This Is Your Heart On Music

soda popWhen 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.”ย 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.

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51 thoughts on “This Is Your Heart On Music

  1. Katherina, nobody’s saying the Beatles aren’t overrated. Anybody that famous has to be. But their music is still good, and proof of that is how much it continues to resonate with people who weren’t even there. I just don’t think my grandchildren are gonna discover Miley Cyrus and wonder how magical it was to be alive during that time. Oh, and a good half of the classics produced in the 60’s had nothing to do with white men.

    Oh, and please, not all dumb songs about sex are equal. Songs about sex are older than the Old Testament. There’s a good way to do them, and then their’s audio porn. The sexual revolution may have instigated the decline in songwriting quality, but the music of the time has already proved its enduring qualities. The guys singing dumb songs about sex when I was 17 were trash and already forgotten. I’ll hear rather the dumb songs from when my dad was 17.

    Robert, sometimes the most brilliant geniuses get away with the most pitiful lines. But there’s a difference between the artist who can get away with that and the “artist” who can’t do anything else.

    Here’s my favorite cover of Eleanor Rigby:


  2. I was thinking about Eleanor Rigby earlier and meant to include that.

    There’s a comment stuck in moderation above where I throw in the towel to you, but somehow try to prove my point anyway with Cocker singing Come Together. Definitely a matter of taste, good or bad.


  3. Don’t get me wrong. I love rock. I don’t particularly care about whether it’s something called “art” or not. A lot of it goes in one ear, out the other, like commercial ditties; that includes the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al.

    But there are moments of great beauty in rock. “Eleanor Rigby” is a gem of compressed literary genius, and the music is just as beautiful and brilliant.

    And of the first lines of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”

    “The screen door slams
    Mary’s dress waves.
    Like a vision she dances
    across the porch
    as the radio plays

    Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
    Hey, that’s me and I want you only
    Don’t turn me home again
    I just can’t face myself alone again.”

    I can only say : if that isn’t poetry, what is?


  4. Not to detract from important discussions about aesthetics, but, Jeff, I loved The Historian! I’ve never found anyone else who has read it. It combines three of my favorite things in a book: length, weight, and vampires.


  5. Joe Cocker’s cover (absolutely brilliant!) of Ringo’s attempt: Woodstock, 1969. Aw, let’s blame everything on the ‘sixties…


  6. All right, Robert, you win:

    Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
    He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller
    He got hair down to his knee
    Got to be a joker he just do what he please

    But here’s Joe Cocker doing it in Across the Universe:

    I mean, Cocker could even patch up the mess Ringo made of A Little Help From My Friends.

    Proving that the Beatles is art, not pop. I guess.


  7. “”…I am the Egg Man,
    They are the Egg Men,
    I am the Walrus…..”

    Goo goo ga choo…”

    Profound, man. Hey, don’t bogart that joint, my friend!!


  8. I think the exaggerated reverence for the Beatles and other white dudes in their 60s faves is laughable. I am a musician, too, before someone starts condescending about it. It’s clearly based on personal perspective and nostalgia. Nothing wrong with that. But own it. Don’t act like the guys singing dumb songs about sex when you were 17 are inherently superior to all other guys who sing dumb songs about sex.


  9. Never. I drove just once on the NJ turnpike and shall never do that again.

    Simon & Garfunkel were wrong. They did not all come to look for America. They’re trying to ruin it.


  10. Sigh.

    Sorry, I can’t call “Satisfaction” or “Paint it Black” (Stones) or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “For No One”, “Revolution” or “Yesterday” (Beatles) pop.

    Folk art. National treasures, even though I ain’t British.

    Pop is to folk/rock as rap is to reggae. I can tell the difference; if I can’t stand it, it’s pop or rap.


  11. “I wanna hold your hand….”

    “She was just seventeen…”

    “Roll over Beethoven……”

    “Let’s spend the night together…”

    “I bet your Mama don’t know you scratch like that….”

    “Some girls just like to (expletive deleted) all night…”

    Beatles and Rolling Stones were not all gold.

    Some people, musicians among them, would blame groups like the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, for the fast slide into consistent crap that popular musical culture has taken (I can’t argue with you about that; Arcadia Fire are not really popular, though they use stylings developed out of popular music), and they would identify the 60’s as the decade when it started.

    One thing for certain: at the time they were released, the Beatles’ songs were popular music, pop music; that pop music has degraded in quality in the ensuing decades is obvious. Jeff did not qualify his statement by saying that he dislikes current pop music; he made a blanket statement in which he said that he doesn’t listen to any, any pop music. The Beatles wrote and played pop music. If Jeff listens to the Beatles, he listens to pop music.


