When we speak of “pop” music, we are using shorthand to describe “popular” music. Yet I cannot help but think of “pop” as in soda pop, the teeth-rotting sugar water we guzzle by the barrel. St. Paul Harvey once said, “The best thing you can say about soda pop is that it is worthless.” I think the same can be said for pop music. The best that can be said about it is that it is worthless.
I am not a musician, and while I worked in radio broadcasting for many years and through that made friends in the music industry, I really don’t have a grasp on how it works. But I do know how the book industry works, and there are similarities. There are steps to follow if you want your novel to be popular and sell well. Don’t make it too challenging to read. Write at a fourth grade level. Have your plot follow well-worn paths. Make sure it is all wrapped up in a nice red ribbon at the end. If it can all be done in Amish country, so much the better.
Books that challenge the reader to, shudder, think don’t sell as well. Three of my favorite novels (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Historian, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) are not cookie-cutter books. They didn’t follow the formula needed to be successful. They show more than they tell, and that means the reader has to take ownership in the stories in order to keep up with the authors. Yet these are books that have become good friends of mine, books I revisit time and time again. They are books that have challenged me. And, in the case of Jonathan Strange, have drawn me closer to God.
I don’t waste my time with pop books. Nor do I listen to pop music. Life is too short to waste reading books with two-dimensional characters who have no bearing on real life. Or to listen to music based on a ‘hook’ just to get it radio airplay. Neither to me is art.
Most popular music is not art, just as most popular books are not art. To create art, one must first ask four questions:
1. Who are we?
2. Why are we here?
3. What has gone wrong?
4. How do we get back?
Easy questions to answer, right? Artists need to study philosophy and religion as well as their medium in order to create great works. Otherwise they end up creating “pop” art that may sell, but will never reach into anyone’s soul.
This has all been a long road just to get to this: The new Over the Rhine album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, is a true work of art. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the husband-and-wife team that is Over the Rhine, have never followed a paved path in their 20-plus year career. They have always cut their own trail. In their new release they use the canvas of their pre-Civil War farmhouse to paint a picture of love, doubt, pain, despair and delight.
They call their land in southern Ohio where they live “Nowhere Farm,” which can either be pronounced “nowhere” or “now here.” Karin said, “When Linford’s father, a birder all his life, first saw the farm, he encouraged us to ‘leave the edges wild.’ That became an important metaphor for us on a number of different levels, and that line appears on this record in several places.” Perfectly said.
The instrumentation is spare but perfect to match Karin’s voice, which is perhaps the best instrument used. This is not soda pop music. It is bourbon, and not entirely smooth going down. These songs burn.
Why we don’t have music that is art, that really touches the soul, in our churches today is a question for another time. I do know I can’t stomach pop worship tunes any longer. And especially not after listening to this gem from OtR.
If I only have the choice between pop music and silence, please give me silence. For now, I’m thankful that I have art like Meet Me At The Edge of the world to turn to.