For a Guilt-Free Life, Don’t be Catholic or a Music Nerd

Music occupies the space in my life that I imagine is reserved for religion in other people. My first concert was Janet Jackson on the Janet tour when I was 8 years old. At the age of 12 I got really serious about artists such as Jeff Buckley and Radiohead and I saw Moby on the Play tour in a small Long Island venue at 13. Being interested in music that other people my age were not into made me obsessed with liking everything “good” first. The need for superior taste kept up until midway through college, around the time I became steadfastly non-religious without any lingering feelings of guilt. It wasn’t until last night that I noticed the parallels.

While hanging out with a few friends, I made a playlist on my iPod to put on. It included Britney Spears’ latest single “Break the Ice.” Eventually I put on Snoop Dogg’s “Sexual Eruption,” which is a rather amusing and basically enjoyable song. After following up the playlist with a lot of David Bowie, I decided it was time to get dancing. “She Wants to Move” by N.E.R.D. is at the top of my Songs That Take Control of My Body list, and also on there? “Gimme More” by, again, Britney Spears.

One of my dearest friends — a prime music nerd who works at an actual independent record store — informed a late-comer that we were listening to a lot of Bowie and “bad pop music.” I scoffed at the concept of “bad” and he said, matter-of-factly, that yes, Britney Spears is “bad pop music.”

In thinking about that statement and how diligent about my taste I used to be, I recognized that the self-flagellation that goes along with being a music nerd is a cousin of Catholic guilt.  The lack of appreciation for music that provides purely visceral pleasure (the type of stuff that needs to be relegated to “guilty pleasure”) is so much like beating yourself up over succumbing to desires of the flesh. This kind of shit goes back to St. Augustine, that tedious mothafucka who was compensating for some major flesh-succumbing, as he wrote in his Confessions, Book 10 (What up, Jesuit liberal arts education!):

Thus I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise. I am inclined — though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject — to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood.[371] Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good results always come forth. As for you who do not act this way at all, such things do not concern you. But do thou, O Lord, my God, give ear; look and see, and have mercy upon me; and heal me — thou, in whose sight I am become an enigma to myself; this itself is my weakness.

He is talking about not wanting to feel music so viscerally as to forget to pay attention to the holy words, in the same way a music nerd would not want to falter and like the “wrong” thing so as to make his or her list of guilty pleasures unforgivably long. That bold line is the kicker, though. The idea that slick pop tunes on the radio are fodder for the weaker among us who just don’t have the intelligence for, say, (I’m not cool enough anymore to know who to compare…) The Arcade Fire (Obvious!) is well established. I’m disinclined to believe that people who just don’t care enough for music to delve beyond the mainstream are stupid, but maybe that’s because as a literature person I’d have to live by the same rule with books, and we know how much people read what isn’t easily digested fluff. It all comes down to a matter of interest, not brainpower. Just like how those who want religion will have it, whether they can reason it out in their brains or not.

I had to abandon the whole concept of guilty pleasures because were I to keep on finding fault in every song on the radio that I enjoyed, I would’ve driven myself crazy — and there would have been no confessional to run to for penance. It had been a while since I’d ever agreed with Catholicism, and I’d already broken some pretty major rules (*ahem*), but some superstition still lingered and I feared for what would happen were I to be explicit about my non-belief. Eventually my lived life was so incompatible with that sort of nonsense that I felt OK being honest with myself and everyone else.

So, here I am, being honest with everyone on the music front. I collect vinyl and sing along to Flo-rida and feel no friction. Irony is for the insecure.

If you ever catch me mocking you for, I don’t know, liking ska, do point me back to this post. The same leniency is not extended to the emo of my high school days or hardcore, though. The exorcism of the music nerd within is not that complete…

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