On the Existential Pleasures of Listening to Nickelback (or, how to justify your bad musical tastes using Jean Paul Sartre)

YOU KNOW WHEN you meet somebody new and you think they’re a really cool person you’d like to spend more time with, and you’ve said “me too!” so many times that you begin to suspect that you’ve met your interdimensional doppelganger? You know when you’re talking to that person and your chit chat is going swimmingly, and you know you’ve made a lifelong friend − but then it happens… your conversation with your potential new-found friend turns to the question,

“What kind of music you like?”

You knew that question was coming, didn’t you?

We’ve all had this conversation:

Potential New Friend (PNF): “So… what kind of music do you like?”
You: “Oh, I don’t know. I listen to a bunch of different stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen lately.”
PNF: (perks up and raises eyebrow) “Oh, really?” (casual chat about musical interests now becomes an inquisition) “I’m really into Cohen. You hear a lot of people say they listen to his music these days. Most people say their favorite song is “Hallelujah” because they heard it in a Shrek movie.”
You: (thinks to self, “but my favorite song is Hallelujah.” Does frantic mental inventory of Leonard Cohen songs other than “Hallelujah”) “Yeah. I see that a lot, too.” (desperately attempts to change subject) “I just heard they’re making a remake of the movie Clue with Ryan Reynolds.” (nervous chuckle)

We’ve all experienced the inevitable moment when naming your favorite band turns into a pop quiz.




Sure, you can call yourself a fan of a band, but true fans not only can easily name all the members of the Wu Tang Clan, but also know that Johnny Cash definitely DID NOT write “Hurt”, the name of the hidden track on Beck’s Odelay, and why Radiohead doesn’t play “Creep” live.

As a Steely Dan fan, I can tell you I know a quiz is coming any time I talk to another fan who calls the band “The Dan”.

Anyone who has ever had the conversation knows when someone asks, “what’s your favorite music?”, they’re giving you an authenticity test. The point is to see how much you know.

The more obscure the band or the song, the more we can weed out the purists from the poseurs.

In short, the question is, ARE YOU THE REAL DEAL?


It’s kinda the same with philosophy.

The quiz is all about authenticity. So is philosophy.

Well, some philosophy is.

Actually, that’s what a bunch of existentialism is all about.

Wait. Let me stop to define a term right here.

Existentialism is:

In simpler terms, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. (definition courtesy of allaboutphilosophy.org)

If you know anything about existentialism, you’ve probably heard the names: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus…

Yes. Nietzsche was an existentialist. Look it up.


Here’s something fun to do: start a conversation with somebody about Nietzsche. If they refer to Nietzsche, roll your eyes, call them a poseur, and demand that they take off that Slayer T-shirt.

While I’m at it, let me explain what philosophers mean when they talk about authenticity.

In philosophy, authenticity is:

Authenticity is a philosophical concept that denotes the genuine, original, true state of human existence.

If you took a wild guess at the popularity of existentialist philosophers according to the number of humorous memes, you’d likely conclude (probably correctly, unless you’re asking someone who is easily impressed by the trench coat wearing, cigarette smoking types) that the French existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre (1905 –1980), is the most popular of the existentialist philosophers.

Wait − is saying French existentialist redundant?

Sartre’s popularity might also have to do with the fact that he looked like this:


I don’t mean to knock the guy, but that’s a face made for memes.

According to existentialism, the universe has no inherent purpose; it is cold and impersonal. There’s no rationality There is no meaning.

And because the universe is meaningless, we, our lives, are also meaningless.

That is, until we give our lives meaning.

When we realize the meaninglessness of life, life’s lack of meaning leaves us with the sense that life is absurd. We experience anguish. Sartre calls the anguish “nausea”: We can rid ourselves from “nausea” by creating meaning for our own lives. Living life according to own choices is; to define who we are and what meaning our lives have, is living authentically. Living authentically is path to the right kind of life. The good life.

A purposeless universe means there is no grand plan for us – we are completely free to choose to give our lives meaning.


However, complete freedom comes with a catch: the price of being free means we, alone determine what kind of life we live. We, alone determine who we are. That’s the burden we carry.

We are responsible for who we are*.

Sartre wrote, “Man is only what he does. Man becomes what he chooses to be.”

You see, society wants us to conform. We are pressured to adhere to cultural conventions and societal expectations placed upon us by our families, friends, teachers, religious leaders, and cultural institutions.

