Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The secular quest for happiness

I've written before on this subject, although typically I have been a bit more derisive than I intend to be in this post. That is because I have always juxtaposed the secular quest for happiness with the joy and peace which comes only from Jesus Christ - "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee". In that case, it has always been a matter of gold and dross - simple as that. But this time I would like to take a different look; to try and ferret out hidden, graced corners of a secular consciousness.

One of my favorite radio stations in town is KFMA - "new rock". They do a lot of punk, alternative, metal, as well as some acoustic and stuff. One of the things I like about the station is the wide range of emotions that get expressed in the different songs - almost like a profile of your typical 20-something anglophone. There's the angry music (Godsmack, Metallica) and the whiney, self-absorbed music (Plain White T's, Three Days Grace). Those don't interest me as much.

But on occasion you get a group that seems to do everything within its ability to run up against the boundaries of being; the music throws itself against the plastic of the modern hamster ball, trying to get beyond it, outside of it; though in a tragic existential irony, the very act only causes the ball to roll faster. Some groups that come to mind are Muse, Beck, Incubus, Gorillaz, maybe a couple others (I'd like suggestions).

Other groups' hit songs - like Modest Mouse's "Float On" and New Found Glory's "It's Not Your Fault" - try to evoke relief from the struggles and anxieties of guilt and worry (similar to a post of my own recently).

Of course, the same station has plenty of songs that don't really have any redeeming value at all for the Christian perspective... Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch", for example, or virtually anything by Nine Inch Nails, which basically take cheeky pleasure in giving up the search for ultimacy or transcendence and dive right back into hedonistic narcissism, and with gusto. "There is no you, there is only me" (NIN's "Only" - a supreme example, Professor Desmond, of how the univocal and the equivocal can tend to collapse into one-another).

But what manifests in song after song are modern treatises on the most important things in life; a dramatic dispute. There is a war going on internally in the collective mind of secularist culture, even before any talk of organized religion comes onto the scene. Similar to how Greek drama reflected how the collective psyche of the day was coping with life, strung between the impoverishment of Homeric myth, the rise of Platonic rationalism, and the rebellion of the mystery religions, so now contemporary music reflects an emotional and intellectual constellation. This constellation is a delight precisely because of its diversity even to the point of self-contradiction, its richness as a roller-coaster of emotions--which are not, importantly, felt as a "meaningless sequence of empty experiences" (as stated by a clever T-shirt banner ad), but rather the very dispute between meaningfulness and meaninglessness themselves.

It is not hard to understand why the most commonly heard 'Christian' themes are not likely to win substantial credibility when set in 'competition' with the secular milieu.

Precisely the strongest appeal of secularism over and against Christianity is its overwhelming self-sense of having a greater respect for truth; as well as a series of convictions of what truth is. Truth is complex, not simple; sensible, not invisible; democratic, not the exclusive possession of authoritarian demagogues (whether Popes or preachers). Importantly, truth is a difficult and elusive thing to see, if indeed it can be seen at all, especially in great matters; thus the very word "faith," if it connotes any actual belief in propositions without the attendant struggle of deep rational thought, is an offense deserving only of ridicule.

For these very good and very persuasive convictions, Christian music--even if it attempts (with mixed success) to co-opt the instruments or the style of rock and alternative--will scarcely ever win converts to its legions of doe-eyed "Jesus freaks". It does nothing to challenge the ABC's of secularism ("Anything But Christianity"). Worse, it offends secular-minded listeners who perceive or suspect its evangelical nature; that it is a baited hook, and thus lacks precisely the integrity and simplicity of expression that makes secular music so appealing (even if that secular song's message may not coincide with a feeling or opinion of 'my own').

At the very best, the feelings and thoughts expressed in rock with Christian themes are not suspected of subterfuge, but rather accepted and allowed as part of the secular constellation. But of course, just for that reason, it becomes one more turn of the roller coaster, one voice among many, which is not a bad thing (certainly not, from the secular PoV), but neither does it represent a serious step forward in mutual understanding--like an agnostic wearing a necklace with a cross.

Ultimately, if secular music is set side-by-side with Christian-themed music, the secular music will come across as truly superior; not only, as is often the case, in its craftsmanship, but in its content. Secularism is diverse, Christianity is monotone; secularism respects the fact that life is sometimes painful and hard, Christianity is always offering easy answers; secularism has a sense of humor, Christianity takes itself too seriously (whether in glazed-eye happiness or self-immolating sorrow); secularism embraces life, Christianity just embraces ghosts and invisible friends. Christian songwriters, I think, make the common mistake of believing that since so many secular songs are anxious, lonely, and pain-wracked, that the secularists are begging for relief and company, which Jesus can give them. That's wrong. It is precisely the tensions and contradictions and fluctuation and ambiguities that hold the greatest attraction for the secularist; it is the common Christian failure to recognize this which forms the core of the failure of Christian music (and in no small part the failure of much Christian evangelization).

