what is it about words? a rant in response to a preamble

Here’s another pile of words in response to Mira’s essay, “the problem with music: a preamble in expectation of a response.” I started writing here with every intention of addressing the matter of emotionality in music cognition, but something Mira said about goose-stepping sent me off in another direction entirely, and what came out caught even me a bit by surprise.

She wrote,

I don’t like what music can do to people. Especially music with a catchy driving beat. Or so sweet that your eyes cannot help but tear. Or so unbearably lovely that your heart just breaks to hear it. We are captives when we are captivated. We lose control. Our bodies sway. Or march in goose step compliance to the Führer. How could I not despise such deliberate entrainment? How could I not suspect the motives of the musician? They wield the weapon called music, and before you know it, millions are incinerated. They play and our minds just nod in assent, as our bodies thoughtlessly respond.

Whoa, Mira! Hitler’s musicians had a tiny bit of help, you know—those itty-bitty post-war economic conditions, a modest few millenia of bigotry, some wee epochs of Holy Roman Empirical thinking, and…

Oh, gosh, I know there was something else… It’s on the tip of my tongue…

Oh! Right!

A little thing called rhetoric factored into the rise of the Third Reich, as I recall.

Words.

Your refuge, Mira.

The musicians were just following orders. Like Eichmann.

But it’s true. Music sits alongside religion as an opiate for the masses, and when music joins religion, it’s a truly powerful drug—one that scares the crap out of me sometimes.

It’s been a little too quiet around here lately. Shall we stir the pot, or kick it over? Let’s talk about how religion keeps our planet at war, and let’s talk about how music lures people into the religious fold, and—while we’re at it—let’s talk about all the sacred music that is doing our world no favors, shall we?

No. I don’t have the whole next month free, either. But do let’s talk about bad sacred music, at least.

I’ll do Christian; Mira, can you take Jewish?

So… (All good stories start with “So…,” you know. Or, “So, there’s this guy…”)

Recently Mira and I bonded in an ecumenical rant against 1970s folk-pop sacred music. Even picturing the black spiral-bound Folk Hymnal in my mind is enough to gag me with the memories of Christian Bible Camp—what Mira beautifully dubbed “Jesus Camp”—that it dredges up, and everything I absolutely freaking hated about it, and that list is plenty long, but it starts and ends with awful music.

“He’s got the whole world in His [white! male!] hands,” for example. I especially love how this song’s god is at once a man with hands holding the baby and a Him with a capital H.

Another favorite in the Christian Jingoism Hit Parade is the (sadly, very singable!) “They will know we our Christians by our love [or our self-satisfied bigotry, how about?],” which—delicious irony of all ironies—concludes, “and we pray that our unity may someday be restored.” That one lends itself well to parody, at least. I came up with, “they will know we are Buddhists by our calm… and we’ll meditate together for our own enlightenment” and the sillier, “they will know we are Taoists by our Pooh… and we’ll eat nuts and honey and live longer than the rest.”

How about this gem of a tune about a god created in man’s image: “My God and I go in the field together, we walk and talk as good friends should and do; we clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter…”

That book wasn’t all bad. It also introduced pale Lutherans to the world of spirituals like, “Go tell it on the mountain,” a truly great tune even if I don’t care for the idea of Jesus as my boss at the watchtower—and after you’ve heard the Swingle Singers’ version of it, there’s no going back! Go to 06:40 on this YouTube medley.

Those “black book” tunes were all junior high Jesus Camp songs, though, and with guitar and perhaps a fireplace, they were almost tolerable. A few of them were at least fun to sing—like, “Pass it on”: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around will warm up in its glowing.” What makes it fun is that you can insert little “pass it on!”s at the end of each phrase. What’s not so fun is that it goes on to recruit us all to be missionaries: “That’s how it is with God’s love—once you’ve experienced it, you want to … pass it on.” Now, I realize there are a whole lot of missionaries out there doing good work, digging wells and immunizing babies, but you don’t want to get me started on the proselytizing thing. I’ll just mention that George Carlin’s metaphor of nailing shoes to people’s feet says it all for me.

In grade school Jesus Camp, the songs were even worse. My personal favorite features the line “I’ve got the wonderful love of the blessed redeemer way down in the depths of my heart” crammed into four beats of sextuplets, and it finishes with a rousing chorus of “and if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack.”

Do I even need to write out the snarky comment about that?

The only song of its ilk I remember liking—even at the time, mind you—was the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” adaptation, because it was actually good music, and if you mumbled through some of the lines, it was just like you were doing the Coke jingle. Somehow commercial colonialism has never bothered me quite as much as evangelical colonialism does, but maybe that’s because I didn’t have to spend every Sunday morning of my childhood at the Kellogg School of Business.

The real problem for me, of course, is that I never liked the folk-pop idioms of the 1960s and 70s to begin with. I was the geek listening to Johnny Cash and Beethoven. While the normal kids in Luther League were grateful to be doing something that was just sappy and not also several hundred years old, I was missing Bach and lampooning it all.

I’ve mostly forgotten my “Guitar Service in Five Minutes” parody, but I haven’t been able to forget how uncomfortable I felt during the interminable open prayers at the guitar service in college, the few times I made the mistake of attending. Especially the night not just one or two but four earnest Lutheran students offered sanctimonious weepy prayers for the salvation of their friends and roommates who were struggling with the abomination of—gasp!—homosexuality. I wish I’d been far enough out of my closet and comfortable enough with Jesus-speak that night to offer the prayer I wanted to offer: that the fearful, narrow-minded “Christians” in our midst might be enlightened by the example of “our Lord Jesus Christ, who…” blah, blah, blah… Insert just about any Jesus parable here, because just about any one of them would do the job.