The existentialists say that we must reject idea that we become what we are expected to be. We must throw off peer pressure and the urge to conform. We must live for ourselves. Only through our own choices can we give our lives meaning.


Living according to our own choices is living authentically.

An authentic life is a life of:

The problem is, being who we choose to be isn’t easy. In the face of societal pressure, it’s easier to go with the flow. Just going with the flow and doing what everyone else wants us to do (with our lives) is living inauthentically.

It’s easier to live inauthentically.

The existentialist says, DO NOT GO WITH THE FLOW!!!

Sartre calls going with the flow − the lack of authenticity − “Bad Faith”.

Bad faith, according to Sartre, is the (incorrect) belief that we are not free to legislate our own destinies.

Bad faith is the result of our fear of the consequences of our choices.
…. which brings me back to music and the quiz.

As I said before, the question, WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU LIKE? is a test of authenticity.


It’s a test to determine if we are being true to ourselves. Are we really telling our potential BFF our musical tastes, or are we blowing pretentiousness-flavored smoke up someone’s b-hole? We shouldn’t say our favorite kind of music, song, or band is such-and-such and so-and-so because it’s popular or because we think it’s what we’re supposed to like or because saying it’s our favorite music makes us sound cool.
Our musical preferences should be what we want to listen to; what sounds pleasing to our ears, not because it’s number one on the Billboard charts or what’s trending on YouTube.

If you like Nickelback, like Nickelback.


If you only listen to jazz recorded between 1955 to 1965, hey, do you. That’s your thing.





If you think that bro country is the greatest genre of music man ever created, believe it – so long as you believe it is because that’s what you want to do.

You’d be wrong about bro country, but what matters is that your love of the shittiest music ever created by human beings, aka bro country is YOUR choice.





What matters is that all of your choices are your choices.

So, go ahead. Be a fan of John Mayer but be a fan of John Mayer authentically.

Ok. Alright, I’ll say it. “Gravity” is a pretty good song.

I like it authentically.






* Sartre famously wrote “Existence precedes essence” (French: l’existence precede l’essence). That is, we are all born with no inherent purpose or predetermined spirit− but what kind of person we become is the consequence of our own actions and choices.



Chess, Death, Kid N’ Play and the Essence of the Ultimate Pajama Jam

I was listening to the radio awhile ago.

That admission immediately tells how old I am.

I know that these days when someone says that they were “listening to the radio” that they were probably listening to music on the internet. It’s kind of like how some people say that they listen to “albums”.

I still say album.

I still listen to cassettes.

And I was listening to an actual radio.

The old hi-fi.




I know that the current technology is supposed to be all that, but there’s at least one good thing about being an old fuddy duddy still hooked on listening to 20th century technology. Namely, listening to a radio allows one to channel surf.

And while channel surfing, one occasionally tunes into something interesting.

And by “interesting” I mean something that allows a person to write about philosophical stuff.

I was listening to a radio show called “The Pocho Hour of Power”. It airs locally in Los Angeles. On Fridays at 4 P.M. On KPFK. An affiliate of the Pacifica Network.    pocho hour of power


That’s a Liberal radio station.



Wait. I think I’m supposed to say it’s Progressive.

Anyway, I don’t remember what exactly led to what, but I remember one of the hosts of the show said something about existentialist cinema. He made a joke about the movies The Seventh Seal and House Party. His joke was that one of the films is deep and packed with existential significance. The other (obviously) is not.


I’ll let you guess which one is which.



th (13)






Figure it out yet?


For the host of the show, even slightly suggesting that a movie like House Party can in any way be as existential as a Bergman film is as laughable as the punch line of a joke. At first glance, the host is right. House Party is a thematically shallow movie.* Based on the film’s ostensible meaning, it would be absurd to suggest that the movie is anything more than an urban teenage comedy about a couple of buddies who throw the ultimate house party. But here’s a secret: movies, like books, TV shows, and songs, often have more than one meaning. There’s what a movie is supposed to be about – but then there’s what a movie is really about.

Want to take a guess at what House Party is really about?

That’s right. You guessed it.



claire on existentialism


At first glance (or as the philosophers say, prime facie), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is just an old, overly-long movie about a knight who does some stuff, plays chess with death (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Observer from Mystery Science Theater 3000), rides across the Swedish (are they in Sweden?) countryside, and chats it up with some weird lady who is condemned to be burned at the stake.



If you watch the film on a purely surface level you wouldn’t get much out of it.

Other than annoyance with another foreign black and white movie with subtitles.

