Part of my overall project with this blog is thinking through what it would mean for the church – and by “church” I mean the various Christian churches in the United States – really to wrestle with contemporary society and culture on its own terms and in its own idiom. We in the churches are, by and large, older and – let’s be honest – out of touch with what is currently popular. Oh, we might sit around the television at night and watch various popular television shows. What we do not do, however, is make ourselves really aware of what our youth hear, and understand how that might well impact them, their lives, and their relationship with one another and the churches of which they are a part. Denying this reality, or simply dismissing it – or worse, denouncing it without consideration – does no one any good. Offering the alternative of “Contemporary Christian Music” is becoming more and more problematic precisely because it is more formulaic, less meaningful, with more and more of the songs sounding the same without actually saying anything that might speak to the lives of our youth.
Part of our problem is we are the wrong demographic for cultural products aimed at youth and young adults. I don’t mean that we’re Christian. I mean that the leadership of our churches is older, white, and – can we admit it? – out of touch. When was the last time any of us purposely listened to a Top 40 radio station when one of our kids wasn’t in the car? When was the last time we set aside whatever our personal preferences might be and heard what is around us, yet not heard because we refuse to listen? In refusing to listen, aren’t we denying the very real world our youth and young people inhabit? How can we connect with them if we deny that reality as a legitimate expression of human living in the world?
The number one Hip-Hop/R&B song for the week is Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”.
Right off, that’s a title that’s guaranteed to separate the ages, the races, and bring about enormous shouts of condemnation. Yet, if we listen to the song – I mean really listen – this is little more than a song saying, “Goodbye”, to a woman. What’s interesting are the musical interludes that seem at least to hint that, in fact, he hasn’t quite said all his goodbyes. After one, he even whispers, “Focus”. That the language is a particular vernacular that might shock, perhaps even offend, is less a reflection of the crudity of contemporary culture as it is just a mark of different comfort levels with particularly public expressions that include vulgarities. I mean, at the end of the day, this song is little different from Scandal’s “Goodbye To You”:
That one is from back when I was in a demographic pop music aimed at. It’s perky, it’s got those 80’s-sounding keyboards, its rhythms are simple and direct, and most of all it is so white it’s almost transparent. Musically, it has a different groove and vibe than Big Sean. Lyrically, it might seem miles away, but really it is just expressing the same sentiment. Our youth and young people, however, have become far more comfortable with vernacular in their songs.
Another song in the Top Ten is Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga”:
A song filled with references to drug dealing, violence, and death, I can only say these are themes that have been around in American folk and popular song since long before they emerged in Hip Hop. I mean, the following song is considered a classic
Here’s a song about a man killing his woman because he discovered she’s cheating on him. Please explain to me how it’s OK for folks to think this is a “great” song, yet click their tongues at “Hot Nigga”, which revels in the same themes of violence and death. If you watch the Hendrix video, his performance is so sexual – including playing the guitar with his tongue in a way that should be clear to everyone – that the scandalous nature should be clear enough to everyone. Particularly in the context of his times (the late 1960’s) a young African-American man expressing both violence and sexuality through song would have been dangerous on so many different social and cultural levels, particular since Jimi’s audience was predominantly white.
Finally, there’s Beyonce.
This is little more than a dance song with instructions. Kind of like this:
What this middle aged white guy, for whom this music seems as alien in many ways as something from eight hundred or nine hundred years ago – because it isn’t music meant for me, or that is even supposed to mean anything to me – is that, in fact, popular music continues to revisit familiar themes, from break-ups through violence and death to just having a good time. All folks my age who complain about how awful contemporary music is need to recognize it isn’t bad.
It isn’t for us. And that’s OK. That does mean we need to work to listen, and understand, and reflect upon the contemporary idiom rather than condemn it. We need to attend to the ways our youth and young adults express their feelings, reflect upon their lives, or even just have a good time through the music they like. Understanding isn’t approval. It is, however, the first step toward moving away from simple condemnation and toward a more open, lively communication between the ages, races, and genders.