This recent article from Virginia Postrel helped me put my finger on what bothered me about Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful.” Or rather, the biggest thing that bothered me; Aguilera’s show-offy vocal stylings grated on me from the beginning, but it was really the lyrics that annoyed me. I just found out, from the Wikipedia article, that the music and lyrics were written by 1 of the former 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry.
I’ve only just watched the video that I linked, since I figured I should watch something before I show it to you. Up to now, my exposure to the song has been involuntary; it’s been forced into my brain by our local Clear Channel pod. Aguilera does get props for including a drag queen in her video, but that idea isn’t new; in the liner notes for a Go-Go’s compilation I have, one of the members writes about how their (much more insightful) song “Beautiful” was inspired by a scene from a John Waters movie featuring Divine.
So what really rubs me the wrong way about this song is the assertion that “I/We/You are beautiful, in every single way.” In other words, everyone is beautiful. I’d kinda agree that everyone has something beautiful about them, but is everyone beautiful in every single way? Well, no. Adjectives serve to distinguish people, and when there is no distinction, the adjective becomes meaningless. If everyone were really beautiful in every single way, then no one would be beautiful, and beauty would cease to exist. But beauty clearly does exist in people’s minds, and very few people really think that everyone is beautiful in every single way.
The video makes Aguilera’s intentions clear: she’s fighting against low self-esteem. I agree with her: low self-esteem can be painful and crippling, and it’s good to help people get out of it. But Perry and Aguilera are themselves stuck in the low self-esteem trap, and can’t even free themselves let alone anyone else. Perry’s own words show this: “Words can’t bring me down, So don’t you bring me down today.” Postrel’s critique of the Dove Soap “Campaign for Real Beauty” points out the problem:
“Only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful” trumpets the headline of Dove’s press release. Contrary to what the company wants readers to believe, however, that statistic doesn’t necessarily represent a crisis of confidence; it may simply reflect the power of the word beautiful. Dove’s surveys don’t ask women if they think they’re unattractive or ugly, so it’s hard to differentiate between knowing you have flaws, believing you’re acceptably but unimpressively plain, and feeling worthlessly hideous.
The cause of self-esteem problems, as implied by Perry, is that people don’t think they’re beautiful. She aims to change that by gate-crashing the “beautiful” category and ushering everyone else in by fiat, but this is doomed to failure. The true cause of self-esteem problems is the reliance on shallow categories like “beautiful,” and if Perry succeeds in redefining “beauty,” then the discrimination and self-esteem crises will simply move to another category, and the words will continue to bring me/us/you down.
It’s occurred to me that at the age of 37, Perry could well have been aware of the internal contradictions in her lyrics and their detachment from reality, but left them that way because they expressed how she felt inside. But any self-awareness she may have had, she doesn’t seem to have passed on to Aguilera or the people who produced the video, or any of the fans. Aguilera may be calculating in her performance (despite the assertion in the Wikipedia article that it was recorded in one take), but seems to earnestly believe the content of the lyrics on the most superficial level.
So what’s the answer to the problem of self-esteem? Postrel continues, “Real confidence requires self-knowledge, which includes recognizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths.”
I am beautiful, sometimes, in certain ways. I’m also overweight, pompous and easily distracted. Words can bring me down. Please try not to bring me down today.
Or you can have Chumbawamba’s take on self-esteem:
I get knocked down! But I get up again; you’re never gonna keep me down.