Music is always a near-essential for me when I hit the road. But now, more than ever, having a soundtrack to drive to feels absolutely critical. Typically, I have a playlist cued up to inject some presence into the errand I’m running to offset the Leftovers vibe I pick up everywhere I look around. 

Sometimes, though, someone’s using my Spotify account, and if I haven’t thought ahead and brought CDs (Ron Howard voiceover: He almost never does), my only recourse is the radio which can be a chore. But, when my choice is between listening to the radio or enduring the anxieties and withering self-doubts intruding upon my consciousness in the silence, well, you know what’s going to win out. 

Which is about the only way what I’m about to describe could ever happen. The other day I was surprised to hear the stuttering beat to Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” stagger out of the radio. Unsettled, I flicked the tuner in no particular direction, fleeing “anywhere but here” in sheer animal panic, reminded uncomfortably of it being my favorite song when I was ten and the subsequent growth in taste I’ve hopefully accumulated since then.

 

But that hopefulness only continued to be called into question as it went on the duration of my drive: ”Sorry” by Justin Bieber, “Sex Type Thing” by Stone Temple Pilots… Songs that I’m hesitant to admit used to set my heart beating like a defibrillator, and yet—oof, they did. They do.

What was going on? Aren’t I under enough psychic pressure from the cabin fever of sheltering at home already? Do I really need to grapple with why on Earth these songs should pluck some secret lyre in my heart?

I think two things can simultaneously be true: that DMB can be the ideal band for frat guys to get hammered to while assuring themselves they contain multitudes, and “Ants Marching” can excite the nerve endings in the hidden recesses of my soul and set them vibrating with delight in spite of my awareness of the first point. I don’t want that to be true, but it is.

Our guilty pleasures rupture the husk of our confirmation biases. They testify, “You are those things you let on to the world, but you are also these things.” They are acknowledgements that there’s more to us than our carefully curated public images would suggest. They extract and exclude the evidence of a concealed self we don’t want to let on. We suppress those things that make us feel guilty and ashamed, those things that will not let us forget how we fail to measure up to the standards we set in place for ourselves. The guilty pleasure is Exhibit A in our masochistic self-trials whereby we carve out selves we would prefer to be.

Even the label “guilty pleasure” is a way to cloak our attachment to these songs in the shade of a term implying distance. The phrase inoculates the song’s side effects by dismissing its significance and the resonant frequency with which it rings in sympathy with our being. It reassures us that we know better and regularly choose better, but much like catching a cold, can any of us ever be vigilant enough?

It’s an attempt to distance the self we project to the world and, most importantly, the ideal self we imagine and wish we could become from the irrational dilettante we routinely are in our unguarded moments of simply being. This distance is deceptive, however, because in the act of dissociation we end up burying the pleasure deeper within the self we don’t dare allow to see the light of day. 

The problem here is that that excluded self is still us. Georg Simmel emphasizes the uncomfortable point that

[t]he individual does not attain the unity of his personality exclusively by an exhaustive harmonization… of the contents of his personality. On the contrary, contradiction and conflict not only precede this unity but are operative in it at every moment of its existence.

(Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, ed. D. N. Levine [University of Chicago Press], pp. 71-72)

To be an I, in other words, is always to be a contradictory I. There’s no way around it.

“Do I want to be loved in spite of?” Tim Kreider via Donald Barthelme asks us, and the answer surely is, “No!” That sounds too horrifying for words. I want the love others pour into my prim, manufactured self to be imputed to the actual, unedited me silently behind the scenes. If I can’t earn that love, then by God, I want to smuggle in approval for a bogus self and worry about the divide later. Or never. 

Guilty pleasures essentially say, “Others might enjoy such drivel, but not I,” which is only slightly less obnoxious than the classic, “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). They serve as boundary markers for who we think we need to be, and who we will fight the outside world’s disciplining scrutinies to become. They’re bowling alley bumpers for our actual selves to ricochet within to safely arrive at the destination we assure ourselves is best. Guilty pleasures can be readily surrendered, we think, when the Thought Police break down our door and read us our charges under the Categorical Imperative of Cool

But they never actually arrive, do they? Sure, some of us have been embarrassed when we’ve been asked our favorite album and we’ve said, “Kiss’ Dynasty.” It happens. But the music magisterium we fear is really the oppressive voice of our own inner moralist, spoiling the fun by applying real aesthetic criteria beyond their legitimate bounds with no breaks. That’s no way to live, but that doesn’t stop that voice. 

The deepest, most fundamentally good news usually comes cloaked in the form of its opposite. So hear the good news: only phonies need Christ; positively put, inauthenticity is the price of admission. Maybe most of these songs really, truly aren’t good in any critical sense. But if I could be honest with myself for half a moment, I know the deeper issue my guilty pleasures refract back to me is that I’m not all that good, either. But Jesus wants me anyway. And he doesn’t agonize under any scruples that would try to indict him: “You are woefully inconsistent! Are you taking seriously the implications of the moral heart of your being and the objects of your affection? You can’t love Ian—what would that say about you? How can you be the true, the good, and the beautiful, and bring him into the sphere of reconciliation?”

In a way that evades our attempts at comprehensive understanding, God is both just and the justifier of nincompoops like us (Romans 3:26). Our clumsy likes and ill advised favorites won’t count against us at the eschatological tribunal. We’re just not all that good at consistently liking the best stuff. We might as well just own it. But God isn’t ashamed of you for the Bread records you inherited from your parents or your Big Daddy Weave CDs, or because Weird Al was your first concert. You, delighted by questionable tunes, are vastly preferable to him than dour-but-refined-and-checking-your-Top 5-list-“correctly” you. 

So crank that Starship song; get so severely down to Carlie Rae Jepson. Now is a time when we really don’t need yet another Law choking out our attempts to cope. Your guilty pleasures and mine have been acquitted, their questionability annulled by the superabundant righteousness of Christ. Add your favorites—your actual favorites—to his open-sourced mix. For his triumphal procession blasts all manner of music as we are led in the captivity of freedom (2 Corinthians 2:14).