There’s a song playing on pop radio right now called “I Love Myself” by Hailee Steinfeld (who, by the way, is that girl from the disappointing abomination that was the sequel to Pitch Perfect). I’m sorry to burst your bubble if, like me, you hadn’t paid close enough attention to the lyrics to notice the meaning of the song. My wife pointed out to me the other day that it is not, in fact, a cheesy self-confidence song. Instead, it is subtly and yet very clearly a song about the “self-love” of masturbation. Now you feel super weird about having had it stuck in your head. It’s okay, I do too.
The main chorus line of the song is “Gonna love myself, no I don’t need anybody else.” Even when I thought it was just a cheesy self-confidence song, I started mulling over how that was ultimately a pretty bleak, and ultimately rather nihilistic statement. But that is the direction that much of modern/postmodern/Western-whatever culture is going in any number of ways (“I don’t need the approval of anyone else”, “I’m perfect just the way I am”, etc. etc. ), so it seemed par for the course.
But when I was given the interpretive key to the song and actually paid attention to the lyrics, I realized that its meaning was actually something far more dark than that. And I don’t use the word “dark” lightly (unavoidable pun). Nor do I say it in a prudish, moralizing kind of way. Something much deeper is going on here, because pop entertainment reflects the popular philosophy (and pseudo-philosophy) of its context, as well as helping to form it. And in this popcorn, generic sounding, melodically uninteresting song, a significant line has been crossed into an entirely new dimension of the ever increasing sexual nihilism of Western secularism.
It’s no great revelation that human sexuality is increasingly relegated to the realm of purely physical, meaningless pleasure (see the above link for some thoughts regarding that trend). Pop culture, especially pop music, is at this point one constant barrage of sexual nihilism (a term which I don’t think I coined, though I don’t know where I got it, and by which I mean essentially: Sexual meaninglessness as a result of an overarching sense of human meaninglessness, which by default renders all sense of human love and relationship equally void of significance.) The vast majority of music, and much other media, revolves around the theme of hook-ups, celebrated one night stands, purely physical relationships, and so on. But here, in Hailee Steinfeld’s song, is a covert yet massively significant statement that takes the meaningless of human sexuality into an entirely new realm. Here self-gratification is not seen as a perversion of sexual meaning; not even a taboo-yet-physically-necessary bodily function, but celebrated as a positive alternative–even an improvement upon–the need for a sexual partner.
Here we have an outright rejection of the need for another person in human sexual fulfillment. I once heard a very wise youth leader say of sex that, “outside of a lifelong, committed marriage relationship, all you will ever be doing is masturbating by using another human body.” I was actually a college co-leader in that group, but that statement floored me and began to transform the way I thought about human sexuality and lust. But in this song, we have moved even beyond an objectification of other persons. In this song, we have such an extreme relegation of sexuality to meaningless physical pleasure that another human being is not even necessary for fulfillment. In what has become the popular norm of sexual nihilism, other persons are objectified as mere objects for one’s own physical pleasure–which is also and ultimately a form of sadism. Sexual objectification has become so normal that the significance of this masturbatory celebration song can almost go unnoticed.
But watch what this song’s statement does: Even beyond objectification of other persons, it overtly objectifies one’s own body. It says, by implication, that human sexuality is of such little consequence that it does not even require a sexual partner. Sexuality is reduced to the physical in what is an even deeper dimension than the previous norm. Whereas the norm up-to-now has retained at least in its externals some semblance of romance or interpersonal connection (however incidental that excitement may be to one’s sexual satisfaction), this new norm of sexual nihilism has rejected all pretense of sexuality as something socially, morally, spiritually or otherwise significant. It has quite literally reduced sexuality to a neurological process of pleasure-sensing, severing any and all need for other persons in the process. It has declared sexuality to be even more meaningless, by rendering it completely autonomous.
I love myself, and I don’t need anyone else. I am autonomous: I have no need of social significance, no need of love, no need of meaning. I have no need of even objectifying other persons for my own ends. I am my own ends.
Popular entertainment always reflects what’s going on in the culture in which it is produced. And it seems that with this song, ours is on the verge of going the full distance–of working out the logic of our thus-far tempered sexual nihilism–and making what has been to this point merely implicit, explicit. The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ saves us from the meaninglessness of nihilism in all its forms. The truth of that gospel is that we are not autonomous. We have meaning, purpose, and life in relation to our loving Creator who made us for the purpose of knowing and loving him in return. And the hope of that gospel is that our Creator became one of us, to redeem us from our sinful pride that desires autonomy, and through his own life, death and resurrection to conquer the death that should be ours as the consequence of rejecting Him.