Tuesday, February 14, 2012

We Might Be Too Uptight to See It But They Ain’t Afraid to Show It

LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” must drive people who take music very seriously crazy. For some art is a kind of secular religion. This isn’t an idiosyncratic quirk on their part but rather an effect of the history of the function of art in modern society. The belief that art must come from inside the soul and express its content is a fairly new idea. In fact, the very sense of interiority that underwrites it is itself novel. Before the modern period meaning and value were not confined within the subject, as his or her own self-generated individual property. Pre-modern Europeans, Charles Taylor reminds us, thought that the objective world contained meaning, and, therefore, ideas and valuations existed in the world and not just within the subject. Pre-modern Europeans considered that the very essence of their selfhoods belonged not within the person but rather in the material world and the corporate collectivities to which people belonged, these were the things that made us human. External reality, not a self-made and carefully maintained interiority, was the location for self-knowledge in this cultural perspective.

But this changed, obviously. In the long trajectory from the medieval world to capitalist modernity, European thought came to imagine the subject as radically separated from the objective world. After this transition, knowledge could no longer be imagined as the property of external reality. Rather, knowledge was seen as the product of individual thought processes that were now located internally within the person. In this intellectual tradition, understanding was the work of an interior self, which was the product of an intense project of self-reflection. Thus souls, as we understand them today, were born. And, we came to believe, that it was there, deep in our unfathomable souls that we discover or create that which makes us special and different from others. People who take music very seriously are particularly committed to this idea. They want songs to be like souls: unique, expressive, deep, authentic, and so on. In short, they want music to be soulful.

People who value soulful music will be outraged by the relentless superficiality of “Sexy and I Know it.” First of all, the very self-consciously somatic excess of the song mocks the pious devotion to interiority: “When I walk in the spot this is what I see/Everybody stops and they’re staring at me/I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it/I’m sexy and I know it.” There really isn’t a lot to interpret here. It’s all about visuality and surface—in particular, bulging crotch surfaces! Fantastic. The whole song is a well-executed joke at the expense of artistic gravity. I LOVE that one of verses of this song is simply the repetition of the word “wiggle,” as if it were Sesame Street song. This is a childish song with an adolescent sexual sensibility and an adult’s sense of irony. If you care only about depth, then you will forget that sometimes we want highly polished surfaces, if only to have something on which to check ourselves out.