Several months ago a song with a particularly foul title began an unlikely ascent of the Billboard Hot 100. And even if you never actually heard it, there's a reasonably good chance you heard about it.
I'm talking about Cee Lo Green's "F**k You." The song, which obscenely spells out what the R&B singer thinks of an ex who's dumped him, didn't quite touch the top of the charts. But it did crack the Top 10.
And that's enough to make me wonder, "How on earth could a song with such harsh profanity have resonated with so many people? Sure, Cee Lo's tune offers further evidence of our culture's collapsing standards when it comes to provocative content. But I think it also offers us a different lesson. A lesson about how undeniably problematic but audaciously appealing entertainment can tempt us to lower our own personal standards.
Let me put it another way: It's easy to abstain from obnoxious entertainment we don't actually like. It's not so easy to draw the line when we enjoy something, even if we know better. Everybody does it. Even Plugged In editors. In fact, the phenomenon is so common we have a name for it: guilty pleasures.
In the case of "F**k You," I suspect its obscene title—and the publicity it garnered—played a part in propelling its popularity. But after reviewing Cee Lo's album, The Lady Killer, I have to say that this song's melody is seriously catchy, an ear worm of high order. I liked what I was listening to. It's drenched in a feel-good, neo-Motown vibe that's as sunny sounding as its oft-repeated f-word-laden chorus is foul. So I can see how someone might be tempted to indulge via iPod earbuds … even if they'd be unlikely to sing these kinds of lyrics out loud. "F**k You," then, is a textbook example of a guilty pleasure.
We've been taught to succumb to guilty pleasures with little more apology than a nervous laugh. No harm done, right? It's just a song. It's just a movie. It's just a game. But even if we can't immediately detect how such "little" indulgences are directly eroding our values or our spiritual life, there are good reasons to take them seriously anyway.
Guilty as Charged
Unless you happen to be extremely disciplined and consistent, you have developed some guilty pleasures when it comes to your media preferences. So have I. Life in the 21st century is saturated with entertainment options—and new ones are arriving daily. But the guilty pleasures we're all tempted to partake in—as well as the things we don't struggle with at all—are personal, not corporate. So let me offer two examples, one on either side of that fence:
In high school I listened to a lot of metal and hard rock. And occasionally I still tune in to rock radio. One song still in regular rotation on my local classic rock station serves as a special sort of litmus test for where my focus is on any given day. It's AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," an extraordinarily unpleasant song about a contract killer offering his services. Throughout, lead singer Bon Scott brainstorms ways of offing someone. This is a song utterly without redeeming qualities.
Here's why it's a test for me: In high school, three of my best friends and I performed that song in an air-rock contest. So every time I hear it, I think about Brett, Mike and Jason. It instantly brings back all sorts of fond memories about that season of my life. I'm tempted to listen, then, not because I really care for the song itself, but because of the good feelings it (ironically) stirs up. On some days (hopefully most) I'll think, "This song is garbage," and I'll turn it off or change the station. Sometimes, though, I have to admit that I indulge … and smile … and let it play as I recall high school camaraderie.
I told you this was complicated. And if we're honest, I think most of us would admit that we make exceptions for our own particular media vices for reasons every bit as idiosyncratic and strangely personal.
Now I'll hop back over that proverbial fence. In the 1990s I had a number of friends who were enamored with two of that decade's most popular TV sitcoms: Friends and Seinfeld. Whenever I happened to catch bits and pieces of those shows, I was consistently repulsed by their breezy depictions of sexual immorality. These elements turned me off so completely that I just didn't have any interest in what so many of my friends apparently found compelling. Or at the very least funny. And if anything, I was tempted to judge them for indulging and wonder why they would even consider tolerating such an inconsistency in their lives.
Never mind my own hang-ups.
The Psychology of Indulgence
So why do we indulge media habits or preferences that violate our conscience, even when we know better? The short answer is simple: Guilty pleasures make some part of us feel good. Whether it's a song, a show, a movie, a video game or a website, we engage with these media because, on some level, they offer a pleasurable experience.
Going deeper, it's fair to say that entertainment in general is fundamentally escapist. There's serious stuff out there that may challenge us to think deeply about a given issue. But for the most part we engage with entertainment offerings as a way to check out of reality, to sit back, relax and let something else wash over our souls. That mindset is fully evident when we say things like, "I'm totally stressed about my job, and I just need to veg out tonight."
Enter McDonald's. In the 1970s, this mega-burger chain ran an ad campaign that trumpeted, "You deserve a break today." And so we thought we did. McDonald's didn't convince us of that. It was merely reflecting a growing rationalization that we were embracing with more and more fervor. "I work hard, I deserve to do whatever I want to wind down. I've earned it." We became certain of it. But make no mistake, we were rationalizing at every step.
Those steps got easier each time we took another one, by the way. And the parallel truth is this: The more frequently we make compromising media decisions because we feel we're entitled to do so, the easier it is to make compromising media decisions.
And then we quickly move beyond the "It's just a …" phase, adopting the more defensive "What right do you have to tell me that what I'm doing is wrong?"
Peter, Paul and Pleasure
Even if we think we're immune to the specific problematic content of the media we're dismissing, we're being subtly shaped and influenced by the general idea that messy messages merit, as I said earlier, little more than a nervous laugh. We may not run out and imitate exactly what we're watching or listening to (AC/DC never turned me into a contract killer, for instance, or even tempted me to hire one), but consistently doing something that we know isn't right hardens our hearts and desensitizes our awareness of how God sees the world and is at work in it. Slowly, and then systematically, we begin to adopt worldly values that we once would have rejected.
So what should we do when we decide it's time to get serious about sticking a fork in our private guilty pleasures? For starters, we can ask, "Why do I want to watch, listen or play?" A parallel question might be, "How does this guilty pleasure (temporarily) make me feel better about life?"
Adding to such self-examination, New Testament writers Paul and Peter both offer some concrete teaching to help us discern the extent to which we're being influenced by something. In Romans 14, Paul takes on the touchy subject of disputable matters, or gray areas. He concludes the passage by saying, "Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves." The implication: We need to consider carefully whether we're approving something Scripture condemns. Paul echoes that idea in 1 Corinthians 6, where he appropriates a cultural proverb of the time and puts his own spin on it: "'Everything is permissible for me'—but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me'—but I will not be mastered by anything."
That borrowed prelude captures more than just ancient Corinthian carnality: It captures our own culture's sense of entitlement. Modernized it might read, I can do whatever I want. And it's a mindset Peter describes, by way of the world's value system, as actively warring against the way of Christ. He urges us to separate ourselves from ideas and behaviors that compromise our commitment to Christ. "Dear friends," he writes in 1 Peter 2, "I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul."
Peter continues those themes in his second letter, again focusing on people who've traded restraint for perpetual sensual indulgence. "Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight," he states in 2 Peter 1. "With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable." A chapter later he adds, "For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is slave to whatever has mastered him."
It's heavy stuff, I'll admit. But it should prompt us to ask ourselves a few more questions: In what ways does a particular guilty pleasure appeal to our "lustful desires"? How does it promise freedom yet entangle our hearts in ideas that are ultimately at odds with the life God would have us live? Is it enslaving us? (By the way, if we don't know whether or not it's enslaving us, there's a really good chance that it is.)
However innocent we may want to believe our guilty pleasures are, then, they deserve careful scrutiny. Because the more we secretly cling to something we should relinquish, the more we'll be tempted to rationalize and minimize other dangerous ideas that may be influencing us far more than we realize.
That thought is certainly going to help me the next time AC/DC crashes through my car stereo.