Reihan recently tweeted “A thought: could it be that the problem with the world is people not caring enough about other people’s biscuits?” As I replied at the time, Kacey Musgraves’s “Pageant Material” has the potential to be even more fruitful for conservative thought than was Marilyn Manson’s “Mechanical Animals.” Much as Adam Smith is best known for Wealth of Nations but das Adam Smith Problem emphasizes the difficulty of reconciling his themes there with those in Theory of Moral Sentiments, we can use das Kacey Musgraves Problem to refer to how Musgraves both braces against and embraces gemeinschaft.
As Reihan suggested, a central theme in Kacey Musgraves’s oeuvre is a rejection of the constraints of moral judgment. The verses of her current single, “Biscuits,” decry discussion of moral failings as nothing but the envy of lesser beings and the chorus advises to “mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” Likewise “Follow Your Arrow” on the previous album mostly consists of a list of pairs of social expectations, each of which form a Scylla and Charybdis of prudery and libertinism. The explicit theme being that social acceptability is impossible and so do what thou willst. We thus see a theme of rejecting the slave morality that would constrain an East Texas ubermensch.
But in parallel and contradicting this is an embrace of the inescapable necessity of community. We see this most obviously in “This Town,” which describes a town that is too small to be mean. Ironically, the song is immediately preceded by “Biscuits,” even though it has almost exactly opposite themes. Likewise, “Family is Family” expresses the theme that however aggravating they may be, the ties of kinship are uniquely indissoluble. Finally, the value of gemeinschaft is expressed negatively by showing the desperate neediness of isolation in “It Is What It Is,” in which the singer solicits someone to come over for casual sex, but resists the idea of a persistent relationship.
Whereas James Poulos derives from Marilyn Manson an ironic but nonetheless unified synthesis of hedonistic authoritarianism that James calls the pink police state, Musgraves is better described as emphasizing the duality of human emotional dependence upon other people and resistance to the moral constraints it demands. If one assumes that sin is inevitable (as does “Biscuits”) or that proper behavior is an impossible catch-22 (as does “Follow Your Arrow”), then by inference, moral judgment itself is nothing more than cruelty. And so Musgraves’s paradoxical relationship to gemeinschaft ultimately stems from a stultified WEIRD moral vocabulary, which Jon Haidt has shown to rely ultimately on harm and liberty, and where sanctity and loyalty are threatening insofar as they are conceived of as offering nothing more than harm and constraints on liberty. That this town is too small mean implies that one should therefore mind one’s own biscuits.
Or maybe I’m overthinking this.