All posts in Through Songs I Was First Undone

Dangerous Songs Part 2

In the first part of this two part blog, I wrote about music often considered dangerous by the christian marketplace and suggested that it might be more dangerous to allow the marketplace to determine what is dangerous in the first place.

I also suggested that some of the songs we sing in church are contributing to the sluggishness of many church-goers. I want to be clear here that I am not making a sweeping judgement of ‘church music’ as a whole. I happen to really enjoy a great deal of church music. In this case, the sweeping judgement is not only about the particular songs we sing or listen to, but at least as much about our ability to actually hear what we are listening to.

So, just as it would greatly benefit listeners to take a long look at the lyrical content (and musical craftsmanship) of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” or The National’s “High Violet,”  it would be equally beneficial to take a look at some of the songs churches are already singing and are familiar with.  There are some dangerous songs in rotation Sunday mornings.

For instance…

“In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song.”

I’ve sung this or led this song well over one hundred times and it wasn’t until reading Brian J. Walsh’s “Colossians Remixed” that I connected some dots regarding the claim Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend make with the song.

Jesus Christ’s exclusive claim of Lordship (to which the song is referring) stood against the claims of Roman leadership and supremacy.  The community in Colossae (to whom Paul’s letter was written) knew that claiming Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” and that “He is before all things.. in Him all things hold together” would fly in the face of Roman and power.  Walsh writes in Colossians Remixed that

“Proclaiming a lord other that Caesar would result in immediate imprisonment and a closer view of imperial games than anyone would want… a threat to the empire.”

The obvious question here is “Does the exclusive claim to hope only in Jesus sincerely mean something when we sing it?”  Because if the answer is yes, that’s an awfully dangerous thing to claim.  The Supremacy of Christ is a threat to all else. Our comfort, our politics, our career path, etc.. And yet how often have I sung that it is “in Christ alone” that my hope is found but not considered the very real consequences of such a statement?

Dangerous Songs (Part 1)

 

The dividing line between that which is “of God” and that which is “not” cannot and should not be trusted to the Marketplace.  But quite often it is.


The Dividing Line
The pastor of a church I recently played in was a self-professed Nine Inch Nails fan.  Aimee Mann as well.  So, as we talked through the tension between wise shepherding and over-protectiveness, we found a great deal we agreed upon.  Still,  he had reservations about my playing cover songs for his congregation.  He was concerned that I was giving his people license to buy and listen to music that at least has the potential to be socially and philosophically dangerous.

We agreed that no one needed permission to seek out damaging media. Perhaps the goal, then isn’t so much to prevent people from engaging with certain forms of media but teaching ourselves and our communities how to be discerning consumers, listeners, readers etc… Part of that comes in approaching media with a different set of questions.  Particularly the question “what can I  see of God in this?”

You see, somewhere before this conversation took place, a decision had already been made about what art is beneficial for christian (mostly Protestant) churches.  We were only dealing with material on “the other side” of the sacred/profane line. But what criteria was used to determine the sacred or beneficial nature of the music played in his church or mine? It seems to me that line is drawn with the same pen that draws the line between what is sell-able and not.  In other words: We sing this song here because it is sung elsewhere or because the artist who wrote it has other successful songs.  That’s not a pastoral criteria.  It’s a market criteria. In more cases than not, monetary success draws the line.

The Danger of Falling Asleep
That pastor and I were having a conversation about Aimee Mann. That’s to be expected. But does a similar conversation happen regarding songs by Chris Tomlin, Brenton Brown or anyone on the CCLI top 100?*  Are these songwriters above such a conversation?  Is there need for similar discernment when it comes to church music?  After all, these songs are sung repeatedly and memorized by church congregations. The language and imagery in these songs helps shape the way thousands understand the mystery of God.  So, what if it’s off? How would we know? Perhaps we’d recognize it in the fruit such art bears.

It’s no secret that the blogosphere (as well as more than a few coffee bars across the US) is choc-full of church leaders lamenting the immobilization or selfish tendencies of far too many congregates.  These same church leaders often acknowledge that the machinery  of church can not only contribute to but encourage such immobilization and selfishness.  If we’re willing to point out the potential dangers of exposure to media, it is vital that we take a more discerning look at art that has likely played a part in lulling many “to sleep in their faith” with repeated blessed assurances that it is well, not only our souls but well with the world, so long as we recognize and acknowledge how He loves us.

When the next hot, church sing-a-long hits the circuit, will it be evaluated? Will it even be thought about? Or will its status as “beneficial” be established the way Truth is established in Stephen Colbert’s world, where once the Market has spoken, it must be true.

 

I’m finishing Part 2 of this post and will have it up soon.

(The CCLI Top 100 is a list of the 100 most popular songs sung in churches)

FEJMILRS Webcast #2 Promotional Nonsense

The second First Ever Justin McRoberts Interactive Living Room Session is Wednesday, October 6th, Follow Justin at Twitter to catch the announcement or catch the broadcast at this blog starting at 6pm PST.

Save Me (part II)

I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.”  The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.

Here is part two of why Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” is on the album:

In the same way that Aimee Mann’s work has guided me towards a responsible undoing of my expectation/temptation to resolve songs, the cultural counterpart to this same thought also resonates with me.  Despite having grown up outside a particular religious tradition (raised by wolves) I had been somewhat culturally trained to think of “being saved” as a specific kind of resolution; particularly that it was something very final… something that happened in a singular moment with a one-time agreement.  Like chancing upon a lifetime membership to my Happy Place.

The odd thing about this understanding of “being saved” is that, since I’ve followed Jesus, it has all the more grated against my experience of life and faith.  My ‘conversion’ didn’t take place all in a moment and certainly has been a happy experience at times but never consistently.  My being “saved” never felt like something snapped into place after which I was then on my way.  I’ve experienced the waxing and waning of actual change in my life and the same waxing and waning of faith that my life’s change is authentic and lasting.  Less than a one-time agreement, it’s been more like fits and starts, in all honesty.

Sara Miles, in her book “Take This Bread” writes: “Conversion isn’t a moment: it’s process and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.”

A process of cycles and seasons.  That sounds like it.  Something more like the growing of a branch connected to a vine.. born invisibly, growing in shoots and perhaps too quickly… needing to be pruned.. growing again and bearing fruit.. but then.. Fall.. Winter and the long, dark hope that Spring will come again, bringing a greater abundance of fruit.  The work of a good gardener, salvation is not the magic and surgically sterile removal of my life from “this world” or even the mystical transcendence of my own base humanness.  It is the strange, messy and (dare I say) unfinished business of becoming a complete human being… one like Jesus.

Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” (part 1)

I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.”  The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.

Here is part one of why Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” is on the album:

 

Magnolia is one of the only movies I have ever gone back to the theater to see.  Cast with the likes of Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and WIlliam H. Macy, there really isn’t a weak performance anywhere in the movie (unless you hate Tom Cruize instinctively,… which is really more about you than the movies you see).

I watched Magnolia the first time with my wife and some friends.  Our friends didn’t care much for the film, commenting that it was “bizarre,” “pathetic,” and “unlikely.”  We agreed that those were accurate descriptions but, to the contrary, Amy and I both thought those were exactly the elements we enjoyed most about it; it was so much like life as we knew it.

Along loving the story, the cinematography and the performances, I also fell in love with the movies soundtrack and in doing so, discovered Aimee Mann.  (little did I know she was the vocalist for the band Til Tuesday, whose single “Voices Carry” echoed through my head through much of the late eighties).  My understanding is that much of the Magnolia’s motivation and theme is derived from Aimee Mann’s music.  In fact, a few of the character Claudia’s lines are directly lifted from Aimee Mann lyrics.  In one case, she turns to Officer Jim Kurring, who is desperately in love with her and says

“Now that I’ve met you
Would you object to
Never seeing each other again.”

…which is the opening line to the song “Deathly”; a song I seriously considered covering for Undone. Instead, I chose the “Save Me.” which was written specifically for the film and is one of the the most pivotal songs in my musical history.

Much of its importance to me is strictly musi-technical.  Its darker tone, melancholy mood and seemingly-too-slow tempo don’t add up to “Save Me” being a downer song at all.  In fact, Save Me is incredibly catchy and has plenty of the energy one would want in a pop song.  What was revelatory for me was that It’s life and energy are not fabricated by bright, shimmery guitar tones or an uplifting, major-chord-driven chorus.  The song is alive because of the tension within it; a tension that never resolves but keeps the song trudging from verse to chorus to bridge and and and on.  This element was liberating for me as a writer.  I could leave a song “in the dark” as it were and let go of the temptation to force a feeling of resolution in lyric or in tone.

