Why’s Something So Bad It’s Good? Going Beyond Irony

Ever have those niche topics that you’re so passionate about, that whenever you get started on it, you sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist?

For me, it’s my love of everything that’s so bad it’s amazing.

Pepe Silvia | Know Your Meme
Just picture this the entire way through the article

I can’t tell you where this love of terrible yet great things started, all I know is that I love things that are bad. Unintentionally bad. I love the simple, inoffensive, and in terrible (artistic) taste.

Discussions about So Bad, It’s Good – from here onward, referred to as SBIG – are usually only reserved for films, where people like to break down what parts of the movie-watching experience make them so entertaining or give you an in-depth psychological understanding of why people enjoy them.

When I’m talking about SBIG, I’m talking about all areas. What do I mean by that? Well, here’s a breakdown of some of my favorite examples:

  • The Room (obviously)
  • Keeping up with the Kardashians – the first seasons
  • The Twilight books
  • 90s/early-2000s Europop/DJ culture
  • Eurovision
  • Corny gift shop souvenir shirts
  • Unintentional spelling and grammatical errors on mass-produced, commercial items
  • Fruity drinks with 3 different types of alcohol and sparklers in them
  • Anything that could double as a “Graphic design is my passion” meme

My love for this particular genre of awfully amazing things is something I spend way too much time thinking (and talking) about. But one thing I always find hard to answer is: but why do you like it?

What makes something “So Bad, It’s Good”?

Before diving into why SBIG works for me, let’s define what makes something SBIG. For it to be SBIG, it has to be:

  • Done in earnest
  • Done with brazen, unearned confidence
  • Technically subpar/in bad taste
  • Unique
  • Memorable

It is also important to note that it should not be self-aware. Once there’s self-awareness, the enjoyment level goes down. If you’ve watched any Sharknado movie, you know exactly what I mean.

One of the best real-life examples that fit the bill is a small Mojito Bar tucked away in a beautiful but hard-to-reach beach in Crete, Greece. This bar, known as [Name removed]’s Best Mojito Bar, has 2.1 stars on Google, with close to 1,000 reviews. The bar’s aesthetic is hippie-inspired and the owner is known for being an unpredictable human who thinks he owns the beach, has 0 people skills, and – according to him – makes the best mojitos “on planet”. Let’s go down the checklist:

  • ✓ Brazen, unearned confidence:
    • Best mojitos “on planet” combined with a 2.1 star rating and many people saying these were the worst mojitos they’ve ever had? Check.
  • ✓ Earnest
    • The level of commitment to being perceived as having the best mojito on island planet and a relaxed atmosphere inspired by the chillest of chill subcultures, when the reality is entirely the opposite? Check.
  • ✓ Technically subpar/bad taste
    • The mojitos were terrible and the service appalling. Apart from the handful of 5 star reviews with people who’d taken selfies with the owner, all others agreed: this place was sometimes best to be avoided altogether. Some even stated it would ruin your entire holiday. Check.
  • ✓ Unique
    • On the menu, you can find a picture of the owner straddling a giant mojito. In space. Just based off that alone, you won’t find this type of establishment anywhere else. Check.
  • ✓ Memorable
    • Mediocrity does not warrant 1.000 reviews. This man left an impression and the Internet knows it. Check.

Now that we know what our baseline for SBIG is, let’s first cover the most common reason why people say they enjoy it: irony.

That hipster irony

My teenage years coincided with the rise of the hipster. Growing up, irony was king, and admitting you actually liked something for what it was, was no longer considered cool. The assumption that came along with expressing love for anything SBIG, was that it was liked ironically.

While icon and dictionary-ignorer Alanis Morissette further perpetuated the myth that irony means a string of inconvenient coincidences, irony is all about something that means or is perceived one way but in reality, is the opposite.

It then makes sense that people would assign the love of things SBIG as subverting expectations. While this seems like the easiest explanation, it becomes a bit more difficult when confronting a simple truth: I don’t like these ironically – I like them wholeheartedly.

I expect them to be great because of the things that should make them terrible, yes. But the enjoyment itself is straightforward. If we’re going for irony-but-not-quite-irony, we’re headed further away from the 2010s hipster, and closer to the 2021 drag queen. It’s camp.

Embrace the camp

The word camp has been making the rounds again in popular lexicon the last years. RuPaul’s Drag Race and the 2019 Met Gala theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion, have helped in bringing the general public closer into this theatrical, over-the-top, ironic aesthetic sensibility.

Susan Sontag has already given the best possible introduction to camp, but I’ll take a stab at it. Camp, while steeped in irony, is not per se the same as irony. It’s an amalgamation of bad taste, aesthetics, and over-exaggeration. It’s non-traditional, artificial, and non-judgemental.

Camp is sincere admiration paired with terrible taste.

In my view, SBIG comes closer to camp than plain snarky irony. I can already imagine that some film bros of the world will disagree with this. Camp is embedded in LGBTQ+ culture, theatre, and fashion (to be exact, in the arts themselves). But when we’re talking about SBIG, theatrics are key in making it enjoyable.

Much of SBIG falls into camp, but not everything camp is SBIG. Here’s a helpful diagram.

The Circle of Joy: why SBIG works

There are many theories floating around as to why SBIG (movies, mainly) can be so entertaining. These usually rely on humor research and deserve their own discussion, but for today, we’re keeping it simple.

The main reason I think SBIG works for some people? Something I call The Circle of Joy.

Here, we have peak good and peak bad, but instead of being in completely opposite directions, the level of enjoyment is almost the same once you reach the Apex of Greatness.

The worst and least enjoyable? What I’m calling the Pit of Mediocrity. If you’re mediocre and forgettable, it’s a waste of time and somehow worse than being bad.

Why do I think there’s this overlap of joy between very good and very bad? Because it’s all based on the element of surprise.

Great things have to meet a certain standard and exceed it. Pushing the envelope helps us see things in a new light, often highlighting something poignant about the human experience. Going beyond the boundary of what’s expected is surprising and is what brings enjoyment and wonder.

For bad things? Really bad things surprise us in the level of bad taste and/or terrible decision-making that lead up to the bad thing being created. For many, there’s an element of schadenfreude in why we enjoy SBIG. We all like to think we have good taste. Bad things are a good reminder that this isn’t always the case. Having the passion and drive to go full throttle towards executing an idea doesn’t always translate into it being good, but boy can it be fun to watch someone else’s trainwreck.

This subversion of expectations can bring about its own pure enjoyment and wonder.

Be it irony, be it camp, be it the element of surprise, it all boils down to subverting expectations. And subverting expectations in the most human, flawed way possible. It’s a touch of schadenfreude, smothered by an appreciation for the strange and wonderful ideas that can only come along with the human condition.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.