“And there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again;
So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died…”
–”American Pie”, by Don McLean
Like everyone else (if YouTube comments are to be believed), I can’t get Maroon 5′s latest single, “Moves Like Jagger”, out of my head. It’s that stupid whistling; it’s like a scud missile of catchiness fired at the core of my brain. Artistically, there’s a lot to be said for it. Like the music of the ’70s it homages, it’s exuberant, adrenalized, and all too easy to dance along to. The vocal performances of Adam Levine and guest singer Christina Aguilera are, of course, first rate (as is the performance of whoever’s doing that bloody whistling).
But here I have to scratch the record and call an end to all the fun for a moment of sober examination. A song like this, under scrutiny, reminds us why Plato wanted music censored in his ideal republic; pretty much any message, however immoral or disturbing, can get a free pass if it’s expressed with a really fun tune. Case in point: Wikipedia’s entry for “Moves Like Jagger” claims that its “lyrics refer to a male protagonist’s ability to impress a female with his dance moves”. Unfortunately, it’s a little more insidious than all that. The protagonist of this song is, in fact, a manipulative, deceptive Lothario who comes off a lot more like the serpent in Eden than the innocuous character described by the Infinite Wisdom of the Wiki. In the first verse, he coyly assures his prey, “I swear I’ll behave”, before openly admitting his deceit:
“You wanted control, so we waited
I put on a show, now I make it…”
Rather than concede “control” to his sexual project, he leads her on, “put[ting] on a show” before breaking out the titular dance moves. But he has a lot more in mind than merely “impressing” this girl:
“I don’t need to try to control you
Look into my eyes and I’ll own you
With them moves like Jagger…”
You might think at this point I’m a stuffy old reactionary totally overreacting to the possessive language of these lyrics. Well, I am a stuffy old reactionary–a cranky one, at that–but consider the next verse before you dismiss me out of hand:
“Maybe it’s hard when you feel like
You’re broken and scarred; nothing feels right
But when you’re with me
I’ll make you believe
That I’ve got the key…”
I will admit to finding these lyrics terribly creepy.
Here our “hero” openly admits that the girl he is targeting is probably emotionally volatile, left hurt and “scarred” and without direction in life. But he intends to “make [her] believe that I’ve got the key”. Yes, ladies, that’s a noble message: If you want to finally make sense of your life, if you want to find worth and heal your wounds, submit to the advances of a random charmer in a night club. The next few lines reiterate the manipulation at play:
“So get in the car, we can ride it
Wherever you are, get inside it
And you want to steer
But I’m shifting gears
I’ll take it from here…”
So, once again, we have the imagery of a girl who, no doubt out of natural caution, wants to control the pace at which her newfound “relationship” is going. Mr. Levine is willing to lure her into believing she has this control, only so he can ultimately “take it from here” and re-adjust how fast things are going according to the strength of his libido. Yes, I’m analyzing the lyrics of a frivolous pop song rather closely. This isn’t just because I’ve listened to the song probably in excess of a hundred times and couldn’t help noticing this stuff after a while, but also because poison doesn’t stop being poison just because you put it in popcorn.
At this point, Christina makes her appearance in the song as Levine’s victim, who, apparently, has been successfully wooed by him (“You wanna know how to make me smile?/Take control, own me just for the night”). And this gives the song an even darker undertone. Ms. Aguilera’s parents divorced when she was seven because of her father’s physical and emotional abuse, and her personal life, as is to be expected of someone with her level of celebrity, has been anything but private. We know about her history of failed relationships and substance ingestion, and it’s hard not to play armchair psychologist and chalk a lot of this up to her broken relationship with her dad. Here, in other words, we have a young woman who really is “broken and scarred” lending her talents to a song celebrating horny men who play off female insecurities to gratify themselves with one night stands.
Do you see now why I have such reservations about this song?
Sadly, these themes are not original to this piece of music. Our age has a frustrating habit of taking talented but tragic figures and exalts them rather than mourning them. The Rolling Stones are a perfect case in point: A group of innovative musicians who should be cautiously respected rather than emulated. Mr. Jagger, in his lyrics, not only boasted about having women worship and need him to the point of losing their independence (“Under My Thumb”), but even complained at discovering that women were people in addition to toys (“Some Girls”). And let’s not forget his infamous rhyme about the disposability of an erotic playmate:
“Who wants yesterday’s papers? Who wants yesterday’s girls?
Who wants yesterday’s papers? Nobody in the world.”
This is the figure our narrator takes as his model. ”Moves like Jagger”, indeed.
The mutual love between a man and a woman consummated in conjugal union is a mirror of Christ and the Church, and this reflection can be seen even in illicit, pre-marital relations, albeit in a broken and incomplete fashion. Because our world is so far from even comprehending the idea of Holy Matrimony as a sacrament, the conscientious Christian has to try to find this sacrificial love exhibited in and by these relationships if she wants to see God at work in pop culture. This is fine; the Hound of Heaven hunts even among fornicators, and, as Hank Hill eloquently put it, “I’m sure Jesus is a lot of places He dudn’t wanna be.” But this does not mean our standards ought to be weakened, even if we do run the risk of sounding puritanical.
And this especially applies in the case of sexual encounters like the one depicted in this song, explicitly founded as they are on disrespect and self-assertion. Men trying to dominate women for their own pleasure is one of the most rampant symptoms of the Fall and one of the most common manifestations of the Curse. The Sexual Revolution, which intended to liberate women, in fact opened up a whole new way for them to be controlled by men, and even managed to persuade them that this new form of subjugation was actually a sign of their independence. The use of contraceptives, seen by traditional morality as way of using and therefore disrespecting another person, were the chief societal symbol of this “triumph” of a sickly philosophy.
Pope John Paul II countered this anti-humanism with his Theology of the Body, but any honest observer has to admit that our world is quite a ways away from even comprehending this notion, let alone accepting it. For now, the thinking that being “liberated” means sleeping with whoever you like–bearing in mind that pick-up artists specialize in tricking you into thinking that what you “like” is them, at least for the next few hours–is enthroned in the court of pop culture, and “Moves Like Jagger” is its latest anthem. But just because it’s currently winning the cultural battle is no reason to give up the fight. Let’s never become complacent and always be willing to oppose the corruption of the Image of God in male and female–even when it does come armed with a well-directed music video and a really memorable hook.