In 1996, when I was a teenager, my favorite song of the year was George Michael’s melancholy ballad of love lost, “Jesus To A Child,” which made reference to the care and concern that Jesus gave to children throughout the Gospels, and that I perhaps felt I could have used as a lonely and heartbroken teenager whose romantic endeavors were often spectacularly unsuccessful. I suppose in some essential ways, my life has not changed a great deal from my teenage years, something I tend to find rather melancholy, for even if it allows me to relate well to others, it also tends to make my own life rather fraught with more danger than I would prefer. Listening to the song is a complicated sort of experience for me these days, partly because it reminds me of the fact that my own longings for love and intimacy have always been complicated and largely frustrated, and that even as a teenager I had an intuitive understanding of the severity of the problem I was dealing with, even if I am not much closer to understanding what I am supposed to do about it than I was then, and partly because the personal significance of the song to me is in tension with the rather disturbing and inappropriate meaning of the song as it was intended by the singer.
At the time when the song came out, I was reflecting on the end of a shy but flirtatious friendship with a girl who I had gone to church with during my childhood, but whose family and mine were on different sides in the 1995 split of the Worldwide Church of God, and the song took on a great deal of significance as I pondered the sad end of so many innocent dreams of the deepening of the relationship between her and I and the loneliness I felt at the time. I suppose in some ways life has not changed too much since then either, as the song still resonates with my own rather typical shy and cautious approach when it comes to relationships, an approach that remains to this day, largely because I am not much more experienced with regards to romance and intimacy as a thirty-something male than I was as a teenager, a reality that I would like to change when the time and the situation are right. Obviously, that time has not yet come.
For George Michael, this song has a different meaning. At the time I heard the song and applied it to my own frustrated romance, I had no idea that George Michael had written the song about an ex-boyfriend who had died of complications of AIDS . Had I known it at the time, I would likely have been as repulsed by that as I was by some of the darker subtexts of his song “Father Figure,” which is a song that really creeps me out every time I hear it played on the radio. Knowing the meaning of the song as it was written and my own meaning for it, and reflecting on the particularly sad and poignant longing of the shared loneliness along with the very different moral content of that longing makes the song a very complicated one for me, deeply unpleasant but also deeply meaningful at the same time. The fact that George Michael compared his own sinful and wrong lusts to the agape love that Jesus Christ had for little children adds a great deal of offense to what appears at first to be a gentle and inoffensive ballad. It is often that which appears to be inoffensive that can end up causing the greatest offense, because no one thinks to examine beneath the still and gentle waters of the surface melody.
Nor is George Michael’s song the only one that has complicated personal history that relates to the same vein of dark meanings. For a while, it seemed that every church dance I attended played “YMCA” by the Village People, leading very staid and square people of extremely conservative temperament and political and moral worldviews to dance to a disco song about gay men cruising the YMCA for no-strings-attached sexual partners in the time before AIDS became public knowledge . If that doesn’t say “ambivalence” to you, I don’t know what does. Given the fact that knowledge about the meaning of the song is readily available, why would people who have a strong hostility to moral degeneracy be reluctant to examine the meaning of songs played at church dances (with the implied endorsement of their content) and change their behavior accordingly to reflect their belief systems? That sort of matter has often puzzled me. As someone who has always sought to know the meanings of things, perhaps I take it for granted that others would wish to know the meanings of songs and other cultural artifacts so as to live in harmony with their beliefs, rather than engage in behavior that might be seen as endorsing what they find abhorrent.
This sort of problem is not only present in popular songs, but also even religious songs that are sung in church services by members who are seemingly ignorant of their darker meanings. For example, I have written a couple of times  about the darker meanings of the hymn “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken,” where the dark meaning comes in the fact that the song (written by the egalitarian John Newton and based on part of Psalm 87) is set to the national anthem of Hitler’s Germany, a regime that was implacably opposed to all of the enlightened sentiments of Psalm 87, which points to believers of all backgrounds and ethnicities being counted as native-born citizens of Jerusalem. No such glorious vision remains in the mind of the singer when those lyrics are set to “Deuschland Deuschland Uber Alles.” Again, if that doesn’t say “ambivalence,” I don’t know what does. Given the fact that the words of the hymn as set in the hymnal do not reflect what glorious things are spoken, and the music is directly contrary to the biblical sentiments that are virulently hostile to any sort of racist mindset on the part of believers, any knowledge of the material of Psalm 87 or the history of the hymn Deuschland is likely to greatly reduce one’s appreciation of the song because of that fundamental disconnect.
I don’t want to feel like the sort of killjoy that takes all of what people love and shows it to be filthy and devoid of moral worth. In many ways, greater knowledge about the meaning and significance of this world’s cultural artifacts tends to make one enjoy a lot less because one is aware of the political and moral problems that are embedded in those works and in their meaning. It would be nice if we could all be innocent children who did not have to concern ourselves with the motives of those around us, but we live in a dark world where innocence is often seen as something that can be taken advantage of. While we ought not to automatically jump to the worst possible interpretations of others, we ought to take the effort of understanding motive and intent and respond accordingly and thoughtfully. Sometimes this means being the sort of person who has to let others know that the songs we take for granted have vastly darker meanings when one looks closely at them, and having the integrity to respond to the meaning of the song that exists and not only the pleasant picture in our own minds. Let us all long for the day when this will no longer have to be a problem.
 See the following entries: