On the Meaning of Sex: A Musical Interlude

(Or, Budziszewski Goes to the Grammys)

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex. Read my Introduction here.]

We’ve gone through five of the seven chapters of J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex, and I need a little break from the close reading. I’m still tremendously grateful for Terence Weldon’s commentary at Queering the Church—as I’ve gone into the minutiae of Budziszewski’s arguments, he’s helped me regain the larger perspective on the big flaws in the book. The takeaway from Terence’s posts so far: Budziszewski claims to be interested in human nature, but he’s not going to try to discern it by either listening to actual human beings or paying attention to what actual human beings do.

I thought it would be fun this week to look back at what we’ve seen in On the Meaning of Sex through the prism of Sunday night’s Grammy Awards.

Case 1: Kacey Musgraves

I started my post on Chapter 3 with a video of a live performance of Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” which she performed on Sunday night’s show.

I did that because Musgraves and Budziszewski, believe it or not, use the same metaphor for knowing how to behave ethically: follow your arrow wherever it points. But whereas Musgraves believes that the arrows of different people may point in different directions, Budziszewski believes that all of our arrows point in one of two directions: fatherhood (for men) and motherhood (for women). He writes: “The potentiality for motherhood is like an arrow, cocked in the string and aimed at the target, even if it never takes flight. It intimates an inbuilt meaning, and expresses an inbuilt purpose, which cannot help but influence the mind and will of every person imbued with them.”

In contrast, Musgraves sings: “Make lots of noise / kiss lots of boys / or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into. / When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, / roll up a joint (or don’t) / Just follow your arrow wherever it points.”

But on the chorus from the first track (“Merry Go ‘Round”) on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park, Musgraves laments that “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kaye / brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.”

I know how Budziszewski would read these two songs. “Aha!” he would say. “Look at what happens when you follow your arrow the way Musgraves wants you to—addiction, adultery, broken homes and despair!” Then he would add some condescending remark about how is Musgraves wiser than she even knows, and how “Merry Go ‘Round” shows how wrong she is on “Follow Your Arrow.”

Of course, it’s also possible to listen to these songs and not hear a contradiction—to imagine an ethical system that 1) acknowledges the risks of drugs and sex, while still understanding 2) that lighting up a joint doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction, and that kissing lots of boys (or girls!) won’t necessarily leave you damaged, and 3) that, on the other hand, the stigma against these things does damage lots of people. In fact, it’s possible to imagine that Musgraves would say that getting hooked on drugs or cheating on your spouse is definitely not following your arrow.

To put it another way: Budziszewski would see “Follow Your Arrow” as mindless amorality, and “Merry Go ‘Round” as its (half-conscious) refutation. In contrast, I would say that, together, the two articulate a moral vision—that one song refines the ideas expressed in the other.

[BTW-on the question of social stigma, Ross Douthat posted this yesterday. I disagree with him, but it’s worth reading.]

Case 2: Beyoncé and Jay-Z

I’ve always heard “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” as an irreverent but ultimately positive anthem for egalitarian marriage, and Alyssa Rosenberg’s Monday post at thinkprogress on the duo’s Grammy performance helped me put my finger on precisely why I love Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a couple: the delight they take in each other is a great model for all of us.

On Monday, I said that this is the sort of marriage that social conservatives (like Ross Douthat) say are unrealistic, unworkable or undesirable. But it also breaks down the weird, essentialist divide that Budziszewski sets up in On the Meaning of Sex. Remember in Chapter 5, when Budziszewski said that a woman’s sexual beauty relates entirely to her potentiality for motherhood? According to Budziszewski, a man might appreciate, even love a woman’s distinct personality—but his sexual attraction to her is based only on difference, that is, the way the ideal mother in her calls out to the ideal father in him.

That’s not what I see when when I watch Beyoncé and Jay-Z at awards shows. At the 4:25 mark of this video, you can see look on Jay-Z’s face when Beyoncé publicly announced their pregnancy at the 2011 VMA awards. It’s super-endearing, but what’s even more endearing is that that goofy smile is on Jay-Z’s face all the time. Watch him watch his wife any time they’re in public. That’s delight. That’s joy. And he clearly takes as much pride in her career as he does in her motherhood—he just seems to genuinely all of love her.

