Monday, January 31, 2011

Poker Face and the Problem of Other Minds

A week ago, the estimable Mr. Karplus of Sounds Like Japan fame posted a rather addicting "mashup" of the top 25 pop songs of 2009. In a successful attempt to procrastinate reading some math, I embarked to watch the music videos for each of these songs. Through this process I came to two realizations; firstly, as addicting as some pop music is, some is either musically or substantially (ie relating to its content) unpalatable; secondly, there are some interesting concepts to be explored.

Music tends to evocative, rather than expository, communication, by which I mean songs tend to communicate by inspiring the listener, rather than rationally detailing their message as a philosophical or mathematical argument would. Due to this, I will be giving myself license to interpret the song as it relates to me, instead of claiming to explain something inherent to the music. If you appreciate music qua music, that is, the musicality of music, you should check out Sounds Like Japan, Tim knows his stuff!

As you might imagine from the title, I am going to begin by examining Lady Gaga's song "Poker Face." Let me make clear from the beginning that I do NOT wholeheartedly endorse the message of this song! That said, what is the essential message of this song?

I find that choruses are a good place to begin the search for the overall purpose of a song. Because it is repeated throughout the song, the message in the chorus ties the various parts of the song together. In "Poker Face," the chorus is as follows:
"Can't read my,
Can't read my
No he can't read-a my poker face
(she’s got to love nobody)"
My interpretation is that this song is narrated by a woman who avoids emotional investment in her romantic relationship because her partner cannot discern her true detachment behind her "poker face." However, I do not think that this is a very satisfied woman.

The line of the song that I find most objectionable is, "And baby when it's love if its not rough it isn't fun." My main problem with this message is that it normalizes force in the context of a romantic relationship, something I find abhorrent. While, rationally, I recognize that each couple defines their manner of interrelation within the context of their personal relationship, our society has such deep issues with domestic and relationship violence that it hardly seems necessary to glorify it in song.

The reason that I mention that line is that I find it indicative of the self-destructive behavior the unhappy narrator is displaying. Further supporting this interpretation is the previous line, "Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun." If that doesn't seem self destructive, I don't know what would. The question then becomes why is the narrator, despite the freedom implied by, "she has got to love nobody," so despondent?

My interpretation is that the depression results from being unloved, despite being in a romantic relationship. The chorus makes clear that she considers some essential part of herself unknown to her partner. In such a situation, one must doubt whether he really loves her, because she believes that he doesn't really know her, because he cannot read her poker face, that is, know her most private reflections.

This leads us to the problem of other minds. While each of us has uniquely privileged access to our own minds, we can neither access the mind of another on such an effortlessly deep level, nor easily share our own inner workings. Thus, one of the greatest wonders and joys of living is the continual sharing of ourself with others and being trusted by others who attempt to share themselves with us.

One of my favorite YA authors, John Green, coined the term, "imagining each other complexly," to describe this process. Imagining is an appropriate term, given that our impression of someone else is forever trapped within our own mind, but the joy and hope of the phrase comes from the word complexly. We seek to know our partner not as they exist-for-us, by which I mean as we want them to be, but as they exist-for-them-self, to borrow a distinction from my man Emmanuel Kant. To quote John Green in this video, where he is quoting Ze Frank, "we want to feel what it's like to be other people, and let other people feel what it's like to be us." While this was said specifically in relation to why YouTube users make videos, I think it applies to why we write blogs, write music, risk ourselves in the hope of love, and why we walk out into society each day in spite of the often alienating nature of the world in which we live.

To finish with "Poker Face," while the narrator "has got to love nobody," she also has got nobody to love, nor is she loved in return, at least not in a complex notion of the word. While the song starts out in an ominous tone, by the end the chorus sounds distinctly like a lament. I believe the narrator would welcome exchanging the risks of basing a relationship on emotional deception for the true risks involved in an emotionally vulnerable relationship based in open honesty.

Let me conclude by noting that this is a good example of the value that philosophical reflection has to the "layperson." Personally I think "Poker Face" is a wonderful and catchy song, but consumption of its message without critical reflection seems, in some sense, dangerous. With reflection one can both enjoy a driving, compelling, mournful song and attempt to come to grips with some of the problems that seem essential to being a human.


elfarmy17 said...

"I think it applies to why we write blogs, write music, risk ourselves in the hope of love, and why we walk out into society each day in spite of the often alienating nature of the world in which we live."

Is it strange of me to think that the above sentence is beautiful?

Kenny said...

As much experience as I have being strange, it is, well, strange that I am not terribly able to tell what is strange. I am, however, flattered that you think it beautiful, so thank you.