Guest Post: On Listening Critically, Part 4: Sounds Fair, Reads Foul

by Anna Blanch on October 23, 2009

Once again,  I hand over the post to Dr. Rose Bexar and the 4th part of her series “On Listening Critically.”
Part 1: Taking Stock of a New Fandom,

Part 2: Animals are for Eating, and Other Timeless Truths
Part 3. 
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.


On Listening Critically, Part 4: Sounds Fair, Reads Foul

Rose Bexar

I have always hated New Kids on the Block. Part of it in later years was fandom-related—I moved from a small private school in one city to a large public school in another at Spring Break of third grade, and among my peers at this hated new school was at least one girl who was madly in love with the band, even going so far as to kiss their pictures. In the third grade. Being then as now a hopelessly old-fashioned prude, I was disgusted. But I didn’t really know any NKOTB fans when I first encountered their music, which was (I think) during the dance class I took with my best friend and his sister the summer after first grade. The lyrics were stupid and the music was boring, and it kept getting stuck in my head and keeping me awake at night.

To be completely fair, I have since realized that my mental jukebox will get stuck on other tunes when I’m trying to sleep, even songs I like. But certain incredibly catchy songs drive me up the wall, and not just because they, like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” have finally gotten too whiny for my taste.[1] “One Toke Over the Line” is one example of great music with rotten lyrics—why does it have to be so clearly about marijuana?! Another is George Harrison’s (in)famous “My Sweet Lord”; at least now, after I scream and turn the radio off, I can—and did just now—smack my mental jukebox into jumping to “Alles nur geklaut.”[2] “Love the One You’re With,” same story. Ditto certain disco-era tunes like “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the Four Seasons. And did you know that the theme song from M*A*S*H is entitled “Suicide Is Painless”?

Other pop music pet peeves, some of which I have only recently been able to peg explanations to, include:

  • “Bobby’s Girl” by Marcie Blane. I’ll confess to being a “Johnny Angel” kind of romantic, but when the single most important thing in your life is hooking up with your crush, your loves are way out of whack, and you’re setting yourself up for some major heartache when he turns out to be the “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” (or worse).
  • “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. The first three verses make it abundantly clear that the narrator and the brown-eyed girl were having sex outside of marriage, and in the last verse he whines that he’s an emotional wreck now that they’ve broken up. News flash, bub: that’s why God commands us to wait for marriage! That vow is designed to prevent the emotional damage that comes from severing the physical and spiritual unity that sex creates—“the two shall become one flesh” isn’t just a poetic flourish. Yes, divorces do happen, but God hates those, too. (To be sure, “Brown-Eyed Girl” is not the only song of its type to provoke this reaction from me, but Van Morrison’s voice makes it all the worse.) 
  • “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles. Yes, I sing along for the first chorus or two, but I’m bored with it by the time the verses come around—and I don’t think it’s an accident that the mix is such that you can’t quite make out what John is singing over the “Love, love, love” chant. Not that the actual words completely make sense, but they are at best a step away from the very theologically sketchy “Imagine” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The line “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be,” for example, is highly problematic if you believe that God has a perfect plan for each of us but allows us to choose whether or not to go along with it. 
  • “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I can count the number of Tommy James hits I like on one hand, but I was very surprised to hear an instrumental version of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” on the Simply Beautiful easy listening station. Free love = enlightenment = peace on earth? And this is “simply beautiful”? Not for me. 
  • “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension. Beautiful music, beautiful voices, lousy theology. Astrology has always been dodgy even when it was considered a science and not a means of divination, but the idea behind this song is dodgier still. The Age of Aquarius supposedly follows the Age of Pisces, considered the Christian age or the Age of the Sword, and will be marked by widespread peace, love, and enlightenment (hence, “Let the sunshine in”). It’s worth noting that even astrologers debate when astrological ages begin and end as well as what they mean. Even so, the concept is not at all compatible with Bible-based Christian theology. The age of peace and love will not be ushered in by any astrological phenomenon but by the all-conquering Son of God, and only the Father knows when that will be.  
  • “Let’s Live for Today” by the Grass Roots. The guitar is irritating, the music annoyingly repetitive, but it’s the dropout mentality that really gets to me. As humans, created in God’s image for His pleasure, each of us has a telos, a purpose, a story with a plot. And that means a past, a present, and a future. Certainly, we need to keep a proper perspective on the relative importance of the future and not neglect the present, but living only in the present causes us to miss out on quite a lot of what God has in store for us.
  • “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock. God cares what games we choose, especially when our souls are at stake! And enlightenment does not come from following the dictum “Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around.” Self-knowledge is certainly important, but as the great medieval theologians constantly remind us, the goal of genuine Christian contemplation is to get out of the self and into a proper knowledge of God that leads to action in the real world. Drugs and vague introspection only get in the way. 
  • “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors. I do not understand the lionization of Jim Morrison as the greatest rock ’n’ roll poet ever because his lyrics sound like the kind of poetry people write in junior high, but what annoys me especially about “Hello, I Love You” is that Augustine is right: you cannot truly love what you do not know. This song is about lust, pure and simple. Ditto Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” If you want a model of how to get to know the girl walking past you on the street every day, “Bus Stop” by the Hollies and “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” by the Monkees are far better.
  • “Vehicle” by the Ides of March. I’m sorry, love songs should not start out with “I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, / Won’t you hop inside my car?” (And don’t get me started on songs like “Chantilly Lace” that glorify womanizing….)

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Please note that I’ve tried to choose songs that are at least somewhat pleasing musically. (“Crimson and Clover,” for example, is just irritating.) I can understand why people might like some of these songs; they’re pretty. But tuning out the lyrics and focusing solely on the music is incredibly dangerous spiritually because you’re not paying attention to the thoughts you’re ingesting.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of Christian music. Next month I’ll show you why.
[1] What spoiled the radio version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for me was marching band. Our director had us play the song at a fast swing tempo, and with all the horns, our version was a lot more fun.
[2] If you don’t get the joke, click here.

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