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Top 40 Philosophy: Idina Menzel, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Pentatonix has the #1 song on Billboard’s Holiday 100, and the #1 album on Billboard’s Holiday Albums chart. The #2 album is Idina “AdeleElsaDazeem” Menzel’s Holiday Wishes, and the first track on that album is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (Two question songs in a row!)

I did not know this, but Wikipedia says that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written in 1962 in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK had that to handle in ’62, then got assassinated the next year. Then, the year after that, the Beatles would come to America.

Other Worlds

As Wikipedia points out, the first Christmas Eve didn’t play out like the song describes it. Unlike, “Mary, Did You Know?,” you couldn’t use these lyrics as a creed. But that has never bothered me. The song strikes me as describing how the first Christmas Eve happened in another world, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe describes how the Fall, Crucifixion, and Resurrection happens in Narnia, or Perelandra describes how Eden happens on Perelandra.

The world of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a lovely, though tragic, place. The wind talks to sheep, sheep talk to shepherd boys, shepherd boys can get an audience in the middle of the night with kings, and kings want peace so much that they are willing to wake up their entire kingdom — nay, the entire world (“people everywhere”) — in the middle of the night. But the Child is shivering, and the King is so broken by the circumstances outside the song (whatever they are) that he knows the only hope they have left is to pray and try to help the Child survive long enough to have his effect.

What the Song Is About

Though the song doesn’t tell us what exactly is wrong with the world it describes, it does say something about hearing. Its title is, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Thus, we are surprised when “Do you see what I see?” comes first in the lyrics (“Do you hear what I hear?” is second). Our surprise is due to what psychologists call “priming.” The title “primes” us to expect one thing, but then the song gives us something else.

In more philosophical terms, the title creates a context into which the lyrics of the song don’t quite fit. It indicates to us the nature of the whole, and then we find the parts of the whole to be slightly other than was implied.

But the song isn’t about priming, or contexts, or parts-and-wholes. It’s about intersubjectivity, which keeps coming up over and over in Top 40 Philosophy. The Night Wind asks the Little Lamb if it is sharing the Night Wind’s visual experience. The Little Lamb asks the Shepherd Boy if he is sharing its auditory experience. The Shepherd Boy asks the King if he is sharing the Shepherd Boy’s intellectual experience. If the answer is ever “yes,” then the questioner is reassured that it/he is experiencing reality, not just hallucinating.

Speech Acts

This changes in the final verse, though. Instead of asking the people everywhere a question, the King gives them a command. He could have asked, “Do you say what I say?” or “Do you pray what I pray?” Instead, however, he gives an order: “Listen to what I say! Pray for peace!”

The difference between asking a question, giving a report, giving a command, quoting a request, making a promise, and so on, is a difference between what philosophers call “speech acts.” Offering a description is one act you can perform by speaking. Making an inquiry is another act you can perform by speaking. Giving a command is a third act you can perform by speaking. (And so on.)

Even speaking, in other words, is a kind of doing.

I suppose the question, then, is, “What will we do by speaking today?”


The Hidden Track

Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?

A: EpistemologyPhilosophy of MindPhilosophy of Language.

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