Should We Play "Play It Again" Again?

Today I embark on my first serious consideration of a country song. This is a big moment for me because the only thing worse than country music, to my mind, is nails on a chalkboard. So getting into Luke Bryan's "Play It Again" from the album Crash My Party (2013) was an enormous feat. Lyrics to country songs can be more uplifting and meaningful than most pop songs, but modern country music suffers from the golden bug of fast cash as much as anybody else, so many of their songs suffer from the same drunk 'n' debauched content as the rest of the mass media. Their love ballads can also be so syrupy-sweet that they make you want to gag, despite the often positive messages about love, marriage, and family. Bryan's song is a little bit of everything, but not so much of anything that you feel too overwhelmed by it. So I plan to pull out some of the elements I truly enjoyed in this song and try not to be too negative about its eye-rollers. This is a song that essentially gets the early evolution of a loving relationship mostly right, so I want to give it the nod it deserves.

The development of the relationship between the poet and his beloved is, in many senses, everything that most modern club-pop songs are not. First of all, the poet's narrative begins with an affirmation of circumstances outside of the self and its desires. When the poet sets eyes on the woman he becomes enamored with, his first thought is to her relationships with others: "I was lookin' for her boyfriend / Thinkin', no way she ain't got one". The poet does not exist in a navel-gazing world of the mind in which the only thing that matters is himself. When the poet recognizes the beauty and value of the woman before him, he also recognizes that he is not the only one who may have noticed these qualities. In fact, the woman's value is considered so great to the poet that he thinks it must be impossible for no one else to have noticed and attempted to make himself part of her life. Of course, we can be more pragmatic and see this as nothing more than the mental calculations of a man "looking to score" (boyfriend present = no chance, boyfriend absent = less chance, boyfriend non-existent = good chance), but we shouldn't be too quick to hop on board the jaded train. This kind of pragmatism does not preclude the idealism of the loving relationship. In order for any loving relationship to establish itself, both parties must have the ability to give freely of themselves. And any honorable person, male or female, should acknowledge and respect the relationships of others by avoiding becoming a stumbling-block or a source of temptation for the other. This is the kind of mature, loving self-control that shapes us into great men and women instead of overgrown toddlers.

Once it is established that the beloved is in a position to freely give of herself to the loving relationship, the poet engages her in conversation. Although the only hint as to the content of this conversation is expressed as "Tryin' to pour a little sugar in her Dixie cup", which could consist of nothing more than the standard type of sweet-talking one might find anywhere, at least this is where he starts. And the conversation continues in the second stanza, in which the couple are sitting in the poet's truck after he has driven her home. I'm assuming, of course, that they weren't sitting in the truck in silence, and they obviously weren't smooching or anything since the poet is so desperate to find the song she likes so that he will get a kiss from her. So the only natural thing they might be doing in the truck is talking. The emphasis on conversation -- in some sense, regardless of its actual content -- shows how the loving relationship evolves primarily through a deeper appreciation of the person of the beloved and not through physical intimacy. Physical intimacy can only tell you things about a body, and even that is severely limited in scope (do you know what hand she writes with? do you know what blood type she has? do you know if she had her wisdom teeth out? has she ever had surgery? ever broken a bone? does she like to have her back scratched? what's her natural hair color? does she wear contacts? did she ever have braces? does she have allergies?). The only way to truly know a person, and to know her intimately, is through the commitment of time and attention. This is how loving relationships are formed and fostered. And, at least from what we can tell, this is what the poet does.

The final stanza brings in another element that strikes me as being inherent in the development of a loving relationship. The beloved's attachment to a particular song inspires the poet to learn to play it on the guitar so that she will be able to hear it whenever she wants. She won't have to wait for the DJ or the radio to choose to play it (apparently, the girl hasn't invested in digital music, or even a CD player); now she can hear it whenever she wants to by asking the poet to play it for her. Obviously, for the poet, this results in two immediate benefits: he becomes the instrument of joy for the beloved, and his presence is required to facilitate her joy. (The third immediate benefit is that he will receive her kisses, but we'll look at that element separately.) The fact that the poet willingly engages in activities that will make her happy, that he devotes the time and attention to learning to play the song she likes, regardless of whether or not he enjoys the song, shows an element of self-sacrifice that, while not completely devoid of its immediate rewards, is integral to the development of a truly loving relationship. The desire to make the other happy and the will to sacrifice for the other are at the heart of happiness between all persons, and especially between the sexes. This is what love, marriage, and family are rooted in and cannot be successful without.

The only issue I might have with this song (and it's pretty major, since it's the entirety of the repeated chorus) is the kisses. After hearing her song and dancing with the poet to it, the beloved bestows a kiss on him. This is all the encouragement the poet needs to do everything in his power to make that song play for her as often as possible; his ultimate desire is to receive kisses from her. This tends to play back into the idea of seeing the beloved as nothing more than an instrument of physical pleasure. Just as the lover becomes the instrument of the beloved's pleasure by bringing the song to her, the beloved becomes nothing more than an instrument of the satisfaction of desire. Now, maybe that's being a bit harsh. A kiss is, perhaps, not too much to desire from a beloved person outside of marriage, and is a far cry from the more obvious demands for intimacy from most modern pop music. Of course, we also may be suffering from a cultural blindness as to the symbolic (and perhaps almost sacramental) nature of the kiss as an image of intimacy between two persons. It's not for no reason that the kiss is seen as the symbol of consummated love in most marriage ceremonies. So perhaps there is something a bit too free about the behavior of the beloved that leads the lover to desire a more physical encounter with her, especially considering that this is their first twenty minutes together. Of course again, we shouldn't forget that romantic love is not meant to be a completely altruistic affair in which the lover gives everything of himself to the beloved with no thought to receiving anything in return. If that were the case, there would be far fewer babies in the world. Romantic love, the complete and free giving of oneself to the beloved, does by its nature deserve its reward in the complete and free giving of the beloved back to the lover. In some sense, perhaps, learning to play the beloved's favorite song out of love for her truly does merit the reward of a kiss. Can that return of love for love be demanded? No. And the natural end of all this giving and receiving of love should confine itself to the circumstances of marriage, in which the free and complete giving of self is most perfectly upheld, fostered, and protected. So perhaps this smaller exchange of loving tokens between lover and beloved is also part of that evolutionary process by which the romantic relationship grows towards its ultimate end.

Although the freedom with kisses may cause me some uneasy contention, "Play It Again" generally reveals both a realistic and idealistic picture of the growth and development of a solid loving relationship, at least in its initial stages. Where it might go after the beloved gets bored of her song may require some deeper soul-searching and discernment on both their parts. But a better foundation is being laid here than in most modern music.

NB: If you have an aversion to blasphemy (which I do), you might want to avoid this song. The chorus starts with "OMG, this is my song" and is extremely catchy. I've had it in my head for days now, and the only alternative that springs to mind is "Oh hot damn, this is my jam" (thank you, Flo Rida and Will.i.am...), which only really serves to make me chuckle in the midst of my annoyance. Consider yourselves forewarned.


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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