Monday, May 22, 2017

Poignant Music

This is recycled content. I think it's a good (but fairly long) introduction to / example of analyzing secular song lyrics from a Biblical worldview.

Lyrics

I like songs based on their lyrics. It's hard for me to like a song that has a pleasant melody if its lyrics are meaningless, or worse, profane and stupid. But that doesn't necessarily mean that every song I like is explicitly Christian. In my life, I never really encountered Christian music (outside of a capella church hymns) prior to 2009, so my experience has largely been with songs from the '80s and '90s. I had to find something to like about them or I wouldn't have been able to tolerate listening to it. 

For as long as I remember, I've never liked a song instantaneously, but had to listen to it carefully until I understood the lyrics, before I could wholeheartedly enjoy it and sing along. Since much music is about romance, and a large chunk of that involves sex, I'm not comfortable singing the lyrics to just anything, since singing something is a lot like sharing a profound quote -- it generally communicates an endorsement of the source, or at least the viewpoint.

I think I remember the first time I invented the concept of "poignant" music. It was on the way to a winter camping trip with the Boy Scouts, and the other cars were full, so I got to ride alone with one of the older guys in his car. I dozed in the car due to the heat (I have a habit of falling asleep on car rides; long road trips have always had a soothing effect on me), and he played a hard rock station. That was the very first time I heard "Welcome to the Jungle," by Guns 'n Roses. I suppose I was 15. 

Staring into the abyss

Here's my interpretation of Welcome to the Jungle. Regardless of the intention of the writer, it's a self-satire. It shows in raw detail the dark side of cities (referenced in the term "jungle," as in, "the concrete jungle."). This is confirmed by the music video's setting. So whether the song is meant to glory in the depravity of what goes on in cities, or to point out what's wrong with it, I think it actually accomplishes the latter, either way. Here is a sampling of the lyrics:

We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey
We got your disease
....
Welcome to the jungle
We take it day by day
....
You can taste the bright lights
But you won't get them for free
....
Welcome to the jungle
It gets worse here everyday
....
You can have anything you want
But you better not take it from me
....
And when you're high you never
Ever want to come down, YEAH!

It's a microcosm of the vices you'll find in the city. You have references to drugs and sex, a very clear sense of physical threat toward the woman being addressed in the song, and most pertinent of all, the lines about "taking it day by day" and "you better not take it from me" perfectly describe, to me, the self-absorbed, self-worshiping nature of those who have nothing to live for beyond their own personal pleasures. It's all about them. They have no future, just the present ("take it day by day"), and they don't care what you do, just as long as you don't bother them ("can have anything you want but you better not take it from me"). This was written in the late eighties but still applies profoundly to a subset of young people in our society that doesn't seem to have gone away with time. 

Yearning to break the chains

This is what brings me to the song that prompted my reflection on this, this evening:


One Republic -- Good Life

If Welcome to the Jungle is about what it's like in the city where it seems that everything is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, then Good Life is about what it's like for young people in this age whose lives are empty and who can only think to find fulfillment through a loose lifestyle of partying and getting wasted drunk, to the point where your old friends don't even know who you are anymore.

Allow me to give my perspective on the lyrics:

Woke up in London yesterday
Found myself in the city near Piccadilly
Don't really know how I got here
I got some pictures on my phone
New names and numbers that I don't know

The singer got wasted the night before at a party and blacked out. He doesn't have any recollection of who he met, but apparently he exchanged phone numbers with people, and has some disconnected pictures to try to piece together the night's events with.

We're young enough to say
Oh, this has gotta be the good life
This has gotta be the good life
This could really be a good life, good life

There's so much in this to analyze. First, you know that he's talking about young people, based on the first line. The implication by use of the word "enough" is that by virtue of being young, they can survive the cognitive dissonance necessary in order to convince themselves that this has to be the good life, without entering into an existential crisis.

Do you notice that? He says "this has gotta be the good life," which can be taken two ways: one, a sincere belief that it is, (how sad) or an attempt to convince oneself that it surely must be "the good life," because if it wasn't...they've wasted their life on things that don't satisfy. That's an uncomfortable thought, so an attempt is made to push it out of his mind. He finishes the chorus by saying "this could really be a good life," revealing an uncertainty, as if he's hesitant to make the assertion that it really IS a good life...because deep down, he senses that it isn't.

