Guest Post: On Listening Critically, Part 3: Listen to the Band

by Dr Rose Bexar on October 22, 2009

Today and tomorrow I hand over the post to Dr. Rose Bexar and the 3rd and 4th parts of her series “On Listening Critically.” Parts 1 “Part 1: Taking Stock of a New Fandom”

and 2 “Part 2: Animals are for Eating, and Other Timeless Truths” can be found here and here respectively. You can find out more about Dr. Rose on her Contributor profile. You can take a look at some of the other recent contributors and their profiles here.

Note: Last month I said I couldn’t find “Backstagepass ins Himmelreich” online for free; I have since found that it is available from Rhapsody.
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On Listening Critically, Part 3: Listen to the Band
Rose Bexar

Here’s a question to start you thinking about thinking about lyrics: Does “Bohemian Rhapsody” have an actual narrative plot, or is it just psycho-jello? I can’t work it out.

O-kay, Rosie lass. You’re overthinking Queen. Step away from the computer. Time to go watch Marx Brothers.

Seriously, though, it’s far too easy to switch on the radio and switch off our brains. Sure, there are songs like “I Am The Walrus” that are deliberately confusing, some like “Come Together” that are too tripped out to be as deep as they pretend to be, and quite a lot on the oldies and country stations that are just harmless silliness good for a healthy dose of laughter-induced endorphins. If you think “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” is anything but the latter, you need your head examined. But there’s a reason I have, for some time, waited for some enterprising DJ to follow “Magic Carpet Ride” with “Kicks.” I pay attention to lyrics.

Songs have words. Words have meanings. Meanings do not stand alone; they reflect a worldview, a philosophy, a belief. Our brains are wired to retain music and the words that go with it. You need not have a phonographic memory to have a song forever ingrained in your memory after hearing it once, and of course the more often you listen, the more readily you will remember the song without prompting. [1] What goes into the mind goes into the heart, and “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). It’s no good asking God to set a watch on our lips if we’re not keeping our own watch on our ears.

I gave you a case study last month. Next month I’ll prove that it doesn’t just apply to secular music. But my goal for this month is to explore both the positive and the negative lessons one can glean from one of my personal preferences, classic Top 40 or oldies—generally speaking, music written between 1955 and 1980, though my interest drops sharply after 1976. There’s so much great music from this period that it’s hard to narrow down my choices, but here are a handful of positive examples to start off with:

  • “Love Child” by the Supremes. This song is easily one of the strongest pro-abstinence messages to come out of the 1960s because it talks about the consequences of sex outside of marriage from the child’s perspective. The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” has always struck me as a very weak argument for abstinence because it leaves the couple open to the kind of situation described in Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” “Love Child” states plainly that true love means waiting for marriage and not giving in to the heat of the moment: “You think that I don’t feel love, / But what I feel for you is real love.” It’s also implicitly pro-life, with lines like “We’ll only end up hating / The child we may be creating”—abortion never even appears as an option.
  • “Happy Together” by the Turtles. Though it never explicitly mentions marriage, the refrain makes it clear that the speaker wants to make a commitment for life to the woman he loves, so I can’t help thinking of it as one of the great pro-marriage songs of the time. “Never, My Love” by the Association, which I think sounds almost like Robert Browning writing to Elizabeth Barrett, also comes to mind, as does “When I’m 64” by the Beatles. And while we’re on that topic: 
  • “Wedding Bell Blues” by the 5th Dimension. Steven Crowder recently challenged the men among his audience to man up and propose rather than assuming that their girlfriends didn’t want to commit to marriage, and his argument reminded me of this song. God may specifically call individuals to remain single or may reveal that a given relationship isn’t the right one He wants to lead to marriage, but men (and women) who are reluctant to marry need to think prayerfully about it to see whether their hesitance is really from God or just a matter of cowardice. 
  • “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B. J. Thomas—my trouble song. It’s a good encouraging song anyway, but for several years, every time I had a major crisis, someone somewhere would have on the oldies station within earshot of me, and this song would be playing. I believe God was sending me a message: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). 
  • “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean. For all the songs about hot rods, there were comparatively few that dealt with the dangers of drag racing on city streets, and I don’t know of any that did so as powerfully as “Dead Man’s Curve.” And more generally, it’s a prime example of what happens when the virtues get out of balance. Fortitude without prudence or temperance leads you straight to foolishness that leads to injury or death. 
  • “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver. Not only does this song glorify good, simple things, but the fourth verse especially speaks of keeping priorities and responsibilities properly ordered:

I’d play “Sally Goodin” all day if I could,
But the Lord and my wife wouldn’t take it very good,
So I fiddle when I can, work when I should—
Thank God I’m a country boy!

Not exactly what you’d expect from the era of “tune in, turn on, and drop out”!

  • “Kicks” by Paul Revere and the Raiders. The first explicitly anti-drug Top 40 hit, “Kicks” opened the door for other great songs like “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” but it hits a key point that most of the others miss: Drug use isn’t just about having fun; it’s about trying to fill the God-shaped hole with something that isn’t God. The song isn’t that openly evangelistic, of course, but it’s still very insightful.

Of course, being an inveterate parodist, I find myself going in for Sister Act-style “conversions” of a number of songs from this era, and it is possible to put hymn lyrics to certain oldies tunes (“Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” has been popular for a long time). But there are plenty of wholesome oldies with considerable depth that you don’t have to impose Christian meanings on to enjoy. You just have to listen closely to what they have to say.

Then again, listening cautiously isn’t just for squares. There’s plenty to dislike about oldies, too. We’ll look at some examples tomorrow.

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[1] In an episode of The Waltons that involves the family hosting a socially awkward genius with a photographic memory, Grandpa jokes that he knew a man with a phonographic memory—“he never forgot a song he ever heard.” It may not be a technical term for that kind of eidetic memory, but it fits.

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