It comes back to the music, though. If some of that Folk Hymnal had been more like Peter, Paul, and Mary, or if I’d been more like the normal kids, then I probably would have liked those songs well enough and managed to forget their regrettable texts by now.

See, it’s not the music that gets me, it’s the words… I hated the music, but it’s the words that torture me today.

Then there’s all that transcendently great Christian sacred music—consider Peter Tschesnokoff’s “Salvation is Created,” or Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem,” or F. Melius Christiansen’s “O Day Full of Grace,” or Olivier Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus,” or pretty much anything J.S. Bach ever wrote—all of it majestically complex and simply gorgeous, humbly dedicated, “Sole deo gloria” at the top of each manuscript—to God alone be the glory.

To paraphrase a friend of mine who says she doesn’t have a lot of faith but believes in her grandfather’s faith, I have barely any faith at all, but I have a hard time not believing in Bach’s faith.

As long as I don’t listen too closely to any of the words. What I need is some good solid music.

Music. And then I’ll be fine again.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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4 Responses to what is it about words? a rant in response to a preamble

  1. Reb Deb says:

    Of course.

    And when you put music and words together, then you have the most powerful and enduring tool/process/experience/reality that I personally know.

    I was going to say much the same thing — without the Jesus stuff, of course — in reply to Mira’s post.

    Look, my friends. Music, words, and religion — all three — are *aspects of human culture.* They are humanly-created things which, like tools, like fire, like science, like free will, can be used to support any human endeavor. (Not that fire is humanly-created, it just fits the category.) They are not inherently good. They are not inherently bad. They are inherently neutral and potentially powerful.

    *We* are the ones who choose how to use them. *We* are the ones who choose what endeavors, values, goals, etc. they are going to be used to promote, support, reach.

    I come from a religion which does not believe that human beings are either inherently good or inherently evil, as far as our behavior and choices go. Our existence, I think, is understood to be good, as is the existence of the universe (see Genesis Chapter 1, in which God repeats six times that Creation is good — and the last of those times, after humanity has been created, Creation is declared to be “very good.”) But our behavior? Our behavior is understood to be inherently a product of our choices. (I, of course, in the 21st century and as a feminist, must also acknowledge how those choices are shaped by our internal and external influences; culture, biochemistry, personal experiences, neural pathways, economic and social position, etc. etc. etc.)

    It astonishes me that any of this is worth ranting about. Even allowing for personal tastes and prejudices, there does exist more and less sophisticated music (and I’m sure I’m missing an obvious adjective or two here, but that’s what I feel certain enough to say), there are more and less thoughtful, hateful, or generous words, and religion can be used for life-giving or death-dealing purposes. All this seems a “given” to me, too obvious to argue about. Find out how to participate in and promote the best of whatever modality is yours. Mine happens to be words, music, *and* religion.

  2. erin says:

    Mira staked out provocative territory, so I engaged her in debate from the other extreme. Yours is the most reasonable position staked out thus far, and it’s not far from my own, as you know.

    It’s not actually where I expected to go with this essay. I planned to engage her on her premise that being emotionally vulnerable to music is a bad thing—and I still will.

    But since we are here in the debate about music vs. words, I might defend music’s abstractness as being less inherently manipulative than the specificity of words. We each hear and respond to different aspects of music, and our reactions come out of the larger context of our own knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. Where Mira can hear Nusrat and be transported into trance and cross over into another world, I hear complex additive rhythms, thick polyphony, and ostinati, and I just get tired. I like it in small servings, though. And where I can be brought to tears by Beethoven’s op. 109 piano sonata, Mira might… well, actually, I have no idea! It might just sound like a whole lot of notes—attempting to play it myself on piano certainly would lead me to that very description. Mira?

    Yes, we also interpret rhetoric through our own filters, but which do you think motivated the tea partiers—all that rhetoric about government interference, or the music they played at the rallies? Does anyone even remember what music they played? I don’t have a clue. But I could spew their talking points without too much trouble.

    • mira says:

      I once brought my (ex-)husband to a Nusrat concert (stupidly, with someone I was very close to who also loved Nusrat). We were at Zellerbach. Marc leaned over to me and said with disgust, “he’s only playing two notes!” And all I could think of is, well listen to how he’s playing those notes. But I kept my mouth shut. I noticed that suddenly Marc was paying very close attention, almost obsessional attention to what I thought was the music.

      At Intermission he said, “I think I saw my analyst here!” He was perplexed.

      When he went out into the lobby, sure enough there was his analyst. Marc went up to him and said in shock, “What are you doing here?”

      “I love this music!” his analyst responded. Turned out he knew quite a lot about Qavalli and many other kinds of Indian and Pakistani sacred music.

      “And what are you doing here?” his analyst asked neutrally, as analysts do.

      “Mira dragged me here, of course,” he said.

      Now of course he goes of his own free will to Qavalli. The kashrut laws are strict in the psychoanalytic universe, and this music clearly has been deemed glat kosher.

  3. Reb Deb says:

    Something I either read or heard in the last couple of days staked out a different dichotomous territory, that between communication with words and images.

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