This last weekend, my friend John came to visit from Stanford University to play the organ for an Evensong service in one of the local churches. John and I became good friends last year through our mutual zeal for an aesthetic resurgence in the Church, our love of cultural critique and literature, and our craving for aged Irish cheeses. John is double-majoring in Organ Performance and Computer Science at Stanford University and has dedicated the major part of his life to music. He blogs at the excellently-written Collegium Novum Musicae. His latest post is a very (very!) reduced version of our conversation.
We were walking back home from the church service when we started conversing about this question: “What’s with the lack of clarity and meaning in popular lyrics today?” I’m splitting our arguments into two posts (this post contains mine) even though we were both firing at the same target. We just used different kinds of ammo. John’s observation was formidable and was a response to my argument, and deserves a full post of its own.
Music is the art form with which we interact the most on a daily basis, and yet, paradoxically, it is the most removed from its position as a medium for truth, goodness, and beauty and is pushed to the side. As I told John, I was sitting at a restaurant a few weeks ago waiting for a burger and writing about music and language, when Mumford and Sons started playing over the restaurant’s speakers. Sitting on the bar stool with the waiters and waitresses swirling choreographically around me I realized that I was dealing with three instances of language: spoken word, written word, and sung word. As I wrote in my notebook at the time, “Of the three forms of language—explicit English formed into sentences and fragments—the sung word is the only one which is present to communicate absolutely nothing to anyone.”
In what state is the English language that even when set to music—something that is meant to enhance the message altogether and increase its rhetorical effectiveness, its glory, and add depth to its meaning—it is cast to the outer darkness of the background so easily and frivolously?
If George Orwell lost the prophetic battle about entertainment to Neil Postman, he won the prophetic battle of the decadence of the English language in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Though the title contains the word “Politics” (Aha! Your argument is invalid because Orwell wrote about the English language in politics, not music!) Orwell’s argument is based on an assumption that the use of English is disheveled, period; He then proceeds to single out its effect on politics.
Orwell says “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” He makes this statement, unthinkably to the postmodern mind, after explaining how a passage from Ecclesiastes is the opposite of unclear modern English. “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
The Latin professor at our college gave us an assignment a few weeks ago to translate a popular song into Latin. A good translation is one in which words are not translated directly necessarily, but in which the meaning of a sentence takes precedence. A girl in my class wanted to translate “I Want to Move It” from Madagascar as “Moveam, Moveam” (a direct translation) and our professor explained why her translation was sterile, meaningless, and pancake-flat: it didn’t carry any of the innuendo and crude humor of the English, even though the words might have been direct equivalents. With this in mind, we continued to look for songs to translate, paying special attention to the meaning of sentences as opposed to the words only, looking for the depth of a stanza or verse.
Songs were, one by one, completely exposed for the empty symphonic husks that they really were. Meaningful meaningless words strung together, vainly hinting at various meanings at once and eluding an answer. Lyrical poetry is now the art of saying nothing beautifully. Relativism beheaded truth and all of us kept singing. “Roman cavalry choirs are singing.” What was that, Chris Martin? “The letters that you left behind/ No longer shall I read/ Your blood’s between the pages/ And I can’t stand to see you bleed.” What is Johnny Flynn singing about? Hm. Maybe I’ll find meaning here: “I was a quick-wit boy, diving too deep for coins/ All of your street light eyes wide on my plastic toys/ Then when the cops closed the fair, I cut my long baby hair/ Stole me a dog-eared map and called for you everywhere/ Have I found you/ Flightless bird, jealous, weeping or lost you, american mouth/ Big pill looming.” Nope.
