Monday, July 11, 2011

Christianity in Pop Culture: Pop Music Lyrics Overview

How often do you really listen to the lyrics of a song?  Between passive listening and masks by the tune, the meaning of a song is not often clear.  The meaning becomes obvious when you see the lyrics written as a poem.  The scoring, vocals, and video often underscore the meaning in surprising ways...once you know the words.  I highly recommend actively listening to pop music.  The hooks disguise some surprising ideas.   Given the black gospel and Scottish folk music origins of American rock and pop, those ideas are often Christian.  
I organized some of the songs I know well enough to write about into categories.  I don't listen to the radio, and am not a true music junkie, so the selection is a bit odd, not exactly fresh.  I don’t want to wait until I have the individual posts done to post this overview because that will take a while, what with my current crazy life, and most of the people who would use this post will probably be Christians who can figure out the meanings.  I will have linked to some of the lyrics until I can get my own interpretation posts up for these songs.  I do not contend that all of these songs have Christian themes intentionally.  With a few notable exceptions, such as The Killers and Peter Gabriel, the reverse is more likely. 
Note, that songwriters often return to themes again and again.  If you find one song heavy on the Christian allusion or morality, you will probably find more by that songwriter.  
Unapologetic Gospel Songs 
It is rare to find straight up gospel songs in pop culture, songs that are obviously about God, but they do exist.  Country music has a fair few.  The Long Black Train by Josh Turner is a fave of mine.  Lyle Lovett usually has at least one per album.  Two of my favorites with a heavy black gospel church flavor are Church and I’m Gonna Wait.  Songwriter Brandon Flowers, frontman for the hugely popular band The Killers, loads his songs with Christian imagery.  He filled his solo album with straight up gospel and hymns, On the Floor, Playing with Fire, and Right Behind You.  He writes a little less directly for his work with The Killers, so those songs will appear below.  
Baptism and Rebirth Songs
This category has two surprises, two legendary songs.  

  • Take Me to the River by Al Green and then Talking Heads.  
  • Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel    
  • Magdalena by Brandon Flowers
  • Human by The Killers
  • Awake My Soul by Mumford and Sons  Our vicar's wife knows one of the moms of one of the band.  The heavy Christian allusion in this band's work is not accidental.
  • Wave on Wave by Pat Green
  • Foundling by David Gray
  • The Call by Regina Spektor
Doubting Thomas Songs
Thomas was the disciple who famously wanted to see Christ’s wounds before he would believe that the man before him was the risen Christ.  A doubting Thomas always demands tangible proof.  

  • You Found Me by the Fray
  • Calling All Angels by Train
  • What if God Was One of Us?  I stuck this song in Doubting Thomas only because I did not want to create a separate category for aggressive ignorance.  The song basically challenges God to come live among us so he can appreciate how hard life is.  One wonders if the songwriter knows even a little bit about Christianity.  
Fighting off Despair songs
Despair is separation from God, the state of believing that even if God’s promise that all sins are forgivable is true, you are still not worthy of forgiveness.  In a sense, despair is when you stop seeking God--regardless of whether you realized you were seeking God.  In our post-modern secular culture, before despair comes the searching and grasping for something, anything.  We fail again, and again, and again, to find peace and purpose and eventually give up.  For a Christian, these songs about flailing though life will make your heart ache.  

  • River of Dreams by Billy Joel  
  • Crystal Ball by P!ink (she has multiple entries)
  • Happiness by The Fray
  • Full of Grace by Sarah McLaughlin
  • Where the Story Ends by The Fray
  • God Put a Smile Upon my Face by Coldplay
  • Death and All His Friends by Coldplay
  • Lost? by Coldplay
  • Only the Young by Brandon Flowers
  • Dustland Fairytale by The Killers
  • Thistle and Weeds by Mumford and Sons
God songs disguised as romance
This is common.  Many of the songs listed above could also appear in this category. There are striking parallels between the relationships of husband and wife, God and Man, parent and child.  The Bible is full of such comparisons.   Pop culture lyrics are no different.  Disguising gospel as romance is probably the easiest way to write a gospel song without obviously writing a gospel song.  There are some heavy hitters in this category.  

  • You know In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, the iconic romance song from Say Anything?   It is not about a lover’s eyes.   
  • Forget About What I Said by The Killers
  • Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford and Sons
  • Pieces by Red Red is a crossover band that I found while browsing with growing fascination the world of fan music videos, in this case Keith and Allura of one of the original anime cartoons Voltron.  (My geekiness knows no bounds.)  The video was cheesy (given the subject matter, how could it not be?) but I liked the song.   
  • Wait for Me by Seether, the first verse is another entry, though I think it is a soldier's song.  I’m curious about Seether’s stuff, but haven’t had time to listen to it all yet.  They have a new album coming out in May that I have my eye on.    
  • How by Maroon 5--It all works except the 'I’m a man, be a woman now' line.  By the time I get around to posting on it, I might figure it out.  
  • Till Kingdom Come by Coldplay


Time Traveller said...

Isn't it interesting how we can each attribute differing meanings to a given set of words? I've always interpreted 'One of Us' as a gentle rebuke to those who judge others on external factors alone: the slob on the bus may be God because God is in all of us - God does not conform to one particular image. Compassion - not condemnation - should be our default response etc.

A song that is ostensibly about the Virgin Mary but is in praise of mothers and womanhood: 'Mary' by Patty Griffin from Flaming Red. Sigh..

Jeffrey said...

This is really interesting article. It was so catchy. Really interesting point of view. Cleaners in London.

AHLondon said...

TT, interesting. I'll give it another listen. And Mary is new to me. Will check out.

nooneofanyimport said...

Me, I stick to just about anything by Jars of Clay for worship music. Say, they have several of the double meaning God/romance type songs. Never thought about that as a category before, but you are right.