Shadow Psalms

Olivia Carter Mather
Monday, November 19th 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me

People say beware!
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me

Patti Smith, "Gloria"

Throughout the history of American popular music, critics have argued over the moral and spiritual significance of styles, composers, performers, and songs. It is no surprise that Christians have criticized much secular popular music, since at best it seldom aligns with the mission of the church and at worst it seems to advocate flat-out rebellion against basic moral codes. Rarely will a critic condemn an entire sub-style of classical music because she finds it to be depraved, but whole styles of popular music (for example jazz, rock and roll, heavy metal, and hip hop) have been rejected as inappropriate for Christian ears or unedifying for society in general. We often fail to consider how secular popular music can express truth, even truth that is foundational to the gospel. When Christians talk about Christianity and secular music, we usually discuss "Christian Contemporary Music" or Christians who have ventured into the field of mainstream popular music. Perhaps we think of U2, an internationally successful band that manages to get away with paraphrases of the Psalms ("40") and Latin lyrics that praise the Lord by name ("Gloria"). Less often do we have in mind music that is written by, about, and for people who are downcast, abject, or otherwise unlovely. Might we find something of the gospel not just in that music about goodness and love but also in songs about the meaner aspects of life? What could we learn about truth from popular genres that have a penchant for the depressing, the offensive, or hopeless?

The style that first comes to mind, of course, is the blues. As far as historians can tell, African Americans first developed the blues in the American South beginning in the late nineteenth century. In the first several decades of the twentieth century, blues style figured into many genres of American popular music, including jazz, country, and gospel until it forced its way into the mainstream of American culture in the form of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. Often associated with the suffering of African Americans, the blues has become a mode of expression for people who "have the blues"; that is to say, people who are downtrodden, down and out, lonely, afraid, or rejected, often in the arena of romantic relationships.

The blues as a musical form is based on a pattern of chords and lyrics that repeats for several verses, often without a chorus. Writing a song in the blues format (though, admittedly, not necessarily a "good" blues song) is relatively straightforward because the underlying chord structure is predetermined and the lyrics follow an "AAB" pattern, as in the following familiar lines from one of Elvis Presley's early hits:

(A) You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, cryin' all the time
(A) You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, cryin' all the time

(B) Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine

While the blues form at first appears to be repetitive, it provides an opportunity for an individual performer to display artistic creativity. For example, as a singer sings the second line of a verse (ostensibly a repeat of the first line's lyrics and melody), he might change the melody slightly to emphasize certain words, inflect certain notes, or exhibit vocal skill. In live performances, the changes are often improvised. In the blues, nothing is sung or played the same way twice. As many of us know, when Elvis sang the second line above, he sang it not as written but as "You ain't-ta-nothin'." A small change, no doubt, but the kind that when applied in all the right places makes for a compelling performance.

What do the workings of the blues have to do with the gospel? As a way of approaching this question, we need to visit blues lyrics more representative in content of the genre than those sung by Elvis. The following is the opening verse to W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," a song published in 1914 about romantic jealousy sung from a woman's perspective :

(A) I hate to see the evening sun go down
(A) I hate to see the evening sun go down

(B) It makes me think I'm on my last go 'round

Some versions replace the last line with the following: "'Cause my baby he done left this town." Whether implying the subject's death (as in the first version) or lamenting lost love (as in the second version), the blues relishes in misfortune. Like large sections of Job and the Psalms, the blues identifies personal troubles without attempts to dismiss them, apply a quick fix, or explain them away. As listeners, we are forced to reckon with the reality of life's difficulties without immediately moving on to solutions. As a singer repeats that she "hate[s] to see the evening sun go down," we are asked to experience her pain again, because it is so profound as to be worth repeating. Not all blues lyrics describe this level of despair, but many show us the consequences of living in a fallen world, a world full of infidelity, racism, fear, and death.

But perhaps the style of popular music most honest about human depravity is a strain of rock music called punk. First formed in the early 1970s in New York City and London, the punk movement developed as the polar opposite to the romantic "peace and love" aesthetic of the counterculture. In its music, lyrics, and fashion, punk set out to shock and offend (think multiple body piercings, ripped clothing, dramatic make-up, and "unnatural" hairstyles). Consider the opening lyrics to "Anarchy in the UK," a song by England's most famous punk rock band, the Sex Pistols:

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don't know what I want but I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby 'cause
I wanna be anarchy!!!!

Music historians and critics have interpreted punk as a reaction to the hopelessness of modern life and a refusal to believe in the idealism of the counterculture. Punk musicians and fans stared official culture in the face and found it vapid, boring, and fake. In their anger and frustration they wrote songs that featured personas who were somehow social misfits, deviants, or losers, meant to shock and offend listeners not in the know. In the Sex Pistols' song quoted above, the subject threatens practically everyone in Western society: Christians ("I am an antichrist"); those who believe in government ("I am an anarchist"); and everyone else ("I wanna destroy passerby"). His proclamation is so outrageous as to be ridiculous, and in many cases, punk lyrics were intended to be humorous and to present an exaggerated persona. A survey of song titles by the New York City band the Ramones provides evidence of this: "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," "I Don't Care," "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do," "Teenage Lobotomy."

Punk was originally performed by people who had little musical training or experience playing rock instruments, and as a result it sounds raw, rough, and energetic. Like its lyrics, punk music can be assaultive; songs highlight loud, basic drumbeats and loud, distorted electric guitars, while lyrics are often shouted or chanted. Instead of long, LSD-inspired songs featuring overblown guitar solos, punk songs are nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase). That musicians did not have formal training or "refined" skills was not seen as a weakness but a point of pride; it was part of a self-consciously iconoclastic aesthetic.

Again, where is the gospel? Songs that declare their subject to be the antichrist or that deny the efficacy of Christ's atoning death ("Gloria," quoted above) would seem to be as antithetical to Christian values as they could possibly be. But as with the blues, we see that punk conveys a certain aspect of the spiritual state of human beings that most art ignores. Patti Smith's 1975 song "Gloria" serves as an example of the kind of brutal honesty of which punk was capable. Smith's song remade a 1964 song of the same title by a group called Them, an Irish "British Invasion" band fronted by Van Morrison. Both songs are about a sexual encounter, heterosexual in the original version and homosexual in Smith's. (As an aside, both versions must have been in the minds of U2, an Irish band with roots in punk, when they composed their "Gloria"). Smith's lyrics reflect a deep understanding of the sinful nature; she does not make excuses for herself but takes responsibility for her own corruption ("my sins my own, they belong to me"). As she moves on to state that she doesn't take "rules and regulations" seriously, she seems to wallow in her decadence, but all the while exposing it for what it is.

In both punk and the blues, as well as in many other styles of popular music, the music doesn't often proffer a substantive solution. If the main repertoires of these styles do not overtly (or even covertly) address redemption itself, they point us to the realities of life for most people. They show us the consequences of human sin and admit, often in very intimate and personal ways, that there are deeply rooted problems in all of us. They remind us that music, like all other art forms, can serve truth by manifesting its uglier side, instead of just the glorious.

Monday, November 19th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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