Jimmy Buffett Encounters American Philosophy
This panel brings together three papers that examine the work for Jimmy Buffett from the point of view of American philosophy. This kind of philosophy of popular culture is in general an important activity for any philosophy that hopes to stay in touch with the wider world. Such connection to the wider world is one of the hallmarks of American philosophy. This work on Buffett in particular is important to do because Buffett is “read” by hundreds of thousands of people every week. I don’t know any philosophers who can make that claim.
People seem to love Buffett’s work or hate it. Those who hate it tend to be people who have not listened to much, if anything, beyond the widely played “Margaritaville.” Buffett has been writing, singing, and entertaining for over three decades now. His concerts sell out, his albums go platinum, and his books spend weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. So how can so many academics be so smug about dismissing Buffett as unworthy of their attention? Because they haven’t listened.
This panel is a reminder that we all need to listen. This panel is an attempt to remind philosophers in general about the importance of engaging with popular culture, and to reveal the power of doing so. American philosophy in particular is well suited to do this kind of work. For instance, Dewey engaged with current art form in Art as Experience, William James did not shy away from writing about experiences with drug use and psychic activity, and Josiah Royce wrote a novel. We need to continue to engage people where they live. Given the legions of parrotheads out in the world, the work of Buffett seems a profitable place for such engagement.
This panel will address issues of escapism, of place and community, and of the objectification of women. These are all issues central to the work of Buffett, to the work of the American philosophy (historical and contemporary), and to American culture in general. “Moral Holiday: William James and Jimmy Buffett” takes up the issue of escapism and complicates the reading of both William James and Jimmy Buffett. When one realize how much social work parrothead clubs are involved in, and how much Buffett himself does for the environment, it changes the view people have of Buffett’s work and message. In “Jimmy Buffett’s American West” we encounter questions of place and community. Bringing in Josiah Royce to help us read Buffett opens up a new way of understanding both Royce and Buffett. Popular notions of the individual are complicated and we are forced to rethink our sense of self. In “A Pragmatist Feminist Account of Jimmy Buffet” we face the dominant image of Buffet and his parrothead fans as drunken party boys who objectify women. This understanding of Buffet and his fans is challenged, but the reality of that particular experience is also acknowledged and addressed. The point of this panel is to move the audience from the simplistic reading of Buffett’s work as being about escape and drunken debauchery to seeing the challenge he poses to an individualistic culture that does not think beyond the moment and the atomistic self. Read carefully, Buffett’s own life, and his songs and books, point to the need for community, respect for others (especially women), and the need to work to make things better. Similarly, Buffett offers these various philosophical perspectives some great examples of lived experience that support their positions.
Moral Holidays: William James and Jimmy Buffett
In lecture two of Pragmatism, William James takes up the question of "moral holidays." He notes the assertion of metaphysical Idealists like Josiah Royce and F.H. Bradley, two of his favorite antagonists, of their right "to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business. The universe is a system of which the individual members may relax their anxieties occasionally, in which the don't-care mood is also right for men, and moral holidays in order..."
James William "Jimmy" Buffett, in word and song, has given vivid expression to a naturalized form of the "moral holidays" idea. For legions of Buffett's fans this idea supports an expansive worldview - a "license to chill" for which, as the eponymous song makes explicit, "we're all qualified." The song urges us to "let the rat race run" while we "roll around in the sun." In the fade-out we hear a fleeting, implicit acknowledgment that such dogged commitment to one's own hedonic gratification might strike some not merely as self-indulgent but even "mentally ill" and morally abject. Finally, a terminal invocation of "Dr. Phil" reminds us that self-seeking retirees from the rat race often come across as crazily out of touch, and in need of therapeutic intervention. Moreover, the singer's plea to "leave me alone" will sound irresponsible to those who consider it a human obligation to run life's race whether we enjoy it or not.
In "Trip Around The Sun," the singer-philosopher's commitment to enjoying the race is re-affirmed:
I'm just hanging on while this old world keeps spinning/And it's good to know it's out of my control/If there's one thing that I've learned from all this living/Is that it wouldn't change a thing if I let go/...Yes, I'll make a resolution/Then I'll never make another one/Just enjoy this ride on my trip around the sun/Just enjoy this ride/Until it's done.
William James defends moral holidays, as he defends ideas generally, in terms of their usefulness ("profitablility") to our lives. But he also insists on the importance of returning from our holidays and re-entering the race. His melioristic pragmatism does not at last endorse the notion that "it wouldn't change a thing if I let go," or that we should resign ourselves to a world beyond human control. The point of taking moral holidays, from this perspective, is not to retire from a world whose destiny is out of our hands. It is rather to renew ourselves, to re-charge our moral and volitional batteries, so that we can re-enter the fray and reasonably aspire to exerting some significant degree of collective control over (some) events of common concern.
In this essay I will explore the "moral holidays" idea and draw some conclusions about the extent to which (a) a Jimmy Buffett-inspired worldview can profitably be critiqued from a Jamesian point of view, and (b) William James's philosophy can benefit from a little more Buffett-style "chill."
