Wednesday, June 17, 2015

If All You Have Is Critical Theory, Everything Looks Like Subtext

Joseph Todd:

The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.


Summer is truly the silly season. A few years ago, the latest Batman was said by the Zhdanovite hacks at Salon to be promoting anti-OWS propaganda. Last summer, before Pharrell moved on to insidiously making neoliberalism sound wikked kewl to teenagers, he and Robin Thicke were being accused by hysterical ninnies of providing the soundtrack to rape culture. This year, the memo apparently went out to idiots everywhere telling them to conduct inane debates on whether the new Mad Max is a feminist movie or not. So, overanalyzing banal lyrics? Sure, why not, let's go stupid hard or go stupid home.

However, if we're going to salvage the money our parents spent on a liberal arts education by pressing feel-good pop songs into service as political vehicles for carrying ideological instructions the way dump trucks haul gravel, let's not settle for the drastically foreshortened perspective of critical theory, I mean come on. This conflict dates back to far before late-twentieth century economics. It is abundantly clear to me that Pharrell is best conceived of as the Marcus Aurelius to Bobby McFerrin's Seneca, with these latter-day Stoics most productively located in theoretical opposition to rival visions of the good life such as the Spartan militarism embodied by Manowar, the decadent, Elagabalus-style hedonism of Lil Wayne, the Cynical provocations of GG Allin, and the Caligulan, megalomaniacal egoism of Kanye West.