Until I let “Save Me” sink into my skin a bit, I didn’t quite recognize how strong the temptation to “resolve” a song actually was. I believed, as do most young artists, that I was being entirely authentic and transparent in my work.  But even looking at my 2000 release “Father,” an album ostensibly about wrestling with my father’s suicide, I could see very clearly where a few of the songs were somewhat forced; at least in the way I finished them… as if I was tying together broken limbs with pretty bows and wrapping paper.   Mann’s work guided me to see that art’s job was seldom to resolve.  More often, a great work affirms the mysterious nature of the human experience just as it is, which is a form of redemption in and of itself.  In this light, I would even go so far as to say that to force a resolution is to give in to the fear that a true resolution might not be there at all; that I must create or even fake it.  It strikes me that this is what is most disappointing about much art in the christian marketplace.  Not that it’s cheesy or even that it’s particularly bad; what is most disappointing is that it is insincere.  I wanted to distance myself from that temptation and the machinery that is angled toward giving in to it.

My 2002 release “Trust” was, as a whole, inspired and fueled by the musical revelation I found in Aimee Mann’s work.  From guitar and drum tones to chord progressions and even lyric choices, Trust was shaped by the freedom to leave songs in the dark; to create a tension and allow that tension to sustain the life of a song and even an entire album.

You can listen to a full length video preview of my “Save Me” at the top of this blog.
You can pick it up at iTunes or at my Online Store.

 

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.”  The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.

Here is part of why The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” is on the album:

Yup.. I was that kid, at least for a season;  I wore as much black as I could put on and kept my hair over my eyes to peer at you through while mumbling about my superiority as an intellectual.  That kid.  Maybe it was falling out of favor with the popular crowd that did it.  Or maybe it was because I was almost suddenly too small to play on the football team any more.. But something set me off on a journey towards the valley of “The Tweakers.”

I was in touch with my emotions..  and yours.
I read Poe, Ginsberg and Kerouac.. and understood.
I went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show… and knew every word

I also listened to the Smiths…  The jangle-y, sparkling guitar tones of Johnny Marr set the backdrop for modern music’s most dramatic lyricists: Morrissey.  Lyrics such as

“If a 10-ton truck kills the both of us
To die by your side is such a wonderful way to die.”  (from There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
)

Were set to music that might just as well have supported something more like

“I bought a dog to day, a yellow lab he is
He’s just a puppy, and he’s cuddly and so cute”

But it was (and is) exactly that juxtaposition of happy and sad that resonated deeply with me as an adolescent.  Then again, maybe it’s less of a juxtaposition and more of a mix.. Happy with sad. The music the Smiths made celebrated a collision of these two emotions that was… well, true.  Seldom had I experienced a sadness (especially up to that point) that was all shadow, through and through.  Something about the experience of sadness always had a the buzz of energy to it… of life… the thrill that I was feeling something.

Only later and at a sufficient distance from my adolescence did I start to grasp what all that was about; That, in a culture addicted to pleasure; a culture that spends billions in the attempt to avoid pain and maintain it’s high, feeling something low, something negative was redemptive.. In the experience of sadness, I became more acquainted with the fullness of my own humanity.

Makoto Fujimura writes about sadness as a more acceptable aspect to Japanese culture, saying…

…the Japanese traditional culture affirms vulnerability and loss. Japanese poems and paintings… are full of sorrow and sadness, and their poetic tradition of “mono-no-aware” can be literally translated “beauty in the pathos of things.”  They already recognize that, on this side of eternity, we must see the beauty in an empty cup.”

The music of The Smiths captured this for me.  I saw the beauty of my empty cup through the lens of songs like “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time.” Here’s my cover of it:

You can pick up my rendition of the song at iTunes
or my Online Store

Head Like A Hole (Part II)

I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.”  The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.

Here is part two of why Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” is on the album:

What Reznor finds enraging about the abuse of power, wealth and influence I see and feel as well. As do most of us (I exclude here the likes of Emperor Palpatine and Sauron the Great). In fact, the marriage of religious influence with political power and financial wealth is a partnership whose destructive malevolence was the focus of many Old Testament prophets, most markedly Amos, who begins his prophetic imagery with the LORD “roar(ing) from Zion.” And why does the LORD roar? Among other things, he roars in anger over the abuse of religious, political and financial power

6 “For three sins of Israel, even for four,
I will not turn back {my wrath}.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.

 

 

7 They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.

 

 

8 They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.

This echoes in my heart:
…They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.

Because somewhere there is a child or a family whose freedom has been compromised so that the already-wealthy don’t have to pay “full price” for shoes.

So does this:
….In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.

