Sunday, 15 January 2012

Whitney Wisdom III - The Greatest Hyperbole Of All

It's been a bad week for Whitney - firstly, she only made the second spot on my Top Ten List Of Popular Songs Which Contain Changes Of Key. And now, while she is no doubt still reeling from this humiliation, it's time for Part Three in our increasingly periphrastic* exposition of the manifold doctrinal errors contained in the lyrics of her 1986 chart-topper, "The Greatest Love Of All".

In an effort to make this blog stand out from the millions of other blogs that are similarly presenting long-winded expositions of the doctrinal errors of 80s power-ballads, I'm going to attempt to weave in Adolf Hitler, Frank Spencer, The Apprentice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shoes, bludgeoning, Photoshop, Cosmo and Kate Bush. And if that isn't enough to make reading this a unique experience, I'll add in dwarves, petticoats and flat-pack furniture. It's going to be intense. Can you handle it? Course you can. Here we go.

Whitney's assertion is this: learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
My assertion is this: it's really not.

Controversial, huh? For the prosecution's first witness, I'd like to call The Apprentice.

If you've not seen The Apprentice, permit me to explain: it's a show about a useless collection of selfish, self-obsessed, self-indulgent superiority-complex-wielding idiots, who run pointlessly from one embarrassing debacle to another, all the while bandying around phrases like "110% percent" and "Failure is not an option" and otherwise acting like miserably-deluded trumped-up self-important little snot-rags, while we watch them in the forlorn hope that at some point Sir Alan will snap, drag one of them into his boardroom, and bludgeon them to death with a vintage Amstrad PCW8512.**

The Apprentice, in short, is a demonstration of how badly wrong things can go when people really, deeply, love themselves. 

See, learning to love yourself is rarely going to be a recipe for honest self-assessment. It's the personality equivalent of "We'll fix it in the mix." It's the Photoshop of the soul. Bad source material? Add a bit of reverb. Model's got a zit? Airbrush it out. It's all about changing the image, not the reality. After all, changing the reality is hard. Changing how we see the reality is pretty easy.

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I'm habitually late for rehearsals (I am), that I'm profligate and stupid with money (I am), and that I need a hair-cut (allegedly also true). Now, in my honest moments, I can admit that being late isn't actually cute. And that filling my bedroom with expensive and un-played musical instruments is a waste of money. And that "Homeless Chic" isn't really a look that is going to have the girls lining up at my door. But here's the brilliant thing: years of musical training has revealed to me that I can simply wrap all these little character flaws up into an exciting, colourful package called "Artistic Temperament", and define that to be an integral and indispensable part of my character. It's Just Who I Am. Loving me now involves loving my flaws, and if I love my flaws, then any attempt to correct them becomes, by definition, an unloving act. So if we're dating, I'm going to turn up late and scruffy and you are just going to have to love it, otherwise you don't really love me.

The "greatest love of all" just became a licence to turn into an ass.

Fortunately, not everyone is an Apprentice-league candidate for the Amstrad PCW8512 bludgeoning party. On the other end of the spectrum are the poor souls who wrestle with low self-esteem. The people who, rightly or wrongly, feel like a loser. The second witness for the prosecution:  Frank Spencer.

To Frank and his ilk, the song would say "Just learn to love yourself, okay?" But how, exactly, do you learn to love yourself? What if you can't? It's the greatest love of all and it's easy to achieve, apparently, but there are millions of people out there who are trapped in a cycle of self-harm, who hate themselves, who can't look in the mirror and say "Today I will not walk in anyone's shadows" - who maybe can't look in a mirror at all. What could be more encouraging than to hear Whitney telling you to love yourselves? It's such a beautiful sentiment. Such a nice encouraging corrective against the demons of self-doubt and self-loathing. Have faith in yourself. Love yourself. It's the greatest love of all. Inspiring, yes?

Well, no. It's a horrible thing to say to someone. Let me try to explain why.

In my head, dear readers, you are all phenomenally beautiful people, so this is going to be a stretch of the imagination for you, but here goes: Imagine you are a lonely, single woman (or guy), working in an office full of incredibly gorgeous single men (or women). Inexplicably, not one of them casts you a second glance. After a few years of this you are probably going to be feeling pretty miserable. Now, one day you discover that there is a guy at work who thinks you are sensationally attractive - Dwight, the janitor's leprous, hunchbacked half-blind half-son who recently escaped from Fogg's Asylum for the Criminally Deranged and has been hiding out in the basement with his prized collection of toenail clippings, composing bad songs about the beauty of your shoes. Congratulations, you are loved! Feel better? Self-esteem boosted?

Similarly, if Kate Bush or Buffy the Vampire Slayer told me they loved me and thought I had great potential, I'd feel pretty good. You would not be able to get me to shut up about it. If Fred West or Adolf Hitler said the same thing... not quite so encouraging.