And the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey reference.

And that that’s the old dude from The Exorcist.

Now THAT’S a good movie.


max von sydow



If you watch The Seventh Seal without really paying attention to the movie, you would miss the film’s philosophical significance.

Philosophical themes/significance in The Seventh Seal include (but not limited to):

  • Reason for man’s suffering.
  • God’s existence.
  • Struggle with religious faith.
  • Identity (as relates to our place in the world).
  • The nature of being (including our place in the world).

There’s another movie that covers some of those philosophical themes, too.

1… 2… 3… Say it all together…


That movie is House Party.




On the surface, House Party (written and directed by the Hudlin Brothers) isn’t what anyone would call a “deep” movie. The movie’s seemingly simplistic plot goes a little like this: we follow a night in the (mis)adventures of a pair of inner-city high school chums (played by early ‘90s rap duo Kid N’ Play) and their chronic halitosis-besieged buddy (played by Martin Lawrence) as they evade cops, bullies, and Kid’s belt-wielding father (played by the late Robin Harris) to attend the ultimate house party.


Not to get off track, but is it just me or did the guys in Full Force look like they were about 40 years old?


Don’t get me wrong. I could plausibly suspend my disbelief watching Full Force as high school students in House Party. At least they weren’t as unconvincing as Vic Morrow as a delinquent “teen” in The Blackboard Jungle. Or the obviously-past-thirty-year old Stockard Channing as high school student Betty Rizzo in Grease.




And while we’re on the Grease tip, throw in Lorna Luft, Christopher MacDonald, and Adrian Zmed in Grease 2.





When House Party was released in 1990, moviegoers and critics immediately spotted the movie’s themes of race, class, gender relations (in particular, in the African-American community), and how the film bucked against the typical depiction of hypersexuality among teenaged characters in most teen-oriented comedies.

That already kind of proves that there’s more going on in this movie than meets the eye.


Now, we can spend our time, like the movie critics did back in ’90, discussing the social and cultural relevance/significance of House Party. And certainly there is plenty there to discuss, even after more than 20 years since the movie’s release.

Or, we can look even deeper and discuss the movie philosophically.

Perhaps existentially.


Let’s do it then, shall we?



In the movie House Party, Kid, played by Christopher “Kid” Reid, is a somewhat nerdy high school student, plagued by bullying classmates and stifled by an over-protective father. Kid is a character at a crossroads. He’s a character on the verge of manhood struggling to find his own identity.

Kid is being pressured by many influences: he wants to be a dutiful son to his widowed father, yet he feels the pressure as a young male at the edge of adulthood, to conform to the expectations of his peers – in particular, the pressure exerted by his best friend, Play (played by Christopher Martin) who urges Kid to attend a house party in hopes of “hooking up” with the object of Kid’s affection, a fellow student named Sydney, portrayed by Tisha Campbell.






Kid’s attempt to stand up like a man ends in a brutal lunchtime beating. His attempt at independence lands him in trouble with the police. His attempt at being a teenage Lothario ends in humiliation.





But despite the competing influences and occasional humiliation, Kid wants to determine his own life path.

Determining the path that one’s own life takes is the principle at the heart of existentialism.

Existentialism is the:

school of philosophical thought associated with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Nietzsche. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of free will, personal responsibility, and how our experiences and choices forms what we become – what we make of ourselves.

Of course, bearing all the responsibility of who we become presents us (or any movie character) with a dilemma. To wit: how do we decide what we become? How do we determine what makes our lives meaningful? The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) stated that the main message of existentialism is

… to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.






For those of you who are well-versed in Sartre quotes, you’ll know that Jean-Paul Sartre famously said “existence precedes essence”.

According to Sartre, we are born without an innate nature. No one is a “natural born” sinner or saint. Or even naturally masculine or feminine. What we are and who we become (our “essence”) is a construct; it is not determined by a priori factors (God, society, biology, destiny, family, etc.) but by our own choices. We must make our own essence. In the absence of external influences, Sartre says, we are nothing more than the products of our own creation.


That means we are free to be whatever or whoever we want to be.

This can be a problem.





This is the problem:

Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” says we are free to create our own identity. We are not, as Freud declares, bound by our biology. Sounds good so far. After all, who doesn’t like freedom? But, the freedom to create one’s own essence means that we and we alone, bear all of the responsibility of figuring out who we are and making our lives meaningful.





