So today at the ISI honors program we were graced with a beautiful presentation on liberty in American poetry and song. The classy and distinguished presenter asked the students to update what he said with examples from 21st century popular songs.
Needless to say, there was a lot of attention paid to Lady Gaga. She’s all about freedom defined as acceptance of being “born this way,” as not being ashamed of and, in fact, taking a certain pride in being what you’re meant to be (given that God doesn’t make mistakes). This might well be an encouraging message for gay kids. But that idea of freedom applied generally is really an affirmation of being determined. It lacks the dimension of self-improvement or striving toward perfection or overcoming natural challenges. There’s a character in the film The Last Days of Disco who muses “To thine own self be true? What if thine own self isn’t so good?” (That’s obviously an imprecise quote from memory.)
Another student called our attention to the indy band Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” which he described as a somewhat positive exploration of the unprecedented freedom enjoyed by kids who grow up in the suburbs (far from completely positive, of course). I should know more about this very smart group than I do, given its victory over Lady Antebellum and Lady Gaga for the Grammy.
An older faculty member (not quite as old as ME) reminded the young folks of the superior profundity of the music of the late 60s and early 70s. His example was Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”–the version sung by Kristofferson himself and not the screaming distortion by Janis Joplin. According to this astute professor, KK gets us in touch with the depths of modern nihilism, while finally rejecting it.
The point was made in passing several times during the session that if we want to hear about freedom as a virtue these days, we have to listen to COUNTRY MUSIC. An audacious student got up to prove that point by singing parts of the Zac Brown hit that celebrates our freedom to eat chicken-fried steak on a Friday night (a freedom I myself have never exercised). More than half of these sophisticated (yet conservative) kids knew the lyrics and sang along. This seemingly simple song actually is about gatitude for the seemingly simple things in life–like the look in a baby’s eyes–that give us peace of mind that money can’t buy. Who can deny that if we want to find worthy celebrations of American freedom these days, we have to look to the country?