Is There a Problem with Ariana Grande's "Problem"?

Well, sure, there are a few. But none of them are really to her detriment. The problem she faces is humanity's problem, one we can all be sympathetic to in one way or another. "Problem" (2014), the debut single from Ariana Grande's upcoming and as yet untitled second album, is catchy and will have you toe-tapping along in no time. Although it makes use of one of my least favorite instruments, the sax, in the worst possible way (see Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" for another horrible example, as well as Jennifer Lopez's 2005 single "Get Right"), the song itself is enjoyable enough. The idea behind the lyrics relates an experience rather than an opinion, which leaves room for the listener to deliver the final judgement on what to do in this particular situation. The problem in "Problem" is what to do when you know intellectually that a relationship isn't right for you, but your emotional connection to the person makes it difficult for you to truly cut ties and move on. The experience is common enough, and "Problem" hits on all of the inconsistencies of the will that make firm resolutions largely untenable. I plan to highlight just a few points from the song's theme that I think shed some light on the problem of being resolute in our relationships with others, but also in our relationship with ourselves.

First of all, I guess I should make that judgement which, I think, "Problem" allows its audience to make: Go cold turkey. We are all well aware -- intellectually, at any rate -- that the best way to overcome an addiction is to remove the source of the addiction from your life completely. If you're trying to quit smoking, the best way is to get rid of your cigarettes and not buy any more. If you're trying to quit drinking, get rid of all your alcohol and don't buy any more. Don't even go into the liquor store. Avoid places where you know people will be drinking. We know these things. Of course, I wouldn't go so far as to say that we have "addictions" to our significant others and, if we break up with them, that we are trying to overcome an "addiction" necessarily. But there is a sense in which we truly are trying to "kick the habit", so to speak. Being in a relationship does create certain good feelings in us which, once they are removed, can cause us to feel empty and lonely. We go into a state of "withdrawal" in which we find it very difficult to be happy without those good feelings being fed to us by the significant other. The easiest way to fix that, it often seems, is simply to reestablish the relationship, just like the easiest way to kill the craving for a cigarette is just to have one. If the relationship is not a healthy one, then getting back into it is just like taking up our bad habit again: we satisfy our craving, but we continue to make ourselves unhealthy and make it more difficult for ourselves to make a clean break. In relationships, we have the added problem of the other person, as well. If we have said, in the words of Taylor Swift, that "we are never, ever, ever getting back together", but then we give in to the other's entreaties to satisfy our own cravings for good feelings, or even simply out of a misplaced sympathy, we do damage to the other person by setting up false hopes and do damage to ourselves by making our word something that can be manipulated and ignored. This is what leads to increasingly messy break-ups and severely damaged hearts. We need to make firm acts of the will in these cases and truly make an end of things.

Acts of the will are extremely difficult things for us. Our wills have been weakened by original sin and our bad habits. We can't say no to extra desserts and large sizes, so we're obese. We can't say no to sexual urges, so we fund a billion-dollar porn industry. We can't say no to alcohol, so we're intoxicated every weekend. We can't say no to Netflix and video games, so we waste hours and days of our lives doing nothing constructive. We can't say no to gossip, so the magazine racks, and even the newspapers, are filled with salacious headlines to tempt our curiosity. We can't say no to sales racks, so we buy cartloads of things we'll never need. Why can't we say no? Partially, I think, because no one asks us to. Our culture thrives -- if we can call it that -- on the mantra, "If it feels good, do it". Self-control is frowned upon by the consumerist mentality and laughed at by the corporate billionaires. Don't stop feeding your face, or you'll stop funding our bank accounts! Don't stop getting more of what you want, or you'll be missing out on the good things of life! You're only really living if other things control your life! The truth is that self-control, largely, keeps the rich from getting richer, and they don't want that. That's what advertising is all about. It feeds "addictions", weakens the will, and provides us with excuses to become more and more a slave to things rather than to become their masters. The truth is we can only be the masters of things once we are the masters of ourselves.

So how do we do that? How do we learn to master ourselves so that we can truly be free to make the best decisions for our health and well-being, both physical and spiritual? Well, self-control is a virtue and, like any virtue, it is only attained through exercise. Our wills must be exercised in order to make them stronger. Virtue is a habit and habits are built up through constant practice. So we can build up our willpower in the same way that we might build up muscle: start small with something you can handle, but also something that challenges you, like giving up one of your four coffees a day to try to reduce your dependency on caffeine. Refrain from getting large sizes of things at fast food places to gain mastery over your eating habits. Try getting up fifteen minutes earlier than you normally would on the weekends to gain mastery over your sleeping habits. Allot yourself only two hours of TV-watching or game-playing per day and stick to it. Traditional Catholic discipline stemming from the Desert Fathers and Mothers has always taught that exhibiting constant mastery over the desires of the body in small ways helps us to be steadfast when faced with stronger temptations to self-indulgence in both the physical and spiritual realms. Being able to deny one's stomach its inordinate desire for excess food, for instance, enables one to deny one's sexual drive its inordinate desire for gratification. Even more so, making a habit of denying the body makes it easier and more natural to be able to deny oneself in spiritual matters, such as the desire for fame and undue praise, the desire to be right at the expense of charity, or the desire even to receive the pleasures of God's presence in one's prayer life. The dry seasons of the soul are overcome much more readily by the person who is familiar with imposing "dry seasons" on his body.

All of this comes back around (finally) to Ariana Grande's "Problem". Her problem is a problem of the will and, as much as it relates to the problem of setting aside a bad relationship for good, it also relates to the much greater problem of our cultural lack of self-control. Grande's line, "I shouldn't want it / But I gotta have it", describes us all. We all need to wrestle with our willpower so that we can not only know what's best for us, but also have the ability -- the will -- to do it. This requires effort, it requires practice, it requires exercise in order to build a habit. It can be an arduous task, but it is within our reach and could be the answer to so many of our problems. Wouldn't it be nice to say, along with Grande's rap collaborator Iggy Azalea via rap artist Jay-Z, "I got 99 problems, but my will ain't one"?


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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