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Top 40 Philosophy: The Beatles, “Can’t Buy Me Love”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Beatles Week continues today, with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” This — the third of six Beatles songs we’re doing this week — was #1 for five weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1964, giving the Beatles three consecutive songs and fourteen straight weeks at #1. The following video is from the movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Innovating on the Blues

Early rock songs were often just blues songs with a backbeat (i.e., they were Rhythm & Blues — R&B — even though nowadays people think of rock and R&B as quasi-opposites). “Can’t Buy Me Love” then, is a standard early rock song. And yet it’s also innovative.

First, a standard blues song has three lines per verse, with the second line being simply a repeat of the first. For example:

Philosophy is the best, you should totally major in it
Philosophy is the best, you should totally major in it
And if you’re from the South, then “in it” rhymes with “Senate”

The second line of each stanza in “Can’t Buy Me Love” is similar to the line that came before, but always at least slightly different. Furthermore, blues songs don’t have choruses. They’re just one verse after another. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” in contrast, has a chorus.

Origins or Destinations?

So, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a song written Paul McCartney — a white Brittish guy — comes from a music genre invented by black Americans.

Many people think that the origin of a thing defines it. If they don’t like a thing’s origin, therefore, they won’t like the thing itself. Imagine that a white supremacist realized the origin of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” for example. He might come to the conclusion that the song is “black music,” and thus reject it even though it’s performed by a bunch of white guys.

If you don’t judge a thing by where it comes from, you might judge it instead by where it’s going. As William James quipped — paraphrasing Jesus — “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” William James called this “our empiricist criterion,” but utilitarians use it too. Utilitarians, after all, say that an action is good if it has good consequences, and bad if it has bad consequences.

So, imagine you’re a worried parent in 1964. You might not care that “Can’t Buy Me Love” derives from black American music. But you may be worried that it’s going to tempt your children into hopping around in socks, or doing drugs, or whatever else happens to kids after they get into rock-n-roll.

What the Thing Is, in Itself

Could we judge “Can’t Buy Me Love” for what it is, in itself? Could we ignore both its roots and its fruits, and just focus on the song itself?

Kant argued that that’s what you should do for actions. We should ask whether the action itself is good or bad, not whether its consequences are good or bad.

Aristotle also belongs to the “judge things for what they are” camp. You may have to look to the future — to what a thing will be when it is fully mature — to see what it is now. But this doesn’t mean you judge things by their consequences. Your focus is the thing itself.

Why You Care

A lot of people think they can show that an idea is wrong — is false — if they can show that a bad or stupid person said it. Other people think they can show that an idea is wrong/false if they can show that the idea was programmed into us by evolution, or by our culture. Watch out for this the next time you get into a political or religious argument with anyone. (If you care, this is called the Genetic Fallacy.)

A lot of other people think they can show that an idea is false if they can show that believing it would have consequences they don’t like. A thing that has bad consequences is bad, they assume, and bad things are wrong, and wrong ideas are false. In some cases, I think this type of argument actually works. But in many cases, it probably commits the Moralistic Fallacy.

So, what if we just examined each idea for itself, asking whether it is true or false? Could we do it? Or do we need to know the context of an idea — its roots and fruits — in order to fully understand it?

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The Hidden Track

Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?

A: OntologyEpistemology, and Ethics.

Continue your investigation at:

Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah has a Ph.D. in philosophy and a B.A. in computer science. He plays and makes video games, thinks philosophically about pop music, and loves fractals.

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