Guilt-free pleasures: making peace with pop music

Let’s be honest—everything Beyoncé has put out over the last 10 years has been an absolute banger. At one point in your life, Taylor Swift probably just got you. The last Ariana Grande single was so catchy you probably got caught listening to it on repeat.

Everyone has musical guilty pleasures. These are the songs that you listen to with the door closed, with headphones on and your Spotify set to Private Session. For most, these secret listens are mainstream pop songs.

When I was in high school, I was terrified of admitting that I enjoyed pop music, believing it would reveal that I was unoriginal or even inauthentic. I was convinced that listening to chart toppers would surely result in losing all musical credibility, and if people were going to take my music recommendations seriously, I needed to turn my nose up at anything that hit the Billboard Top 40. The only problem was that pop music could never be fully avoided—it was on the radio, at school dances, and in the waiting room at the dentist. And whenever I heard it, I knew that I liked it on some level. But once I decided that I wanted to write about music more seriously, it just seemed wrong to want to listen to hours of Charli XCX.

However, there are perhaps some deeper, less personal reasons that pop music is so maligned. Some artists have shared some provocative thoughts on indie rock elitism. Mitski is an artist who writes beautiful, grungy love songs and who is a particularly revered by music critics, but she openly supports a love of pop music. To encourage listeners to think about why pop songs are considered to have less cultural value, she covered One Direction’s “Fireproof.” Her arrangement subverts the way mainstream pop is presented and marketed to make the listener question why her version would be perceived to have more artistic merit. She also points out how society is particularly quick to dismiss music with a fan base of predominantly young women. Mitski makes an important point—it’s worth examining our skepticism of the artistic value of pop music.

Honestly, pop music’s mass appeal is arguably the exact thing that gives it cultural merit. It’s created with large audiences in mind, so it therefore reflects many of the values of the people who listen to it. It can be thought of as a lens through which to study society. The artists who top the charts also wield a lot of power, and having someone like Nicki Minaj, who consistently calls out racism and misogyny in the media, is incredibly important. Contemporary pop stars—Minaj and Lorde both come to mind—have been particularly vocal about their creative autonomy, and as the creators of their music and brands show they have genuine artistic integrity. There’s also a distinct sense of female empowerment that pop music embraces in a way that the total bro-fest of alternative rock stubbornly refuses. To ignore the pop music machine and to file away pop songs as something to laugh at or be embarrassed by is to miss out on some of these unique moments in our culture.

Here is a simpler defense for pop though—listening to pop music is just plain fun. It boosts your mood, you can usually dance to it, and it just feels good; that in itself should be a total justification. After high school, I stopped pretending that I didn’t love pop music, and it was a massive relief. It makes no sense to deny yourself something that makes you happy, just for the sake of preserving some flimsy ideal of cool. I am equally content listening to Elvis Costello as Ariana Grande, and I have no desire to apologize for that. So, for all who love pop music in its many forms, I fully recommend going public with your guilty pleasures. There’s power in accepting pop as a valid form of expression.

Try not to overthink your playlist—just follow your musical instincts. If you’re in the mood to angst out to some Radiohead, do it. If you want to listen to an experimental new band that consists of two people just banging pots and pans together, listen away. And if all you need at the end of the day is to blast the glorious works of Beyoncé, there’s no good reason not to.