A further interpretation of "this could really be a good life" is that it could be in the future, but right now, it's not a very good life at all, as the singer seems to be silently expressing throughout the lyrics.

Sometimes there's airplanes I can' t jump out
Sometimes there's b---s--t that don't work. Now,
We all got our stories, but please tell me
What there is to complain about?

Long story short, I think the singer here feels guilty over complaining about how bad things are. He walks back his initial uncertainty about whether he's living the good life, by telling himself that even despite the "airplanes he can't jump out," it really isn't anything to complain about. Implicitly, I think he's suggesting that he has it so much better than other people in different parts of the world, and so he feels guilty and ashamed over his depressed feelings, since he thinks he doesn't really have an excuse to feel that way. I think he's confused. He doesn't have anything to complain about, but the emptiness inside is very real, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. I can sense a bit of irritation in his voice as this part of the song progresses.

Hopelessly
I feel like there might be something that I'll miss (I've missed)
Hopelessly
I feel like the window closes oh so quick
Hopelessly
I'm taking a mental picture of you now
'Cause hopelessly
The hope is: we have so much to feel good about

This is another interpretive gold-mine. First, notice the fourfold repetition of the word "hopelessly," which would seem to come out of nowhere if the song really did intend to convey that the singer is singing about the good life, rather than being miserable over how very not-good it happens to be. This repetition strongly confirms my view that the singer feels a sense of emptiness and vanity over his pursuit of pleasure. It makes me think of Ecclesiastes.

He thinks that he's wasting his life and he's worried that he might be missing something important.  The window closing quickly means that he's worried that he only has a short time to reach out and take hold of whatever it is that would give his life meaning, and if he waits too long, he'll miss the opportunity.

I can't help but admit that my soul is screaming, "it's Jesus! He's the One you need to take hold of before the window closes on you and you miss Him!" The emptiness of the life without Christ at the center of it is so palpable, it just oozes out of the song and penetrates me to the bone. It fills me with a great sense of sadness. Listening to this song is one way in which I hope to motivate myself to reach out to the lost young men and women around me. Not everyone "has a God-shaped hole," and that is a silly thing to say. But a great many people do indeed feel a sense of emptiness after the 100th night of debauchery as they begin to wonder if this is all there is to life. May there be a Christian near by that can reach out to them and show them that there is so much more to life than a hopeless hope, as the song puts it.

"The hope is we have so much to feel good about." The singer hopes that there's something to feel good about. Why? Because he doesn't feel good. That's why he's hoping that he's mistaken. Yet he feels his hope is hopeless. In other words, in vain.

Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.

11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun.

Conclusion

I yearn to just be able to reach out and grab him by the shoulders and shake him. How I wish that he would not remain stuck, wallowing in vanity and reaping the existential bitterness that comes from "chasing after the wind," a bitterness (realism, nevertheless) that is rife throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. I wish I could tell everyone who hears this song and who is in such a lifestyle, living day by day, trying not to think about the future, wondering why they feel so lousy when there's so much they figure they should be obligated to feel happy about...I wish I could just point them each, individually to the answer to our every need, the satisfier of our every yearning -- Jesus Christ, God Almighty, our Creator and Redeemer.

Have you felt empty, like the way I've described the singers in these two songs? I want you to be fully satisfied, to not have to seek the temporary sense pleasures that the lyricists are reduced to continually returning to. Eternal satisfaction. This transcends feelings. There will be airplanes you can't jump out of, metaphorically speaking, in reference to the song, but even in your darkest moments you can know that your life has meaning and purpose and that you will one day be fully freed from all these things that hold you down--you know, "being held down" is another way to say "depressed." I can't promise a life free from pain, but I can promise you a life free from the sting thereof. Not because it's in my power to give. But because what was given to me is offered to you also. Please read this if you're open to considering Christianity: http://www.gotquestions.org/way-of-salvation.html

The sad part about Good Life is that the singer seems to realize that he's missing something in his life, but he rejects the possibility that his emotions are telling him something he needs to listen to, choosing to end on the note "please tell me what there's to complain about?"

My hope is that you don't end on the same sour note. 

-W

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