

Topically, this emergence developed into exclusionary tactic. You know, to make others feel subservient about liking essentially harmless, but somehow, “uncool” things that don’t fit into someone else’s bias of what’s acceptable. And to that, I say, “Fuck it.”

Why?

Because as hard as it is to believe in alternative communities, guilty pleasures do not exist if you do not let them.

“Guilty pleasure,” has become a term so common, which strips all earnestness from the listener’s relationship with the song, album, or artist. It has become a way for those in alternative and underground communities to not fear judgement from their peers, while unintentionally continuing that cycle of exclusivity. By boldly liking what you like, when you like it, you have taken back all of that fear and judgement, and reclaimed your music taste as your own, and not your peers’.

I am not guilty, and I am not ashamed, and you shouldn’t be either. It is just a pleasure. It took me until I was 19 to stop falling into the trap that is needing to prove myself. I no longer hide what I’m listening from my friends on Spotify or Facebook by clicking the convenient, “Private Mode” option. Instead, I let it sit, proudly displaying publicly the remnants of my Tom-Cruise-in-Risky-Business solo dance party that I had while folding laundry.

You do not have to feel worried about not being, “Cool enough” in terms of musical taste. Listen to the Aladdin soundtrack if you please, or let that Shakira album play on rotation. The songs that you listen to will not judge you. The songs that you listen to will not exclude you. The simple act of listening to your ears over your peers will do you wonders.

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