The wine in some religious ceremonies during Amos’ time had been purchased with money collected from unfair and unethical fees and punishments imposed on the vulnerable and poor. It rendered the celebration of religion detestable in God’s sight. While this kind of crookedness is the exception, there is still much of christendom built on the backs of the unknowingly manipulated.. the swindled.. those who came to the Church to find a place of rest and belonging but instead found a place of emotional manipulation and trickery; Peoples’ actual needs for health, growth and community taken advantage of in order to support the expansion of their shepherd’s career in religious industry. I see these things with the same level of anger as Reznor does,.. but also with a touch of sadness that the original recording of Head Like A Hole doesn’t portray. Which is why I wanted my arrangement to reflect not only the anger but the grief and lament of God for the abuse of power.

It is rumored that the original recording of Head Like A Hole features a one-take of Reznor’s lead vocal (meaning that he only tracked once and left it alone,.. flaws included). The rawness of his voice is then set against the driving, mechanical construction of the song’s arrangement. This tension between the human and the mechanical is what I believe gives the original track such beautiful power. My choice was to move in the opposite direction, .. So I had a cylon sing my part…. Actually, what I mean is that I wanted to make the whole thing feel human… To tap into lament and sadness rather than simply rage; hoping that the tension created would be enough to sustain the song. So, if you listen carefully to the beginning of my rendition, you can hear the creaking of the piano and even hear piano player Ben Shive breathing (I forgot to list that in the liner notes: “Breathing Noises: Ben Shive”)

You can pick up my rendition of the song at iTunes
or my Online Store

Pope and Trent

Head Like A Hole (Part 1)

I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.”  The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.

Here is part one of why Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” is on the album:

 

Pope John Paul, in his 1990 letter to artists, encourages artists with the notion that  “Every genuine inspiration contains some tremor of that ‘breath’ with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning.”  I am of the opinion that, insofar as genuine inspiration contains something of the character of God in creation, then perhaps it is equally true that there is art whose inspiration contains something of the character of God in grief or even in anger.  In this category, I’d place bands like Rage Against The Machine, Bad Religion and Public Enemy… Bands and artists who and are articulate voices of dissent in relationship to abusive and/or corrupt power centers.

I would also include Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails in this category, though to a lesser degree.  NIN generally tends toward more emotional and interpersonal angst but in songs like Head Like A Hole, Reznor’s ferocity gives focus to frustration and disillusionment on the grander social scale where critics like those mentioned above most often function.

Head Like A Hole was written and released at the end of an era which saw an almost unprecedented expanse of American wealth and prosperity.  In the perspective of some, this growth came coupled with a spirit of greed and self-interest that went almost entirely unchecked if not blatantly celebrated.  Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” is often cited as a dramatic accounting of this spirit.  Interestingly, the rapid generation and accumulation of wealth throughout the 80’s runs parallel to a much slower than expected decline in the poverty rate.  For the 13-15% of Americans who live below the poverty line ($19k per year), the 1980’s embodied the proverb “rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”

My memory of this same time period is also riddled with religious scandals of such variety, frequency and crookedness that perhaps only the phrase TrageComedy is appropriate or even remotely accurate.  From televangelists swindling members out of thousands of dollars to shady financial exchanges between high-profile ministries and politicians to seemingly perpetual sexual assault and misconduct allegations and even to one mislead brother locking himself in a tower and suggesting that God would actually kill him if he didn’t come up with a few million dollars.

Despite the fact that by the 1989 release of “Head Like A Hole,” I was only fifteen, I distinctly remember having an awareness that men and women of power were corrupt and that, almost as a rule, they wielded that power selfishly if not maliciously.  It seemed (as it often still does) that all we have to work with is self-interest and that our best hope is to unbridle that self-interest in the off-chance that some “invisible hand” would guide even our worst intentions and schemes to a more beneficent end.  Unfortunately, that scenario seldom seems to play itself out.

So, as comedic as some of the foibles of the 1980s may have been, at least from a distance, I’m also convinced that much of the mistrust my generation feels towards our central institutions (and most profoundly the Church) stems from the social and emotional damage done during the 1980s.  Out of this space of negativity and mistrust emerged “Head Like A Hole” as an anthem of sorts, with Reznor screaming

“No you can’t take it
No you can’t take that away from me
Head like a hole.
Black as your soul.
I’d rather die than give you control.”

You can purchase the track at iTunes
or at my online store.


(Part 2 coming soon.)


Emperor Palpatine Reviews Justin’s Newest Release

Drop

First Audio Interview About “Undone”

THE DROP features up to the minute info on what’s happening in the music industry (specifically in the indie rock, down tempo, folk rock, electronic and progressive hip-hop genres).  Take a few min and listen to this great interview with host Dan Portnoy.  Dan and I have known each other for over 10 years.. so.. there are generally a few particularly silly moments involved anytime we get together..

Listen to the interview HERE!!