This is a quick rundown of musical poetry in the postmodern world, and I would agree (and am thankful) that there are many exceptions to this—rap being one of the main examples. Also, I cringe every time I have to cite out of context, so I encourage anyone to listen to the full songs. Still, even if the song does have meaning, it’s a slave to unclarity and murky honesty. There are various reasons why I think this has happened (which merit their own future post), but what John and I were exploring was the general effects that this has on Christians and Church music. Here they are, quickly, in four broad points:
1. Inconsistent aesthetic. Consider a Christian who is interested in an aesthetic renovation of the arts. He is in college and researches with ferocity about truth, goodness, and beauty, arguing against postmodern relativism in aesthetics—he’s identified it in paintings and movies and literature and even drastic examples of music like John Cage or Milton Babbitt. Then, he writes a paper about the defense of Christian art while singing “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon/ Everything in its right place/ There are two colours in my head/ What is that you tried to say?” by one of his favorite bands, Radiohead. Aesthetic dualism of this sort is not just prevalent—it’s the norm, and still very few stop and think “Hey, what did I just sing?”
2. Confused musical imagination. As N.D. Wilson bluntly put it, “If you listen to stupid music, watch stupid movies, and read stupid books…well, congratulations, you’re stupid.” Linguist relativism of this magnitude, especially in large quantities, carves a deep chasm of indifference in the musical imagination of the hearer, a groove into which eventually any song, from the latest Ke$ha hit to Handel’s Messiah, falls regardless of its content, genre, or meaning.
3. Disarmament against critique. This is one of the most frustrating and destructive effects of meaningful meaningless poetry: to tell someone that a song by Mumford and Sons or Bon Jovi or Fall Out Boy is nonsense is to paint a target on one’s intellect and fall prey to one of the two edges of the postmodern sword: being branded as ignorant. “You just don’t understand,” they’ll retort. “You are to harsh on it. You can’t expect the artists’ self-expression to be clear to you.” Or, the worst of all: “I don’t care—it’s a pretty/beautiful/realistic/symphonic/insert-my-own-interpretative-adjective song.”
4. Defensive meaning. Similar to number 3, defensive meaning is only a natural response to relativism in lyrics. When confronted by blurry figures of speech, disparate metaphors, elusive words, fluffy adjectives, and uncertain points, hearers will feel obliged to come up with a meaning to defend 1) the song and 2) why the like it. The hearers will have to pin a meaning on the tail of the song out of being cornered—not because the meaning captured them in the first place. John and I spent a while exploring the different meanings that people read—naturally—in the turbid waters of “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay. All the explanations were prefaced by “what this means to me…” or something along those lines. In the midst of their great search for meaning in the thwarted vocabulary games and baffling “beauty” and laughable imagery of the song, the fans missed Chris Martin’s explanation for why he named the song and the album after seeing a Frida Kahlo painting: “She went through a lot of shit, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said ‘Viva la Vida,'” says Martin. “I just loved the boldness of it.”
5. Disengaged experience. The kind of music that is necessary for tools like Spotify to be marketable is music that employs language that requires minimal engagement; the kinds of listeners to whom these tools are marketed are those who, like faithful children of postmodernity, think in terms of accessible, never-ending options rather than careful, specific decisions. Music allow us to jump in and out of it quickly by casting off expectation that we’ll be there until the end; the vestige of telos or eschatological nature of art as fleeting as their airy metaphors. Lyrics of this sort require no effort. And when we are treated to a lyrical passage that does, perhaps in liturgy or in a cantata or a Bob Dylan song, we treat it the same: effortlessly. In the past, when I was a young boy, the two main buttons to operate a cassette player were “Rewind” and “Play.” In the world of meaningful meaningless lyrics, they are “Play” and “Fast Forward.”
In his essay, Orwell points out that elusive language in political speeches, documents, newspapers, and reports is deceitful and destructive. At least in those media there is a certain required meaning. This is where the fatal stroke is dealt by nonsensical lyrics: they give the impression that meaning exists when there is none. How could it be otherwise? How could the listeners not try to make sense of the poetry? They are using language after all. Words. Adjectives, nouns, prepositions. “It’s set to music, which surely must add some depth to it!” Whereas the man who reads the truncated sentence in the newspaper knows that there is a sprout of meaning actively placed under the towering weight of the most abominable English, the man who abides in lyrical nonsense embarks in a quest to search for meaning and substance that he’ll never find, because it never was there. It only sounds like there should be.