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Top 40 Philosophy: Better than Ezra, “Good”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

The third alternative rock song to go #1 in 1995 was Better than Ezra’s “Good.” Here is a VHS-to-YouTube transfer of their performance on a younger-than-I-remember Letterman.

Did you notice how David Letterman read the instruction “Hold Up” aloud? In the moment, he seemed to take it as a name or exclamation, rather than a command. Speech act confusion! But that’s not the song, and we’re here to analyze the song.

The Song’s Story

In the song, a person arrives at his home to find it deserted. The only thing truly present is a letter from someone — presumably a former lover — that says, “It was good, living with you.”

It is unclear whether the letter had been left for him inside the house (e.g., that the lover has vacated the house while the singer was out) or whether the letter had been delivered in the mail. However, given the fact that he describes himself as “Looking around the house . . . for signs of life,” it would seem that whoever wrote the letter had left surprisingly-quickly.

In the second verse, our protagonist sits alone in the empty house and contemplates how to respond to the letter. His conclusion is that he should respond by repeating back what the letter said. It was indeed good to live with whoever wrote the original “note.”

“Good,” therefore, reminds me of a much happier version of Ben Folds Five’s later “Don’t Change Your Plans.”

The Song’s Philosophy

More importantly, from our point of view here as philosophers, is that the song is about the genuine goodness of “finite goods.” We often experience the rejection or termination of something (an event, a relationship, an opportunity, a project, etc.) as a speech act declaring that thing to be “no good.” This common way of reading the act of rejection or termination is expressed colloquially in the Bible, which refers to choosing one thing over another as “loving” one and “hating” the other (Malachi 1:1-3; Luke 14:26).

Better than Ezra, however, insists that it is possible to end something while still firmly believing it to have been good. This implies that the goodness of the thing being terminated does not “exhaust the goodness” available. That is, “all the goodness available” may not be located in a single option. Multiple options may be open to you, and each and every one of them might be good. To choose one over the others, therefore, would not be to say the others are bad, but to say the one you chose is best — or at least that you prefer its goodness to the (genuine) goodnesses found in the other options.

As I said above, we are dealing here with “finite goods” — with things that are limited in some way, and which do not take up (or “hog”) all the goodness available for themselves. However, if we were speaking of an “infinite good” — say, God — we might have a different situation. It might be that to reject an infinite good would be to necessarily choose a bad alternative, and hence to claim that it is the infinite good you are rejecting which is actually bad.

However, as I argued when dealing with Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” many (perhaps most) people who reject God do so in favor of The Good, and thus — if traditional Christianity is correct — have not truly rejected God at all.

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