  12. Not convinced. It doesn’t have to be all black and white. There was no curse placed on the industry preventing the most sincere of musicians from producing good music. It’s just fewer and further between these days. Wilco and Arcadia Fire are indie styled, which is a response to the lack of depth in the industry. The indie sound has come to the forefront in response to a need that mainstream pop lost the ability to address. Yes there are sub-genres, but Jeff is clearly not given a blanket condemnation of anything that’s sold a few records in the last 50 years. You’d have to be crazy not to recognize the preponderance of disposable crap being foisted upon our youth culture by the merchants of cool these days, spanning multiple sub-genres. It’s not that contemporary music must suck. It’s just that artistic creativity, as Mule has phrased something similar, has withered under the scorching breath of the algorithm.

    If Pachabell, Handel, Vivaldi, AND Bach were all a bunch of hacks (which they weren’t), it would still be justifiable to say the Baroque period was a low point in music history even if Purcell was brilliant. The dominant ethos of the period would collectively outweigh him.

    You’re gonna have a really hard time convincing me that pop music doesn’t suck just because older and niche sub-genres contain notable exceptions. It’s not like Wilco is receiving a ton of radio play (but maybe they do: I almost completely tuned it out). Just ask yourself: what are the standout songs of the last ten years? Who is going down in music history for what they produced? Compare that to previous decades. You will find it gets better as you go further back.


  13. Yeah I mean, that’s like saying that because Pachelbel was a bit of a hack, Bach wasn’t really a baroque composer. There can be better pop and worse pop, being relatively better composed doesn’t make something not-pop.


  14. I know you’re the musical expert and all, but I think that’s an erroneous argument. The crappy music you’re talking about is loosely called pop by radio industry people who don’t know any better, but they are all separate sub-genres of pop music. Oldies are a sub-genre of pop, as well.

    And there are still people making good pop music, the ones I’m most familiar with are pop rock, like Arcade Fire and Wilco.


  15. Ted is right on. These days, we actually have a different genre for those groups. It’s called “oldies.” They were pop at one time. But they didn’t change: pop did, and it went straight for the gutter. Those groups, even if you hate them, simply do not belong in the same category as what gets airplay on today’s hits radio. Back then, pop artist made music. Today, pop simply regurgitates recycled and remixed manufactured hooks. It’s not art, and it’s not music. Listen to techno: It is clearly not for listening pleasure. Techno is produced strictly for dancing. Now listen to pop: It’s become techno with lyrics, if you want to call them that. Still not music. Just a glorified metronome for clubbing purposes. Oldies are with listening to on their own merit, even if you, like me, hate dancing.


  16. But the Zen landscape painters would definitely have laughed if you described what they did as “art”; they were students of artlessness, of getting, or letting, themselves out of the way, of disappearing,so that the paintings could paint themselves. What you see in the work they produced is not art, but the artless beauty of reality.

    So they do not, in fact, defy your four questions, because they were not-artists.

    Would that we had more not-artists of their kind.


  17. I think the problem is more the corporatisation of pop culture rather than in the nature of pop culture itself. Shakespeare’s plays were pop culture in their day, after all.


  18. keep it, Robert F.
    polish it and protect it…

    I saw that there was a concert called
    “Now and Zen”

    there is a conflict in the mix, however…


  19. I love OTR too. Can’t beat lyrics like this in terms of thought-provoking, from “What I’ll Remember Most”:

    “You were 80% angel, 10% demon, the rest was hard to explain
    This American dream may be poisonous, violence is contagious
    Crowded or empty, I walk these city streets alone
    Whoever brought me here is gonna have to take me home”

    (Over The Rhine – What I’ll Remember Most)


  20. I don’t think Samuel Beckett tried to answer those four question, or even started with them. Yet, Waiting for Godot, as well as his novels, are among the greatest literature of the 20th century, nothing pop about it.

    In Zen landscape painting, none of these questions are engaged, either. Zen landscape painting reveals the balance and sufficiency of things as they are, where surface and depth are indistinguishable, and no striving appears, or disappears.

    And yet it is among the best painting in the world, luminous, evocative, mysterious, ordinary. No questions are asked, none are answered. Everything is there to be seen or not.


  21. Jeff,
    You don’t listen to pop music? Am I wrong in thinking that you are a big Beatles fan? And the Rolling Stones, too?


  22. …absolutely. And the reason those are more of a hard sell these days is because Evangelical culture dogmatically resists anything that demands critical thought. Evangelicals want to sound cool and feel good on Sunday morning. