The Discontent and the Depraved: Armchair Pop Commentaries

It’s difficult to transition to being a minority religious force in society – a phenomenon the Church in the West is learning about firsthand. It has been hard to switch from a position of cultural hegemony, to the mission-oriented posture that I think is required of us in this time.

In that light, I try to keep up with pop culture.

I mean, I won’t lie, there’s a self-serving bit here: I don’t mind the occasional dance around my apartment with Taylor Swift.

But when I listen to pop culture, I hear interesting things that give me a lot to ponder. I spend more time than I probably should, analyzing what I hear, trying to discern the questions, concerns, values, hurts, and cries of our world so that I know how I, as a Christian, am called to witness and serve and preach the Good News.

I’ve noticed two weird things going on the past several weeks. I’ve noticed a lot of music that celebrates pretty serious depravity, violence, and sexual dysfunction. And I’ve also noticed several songs that rage with discontent against the frivolities of our society. And they make an interesting contrast.

The Depraved

Just this morning, social media lit up over controversy concerning Maroon 5’s new music video to their song Animal – HuffPost reports that the sexual assault advocacy group, RAINN, said this: “Maroon 5’s video for “Animals” is a dangerous depiction of a stalker’s fantasy.” When you read the lyrics of the song, there is indeed a lot to be disturbed over.

Maybe you think that you can hide

 I can smell your scent from miles

Just like animals.

Whether you want to call it ‘rape culture’ or not, and whoever you want to blame (I will say that I think blaming the female artists who take part in this music is, I think, overly simplistic – most of these women have very little artistic control, actually…but that’s a whole other conversation, I mostly just want to point things out, not analyze), I have a lot of sympathy for the activists (Feminists and otherwise) pointing out an obscene level of sexual violence, or at the very least objectifying statements about women, being celebrated in pop songs:

The bigger they are, the harder they fall
This biggity boy’s a diggity dog
I have ’em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off
Twerking in their bras and thongs, timber
Face down, booty up, timber
That’s the way we like the war, timber
I’m sticking it in oil spill
She say she won’t, but I bet she will, timber
-Pitbull ‘Timber’

My anaconda don’t, my anaconda don’t
My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun

Oh my gosh, look at her butt
Oh my gosh, look at her butt
Oh my gosh, look at her butt
(Look at her butt)
Look at, look at, look at
Look, at her butt

-Sir Mix-a-Lot’s part in Nicki Manaj’s song ‘Anaconda’

And of course, there is the infamous ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke that raised quite a bit of, quite justified (in my mind), backlash (and it plays on similar language as the Maroon 5 song).

Ok, now he was close
Tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal
Baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
You don’t need no papers
That man is not your maker
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a

Good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it

[…]

A little older:

First I’ma disrobe you,

then I’ma probe you,

see I abducted you,

so I tell you what to do,

I tell you what to do

-Kanye West in ET by Katy Perry

We Evangelicals have been pointing to the outlines of this same problem for a couple decades, so I don’t know why this should surprise us: in a society with a tremendous pornography problem, and a growing, barely-underground, criminal world of sexual exploitation, why wouldn’t we expect the darkness that feeds off and spawns from this underbelly to bubble to the top?

Our music is a liturgy, and it reflects what we value, and the world we live in. And I see a world of remarkable sexual brokenness: violence, exploitation, etc. And it feels as if it’s becoming less hidden, and more openly ‘celebrated.’ Our pop songs feature men singing words that otherwise are only spoken by assaulters and stalkers. If I quoted any of the above lines out of context to anyone, I would probably be arrested.

But I wonder if ‘celebration’ is the right word. I wonder if that’s too simplistic of a reading.

I’ll come back to that.

The Discontent

I suspect the person in the car in front of me could see my puzzled look when I first heard Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ come on the radio. Unlike the dark ‘party songs’ such as the ones outlined above, Smith’s song is a very unusual expression of honesty about his discontent with ‘hooking-up’ and his loneliness for intimacy and relationship:

Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand

But I still need love cause I’m just a man
These nights never seem to go to plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Then, he put out this other unusual song, ‘I’m Not The Only One,’ where he expresses a wish that his partner had kept their wedding vows – something unusual in a world, especially in the pop-culture world, that treats marital vows very callously:

You and me, we made a vow
For better or for worse
I can’t believe you let me down
But the proof’s in a way it hurts

And then he maintains his desire to keep loving despite betrayal:

I have loved you for many years
Maybe I am just not enough
You’ve made me realize my deepest fear
By lying and tearing us up

You say I’m crazy
‘Cause you don’t think I know what you’ve done
But when you call me baby
I know I’m not the only one

I saw these two Smith songs as rather unique expressions of discontent toward the sexual and relational chaos that is usually exploited by other music.

Then, there is the remarkably haunting ‘Chandelier’ by Sia, that my friend pointed out to me the other day:

Party girls don’t get hurt
Can’t feel anything, when will I learn
I push it down, push it down

I’m the one “for a good time call”
Phone’s blowin’ up, they’re ringin’ my doorbell
I feel the love, feel the love

1,2,3 1,2,3 drink
1,2,3 1,2,3 drink
1,2,3 1,2,3 drink

Throw ’em back, ’til I lose count

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist
I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier

But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ‘cos I’m just holding on for tonight
Help me, I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ‘cos I’m just holding on for tonight
On for tonight

Sun is up, I’m a mess
Gotta get out now, gotta run from this
Here comes the shame, here comes the shame

There’s so much I could say – this very raw and honest expression of pain, shame, attempts to dull pain, the desire to escape shame,To me, it is quite truly haunting. The mask is thrown off behind the ‘everything’s okay’ party tunes that celebrate hookups and drinking binges – and the latent  is brought to the surface.

Discontent.

Two Sides – One Coin

I just want to suggest, quite tentatively, that maybe the difference between these two streams of music is not as sharp as, at least I, was at first inclined to think. I’m not sure it’s quite fair to merely say that the first songs are ‘celebrating’ depravity, and the last few expressing discontent with depravity.

I mean, I guess that’s partly what’s going on. We have songs that are portraying, and normalizing, really dark stuff. And, while I certainly believe people are responsible for their own actions, it is absolutely true that music impacts people and shapes souls and hearts. Human beings are more than brains and autonomous free-wills, we are bodies and psyches that are shaped by a variety of factors – and music that celebrates the depraved certainly impacts, forms, and educates our society as a whole. Garbage in-garbage out; one of the first things my parents taught me. And songs like these are also an expression of what already exists in society. It brings to the surface the rampant problems that we pretend are hidden in a dark corner (things like porn and human trafficking and sexual assault).

And on this last point, I’m just pondering… is there a sense in which songs like the first set are doing us a favor of sorts? Are they simply a more passive-aggressive way of doing the same as the last set: Raging against that which we know needs to be talked about and brought out into the open, but don’t know how to talk about? Is the only way to expose the depravity we’re desperate to forget about and hide, to bring it out into the open, warts and all?

Whatever the case, what does the Church do? What does She say? Crossed-arms standing aside and mumbling about ‘those heathens,’ won’t work anymore. I’m so thankful that Christ’s posture was, and is, just the opposite. He found himself right in the middle of the depravity and the discontent, to the point that the powers that be treated him as one of the depraved and discontent, and He was ostracized with them.

How do we go to our cross in our time and place?

Our cross is among stalker-celebrating pop stars, and girls shipped into the States for sex being deported as ‘illegal immigrants.’ Our Golgotha is a Robin Thicke concert, among the brokenhearted swinging from the chandeliers.

(Photo Credit: kluanglunatic on Flickr) 

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3 thoughts on “The Discontent and the Depraved: Armchair Pop Commentaries

  1. Great thoughts. I especially like how you ended about how our cross goes through these blurry lines of pop music. My more monastic tendencies want to run away and seek some sort of pure spirituality, but this is ultimately the cultural landscape where we need to witness to people. Such a tricky tension, this following Jesus business.

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