Jimmy Buffett’s American West
Although Jimmy Buffett’s music and persona typically invoke images of the tropics and of the American South, some of his most candid statements about man’s need for a real sense of community, a home, have dealt in one way or another with small towns and rural places in Western America. This is not surprising, because the West has always been seen, as Wallace Stegner put it, as “the native home of hope” for many Americans. Through the fictional adventures of recurring protagonist, the western cowboy Tully Mars, and in “Come Monday,” “Miss You So Badly,” “Incommunicado,” and “Ringling, Ringling,” Buffett’s characters and narrators both celebrate and complicate understanding of place, history, and the idea of home in the Rocky Mountains and in Montana, particularly. Nowhere is this more evident than in Buffett’s work for the only film he has scored, the neo-western Rancho Deluxe. The film, set in Livingston, Montana, is about characters in the twentieth century who are seeking authenticity in their modern lives by drawing on parts of an idealize “gothic,” or heavily mythologized Old West way of living.
The most important song to emerge from this soundtrack, “Wonder Why you Ever Go Home,” asks the singular most important question in the film and, indeed offers one of the most important questions in the entire Buffett repertoire of stories about people and their escapes to particular places. It is with this seemingly straightforward question in the song’s title, and with its more metaphysical corollaries (What is home? How does on ever truly leave it? And if one manages to leave, why can’t he or shoe back again?) that I will turn in this piece to Josiah Royce, whose life and work might best help us understand the question Jimmy Buffett poses in much of his “western” work but particularly in “Wonder Why We Ever Go Home.” Royce himself is a fascinating character. A native of a small western mountain town, he thought and wrote extensively about the ideas of community while in self-imposed exile at Harvard. Although he refused to return home to California for anything more than short visits, California and the West shaped nearly everything Royce touched. He is likely the only philosopher to write both a western and one of the most important “lost” histories of a Western American place.
Royce’s history, as biographer John Clendenning put it, “is a study of disloyalty. The evil that Royce persistently describes is that form of individualism which seeks personal gain at the expense of social harmony.” Whereas myths of the American West as a place shaped by individual heroes were firmly entrenched in the late nineteenth-century American mind, Royce debunked with aplomb and points out that racism, greed, and violent mob action—not heroism—won California for the U.S.. His history and his novel help illustrate a larger point seen throughout much of his philosophical works about the importance of community: it can ruin us or help make us better as individuals. In his later years, Royce celebrated the idea of small communities and a “wholesome provincialism.” As John, E. Smith has noted, Royce felt that “because of the vastness of national unities and the consolidation of social forces which drives towards uniformity, conformity and the dead weight of mob-thinking, we must find refuge and renewal in small communities in which the individual can regain his self-consciousness and dignity. Once again, the community must restore the individual.” Jack in Rancho Deluxe might have put it differently, but he would have meant the same thing; and when Buffett asks his question about going home, he is talking about places that are vastly different than Livingston, Montana.
A Pragmatist Feminist Account of Jimmy Buffett
I am often asked how I, a feminist and a vegetarian, can like Jimmy Buffett. While there are questions about how I can like the song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (which I love and sing loudly), the main concern for most people seems to be the feminist part. Isn’t Buffet just about wild parties with lots of drunken sex? Aren’t women portrayed as bait for men, problems for men to escape, and pieces of meat in bikinis?
This cannot be denied. In his songs and his books, there are plenty of references to women as objects of desire. I believe, however, there is another message in much of his work. This message becomes clear when one approaches his work from a pragmatist feminist angle. Unlike some other forms of feminism, pragmatist feminism starts with the fact that we are embodied minds. The senses, not just reason, play an important role in how we experience the world, and it is in experience where we start to find our place in the world. Denying experience, for the pragmatist, is like denying inquiry. Buffett’s music and his books describe particular kinds of experiences—particular takes on the world. While some feminists may not like certain aspects of this experience it is real and must be taken into account. Further, when one listens and reads carefully, one finds that Buffett is actually undercutting the notion of women as playthings for men.
For instance, in the song “I Want a Smart Woman in a Short Skirt” Buffett is clear he cares about the mind of the woman. Do smart women have to deny their bodies? This is often the case in liberal feminism and a common critique of this kind of feminism is that it tries to make women into men. A pragmatist feminist seeks to embrace the full continuum of experience. This does not mean one cannot be critical of various portrayals and actions of people, but one has to be careful about being too dismissive.
In “Fins” we hear things like “fins to the left, fins to the right, and you’re the only bait in town.” But when Buffett talks about this song he says it’s what he sees from his vantage point on stage (specifically inspired one night at a concert with beauty pageant contestants present). The men who are “circling” the bait are actually the object of critique. That the fin sign has become the greeting between parrotheads (used by Buffett himself), shows us that the critique has not been as effective as it might be. But, when one adds Buffett’s novels into the mix, I think the case for the critique of this kind of male behavior becomes stronger. The male characters in the novels who objectify women and spend their time in strip clubs or just having sex and moving on are the bad guys. The are also thieves, killers, or just generally unlikable. The male leads get in serious trouble when the get involved with “party girls” or when they begin to fall prey to the culture’s stereotypes of “girls gone wild”. In the end they end up with smart, serious women.
In this paper I develop a pragmatist feminist reading of these various tensions in Buffett’s work and life. I am not trying to make Buffett into a pragmatist or into a feminist, but rather showing that a pragmatist feminist reading allows for a different understanding of his work than what is commonly expressed by his devoted fans (parrotheads) or those who find no value in his work at all—those who see it as mindless escapism and simple music. There is an important middle ground here that reveals a feminist message in an unexpected place—a place where many people live.