Pop Culture Primer: Music

Chad Ashby

In a modern society filled with 24-hour news, continuously competing pundits, and social media outrage, there are times when I just want to hit the off switch. More than ever, Christians are tempted to let their ears grow dull, wearied by the constant barrage of different perspectives. However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer astutely notes, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either… We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.” Through Bonhoeffer’s words I am reminded that listening is a spiritual act. Listening should be practiced and relished, not suffered and shunned.

My hope is that these five albums will help you rediscover the pleasure and duty of listening. Feel the stories. Follow the melodies. Seek to understand the artists’ perspectives. See if you don’t hear evidence of the imago dei and the human condition all over these five LPs.

5. Weezer (The Blue Album, 1994), Weezer

From the opening guitar pings of “My Name is Jonas,” Weezer hooks us with its infectious geek rock. This album cut through the grunge scene of the early 1990s with its clean-as-a-whistle vocals, barbershop-style harmonies, and sunny California vibe.

Weezer’s approach to music is simple: it’s an escape from the letdowns of the real world. On “Holiday,” pain and rejection melt under the haze of guitar distortion as lead singer Rivers Cuomo invites us into his fantasyland: “Let’s go away for a while / you and I / to a strange and distant land / where they speak no word of truth.” When he’s in the garage with his bandmates (“In the Garage”), Cuomo finds freedom from judgment: “In the garage, I feel safe / No one cares about my ways / In the garage where I belong / No one hears me sing this song.” On other tracks, he flees painful breakups and breaks away from alcoholic father figures by way of the guitar strapped over his shoulder.

All the while though, reality continues “bubbling behind my back” (“Say It Ain’t So). On “Undone,” we see a fragile ego unravel like a sweater. Through “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” Cuomo admits his feelings of abandonment after a broken relationship. In these moments of honesty, we are reminded that people live deeply broken lives. As we listen to The Blue Album, we realize its songs function like escape hatches in Cuomo’s life. The closing track finishes with an euphoric guitar solo that transports us from the real world of rejection and sorrow to an ecstasy found “Only in Dreams.”

Weezer offers no final answer for the brokenness of this world, yet this album reminds us why God’s children have always been a music-making people. Through pain and suffering, we sing and play new gospel rhythms over our broken realities as we patiently await the return of a Savior. Moreover, Weezer’s desire for the “garage”—a comfortable, riff-laden space where they can be known in all their nerdy, quirky glory—reflects the desire of all people to be known and understood by the one who loves us.

4. 1989 (2014), Taylor Swift

In the liner notes of her fifth studio album, Taylor Swift types: “In the world we live in, much is said about when we are born and when we die…But lately I’ve been wondering…what can be said of all the moments in between our birth and our death…the moments when we are reborn…” 1989 is about rebirth.

1989 took the world by storm. Filled with 1980s-inspired synthesizers and bouncy pop, Swift sheds any vestiges of her rootsy twang as she enters a new stage in her life, both musically and personally. “Welcome to New York / It’s been waiting for you,” chants the opening song’s chorus. Her hope is that this sonic renewal will prove to be her cleansing.

Although the sound is new, the themes on 1989 are quintessential Taylor Swift. The songs are arranged to follow a general narrative: girl meets boy, things go well, uncertainty creeps in, he leaves, she shakes it off then takes him back, learns about herself, and finally moves on.

The tracks on the album present different ways Swift has dealt with her relationships. On “Blank Space,” Swift lampoons her own reputation as a man-eater: “So it’s gonna be forever / or it’s gonna go down in flames.” On another song, her desperate pleading lays over a contagious Madonna-era beat: “All you had to do was…stay!” Elsewhere she ponders if it’s too much to expect relationships to last. Perhaps she just needs to live passionately in the moment and be willing to let go, as she suggests on “Wildest Dreams”: “Say you’ll remember me...even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.”

The glam and pop of 1989 fade on her pensive final track, “Clean”: “Rain came pouring down / When I was drowning that’s when I could finally breathe.” Swift is not alone in her longing to be washed clean of the past. Folk rocker Ryan Adams felt such a connection to the album that in 2015 he released a complete cover album of 1989; Swift’s lyrics told his story, too.

As we listen to the world around us, we realize that everyone is in search of rebirth. People look for it in a new city, a new sound, a new job, a new diet, a new relationship. St. Augustine puts his finger on the problem in his Confessions: “For you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.” Swift hopes for renewal, but 1989 is really about restlessness. Her album throbs with the question many in our world desperately ask: will replacing old habits and romances with new habits and romances really provide eternal rest?

As we listen to the world around us, we realize that everyone is in search of rebirth.

3. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Lauryn Hill

Few women have reached the palatial heights of the vocal and lyrical talent of Lauryn Hill. This soulful debut received 10 Grammy nominations and managed five wins, including 1999’s Album of the Year—the first hip-hop album ever to do so. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a celebration of the American black experience, soaked in smooth R&B melodies, raspy rhymes, church gospel, and reggae guitar riffs.

The album borrows its concept from Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, first published in 1933. Woodson wrote: “The portrait of the Negro has seldom been drawn but by the pencil of his oppressor.” Hill intends to offer one of those missing narratives, becoming what Woodson describes as “an enlightened artist portraying the life of [her] people.” Her tracks are a re-education for her brothers and sisters—and the world—about the black experience.

Lauryn Hill has a voice all her own. On “Lost Ones,” she calls us to listen—really listen—to her: “I was hopeless now I’m more hopeful / every man wanna act like he’s exempt / need to get down on his knees and repent / can’t slick talk on the day of judgment.” If we listen, we will grow. Hill desires for each of us to open our minds and be re-educated in our perspectives. While the world encourages us to hate our enemies, she highlights the true power found in showing forgiveness. On “Forgive Them Father,” she croons, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” While the world uses love to control others, freedom, we hear, is in showing unconditional love.

On “To Zion,” Hill calls us to reject the world’s perspective on motherhood, which sees it as an obstacle rather than a blessing: “Everybody told me to be smart / ‘Look at your career,’ they said / ‘Lauryn, baby, use your head’ / but instead I chose to use my heart.” In her smash hit “Doo Wop (That Thing)” she takes us to sex-ed class: “When you give it up so easy you ain’t even foolin' him.” Hill shows us how using one another for sexual pleasure degrades our personal value: “You know I only say it cause I'm truly genuine / Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem.”

In the album’s title track, Hill explains how she let others miseducate her: “Every time I try to be / what someone else has thought of me / so caught up, I wasn’t able to achieve.” Ultimately, she had to realize her value did not come from what others said about her: “I hear so many cry for help / searching outside of themselves / now I know his strength is within me.” Hill is articulating the concept of imago dei—that men and women are created by God in his image; we don’t have to wait for society or a boyfriend to affirm us to believe we have eternal value. Our value, Hill reminds us, is laced into our DNA.

2. Helplessness Blues (2011), Fleet Foxes

Out of the misty fog of the Puget Sound floats the haunting folk of Helplessness Blues. With layered harmonic vocals and intricate acoustic pieces, Fleet Foxes have formed a soundscape that echoes like the claustrophobia of an artist’s mind. Helplessness Blues feels like a hand stretching for answers in the darkness.

Amid the gentle strums and flittering bows of “Montezuma” we hear lead singer Robin Pecknold wrestling with his personal identity: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / now what does that say about me?” On the title track, he vacillates between two ways of seeing life. His parents told him growing up he was a unique snowflake, but now he wonders, “...after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” As we listen, we hear the pining of a soul longing for eternal purpose.

As Pecknold ponders his future, he realizes death—“the bitter dancer…bloody reaper”—is patiently biding his time. One day his life will come to an end. Pecknold determines not to let dark thoughts plague him: “At arm’s length / I will hold you there / there…” In that brief moment of personal triumph, he captures the world’s approach to death: denial. The sadness only returns later in “Blue Spotted Tail” as he wonders, “Why is life made only for to end?”

The album pulses to the title track’s mellow ideal: “What good is it to sing helplessness blues?” With a harmonic warmth worthy of The Beach Boys and a driving rhythm, the closing track “Grow Oceans” blooms: “You would come to me then without answers…in that dream there's no darkness a-looming.” Life’s existential questions melt in the briny spray of bright guitars as loved ones and lovely surroundings help us forget harsh reality.

With honesty, Pecknold confesses, “I’m not one to ever pray for mercy or to wish on pennies in the fountain or the shrine.” Prayers are just pennies tossed into a vast universe with no cause—and no First Cause. Fleet Foxes voices the melancholy questions that people ask themselves when they lay their heads down: Is there a God? Does anyone have a plan for me? Why does any of this matter if I’m going to die?

Helplessness Blues is a night filled with sweet dreams and haunting nightmares. One moment, Fleet Foxes celebrates the vibrant reality of simple pleasures. The next, a chill creeps into their bones as they realize something metaphysical must give these beautiful fleeting experiences eternal meaning. But what? As we listen to Fleet Foxes, we learn to sympathize with a postmodern culture that wants to believe in an eternal narrative but doesn’t know who to trust.

Helplessness Blues feels like a hand stretching for answers in the darkness.

1. good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), Kendrick Lamar

Rap artist Kendrick Lamar’s first-person, biographical tale follows K.Dot, a teenager wading through Compton, with its temptations, peer pressure, gang violence, and poverty. Sure, I’ve included this album for its lyrical genius and understated West Coast beats. But most of all, because it is a story that needs to be heard. How does a good kid survive in the m.A.A.d city?

The album whirs to a start with several young voices reciting the sinner’s prayer. Lamar’s confessions continue amidst a washed-out Cali riff on the second song, “I am a sinner / Who’s probably gonna sin again / Lord forgive me / Lord forgive me, things I don’t understand.” It’s not his purpose to tell how things should be, but how they are—sins, transgressions, and all. All the while, cassette tape crackles and threads of late-nineties Compton beats throw us back to an earlier time in Kendrick’s life.

On “Backseat Freestyle,” we meet K.Dot, as an insecure teenager, lying through his teeth about sexual exploits, violence, and money all over fender-rattling subwoofers. Track by track, we listen as he learns the hard way that chasing youthful passions and sinful lusts will eventually destroy him. “Tired of running, tired of hunting,” he says on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” “Too many sins, I’m running out / Somebody send me a well for the drought.” As he expresses these words of spiritual exhaustion, they are followed by the voice of a grandmother figure (Maya Angelou) who asks, “Why are you so angry? / See you young men are dying of thirst / Do you know what that means? / That means you need water, holy water / You need to be baptized, with the spirit of the Lord.”

In the mad city filled with dangerous threats, Lamar’s faith and his family prove to be his salvation. He doesn’t make excuses for his past sins, even as his rhymes beg the question: Would you or I have fared differently? In “Good Kid,” a West Coast-makeover of Smif-N-Wessun’s “Home Sweet Home,” K.Dot finds himself equally in danger of gang violence and the heavy boot of crooked cops. In “m.A.A.d city,” the hyped strings draw us into the panic of a city ruled by gun violence. When sexual temptation and peer pressure are on every block, how is a young man supposed to make it out alive? Lamar’s story is a very difficult one to hear. His language is jarring. The narrative is painful. However, this is the exact kind of listening that Christians owe to our neighbors. In so many cities, men and women are living desperate lives. They are tired of running. We have to be willing to sit down, listen to their story, and share together a cup of living water. Out of Compton, Lamar emerges with faith in God and a family he loves. Compton royalty Dr. Dre anchors the final track with a signature beat, as Lamar emerges determined to use his success to help others follow his path. Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city reminds us that no person in this mad city we call earth is beyond the saving grace of our God.

Editor’s note: You can download the entire Pop Culture Primer ebook here.

Topics: Music