7 min read

The biggest lie I ever said

The biggest lie I ever said

Olivia Rodrigo battles critical false consciousness and the Laschian wound

One of the key concepts in critical theory is the notion of false consciousness. False consciousness is the idea that people can be unaware of their own oppression, or that they may even actively support the systems that oppress them. This can happen because people are socialized to accept the status quo, or because they are afraid of the consequences of challenging it. Christopher Lasch was a historian and social critic who was influenced by critical theory, building on it by arguing that the rise of consumerism and the decline of traditional institutions had led to a crisis of meaning in American society, that people were increasingly turning to material possessions and immediate gratification to fill an experiential void in their lives. This, he argued, was leading to a decline in personal responsibility and a rise in narcissism; you make decisions you know are bad ideas, and the conflict isn't whether or not that's true, but if there's sufficient good faith desire to outweigh the known bad faith desire– essentially, if you are unambiguously part of the problem, is there a healthy way to channel that desire. Olivia Rodrigo suggests this is not so, but that there is an important piece of emotional maturity that requires laughing at oneself. In her new track, "bad idea right?", Rodrigo synthesizes one of the conflicts between critical theory and Laschian thought on this matter.

Lasch and critical theorists might argue that the ability to laugh at oneself is a valuable coping mechanism in a material circumstance. When people are feeling alienated and despairing, they may be more likely to take themselves too seriously. This can lead to a lot of stress and anxiety. Being able to laugh at oneself can help to break the cycle of self-seriousness and allow people to see the absurdity of their situation. Of course, laughter can also be used to deflect from real problems of self-reflection; it can be a sign that they are avoiding dealing with the true nature of a contradiction-- Lasch and critical theorists would argue that it is important to be able to laugh at oneself, but it is also important to be able to take oneself seriously when necessary. Olivia Rodrigo agrees: The narrative in the track is that she's a willing participant in a series of bad decisions she's about to make in seeing an ex, sarcastically posturing that it's about two people reconnecting, and accidentally "tripp[ing] and fall[ing] into his bed", with the metaphysics of the song's narrative being that she knows this is a bad idea, but desire to have a good time is reason to override her better judgement when a lonely ex calls. This is in contrast to the upcoming album's other leading single, "vampire" where the relationship dynamic is clearly one where she sees it for the extraction and exploitation that it is; she sees the stakes here as being much lower, the cost of the mistake one paid in temporary embarrassment, rather than lasting psychological wound.

Ultimately, the ability to laugh at oneself is a complex matter; at once, valuable coping mechanism and ironic detachment tactic that Lasch would argue that it is important to find a balance between. Rodrigo sings:

Yes, I know that he's my ex
But can't two people reconnect?
I only see him as a friend
The biggest lie I ever said

She acknowledges the falseness of this reality that she's dealing in, and resolves it by indulging in the impulse, throughout the track recognizing that she's possibly also overthinking (discarding excess metaphysical considerations, essentially):

My brain goes, "Ah"
Can't hear my thoughts (I cannot hear my thoughts)
Like blah-blah-blah (Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah)
Should probably not
I should probably, probably not
I should probably, probably not

Lasch might argue that the ability to laugh at oneself is a way of coping with the decline of traditional values in a society where people are no longer sure what to believe in, laughter can be a way of maintaining a sense of humor and perspective; something this track does very well, she's wrestling with the idea of what they "are" to each other to gauge appropriateness of the interaction, the terms, and the cost.

Critical theorists might argue that the ability to laugh at oneself is a way of resisting the power of the dominant ideology. By laughing at the absurdities of society, people can begin to see the cracks in the system and imagine a different way of life– like I said, in contrast to "vampire" where the social and psychological cost is very different based on her relationship to the other party, how much of our interaction with each other is rooted in social expectations to be compliant with relationship externalities, rather than what conditions should dictate about treatment within a relationship– she weighs here between it being a bad idea because they're no longer together, but that essentially it's something she'd like to do, and that as far as cost goes, it's just slightly embarrassing more than anything else; the nature of a break-up, for example, provide crucial context for how two people outside of a relationship might interact. Lasch would argue this is normal, and not particularly transgressive or really dialectically significant behavior.