Case 3: Beyoncé and Jay-Z (again)

On the other hand, their performance reminded me of something I forgot to do in my write-up of Chapter 5: give Budziszewski credit for something he gets right.

In case you missed it, Beyoncé was almost naked at the Grammys. And she and her husband sang, explicitly, about sex. For many commentators, this means we can’t praise them as role models. The (always wrong) National Organization for Marriage wrote, “For our part, we think that neither of the ‘performances’ last night are an ideal starting place for a proper understanding of marriage.” They didn’t give any reason for this, except for the fact that Beyoncé was “was adorned (according to The Hollywood Reporter) in ‘Saint Laurent black tights, custom bra, La Perla collar body and Nichole de Carle body suit, complete with wavy wet hair’ and performed while ‘expertly twirling in a chair.’” Or, as Rosenberg put it: because lingerie.

Stephen Kokx at catholicvote.org was a little more specific, complaining that “rapper Jay-Z and wife Beyonce treated the audience to a cornucopia of lustful images during a recital of her song ‘Drunk In Love’ that undoubtedly forced the viewer’s mind to be populated with all kinds of wretched, impure thoughts.”

Did you get that? “A cornucopia of lustful images that undoubtedly forced the viewer’s mind to be populated with all kinds of wretched, impure thoughts.”

Now, I suspect that Beyoncé’s lingerie would take things several steps too far to win approval from Budziszewski. But he understands what NOM and Kokx don’t: first, that putting sexual images in people’s heads is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be very good. Think about it: if you read Song of Songs without having sexual thoughts, you’re missing out.

More importantly, Kokx and NOM miss the crucial fact that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are married, that they remind you of their marriage at every opportunity, and that “Drunk in Love” is very clearly a song about married love. Budziszewski, at the very least, recognizes that this fact changes everything. Writing about the sexual beauty of married women in Chapter 5, he says:

Although everyone within range of such radiance notices, it is not an invitation to prurience. Think of it as the silent voice of her womanliness. Nature does not intend the same effect on each recipient. ‘Hearing’ her silent voice, her husband rejoices in their happiness. ‘Overhearing’ it, their friends rejoice in his happiness with her. ‘Resonating’ with it, they rejoice in their own happiness.

Seeing beauty in a happily married couple, Budziszewski writes, “husbands are more aware of what draws them to their wives, wives of what draws them to their husbands” (101).Now, I’m not sure that anything about Beyoncé can be called “silent.” Putting that aside, let’s test Budziszewski’s formulation against “Drunk in Love”:

1. During the performance, did her husband rejoice in their happiness? Check.

2. Did the audience rejoice in his happiness with her? Check. Witness the roar from the crowd in when Jay-Z takes the stage.

3. Did the viewers “resonate,” rejoicing in their own happiness or, if single, aspire to resonate with it? Check. At least that’s what folks across the political and religious/secular spectrum reported: Rosenberg, Amanda Marcotte, Laura Turner, even Katie Pavlich basically said the performance made them think “Dang. Marriage is awesome.”

Now, I can’t speak for Kokx and NOM. Maybe they were, in fact, having impure thoughts while watching “Drunk in Love”. If so, they probably ought to meditate for a bit on Mark 7:15.

Case 4: Macklemore/Ryan Lewis/Madonna/Queen Latifah/Mary Lambert/etc.

Heh. We all know how Budziszewski would have felt about this part of the show. Nonetheless, I’m going to quote the end of his Chapter 5 in congratulating the newlywed couples: “I feel more radiant to see your radiance, more graceful to see your grace, more married to see you marriage” (107). Cheers!

Next Week: Back into the book with Chapter 6.

2 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Sex: A Musical Interlude

  1. Thanks for your kind words on my two bits worth on the “bigger picture”, but always remember: you’re the one that did the hard work of actually reading this shite. You did it, so I didn’t have to – and I’m grateful

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