Friday, July 30, 2010

Music not Timeless but Etched in Time

Some songs or albums are like red-tacks on the wall-map of memory and time. The best ones don't just stick there, but carry forward the past to the present and continue to be relevant.

I was reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace this week and had to go back and listen to Coldplay's "Death and all of his Friends". Not only was I listening to it the first time I read the book, but it captures the sentiment of the book as well. Other instances of the synchronicity of music to event that come to mind:
  • U2's Boy and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia (the books people, the books). Magical and meant for each other.
  • Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and driving around at night with friends in high school, having the world begin open up in front of me---startlingly unsettling and wild.
  • Switchfoot's "Dare you to Move" and my frightening first days stepping up to pastor a congregation.
  • The Walkmen's You and Me and the simultaneously stressful thrills of coping with the arrival of twins and applying to do a PhD. This song in particular reminds me of the drive to and from the GRE exam.
  • The National's "Fake Empire" and the election of Obama. The song was played at the televised party moments before he came out to accept the Presidency. Was enjoying the album at that time anyway, but the connection of that moment and that song has seared itself in my consciousness. The video, poignant in its simplicity, drives that home even more:

There are countless more, some with more "staying power" than others, I'm sure. Any standouts for you?

Sometimes music is referred to as timeless, but I think it more accurate that the best music is like a piece of eternity breaking through in the present expression of things---thus just right in its time, even if it talks about what's wrong. And as such it remains relevant and special to other times as well. Brings the past forward but isn't bound to it either.

Lots of music is timeless in the worst sense---so scratching the fickle itch of the moment that it brings nothing and captures nothing; is not even real to its own time. It is a leech. It uses the moment. It is cheap candy or Burger King. Might taste good but you are hungry again soon. It may remind us of past times, but not in a rich and vibrant way--more like the empty echo of a forgotten spoon clattering down to the bottom of a bottomless sink.

I am reading a lot about time as a theological category these days. I don't like the idea of timelessness. Time is a gift of eternity. Timelessness might just be hell.

And then there is this:

Or this:


Adam Nigh said...

Good thoughts here, Jon.

I would like to make a defence of the throw away pop song, the cheap candy or Burger King song, danceable and about nothing. I don't look to Elvis, James Brown, the Beach Boys, the Ramones, the Cars, INXS, Will Smith, Smashmouth, or dare I say even Justin Timberlake to take me to the same depths as Mozart, or even to the same depths as U2 or Coldplay. But there is still room in my appreciation for Hound Dog, Beat on the Brat and Rock Your Body.

Its a different kind of appreciation and I'm not totally sure its cheap or bad. Is singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star cheap or bad? These are the little melodies that we sing as we're walking in the sun just enjoying the day, not having any deep reflective experience, just enjoying a sunny day. I love deep reflective experiences, but I also love thinking about nothing, blasting the Ramones while I'm driving and feeling good.

I think if we don't have that kind of balanced appreciation for music, which brings out the appreciation for the nice little trivialities of life (like a single pretty flower seen while walking on your way to nowhere in particular), then we run the risk of investing music with more power and worth than it really has. Yes, I have a much deeper and more meaningful experience listening to I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For than I do listening to I Get Around, but both have their place and neither has more inherent potential to bring eternity into time or mediate an experience of God. Its the fun throw away pop tunes that remind us of that.

Jon Coutts said...

"both have their place and neither has more inherent potential to bring eternity into time or mediate an experience of God. Its the fun throw away pop tunes that remind us of that."

well said.

and yet I'd still say there are quality "fun throw away" songs that are invested with effort, and there are those just leeching off of a tired formula for stimulus, like junk food.

Jon Coutts said...

I've added a video, which is just one of what I think are multiple songs that, perhaps like some you listed, are fun without being throw aways.

Dale said...

I like this post, because it helps me see that most of my musical taste has to do more with where and when and how I heard the music than the music ojectively speaking. Like zooropa, for instance, which is by far my fav. u2 album, though objectively one of their weaker efforts maybe. But whenever I hear it I'm launched back to that moment when i first heard it, and change was bubbling up in the world, in politics and culture and media, and, at 19, it was bubbling up in my own life, too: spiritually and practically speaking. And somehow zooropa brought all this together into a seamless garment (or a coat of many colors). Anyways, I like the "etched in time" imagery.

Luke N. Johnson said...

When Al Gore was running for US president, he held a youth rally and 'danced' to the song "Who Let the Dogs Out." I thought it was apt.

Dave M said...

I spent a very long summer painting outdoors and almost everyday after work I would listen to Queen Bitch by David Bowie or Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks. I've never been able to articulate how these songs lifted me so consistently for so long, but I think they are perfect and were perfect for what was going on in my life that year. Something about the guitars in Bowie's song captured all of my anxiety and passion in the same breath, and something about the descending lines in Sunny Afternoon and that great chorus really hit the nail on the head.

Brad said...

One connection for me is Iron & Wine's cover of "Vigilantes of Love," in conjunction with Wendell Berry's story about a soldier returning home in Fidelity, imagined visually by way of Terrence Malick.

Trev said...

I can really relate to what you're saying in this post Jon. Memory and music walk hand-in-hand for me. I remember the first time I've heard every song I've heard...seriously. I remember where I was, who I was with and what I was doing.

I really wish I could relate to what you guys are saying about U2 and Coldplay but I just don't "get" those bands. I missed U2's prime years so I pretty much grew up in the "wow, Bono's voice is really shitty" era. And coldplay's music is overly simplistic and packed with falsetto (which I would catergorize as "junk food").

But who am I to say what's good and what isn't? The Ramones never had much talent, but I love them! So what is my REAL basis for determining what I like/dislike? Maybe it's the memories attached to them? I don't know.

Jon Coutts said...

hey, away from this all weekend it is nice to come back to the honour of these comments.

I need to check out all those songs you've shared.

Dale: I think that is why Acthung/Zooropa got me too.

Luke: That's hilarious. Sums up that whole gong show of an election. And you used the word "apt" in relation to music. I think that gets at something here.

Dave: That Bowie song is fantastic. I can totally see that. I need to check out Sunday Afternoon.

Brad: Pretty precise coming together of things. You couldn't plan stuff like that.

Trev: I in no way wish to suggest that one has to agree with the musical judgments I've made to illustrate or get my finger on my point, although I would find it odd if the songs or albums I shared could not be understood even empathetically for what I think they illustrate.

I know U2 and Coldplay are pretty "pop", and have stumbled across an almost formulaic way to strike a nerve. From what I've read they have struggled with how much to "utilize" that. I'm sure they question at what point they are just being "them" and at what point they are trying to "cash in". I heard Chris Martin say he tries to not fall back on the falsetto so much. I appreciate that. But it doesn't ruin it for me that I know it comes "easy". It got me and I'm okay with that and it isn't absolute crap, even if it can go there sometimes.

Bono's voice isn't good?

Certainly for me the timing of U2 (more precisely what they did in time) is probably the number one thing that made them a big part of my life. See Dale's comments.

Jon Coutts said...

I've been thinking about Adam's comments a bit. I think "Who let the dog's out" can be pretty time-bound, and can capture a moment, and all that --- but what does it bring to it? What does it evoke? It is just cashing in, or cashing out might be the best way to put it. Ultimately, it steals from rather than gives to the time it is in.

So it may have a place, but by virtue of its "pop"ness, its place in society is much bigger than is warranted. Other than the fact that it is like a bookmark in time reminding us of the absolute absurdity of the the things that our commonwealth actually has in common.

AMoyse said...

Hello Jon,
If you are considering time these days, you might want to pick up some Bulgakov. His discussion time and eternity is quite provocative . . . moreover, as a Russian philosopher and orthodox theologian, his writings evoke a reciprocal logic that is both inviting and invigorating. I have been considering the category of wisdom in my doctoral studies and have found Bulgakov to be an interesting discussion partner with Barth and Williams.