According to Sartre, freedom is a double-edged sword: we are free be whoever we want to become, but we are also free to be whoever we want to become. When we have absolute responsibility for determining who we are, the freedom to choose is as liberating as it is problematic and confusing. Which path of life should we take? How do we figure out which path will make our lives most meaningful? And we can’t blame our bad choices on God or our biology. We almost we have too much freedom to choose. We have no other choice but to be free. This is why Sartre says “man is condemned to be free”. Sartre writes:


… man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Sartre also says:


He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no on had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being.


To make matters worse, Sartre says man cannot fully exist if he fails to create his own essence.





I figure at this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely forgotten that this blog post is supposed to have something to do with the movie House Party. You’re probably wondering what the H-E-double hockey sticks does existentialist French philosophy have to do with early ‘90s urban comedy.

To the point: how exactly is House Party a modern existentialist masterpiece?

This is how:

At the outset of the film, Kid is subject to the kind of external forces that Sartre describes: his father, his friends, the pressure to act like a typical urban male. Kid seems to want to give into the pressure – it would be easier to simply follow along and be exactly what his family, friends, and society expects him to be. But he can’t. Kid must determine his own life path.


Kid chooses to live on his own terms in defiance of others’ expectations. Although his father warns against attending the house party, Kid chooses to go to the party despite his father’s threats. During a moment of intimacy with Sydney, Kid chooses not to have sex with Sydney, favoring instead to first develop a friendship with her. Kid is not the culturally stereotypical thug the police believe that he is. The path isn’t his father’s or his friends, but his own. And as a consequence, Kid finds his authentic self – who he truly is – not the person his friends, his father, or school lunchroom bullies want him to be. Kid does what he wants to do what he wants to do, and when he does he realizes the potential consequences.






Thus, House Party is really about how to lead an existentially authentic life.

So, when Kid’s father beats his ass with a belt for defying his orders, the punishment is all Kid’s fault.

We assume that he assumes full responsibility.




Ok. I know. You’re not entirely convinced of what I’m telling you. I understand. House Party is not the greatest movie. It’s not even a great movie. But just think about what I’ve told you. Watch the movie again. You might want to have some Sartre handy. It might not have the pedigree of a Bergman film, but trust me, House Party is a film about something.

However, I can’t say the same about Class Act.


I have no idea why or what that flick is about.



*NOTE: you many have noticed, when referring to The Seventh Seal and House Party, that I refer to The Seventh Seal as a “film” and to House Party as a “movie”. This choice of words is completely intentional. There are those who use the word “film” when making reference to “quality” cinema – i.e., cinema with social, cultural, and/or philosophical significance. “Movies”, on the other hand, may or may not include significant philosophical themes. In addition, movies, unlike films, are often intended primarily for entertainment purposes.
I might add that referring to a motion picture as a “flick” denotes that the movie has very little to no (obvious) philosophical value and is made strictly for entertainment purposes (e.g. exploitation flicks, drive-in flicks, and pornography).




1) Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. 1980. The Norton Reader. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 659, 662

2) https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/existentialism

I Keeps It REAL

Ever met a straight shooter?

Someone who calls it like they see it? Believes honesty is the best policy? Insists that what you see is what you get? Claims they’re the real deal? The real McCoy?

That say they am what they am no matter what anyone has to say about it?

You know, the kind of folks who like to keep it REAL.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all of these claims have one thing in common: they are all claims of authenticity.

When we deal with a keeps it real type of person, we’re assured that we’re dealing with someone who won’t manipulate, dupe, swindle, con, lie to or bamboozle us.

They am what they am, and that’s all that they am.


There's a reason why Olive Oyl liked Popeye -- and it wasn't because of his massive forceps.

There’s a reason why Olive Oyl liked Popeye — and it wasn’t because of his massive forceps.



We want to surround ourselves with people who are authentic. No one really wants to deal with con men, bullshitters, and liars. We don’t like being deceived or having our trust in others tested. When we put our trust in people who are not real with us, at best we end up looking like fools.

At worst, someone can get hurt.

And we tell others that we’re the real deal to distinguish ourselves from those who are disingenuous and not to be trusted.


This is Bill O'Reilly. He's totally a straight shooter. His TV show is called a "No Spin Show".

This is Bill O’Reilly. He’s totally a straight shooter. His TV show is called a “No Spin Show”.


Even in our most tangential relationships, the genuine is preferred. We believe that we cannot develop full relationships with others who are not authentic with us.

And if we cannot develop full relationships, we cannot become fully developed people ourselves.

If we are not fully developed, we cannot lead a full life.

