Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kelly Clarkson and the Threatened Self

Maybe its because I’m an unbearable pedantic know-it-all, but Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” strikes a chord with me. The protagonist of the song defends herself from someone who tries to corner her figuratively by fixing her identity. If he knows who she is then she cannot figure out for herself who she might be or might become. But she will not let that happen, and he should know that she will “lead, not follow.”

This is the second song in recent memory to dramatize a female protagonist rebelling against an asymmetrical relationship in which she is the subject of someone else’s assumptions. Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything” covered similar ground. In that song, the singer lashes out in an act of almost petulant defiance: “Who cares if you disagree/You are not me/Who made you king of anything.” The song ends in a ridiculing gesture—“Let me hold your crown, babe”—that suggests that she is free from her antagonist.

The theme of rebelling against expectations is an old one in pop music. “It Ain’t Me” by Bob Dylan comes quickly to mind. But that theme is reworked in these songs with more current cultural anxieties. First, as a contemporary audience, we are more predisposed to side with the heroines of these songs. There can’t be too many people around that want to see women living under the heels of their overbearing boyfriends—that is, these songs give us a very safe version of feminism that allows us all to see ourselves as gender progressive.

Furthermore, we live in an age in which constructing and maintaining our own unique identity is our most important life project. We live in a period that places an ever-increasing burden on people to define their individuality from an ever-increasing field of choices. The self-reflexive project of creating one’s individual identity, of cultivating one’s interiority has developed alongside a growing fear that we might make the wrong choice or that we might indeed fail in creating an identity that is fully expressive of our individuality. In this context, the idea that someone “knows” us better than we know ourselves doesn’t give us comfort, doesn’t give us the peace of mind that someone really understands us. Rather, it becomes a threat to our ability to be fully self-expressive.

There is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism that runs through these songs. Clarkson sprinkles homey “ain’ts” liberally in her song and Barielles’s song is marked by its mocking tone. This too is a symptom of our social imaginary. If we level all ideas to the status of opinions then there is indeed no difference between one claim and another. In such a rhetorical position, no one can know more than you because everyone’s knowledge is a matter of opinion. You have nothing to learn from anyone because they have nothing to teach you besides their own opinions. Opinions you can discard if you don’t agree with them. You and you alone are responsible for the knowledge of who you are. In other words, our age has turned solitude and isolation into a social virtue.

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