SINGAPORE: If losing one’s sense of taste is a symptom of having COVID-19, then judging by my slew of recent interests, some might say I have the virus.
Being a reporter, I tend to be drawn to serious hobbies that overlap with my work, from diving into 10,000-word non-fiction articles to spending days going down rabbit holes after watching a gripping documentary. Even outside of work, I genuinely enjoy keeping abreast with local current affairs and frequently seek out different perspectives on policies.
But since the pandemic set in, my pastimes have turned comparatively asinine.
I binge-watched Netflix reality TV show Love Is Blind and Korean drama Crash Landing On You over several days, even before the circuit breaker kicked in.
At the height of my obsession, I spent hours scrolling through the actors’ Instagram accounts. Each curated square satiated my curiosity about their homes, their relationships and their lives, and gave me more fodder for overly invested analyses about their social media personas.
While I previously turned up my nose at mainstream food trends, I now relished every video documenting another deranged attempt at whipping up Dalgona coffee.
I developed an unhealthy obsession with ASMR mukbang. One moment I’d be watching someone eat fried chicken dipped in cheese; the next, I’d be thinking about KFC at 2am.
I might not have picked up baking because I wasn’t too keen to burn down my house, but I readily jumped onboard the burnt cheesecake bandwagon. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to hunt down every bakery that sold these sweet and salty desserts.
I also began to devour far more lifestyle blogs, pinning several pop culture sites to the top of my Facebook feed as a way to counter the perpetually gloomy COVID-19 news cycle.
And as far as work went, I ditched news sites and turned to Instagram meme accounts and Tik Tok videos to understand everything going on in the world, including local politics during our General Election.
These banal pursuits were the main sources of comfort getting me through this hell of a year. Yet not too long ago, I would’ve classified them as “guilty pleasures” and be less inclined to embrace them, lest I appeared hopelessly mainstream, shallow and plebeian.
Not to be dramatic, but the pandemic made me confront my subconscious cultural snobbery.
THE GUILT IN GUILTY PLEASURES
With COVID-19 as a backdrop to our everyday lives for the foreseeable future, we’ve inevitably begun to carry around collective dread and uncertainty, adding a sense of heaviness to the new normal. Because we can’t travel like we used to, the desire to escape is even stronger.
Prior to 2020, embracing guilty pleasures was an encouraged indulgence at best.
But the news cycle fatigue from being increasingly bombarded with heavy topics, like politics, social issues and the latest COVID-19 deaths, almost makes it necessary to pursue hobbies and interests that are deemed peak frivolity.
That said, exacerbated by current circumstances, my newfound appreciation for the lighter aspects of life, such as watching Tik Tok dances over reading the news, isn’t exactly escapism. Choosing mindless pursuits doesn’t mean I wilfully turn a blind eye to the state of the world.
After all, humans contain multitudes. We should be able to debate issues on race in the same breath that we discuss celebrity breakups during quarantine.
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Even then, these relatively trivial pursuits started to feel self-indulgent over time.
In my case, I felt like I was disappointing the proverbial cultural elite whenever I chose to tune out current affairs to pursue interests with zero intellectual value, as though I accorded myself a luxury we can’t afford in this climate.
Once upon a time, I used to entertain online debates with friends and strangers about social issues, enthusiastically dishing out hot takes on the topic of the day. I’d feel accomplished whenever I managed to sway someone’s opinion, and similarly, when I absorbed new perspectives.
Now, I wanted nothing more than to discuss the relationship dynamic of the couples in Love Is Blind or watch another video of a micro-influencer trying to bake bread or make Dalgona coffee — and I felt guilty for this preference.
IT’S NOT ABOUT ESCAPISM, IT’S ABOUT JOY
I suspect part of the guilt stems from an elitist mindset that dictates certain TV shows, films, books or songs are too lowbrow to be taken seriously. That is, anyone who openly professes a liking for these forms of popular culture or mainstream trends should feel embarrassed for appearing uncultured.
Part of the concept of guilty pleasures lies in the value that society places on suffering or pain.
In a New Yorker interview with Laura Frost, an American professor of literary studies, she addresses the “troubled relationship between pleasure and modernism”.
Frost suggests that modernists “distinguished between pleasure that was too easy and the difficulties of real art”, yet they were “so invested in dismissing easy pleasure that they could feel righteous in their preferences”.
Essentially, pure enjoyment without educational value is frowned upon.
But this school of thought inadvertently turns personal enjoyment into another person’s responsibility, when their judgments about the quality of what brings you enjoyment should have little to no effect on your experience.
Likewise, The Atlantic contributor Noah Berlatsky writes about the pointlessness of being ashamed of personal taste: “Society imposes guilt and denies pleasure. To be true to yourself, to resist social control, you need to own your authentic loves.”
But being unabashed about what you love doesn’t immediately render all forms of guilt unproductive, as guilt can sometimes signal “real and valuable individual uncertainty” about one’s tastes, argues American essayist Mark Dery.
In such instances, Dery states that guilt is okay if it’s a sign of intellectual honesty and genuine ambivalence, rather than due to a fear of mockery from other people who only act as repressive killjoys.
In the end, the fads that came and went with the circuit breaker reminded me that it was necessary to continue doing comparatively mundane things when the world was falling apart.
From ordering surprise meals for friends to reposting Instagram bingo templates, not only do these activities keep us sane, they also bring genuine enjoyment.
Appreciating these basic and mainstream trends without shame, especially since they made me happy, wasn’t about burying my head in the sand and choosing to remain oblivious about the world.
Quite simply, it was a conscious decision to make space in my life to cultivate unadulterated joy — arguably, the most effective form of rebellion in a world that is progressively depressing.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.