The Greatest Point: Nilsson, “The Most Beautiful World In The World” (1972)

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Even joke music means something, right? Because otherwise, why go to the trouble of striking a jokey attitude? You’re making some kind of run at what you’re joking about. It’s all for fun, we know, but . . . what is your point?

Harry Nilsson raises this question constantly with his almost relentlessly facetious yet affecting work. He even raises the question “What’s the point of having a point?” on his album The Point!

The final track on the parody-fest Son of Schmilsson is “The Most Beautiful World In The World,” which obviously grows out of the philosophical humor of the title—treating the ultimate frame of reference as a thing within that frame of reference. David Hume noted in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion that you can’t judge our world to be intelligently designed because you have no way of comparing the making of worlds to distinguish better design from worse.[1] The world is what we got, period (WWGP). So apparently Nilsson jumped up from reading Hume and thought he’d explore the absurdity of evaluating the big WWGP.

The point is, you’re equipped with this word, “world,” and you’re intent on having a relationship with what the word refers to, with you turning to It (or preferably He or She) and It/He/She turning toward you, even though “world” is just “what is” and there can be no choice about it. It’s so strange. You can

Tell her she’s beautiful  [and]
Roll the world over
And give her a kiss and a feel

 The song starts as a Caribbean spoof (remember the “lime in the coconut” on Nilsson Schmilsson?), which would be sufficiently entertaining. But at its midpoint it pivots to another style entirely. After a few lines of a vague sort of song prologue we’re no longer used to, it becomes clear that for some reason we’ve been switched to a Tin Pan Alley idiom of the 1930’s, very refined and romantic. This too is parody, of course, but in juxtaposition with the earthy faux-Jamaican sound of the first part it comes across as seriously meant. There’s a direct assessment of the philosophical situation in the lines

And though there are times when I doubt you
I just couldn’t stay here without you

Does Nilsson puncture the dream of seriousness with “Roll the world over/And give her a kiss and a feel”? Or is that precisely where he makes his point?

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[1] “Have worlds ever been formed under your eye?” David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II, p. 324 in Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam, 1965). Much the same point is made in Hume’s classical model, The Nature of the Gods by Cicero.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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