Messages in the Music
Douglas Taylor

Part I

I was in the car this past week with my older son and he looked over at the police car that was waiting at the red light next to us and reported that the cop was singing. I said, “No, he was probably talking to headquarters or something.” And Keenan laughed, “No, his shoulders were bouncing and he was into it. He was definitely singing.”

I’m the kind of person who sings in the car. I sing in the shower and in the living room and at the kitchen table and out on the sidewalk. I sing along to the radio and without the radio if the mood strikes me. There’s a popular TV show now called Glee and part of the charm of the show is the way the characters just break into song now and then. It’s a fun show and has, on occasion, really risen up to the level of social commentary – not always, but occasionally.

I suspect the allure is the music. It is almost like a musical except they don’t sing everything; they speak most of their lines and occasionally break into song. Perhaps it is closer to how, for some people, there is music bouncing around in their heads all the time; and in the world of Glee, sometimes this music comes out … with full back-up by the stage band who happen to be just standing over there.

There is something special about music. It gets at a level of the brain that regular words cannot reach. In some way it invites the hearer to share in the experience. It is like poetry or storytelling but more, because music gets into our awareness in a different way. Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” I think he is referring specifically to instrumental or orchestral music. “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” It expresses something, but it also brings something out of us.

Aristotle wrote: “Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.” Pull that quote out during the next round of public school budget cuts. Or you could call on Aristotle’s counterpart, Plato who wrote, “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other in the integration of the human being because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the Soul on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the Soul of him who is rightly educated truly graceful.” So, music weaves its way into your very being and calls forth a virtue of grace and character; at least according to the ancient Greek philosophers.

When you interact with young people who are listening to music, or blaring music, or deafening you with their atrocious noise … it is worth noting that something important is being transmitted through that music. There are messages in the music that shape our character, that define us and help us understand ourselves and our world.

Admittedly, the vast majority of good songs out there on the radio are basically love songs.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so. [Paul McCartney]

And there’s noting wrong with that (unless the message is grossly unrealistic or destructive. I’ll give you an example of that later.) But there is nothing wrong with a profusion of silly love songs. One of my favorite songs on the radio is by Michael Franti and Spearhead,

Say, hey, I be gone today
But I’ll be back around the way
Seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing that I love you, baby girl
I love you, I love you, I love you.

Carlos Santana has said, “Just as Jesus created wine from water, we humans are capable of transmuting emotion into music.” And romantic love is not the only emotion that is out there on the radio waves. There are messages in the music.

There is a scene from a recent movie remake called I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Smith’s character is talking to someone about why he continues to try to make a difference. He talks about Reggae musician Bob Marley, saying:

He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. When he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, a gunman came to his house and shot him down. Two days later he walked out on that stage and sang. When they asked him why – He said, “The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off. How can I?”

That scene stuck with me and I started thinking about the messages I hear in the music around me. I wondered about the messages that we talk about here in this sanctuary about peace, light, acceptance, respect, and honoring each person’s path to the holy. And I wondered if there were songs out there on the radio that people are listening to that have messages like the ones we’re lifting up in here.

I have sung Cat Steven’s Moonshadow which seems to be about non-attachment and acceptance. And I’ve shared snippets of Gospel music and Sweet Honey in the Rock. And I’ve sung Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly, a Beatle’s song about overcoming the impossible. But what about today’s popular music? What about songs that are not ‘church music?’ These songs are from an earlier generation, what are the messages in today’s music?

In the 60’s and 70’s popular music became a vehicle of social change in a way unheard of before. The Times they are a-changing. “Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” How many times must a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? There was a message in this stuff back then. A message about change, about righting the social wrongs, about making the whole world a new place guided by the law of love, about surviving and growing strong in the face of overwhelming hardship.

Listen to this song by Sam Cooke, written in 1964 on the edge of the growing Civil Rights Movement.

— Amoreena Wade sings Change is Gonna Come —

Part II

And now listen to a song from this generation about the prospect of change:

Waiting on the World to Change by John Mayer

me and all my friends
we’re all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there’s no way we ever could
now we see everything that’s going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don’t have the means
to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

I want to grab John Mayer and say, haven’t you been paying attention? If you want change you don’t just sit there waiting for it to happen for you. You need to get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight. I mean what is it with this generation of mine?!

