Counter-culture Music

There’s only one way to listen to a great song. Loud. So I turned up the volume and punched the bass boost, and music roared through my car’s speakers, out the windows, out the sun roof, reverberating in my head. Bum-bum-bum BUMMM … Bum-bum-bum BUMMM … “Beethoven’s Fifth” has a delicious audacity to it, a kind of symphonic-emo flavor.

Okay, so I’m not entirely serious. Maybe Beethoven doesn’t quite convey emotive defiance. But in recent months I’ve begun to take a look at some “counter-cultural” music, and Beethoven, Mozart and Handel are a few of my usual suspects. I’m not advocating a wholesale return to the Middle Ages (far from it), but the state of our music scene has made me ponder a few questions.

What do we want from music? After all, when we pop in a CD or scan the FM dial, we’re looking for something—a good vibe, an altered mood, some affirmation of our little triumphs and struggles, right? And let’s be honest. When most of us power up the stereo, we’re looking for some quick aesthetic gratification; we’re driven to find a catchy tune, a sound that resonates, and there’s nothing wrong with that. No one would applaud Bono’s lyrics if U2 didn’t sound good. But what happens when lyrical excellence—integrity of message—is hurriedly forced into the back seat? What happens when we’ll embrace shallow, idiomatic lyrics like platinum if they’re surrounded by a few nice riffs?

Is the messenger supposed to justify the message? I’ll never forget the tune I knew merely as “The Volkswagen Song.” You know, the one on the commercial with the memorable chorus: “Da, da, da …” I’m not taking aim at The Volkswagen Song, now part of our cultural archive; it had a special place in my heart because even I could “sing” it. It does make a great case study, though. Most songs contain a message, connected to, but clearly differentiated from, the musical style. Not The Volkswagen Song. The messenger was the message, so to speak; music equaled words: “Da, da, da …” But that’s not usually the case. And so we find ourselves asking a strangely ironic question: When does the messenger fail to justify the message? When is great sound or melody deficient because offlawed lyrics? But maybe this question begs the real question:

What is the message? Is the message the music—the sound and style? Or is it the words? The obvious answer is both. But words are the primary revelatory tool, conveying concrete images and thoughts. That means if lyrics are present, their meaning takes precedence over any feelings or associations evoked by raw sound. Electric or acoustic instruments just reinforce and clarify the verbal message. And this hierarchy brings me to my conclusion: Sometimes the music doesn’t justify the words.

So? Before you write me off as stating the obvious or making stupid pronouncements, let me illustrate. A catchy tune with vacuous lyrics really does have implications. The issue, as I see it, isn’t merely the presence of undesirable topics (i.e. obscenity, promiscuity, heresy) contained in a popular song. Rather, it’s the way in which such themes, and any central themes, are portrayed. Consider a couple of artists, 50 Cent and Ben Folds. While the two probably couldn’t be further apart musically, their work is also a study in lyrical contrasts. Compare Fold’s “Brick,” where he describes the pain of a high school abortion, to 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta,” where Every chick I f— with is a dime. Compare the anguished “Mess” (And I don’t believe in God, so I can’t be saved) to the snide “Many Men” (Every night I talk to God, but He don’t say nothing back/ I know He protecting me, but I still stay with my gat).

I know I’m hopping genres to make my point, but I think the comparison is fair. What I’m looking for is depth and authenticity in dealing with life’s issues. I want messages that “justify” the music—be it piano-driven rock or sonic rant. But “unjustified” messages don’t center exclusively on sex and sacrilege. Nice pop divas do just as much harm by candy coating love and dumbing down spirituality. (Now I believe that we can make it through and that’s called faith, from Celine Dion’s “One Heart.”) And Christian artists have contributed more than their share of problematic messages as well, resulting in shady theology.

So where am I going with this? We need to find counter-cultural music and plug in. Not to oversimplify, but most of the rock music on the radio today doesn’t lend itself to depth of message very often, and we know there’s more to the urban scene than thuggin’ and druggin’. At the other end of the spectrum, pop music is often the mecca of sappy bubblegum fluff driven by sexy images.

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Of course, there are exceptions; not all musical renditions of life are shallow. And in the hope that such exceptions will become more commonplace, I’ll keep an eye open for more of those “counter-cultural” artists. Beethoven? Mozart? Maybe not. But you know what I mean … the ones delivering a message worth listening to.

[Ariel Vanderhorst is a married twentysomething living in Kansas City while trying to finish a B.A. in English. He enjoys playing hoops and wishes he could write like C.S. Lewis.]

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