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Stupid Songs and How to Love Them Rightly: A Reflection on Critical Thinking

A great deal is made of “critical thinking” in the general background noise of our culture, especially when people talk about education and what kids aren’t getting.

I got thinking about that while I was listening closely to a John Denver song on my way in to work this morning. Being a John Denver song it was filled with lofty ideals and longing and very little connection to the real world where decisions are made and have consequences.

This one was about children and the chorus goes:

I wanna live
I wanna grow
I wanna share what I can give
I wanna be
I wanna live

I have no doubt that many, many people have been moved by these lyrics. I am, in fact, among those people. It’s nice and its full of good intentions. It’s kind of inspiring, in a slight, shadowy fashion.

Every child wants to live. That’s a safe one.

Every child wants to grow, but I don’t one in 100 thinks the thought, and that one is suffering from some growth inhibitor.

Not many children want to share, but there is something deeply human about the desire to participate in the well-being of others by using our gifts, so I’ll grant this one as long as we don’t take it too literally.

Children don’t think they want to be. Not many adults do. That’s sliding off the scale of meaning for 99.9% of people. And it doesn’t even rhyme. But he needed something to fill in the blank on the way back to wanting to live. It’s fine.

But, as you can perhaps already see, if I engage my critical faculty, I have to do something disturbing to lovers of impressionistic music (which is most people who listen to popular music in the way they have been conditioned and manipulated to listen to it). I have to ask, “What does it mean?”

Now that is a very difficult question to bring to the forefront of contemporary conventions. For one thing, children are raised in schools where reader response criticism and/or abstract formalism govern the way first and second graders read. (In everyday terms that means that when you are taught how to read, you are taught to construct your own meaning in response to the text rather than find the meaning that is in it and/or you are taught disciplines of analysis like sentence patterns and plot structures as ends in themselves.)

That means that children don’t, in fact, learn how to read, which is fundamentally and essentially an act of participating in and then interpreting a text. Or if they do, they do it because somebody reads to them innocently and naively outside the classroom and then they just learn how to listen, which leads to interpretation.

I get the place of both reader response and formalism. I even understand the place of constructing meaning from a context. I’m not absolutely opposed to any of those activities. My problem is that, made the goal of reading, or made too important an activity in reading, they undercut the child’s ability to learn how to read.

This makes the child helpless before conditioners and innovators who want to get inside his head and unduly influence the way he thinks and feels.

Among those people are, of course, our entertainers, ESPECIALLY the well-meaning and committed ones.

As an aside that you can skip if you like, this is one reason I like Oh Brother Where Art Thou so much. A key event in that movie is when a bunch of prisoners in chains go to a theatre and watch a stupid comedy movie during the Great Depression. Back in those days, the idea behind comedy, at least as perceived by the wider society, was that it gave you a break from reality and just simply amused you, and what on earth is wrong with that?

Now comedy always has to have some innovative, subversive purpose.

Just tell me a stupid joke about some terrible, disproportionate absurdity and let me laugh when the ratios of the cosmos snap back into place. I don’t need you to put the school mar’ms up on the stage so they can smile at me condescendingly while scolding me for not being as good as they. I got enough of that in the classroom, where, apparently, they didn’t teach kids the nature of simple reading and writing so the kids could grow up to produce something that could stand up to the critical thinking the marms didn’t teach.

Anyway, back to the point, the child is helpless. Not only is he helpless, having been weakened or even crippled, he will resent it if somebody comes along with the demand that he engage those enfeebled faculties.

The person who was never taught to write will not appreciate being forced to write.

The person never taught to read will not appreciate being compelled to read.

The person never taught to listen will not appreciate being required to listen.

Here is probably the deepest and saddest irony:

The first step in reading or listening is surrendering yourself freely, receptively, and participatively to the text you are reading or the music you are listening to.

This is not taught to little children when they are taught to construct their own meaning from the text or when they are taught to analyze the dead text while it lies on the dissection table. Those children are taught to lord it over something they can’t even begin to understand.

But a child who is taught to surrender himself to a text or a song can learn both to love it and to engage it critically.

For example, while I don’t “love” the John Denver song I mentioned above (I think it is one of his lesser musical and lyrical accomplishments) I like to listen to it in certain moods. I don’t mind making an informed and qualified submission to it.

But that informed and qualified submission is the product of a long relationship with music generally, reading generally, philosophy, politics, ethics etc – and also personal experience particularly.

For example, the opening stanza goes like this;

There are children raised in sorrow
On a scorched and barren plain
There are children raised beneath the golden sun
There are children of the water
And children of the sand
And they cry out through the universe
Their voices raised as one

It’s hard not to be moved at some level by these lyrics, either to action, to cyncism, or to sentimentalism.

