“I think it is entertaining, but it’s not good” – Ironic-enjoyment of music

Please raise your hand if you have ever listened or watched something despite knowing that the quality of the product isn’t that high. I definitely did. In fact I am listening to Britney Spears right now! Nothing like Britney to get you in the right mood for writing blog post about science. The main attraction to “bad” music seems to stem from its carefree and relaxing nature. There is no need to think about the deeper meaning of such songs. Or maybe these bad songs have some nostalgic value. I bet that thinking about the music you listened too as a teenager makes you cringe a little, but that doesn’t mean it is not fun. So we know that most people have these guilty pleasures, but why do we listen to music that we don’t think is particularly good? In their qualitative study, “Listening to ironically-enjoyed music: A self-regulatory perspective”, van de Tol and Giner-Sorolla asked exactly this to their participants.

They started by defining ironic-enjoyment by asking their participants to define it for themselves. This resulted in this definition: “Ironic enjoyment of music is when you enjoy music in spite of the fact that it’s bad, because of the fact that it’s bad, or you enjoy it for a different reason than the musician intended”. In their main study they asked participants to indicate what music they listened to ironically based on that definition, what they expected to happen by listening to the music and why they chose that song or band in particular. After receiving the responses, they looked at which themes emerged from the answers.

We as humans use music to regulate psychological states (e.g. managing your mood, learning, identity development and communication, socializing, reminiscing, and energizing yourself) and for the most part this is the same for ironic-enjoyment of music. But, according to this study people also have some unique reasons for listening to music ironically. Participants indicated that they could laugh at the music to enhance or stay in a good mood, but it was also used as a bonding experience as you can share a joke together.This was especially true for people that listened to the music because it was bad, but people could also laugh at the music when it was enjoyed for different reasons that the musician intended (e.g. thinking a sad song is funny).This was a little different for people that listen to music despite it being bad. Ironic enjoyment offered some protection from either social shame or an inner identity conflict, as the irony suggest that this music is not part of your normal repertoire. An example from my own life would be the song “blurred lines”. I really dislike the lyrics, but the song is very catchy, so I can’t help but dance when it comes on, which means I have to dance ironically (which is of course very different from my normal dancing).

Just as all music is often important in negotiating identity, so is ironically listening to music.This research illustrates that ironic enjoyment can both be a way of bonding with and distancing yourself from others. It can provide a joke that you can laugh about together, give you a different perspective from your own, but it can also be a way of distancing yourself from other groups by ridiculing their choice in music or making sure that people know that this is not you. This is a really good start into understanding the different motivations people can have for selecting music that they don’t appreciate on a higher level.

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If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

van den Tol, A. J., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2016). Listening to ironically-enjoyed music: A self-regulatory perspective. Psychology of Music45(3), 321-337

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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