One of the notable aspects of contemporary music is that songs are either appreciated for being vibes or being bops. To define these terms briefly (for the sake of those who are not familiar with such language in contemporary musical discourse), a vibe is a song, often with a slow tempo, that is enjoyed because of the emotion that it invokes through its instrumentation and production, while a pop is a more up-tempo song that makes one want to dance or to move one’s head along to the rhythm. One of the things to notice about this way of judging songs is that one tends to focus on the production and instrumentation and pay far less attention to the lyrics. As a writer, I have always tended to privilege an examination of the lyrics and what a song (or some other text) means rather than merely how it sounds, and so it is obvious that someone with my particular perspective would have a distinct one from that of other people.
Although the discourse of music is not necessarily the most important aspects of contemporary culture, it is interesting to note that the general lack of interest in texts that we find in many aspects of life is present also in music. Yesterday, as I write this, I was teaching a class at church that was discussing three chapters within the book of Deuteronomy and the general comparison my students made was between the book of laws and the lengthy and seldom read lists of rules that students are given at the beginning of the school year but pay no attention to. I feel at this point that it is necessary to point out that an inattention to texts is a dangerous habit, because those who know texts and make texts often use this knowledge and power to exploit those who do not pay attention to the terms and conditions of our existence. That is, however, a subject properly to discuss another time, although related to our present one as part of its larger context.
Why would it be that people seek to neglect the text when it comes to judging a song and whether or not they can appreciate it? When we look at the text of songs, we find out all kinds of unpleasant things about the songs that we are listening to. As is not surprising in the world we live in, reading what it is that songs are talking about often greatly diminishes our enjoyment of this material. What sort of contents do we celebrate when we vibe with a song? It can vary, but included among them are almost always some combination of references to sexual immorality, violent hostility, drug and alcohol abuse, and other contents we may not always wish to encourage and cheer on. To the extent that we want to enjoy what is created in the current age, we have to turn a blind eye or recontextualize that which we find to be uncomfortable and unpleasant.
I am reminded of the song “Escapism,” which is one of many songs in the contemporary age that explores the attempts of artists to escape from the pressures of life and unhappiness in broken relationships and other difficulties. If we judge the art that we wish to enjoy and think on by what is pleasant, what is noble, or what is good, there is little in that song or many others like it that we will be able to celebrate, as the song itself details the autobiographical attempts of the singer/songwriter to find ways to deaden her feelings and seek empty sexual intimacy as a way of numbing the pain of a breakup, with potentially tragic consequences. The song is a reflection of what is true–the singer appears wholly sincere and honest in her portrayal of the negative aspects of the way that she has been living–but it is definitely not good. To what extent can such a thing be enjoyed? Many people judge it better to simply nod their head and not think too much about the unpleasant material, even if it that material is how an artist chooses to express themselves.
What we are left with is a paradox. To the extent that artists wish, or feel compelled, to speak out about their own lives and their own experiences, they seek kindred souls who can relate to them or some way of relieving the suffering and torment that often accompanies artists and their frequently disordered existence. This relief and even more importantly this relatability with others requires a close attention to the text of art itself. Whether artists write in their frustrated longings or in the anguish and pain of their lives and experiences, these texts record the perspective and preoccupation of the artist, and yet it is precisely these matters that often alienate the would-be listener. People feel they can enjoy songs that they can nod their head to or relax while listening to in the absence of thinking too much about it, but in order to relate to others and understand what they are expressing, we need very much to pay attention to what is being said, even if (especially if) it is not pleasant to do so. For our existence is not a pleasant matter, and if we are to deal with it, we must not only seek to escape through ignorance, but also confront where we can be victorious.