In the last minutes of the last public interview he ever gave, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that people have an inherent need to celebrate.
“Man cannot live such a shallow life,” he said, referring to the crisis of drug addiction. “He needs exultation, he needs moments of celebration.”
In the United States today, it seems that more often than not this latent desire to celebrate surfaces outside of religious contexts: people communally express celebration at sporting events, through alcoholic revelry, at joyous occasions like weddings and by going to concerts.
But when I recently listened to Macklemore’s relatively new hit song “Glorious,” it occurred to me that very often Americans today experience celebration alone with the help of music.
“Glorious” is fundamentally celebratory in both content and form. The beat, piano riff and horns are jubilant. The backup vocals add an uplifting spiritual feel to the song, and the lyrics of the hook speak for themselves:
I feel glorious, glorious
Got a chance to start again
I was born for this, born for this
It’s who I am, how could I forget?
I made it through the darkest part of the night
And now I see the sunrise
Now I feel glorious, glorious
I feel glorious, glorious
I want to be careful with what I write next. The millions who listen to this song certainly deserve to celebrate, and it’s important to approach any question like this with compassion — people who use this song to help them celebrate are people in the world with full, complex lives (and there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun!).
But this song — and what it represents — present problems. “Glorious” and the world from which it emerges encourage us to celebrate without asking anything of us in return. And the song asks us to celebrate within a context Heschel described as “shallow” in his famous last interview. This is a world that doesn’t have the equipment to help us through the joyous and heartbreaking moments at the heart of living.
In Macklemore’s “Glorious” world, what seems to matter most is the celebration of the self. This seems to fit into a larger worldview in which the meaning of life is self-actualization, or becoming one’s true self. While I believe there is a lot to be learned from this approach to life, if it is not moderated, it can be dangerous. For one, it generally doesn’t seem to work — a myopic focus on the self seems to be setting oneself up for unhappiness — but perhaps more importantly, this type of focus on the self leads to selfishness and political apathy.
In the case of Macklemore, this focus on the self has real political consequences. As Anne Helen Petersen described in a BuzzFeed piece last year, Macklemore focused in his previous album on politics and his place of privilege as a white rapper. But in his latest album he walked away from political questions and instead focused on superficial upbeat tracks like “Glorious.” Interestingly, Petersen places her critique of Macklemore’s privileged retreat from politics within the broader context of middle class and upper class white people in the Pacific Northwest — the culture that constituted Macklemore’s original and most loyal fan base. These people generally dismiss what could be seen as their political obligation by assuring themselves that they are good liberals. They feel comfortable with their politics and generally focus their lives on self-actualization and the concerns of everyday life. Of course “Glorious” is just one song, but it — and the white Pacific Northwest culture Petersen describes — are concerned with self-fulfillment at the expense of political imperatives.
But another problem with “Glorious” — the fact that it offers self-celebration without any broader system for meaning — concerns me most. Heschel’s aspiritation for life as celebration occurs within the context of the halachic Jewish system, which requires self-discipline and contains an entire approach to life. In Heschel’s world, one prays three times a day, and has rituals at the ready both for big life events like births and death and smaller events like moving into a new house or apartment. Heschel’s world of Judaism has the necessary spiritual equipment that, although it must be updated for our times, is able to help one through life. And it also contains centuries of wisdom and a system of prayer with which one can celebrate and endure challenges.
Without a system like this, people still experience the ups and downs of life. People go through loss, overcome adversity, and, yes, celebrate. In fact, our latent desire for profound celebration may surface in venues that aren’t ultimately equipped to deal with the scope of our desire to celebrate — we may find ourselves overcome with a sense of celebration while listening to pop songs. How much better off we would be if we experienced both the difficult and celebratory moments of life within a system for meaning creation that could truly hold our experiences.
So by all means, people should feel glorious and they should listen to this song if they want. But I hope that this feeling of gloriousness comes with some sense of our obligation to the other. And I hope that it comes with opportunities to experience the full depths of how life is in fact glorious.