Let's ignore Christian music for now. Like I said, before any mention of religion arrives on the scene, there is already a vast "debate" which secular music is engaged in, far moreso than we might see in Internet forums and such. It is not a debate in the sense of songs being written as if they were arguments. Songs are largely blind to one-another. But like preachers, music groups invariably have messages, even if their expressed intent is not to have a message. Muse's songs typically carry a sense of strident ambition and soaring transcendence, without ever actually saying what that ambition is directed towards--as if to celebrate ambition itself. By marked contrast, Gnarles Barkley's "Crazy" has the memorable line, "Ha ha ha, bless your soul; you really think you're in control?" and Jem's "Just a Ride" chides our ambitions, "So we make our plans, Ten times a day, And when they don't go our way we, Breakdown... It's just a ride, it's just a ride." So much for changing the world on my own steam.

Secular music is about throwing up every scrap of human experience into the air (or the airwaves, as the case may be) and letting the pieces fall where they may. But it's more than that. Or at least, it is the secular ambition to be more than that. Rock is the new repository of deep thought. Every musician is a philosopher, even the ones that attempt to be the anti-philosophers. And I suspect that it is impossible to express oneself in music without feeling a sense of contribution, and thus of progress made in the collective bank of popular human wisdom. But to what end?

That's the key question. To what end, really? It's the question dealt with in many songs, directly or indirectly. For Muse the answer might be, "To an important end;" for Jem, "To the end of enjoyment." For NIN, "To my end" (or "To f you like an animal..."); for Modest Mouse, "Not to worry so much".

But as much as one might emphasize the diversity and difference in the answers, given or implied in secular music, there is as much in common. Comfort, respect, inner peace, truth, love, reality, fun, friends, justice, authenticity, sex, strength, honesty, escape, change, help, freedom, radicalism, kindness, tolerance: secular virtues with high premiums. It is a kind of chaotic eudaimonia that doesn't bother balancing these virtues or holding them together as one whole. Instead it screams out one or two as loud as it can at this moment, and then silences them and screams out another.

Again, to what end? At this point some might shout, "Why do you have to keep asking that question?" And that itself is one of the possible answers among many. But I place a high premium on going another level deeper until exhaustion, and this question seems the best way to do it. To what end? And toward an answer I believe I see one possible fundamental tension, a sort of perpetual motion machine that operates as the engine of the rock music industry.

No matter how good, a single song can only satisfy a very partial human emotional urge; if the urge is stronger than five minutes can fix, we replay it until we've had our fill and hunger for a different flavor or for silence. The above virtues I mentioned are just that, flavors; and we like the flavors as strong and undiluted as possible. Yet we never achieve anything like a sustainable satisfaction, nothing that carries us for quite as long as we would have wished. And so we turn, now to the righteous anger of Korn, now to the self-loathing of Linkin Park, now to the mischievious charm of Red Hot Chili Peppers. As we flip from theme to theme to theme, I think, three things happen; first, a little bit of hope, a little excitement, fresh with each subsequent song. A little bit of "Oh, yes, YES," in an erotic flirtation with infinity and an inexplicit wishfulness that it could only last forever. Then, a growing awareness that the rush of each song is a little less strong each time; the themes have all been cycled through, and we start to perceive via boredom that even art and human expression is not as infinite as we once supposed; and finally, a renewal of the excitement, via a song that we hadn't heard before (treating an old theme in a different way), or via a personal amnesia that gives an illusion of freshness that we welcome.

The perpetuity of the enjoyment of secular music is cyclical and amnesiatic rather than actually progressive or transcendent, and this is a sense that I believe artists and music fans are not entirely unaware of. It's precisely why you have groups like Beck and Gorillaz writing lyrics of apparent nonsense, or NIN and Manson writing shocker lyrics, both in their own way trying to break free of this pervasive and stultifying sense of the finitude of life. Kierkegaard fans will be with me on this--the aesthetic leaves one infinitely hungry.

Although there are happy songs, there is a kind of a sweet sadness attendant to being a secular music fan, even if one does happen to be, like me, an ardent Christian. Even in the enjoyment of the power of music there is the realization that it is a limited power and my hunger is not limited but goes on forever. It is precisely this phenomenon which creates the best music, but notice how music artists are not necessarily happier people than anybody else; ah, the frustration of trying to put the infinite into words and notes! To struggle to sing like gods, to grow exhausted and finally to wish to retreat back into the womb; yet the highest highs and lowest lows have been tread over a thousand times, and still no one has yet found the key to happiness and most people live in the world utterly without it, no less the music fans.

1 comment:

Matt of C G said...

Very personal, very relevant, very cool. I often sigh while listening to the radio and say to myself, "If they only knew the Truth." Then the passion of these auteurists would be transfigured and could be used to elevate Jesus Christ instead of subdue Him.

--"To what end?" Happens to be one my favorite phrases. That's why I haven't been to an Ozzfest since Rob Zombie and System of a Down first headlined together. I just couldn't relate.