What I'm trying to say is that it's nice to feel loved... but only if we value the love of the lover. The love of a creep, a psycho or a loser is not going to do much for your self-esteem. Which is a problem if you feel like a creep, a psycho or a loser yourself. In that case, loving yourself is less a remedy and more, well, a confirmation of your darkest fears. And this song is saying that's the greatest love there is - in other words, that's the best you can hope for. Please enjoy your frictionless downward spiral into utter despair; try to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

So, in summary: learning to love yourself may be a nice sentiment on the surface, but it's a bankrupt, hopeless notion if you don't value your own love, and it's an invitation to narcissism if you do. To self-loathers and self-lovers alike it offers no hope of change. I seriously doubt any of my erudite and staggeringly attractive readers are likely to make this mistake, but trying to live your life according to the advice of this song would be like taking Cosmo seriously.*** You will end up in trouble.

You may think I'm being rather harsh and hyperbolical. I am, of course. Most people are neither a Melody Hossaini nor a Frank Spencer. But if you are going to go around making hyperbolical claims like "this is the greatest love of all", you should probably be prepared to get some hyperbolical criticism. Otherwise what are we saying? That the greatest love of all is when people who are already reasonably well adjusted learn to love themselves an appropriate amount? Ooh, life-changing stuff!

I started this series of posts, waaaay back in 2011, because I wanted to explain why this song is number one in my pop-song heresy list. The reason is this: because the Bible's definition of the greatest love of all couldn't get much further from Whitney's, and because it is a claim that lies at the very heart of Christianity.

If you have read this far, thank you, you are beautiful, and I really hope you will come back and read the next post, when I'll hopefully, finally, miraculously... maybe... get to the damn point, and tell you what the Bible and I think the greatest love of all really is. I appreciate that you might not be especially interested in what the Bible has to say, but you've already waded through about seven thousand words to get here so it would be a shame to bail out now just when we're heading into the home straight. Besides, I have yet to get dwarves, petticoats, and flat-pack furniture into the argument. You wouldn't want to miss that, surely? Right?

(If you haven't read this far, then I can say anything I like about you, because you are not reading. Losers. Your eyebrows are too thick-set and you smell faintly of cardboard.****)  

Peace out.

PS: I really do love this song, by the way.

* Word of the day. Apparently not just invented by Blackadder.

** An old computer from the days before they invented small things. I never had one, but I've seen pictures on Wikipedia, and I reckon it would seriously hurt if you were hit by one.

*** I had a housemate who would occasionally leave Cosmo in the bathroom. In one issue, there was a terrifying story about a girl who had been drugged and raped whilst on holiday. In the same issue was an article describing how holidays should be a time for throwing caution to the wind and living it up. And the rest of the issue was devoted to helpful hints on how to get the perfect holiday beach body, and how to dress and do your make-up in such a way as to get the attention of any passing man. The thought that some people out there might actually take Cosmo seriously enough to follow its "advice" fills me with sadness and horror.

**** I have no sense of smell, so my "you smell of" insults are sometimes a bit hit-and-miss.


  1. "You smell faintly of cardboard". God bless your anosmia, Dave. With that one comment you turned a flaw into a virtue, and in the process inadvertently undermined your entire argument.

  2. While I accept your argument that self-love will be disregarded as unworthy by those with too little self-esteem and dangerously unnecessary for those with too much, there is one point you didn't mention: people's attitudes towards themselves almost invariably radiate outward and transfer themselves to others. It is a truism that those who are hard on others are hardest of all on themselves; people who forgive themselves adopt a more forgiving attitude to others; and judging oneself harshly or leniently nearly always fosters harsh or lenient judgement of others. So to love yourself may be pretty useless from your own point of view, but can massively improve your dealings with your fellow humans. I think this is what Whitney meant. I hope so anyway.

  3. I'm sure there is some truth in that, though it's not what I've observed on the Apprentice (not that I've watched more than half an episode, because those guys annoy me to the point of apoplexy). If someone genuinely believed that loving themselves was a greater love than, say, loving anyone else, I would think their capacity for compassion, empathy and altruism would be severely limited. But as you point out, hating yourself isn't a great way to improve your dealings with your fellow humans either - we need a right understanding of ourselves and the people around us, and that understanding can't be got from an inspirational song telling us to idolise ourselves.

    To be fair to the songwriter (whose sad story I will try to acknowledge in the next post), I'm sure she didn't intend for her song to be taken as literally as I have been taking it - but I think it neatly captures a general misapprehension we have - that we somehow hold all the answers inside us, that deep down we are perfect, that all of the world's problems would go away if we could just learn to judge ourselves less. I just wanted to show that this is a dangerous idea to court, that it has no real power to effect a change where we need it, and, when taken to its extreme, it either turns us into megalomaniac assholes or emotionally-crippled self-loathers.

    Also, I just wanted to rant about The Apprentice.

  4. But... Melody Hossani works with the understanding that there is a purpose greater than herself.

  5. Very amusing Dave, I stumbled across your blog while out searching for something to do with Bic Macs (that's another story) and landed on your buddies page, geero, who pointed out that we should all visit...

    Well Dave, you've made my lunchtime much more interesting...raised some well thought out and eloquently put views, which most of I actually agree with...and I like a good rant too...

    Great stuff...


    1. Thank you MrBee, I'm delighted that the ever-changing currents of the internets brought you to my blog. I have many more rants planned, so please come back again...