What she does here is what constitutes good practice of the dialectic: analysis is repeatable, but outcomes are not– to paraphrase Ms. Rodrigo, why can't two people reconnect? Her range of experiences tells her it's a bad idea, but essentially harmless. From a dialectical materialist lens, not specific to the track, but in evaluating her logic here, the end of a relationship can be seen as a result of the contradictions that inevitably arise in any relationship. These contradictions can be caused by a variety of factors, such as differences in personality, values, or goals. When these contradictions become too great, they can lead to the breakdown of the relationship. Revisiting an ex-partner can also be seen as a result of contradictions. In some cases, people may revisit their ex-partners because they  hope to rekindle the relationship (something, in this track, that seems not to be the case, but something she's somewhat concerned might happen anyway). In other cases, people may revisit their ex-partners because they are looking for closure or to understand why the relationship ended, sometimes, as it was here, it's because it wasn't all that serious to begin with. From a dialectical materialist lens, the decision of whether or not to revisit an ex-partner can be seen as a way of resolving the contradictions that led to the end of the relationship, perhaps part of moving on, etc.– painful but not always unproductive. If the contradictions have been resolved, then revisiting the ex-partner may be a positive experience. However, if the contradictions have not been resolved, then revisiting the ex-partner may only lead to further pain and heartbreak, or in the better set of outcomes, the kind of embarassment Olivia Rodrigo in this track seems concerned might result from this bad idea.

Concluding that she's possibly overthinking it, that the contradiction isn't so much to resolve afterall:

It's a bad idea, right?
Seeing you tonight
Fuck it, it's fine

So, again, let's revisit the question of laughing at oneself as she does in accepting she's about to choose a mistake. Both Lasch and critical theorists might argue that the ability to laugh at oneself is a way of staying sane in a crazy world. When things seem hopeless, laughter can be a way of keeping one's spirits up and refusing to give in to despair, there are also dangers associated with the ability to laugh at oneself. It can also take the form of ironic detachment, gets used to belittle others or to make light of serious issues, however, coupled with the dialetical process (something I'd argued that Olivia Rodrigo understands well in the realm of human dynamics), one could argue that the benefits of being able to laugh at oneself outweigh the risks.

All of this to say is that the metaphysics of the track's narrative are textbook material for the dialectic contra liberal thinking: if the latter's objective is to reduce complexity to conclusion as quickly as possible, prioritizing consistency but not correctness or truthiness, the former's is to use the dialetic repeatedly to arrive, consistently, at resolved contradiction, that is to say, correctness in the materialist sense. Olivia Rodrigo sings about various relationships, the outcomes regarded differently, rather than informing a blanket rule that an ex is always to be avoided, and in this track, she weighs that process from the perspective of bodily autonomy, emotional detachment, and the dynamic of that relationship, not relationships in the aggregate; the harder analytical process. Max Horkheimer wrote,

"As soon as a thought or word becomes a tool, one can dispense with actually ‘thinking’ it, that is, with going through the logical acts involved in verbal formulation of it. As has been pointed out, often and correctly, the advantage of mathematics—the model of all neo-positivistic thinking—lies in just this ‘intellectual economy.’ Complicated logical operations are carried out without actual performance of the intellectual acts upon which the mathematical and logical symbols are based. … Reason … becomes a fetish, a magic entity that is accepted rather than intellectually experienced."

It's an intellectual exercise that underlies the metaphysics of this track; it's a bad idea not because it's a bad idea to always indulge pleasure, but because she knows it won't be productive, whereas an ex from another narrative, for example in "vampire", where she's unambiguously a victim, would be a bad idea for a variety of other complex reasons requiring perhaps less cognition to resolve the contradiction, but that these outcomes can't inform the intellectual aspect of making decisions in one's life.

The Laschian wound can be seen as a metaphor for the emotional pain that is caused by living in a society that is constantly bombarding us with images of happiness and fulfillment. We are constantly told that we need more money, more possessions, and more experiences in order to be happy. This can lead to a sense of inadequacy and emptiness, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction– what she does in this track is conclude that, in the scheme of things, this is a harmless indulgence.

Horkheimer wrote, "Subjective reason conforms to anything"– this is the takeaway from the intellectual critical element of this track; do you stress yourself observing knee-jerk reactions that might be potentially isolating because of social expectations on how one behaves with a former partner, or do you conclude that a resolved contradiction is best considered resolved when complexity is rendered immaterial, and therefore easier to conclude isn't all that of a deal, "it's fine".