But in exploring this a little further I of course uncovered the songs “Dear Mr. President” by Pink and “American Idiot” by Green Day among several others from the past 10 years or so. The protest songs of today are subtler and perhaps rarer that they were in the 60’s and 70’s. But there are still some pretty good messages to be found.

I will admit that I limited my search to popular music on the radio, music that is out there floating around, if you will. I sent the question out on facebook asking people to suggest songs that had good messages. I had tons of responses. But I wanted to limit my search to popular music because that is the stuff that is floating around for most people to tune in to.

I checked the billboard charts to see what songs have been in the #1 spot lately. I gotta tell you, there have been three songs dominating the weekly #1 spot in 2011 and two of them have a really great message. The third one is a terrible song: Grenade by Bruno Mars. This Grenade song is about how the singer would catch a grenade for the woman he loves, throw his hand on a blade for her, jump in front of a train and so on. That in itself is bad enough, but the “I would die for you” message has been around for a while in music. The twist Mr. Mars adds in his #1 hit is when he sings:

Yes, I would die for ya baby; But you won’t do the same.

All I can think is that a willingness to die a violent death for someone is not a solid foundation for a lasting relationship and this woman was probably pretty smart to get out of that relationship.

But cheer up and take hope, the other two songs that have dominated the charts lately offer much better messages. Lady GaGa has a song called “Born This Way.” This song makes a strong statement against racism and homophobia.

No matter gay, straight or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to be brave

This song is becoming the anthem of this generation akin to Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive.” And while I still like Gaynor’s old song better, that’s not the point. The powerful message is still here. I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive

The third song on the top of the 2011 charts is “Firework” by Katy Perry. Now, Katy Perry is not an artist I would have thought could produce this kind of song, but I have to admit I really like this one. Firework is basically saying that everyone has a spark inside; and that even if we feel like outcasts among our peers or feel lost or fragile or insecure – there is that spark within that can, with a little effort, blossom into a stunning display. That’s the kind of message I like to hear, that’s the kind of message we offer here.

The TV show I mentioned earlier, Glee, has done “Firework” and will be doing “Born This Way” later this season. But my favorite scene was a song sung by my favorite character, Mercedes – I know, I like Kurt too, but Mercedes is my favorite.

“Beautiful” by Christina Aguillera

Every day is so wonderful
And suddenly it’s hard to breathe
Now and then I get insecure
From all the pain, feel so ashamed

I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring me down, oh no
So don’t you bring me down today

To all your friends you’re delirious
So consumed in all your doom
Tryin’ hard to fill the emptiness, the piece is gone
Left the puzzle undone, ain’t that the way it is?

‘Cause you are beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring you down, oh no
You are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring you down, oh no
So don’t you bring me down today

We have songs in our hymnal that offer this sort of message. Isn’t it nice to know that popular music is offering some of the same messages too?

And there is “Unwritten” by Natasha Beddingfield that talks about trusting your own experiences. And then “Hands” by Jewel that talks about empowerment and agency in life. And “You Found Me” by The Fray that is a modern retelling of Job, dealing with suffering and loss and a questioning of God. “Perfect” by Pink with its message that you may feel like you’re less than nothing but really you are perfect to me. Or Rob Thomas’ “Little Wonders” where he sings about how our lives are made of small moments, the everyday simple things that really matter. And U2 has been producing powerful and poignant songs for a couple of decades now.

You know, there really are a lot of great songs with great messages out there today. Listen for the messages. Google the lyrics and learn what the song is saying. What are the messages in the music you choose to listen to? Ask other people what they’re listening to and why? What are the messages in the music you hear around you, the music that is being absorbed by our youth and children? It was Nietzsche who said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” So listen for the music. Remember Aristotle when he said “Music has a power of forming the character.” Let us listen, and lift up the best messages from our music.

In a world without end,
May it be so.