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Top 40 Philosophy: Jessie J, Ariana Grande, & Nicki Minaj, “Bang Bang”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Okay, there’s no avoiding it this time. “Bang Bang,” by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, is at #8 this week, and we’ve already done all the other songs above it on the Billboard Top 100. I refuse to post the actual video, though.

First, let me say that — for some reason — this song reminds me of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink’s cover of “Lady Marmalade,” for Moulin Rouge. But I don’t know why you would care what the song reminds me of.

The verses of “Bang Bang” say, in essence: “Choose me — oh male — from among the various options available to you, because I’ll do more of the sex for you than other women will.” Given this basic message, it is unsurprising that the lyrics were written by three men. (I infer from the Wikipedia description that Ms. Minaj wrote her verse, which arrives far too late in the song to save it.)

The chorus comes closer than the verses to treating the singers as autonomous agents, and even states that women can own cars. So, the world described by the song could be worse. However, the only power the chorus gives women is the power to get a man off, so the “Women Exist to Give Men Sexual Pleasure” theme continues.

But I’m a guy. Just because I hear the song as sexist against women doesn’t mean women will hear it that way. And if philosophy teaches you anything, it is that intersubjectivity is the path to objectivity. That is, by experiencing things together and/or comparing our experiences with each other’s (i.e., “intersubjectivity”), we can obtain knowledge about reality (i.e., “objectivity”).

If I hear a noise, for example, I might wonder whether I was “just hearing things.” So I ask you whether you heard it too. If you did, then I know that I actually heard something — that something really did make a noise. I move from subjectivity (what I experienced) to intersubjectivity (what we experienced) to objectivity. That’s the basic idea, anyway (and this is one of the reasons why groupthink is so dangerous).

The claim that we need to test our ideas against what other people think goes all the way back to Plato. In Plato’s terminology, “dialectic” (roughly: the give-and-take of challenging conversation with educated people) is the path to knowledge. But the simplest early example of the idea that I have found is in Book II, chapter 7 of St. Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will. There, Augustine says that when two people see an object (e.g., a car), we have two choices. Either (1) we assume the two people are experiencing simultaneous and identical hallucinations of a car, or (2) we assume there is a single car “out there in the real world” that both are seeing. Augustine thinks the second option is obviously best.

So, I’ll be interested to hear what other people think. Do these largely male-written lyrics strike you as sexist against women, like they do me? Or do I need to rethink things?

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