At least that’s what a philosopher will tell you.
Authenticity, philosophically speaking, is a pretty big deal. Not just being authentic with others, but especially when we deal with ourselves. The most important kind of authenticity is authenticity of the self.

So, if it’s so important for us to be authentic, what does it mean to be authentic?

What does it mean to be as Polonius said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true”?


To live authentically one must live life on his own terms, refusing to accept the expectations of others. We are not (and should not) be subject to the dictated ideas of what others want us to be or become. Who we are is not predetermined by God or biology. Neither is who we are the product of our family or society. We choose to “accept or revise the paths that have been laid down for us by others.”

To be authentic means that we are the sole origin of who we are and what we become. The Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), wrote:

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself… I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing.


This means that when it comes to who we are and how we live our lives that it is up to us to give our lives meaning; we are responsible for ourselves and what we do with our lives.

So if you’re a complete douche bag, don’t blame your parents. It’s all you.


sartre quote
There’s something kind of funny about authenticity, though. I think we’ve all noticed it.

Have you noticed that so many people’s authentic self-expression looks just like everyone else’s authentic self-expression?

This is especially true in certain subculture/counterculture movements. Especially when the idea of authenticity is tied to a particular ethnic, racial or political ideology. Or even a particular genre of music.

It’s kind of difficult to argue that you’re being true to yourself and you’re resisting the mainstream when you and everyone else you hang out with looks like this:
goths in a parking lot


Or this:


metal heads



Or this:





I mean, come on. How many guys have you seen dressed like this?





Here’s at least one:


justin bieber sexy photo shoot



Ever notice how much hippies all looked alike?





There are many ways of self-expression. And we want to express ourselves authentically. But how can we express our authentic self to other unless we can identify what our authentic self looks like? Obviously, there is a clash between individual self expression (or our want to live according to our own rules) and the set of characteristics that we use to identify with a particular identity or culture. You may feel that you are genuinely all about living the hip hop lifestyle, but to identify yourself as a true baller, you may have to affect a look that screams “conformist” rather than “authentic individual”.

You might have to look like this:


fool in hip hop clothing


Because no one will take you seriously if you’re dressed like this:


white guy in a suit



Vernon Reid, former guitarist of the early ‘90s alternative rock band, Living Colour, says of hip hop, “ …no other music is as peer pressure intensive as hip hop.”

Reid’s statement isn’t just true to hip hop culture.

The pressure to conform is a society-wide problem.

Of course that’s a problem for straight shooters who want to keep it real.

In our pursuit to live a truly authentic existence, we are caught between our personal want to express our authentic self and the countervailing (societal) pressure to conform to a preordained image of what the real deal is (and is supposed to look and act like). We are often skeptical of someone who claims that they’re “keeping it real” if they don’t look like the real deal.






If we don’t conform to the image how can anyone know we’re the real deal?

That’s the problem with authenticity. People won’t perceive our authenticity if we don’t look authentic. A part of how we view ourselves is inexorably tied to how other people perceive us. Sartre writes:


By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put into the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other… I recognize that I am as the Other sees me.


A part of our perception of ourselves, our sense of who we are, is formed by our interactions with others. The philosopher, Paul C. Taylor, writes there is a:


“tension between individual identity and the… scripts of social identity.”*


The tension between individual and social identity rises to more than a minor inconvenience when, in an effort to prove how authentic we are, the need to keep it real leads us to act in a way that may be detrimental to ourselves or our non-incarcerated status.


stereotypical black guy meme


Most of the time, we can maintain our (authentic) identity against the societal pressure to conform to predetermined expectations. As long as we know who we are and for what reason we act, even if no one else sees or knows it, we can be assured that we are living according to our own script. The key is to being authentic is to know when to ignore what others may want us to be, and when to adopt those cultural scripts that enable us to function in society.

Only you know if you are living a truly authentic life.





If you aren’t, realize you may be the biggest douche bag in the room.


Just sayin’


‘Cause I’m a straight shooter.


I keeps it real.





* Taylor is specifically referring to racial identity in this instance, but Taylor’s statement can be equally applied to any cultural/personal identity conflict.




Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell Is Other People”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 620

Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 659.

Paul C. Taylor. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 2004. Malden, MA: Polity Press. p. 130.

“Steely Dan: Understood As the Redemption of the White Negro: A Conversation Between Greg Tate and Vernon Reid”. Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. 2003. Ed. Greg Tate. NY: Broadway Books. p. 113.