If he dared take responsibility and give us some realistic guidance on what to do, that would help. If he doesn’t, the more practical response will be to blow it off cynically and the more emotional response will be to feel a sort of obligatory sadness for all those children.

But I know children “raised in sorrow,” though I would certainly express it differently. Something in me resents it when a person turns that stomach ache or that hopeless feeling when you are left behind into self-serving performance art.

What happens if you use your mind?

In fact, contrary to what seems to be our conventional expectation, you will increase your ability to enjoy the music – you will potentially increase your pleasure, not interfere with it. This is because, the more of your person is involved in a satisfactory experience the more pleasure you gain from it.

Something that brings satisfaction to body, soul, and spirit will bring you a great deal more happiness than something that only satisfies a bodily appetite. I don’t know, but maybe that is why a filet is so much more satisfying than a cheesecake and it is certainly why a well-prepared and ornamented meal is more satisfying than a microwaved graze.

So I read the opening line:

There are children raised in sorrow…

And I engage my mind to see if it can join my love of melody and my affection for some 70’s pop music (largely, I am sure, associative). Here is how my mind responds to that line:

This is true. It is, however, terrible poetry for at least two reasons:

One, it isn’t expressed poetically. It’s just common speech raised a little bit by the word sorrow, a word that we use a lot but not usually when we are talking.

Two, the reason for that word is mostly to increase its manipulative effectiveness on the audience.

Appealing to children is dirty pool if you aren’t going to make them real children and be actionable. You should not be allowed to use the child to promote yourself. Frankly, this leads to perfectly awful actions.

Third, it isn’t clear what he’s saying. Are the children sorrowful? Are the raisers sorrowful? In what way are they “raised in sorrow”?

Well, he tells us: “on a scorched and barren plain.”

Now my emotions are moved by this. It’s a good image.

It isn’t true though. People don’t live on scorched and barren plains. They leave them for places where there’s water or they die. They do often leave their children to die there. Depending on where he wants to go with this song, that might have been a point worth pursuing.

But harsh reality doesn’t have a place in this song. Which is odd, if he is trying to open our hearts to suffering children.

I won’t go on to mention the silliness of lines like : “they cry out through the universe their voices raised as one” or, later, the terribly unfortunate stanza that goes like this:

We are standing all together
Face to face and arm in arm
We are standing on the threshold of a dream
No more hunger no more killing
No more wasting life away
It is simply an idea
And I know its time has come

Because the manipulativeness is so in your face and self-important that I don’t want to draw too much attention to it.

What I want to emphasize is that

1. It would be so much more enjoyable, not to mention better, if he had a written a song that didn’t insist I shut down my mind in order to appreciate it.

I’m not trying to subject music or lyrics to “rational” thought. I’m simply saying that the mind is a part of the listener, and if the listener can bring his mind into the experience and find satisfaction, the experience will be much more enjoyable.

It works the other way too. The person who enjoys making a puzzle, say, but avoids all emotional tangles, will not be as good at puzzle making as the person who can humanize it with an emotional element. That is why Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are so much more enjoyable in a sustainable way than Dan Brown or Sodoku.

2. People who are discouraged from interpreting texts because they are merely subjective encounters and should just be felt will never be able to rise above the manipulative power of the surrounding conventions (I am looking for an alternative word to culture and haven’t come up with one yet. Maybe “kitsch”?). They will never be free people. They will not be equipped to govern their own minds.

3. As a parent or teacher, you owe it to your children to teach them how to read, how to interpret texts, which necessitates two changes from conventional practices:

A. You have to surrender to the text first
B. Then, having met it and got to know it on its own terms, you have to assert your self-rule and determine the depth of influence you are going to give that text or artifact over your soul.

And a third:

C. You can’t do this if you won’t (gradually) learn the mechanics, the conventions, and the forms that govern the particular artifact, the nature of the art that produced that artifact, and the nature of the being that is able to produce such an artifact.

In all of this, learning to read is very analogous to learning to be a friend, which has to include the question of whether you should be one and how much.

I will not apologize for liking any of my friends, no matter how disagreeable you may find them. Nor will I apologize for protecting myself from their nefarious influences (and they all have nefarious influences on me, even if the fault is mine).

This is what friends do: they negotiate a boundary, and within that boundary they love each other freely. However, they can’t negotiate a boundary if they don’t first receive the other as friend and create a new dimension in which they mutually participate.

Therefore, I will not apologize for liking that stupid song, nor will I apologize for applying critical thought to it.

Interesting conclusion: now that I have expressed my thoughts and feelings about this song, I feel more ready to listen to it and less bothered by how stupid it is.

On the other hand, there is this (go to 3:50 and if your heart and mind stay on earth you need somebody to reattach the wings of your soul):

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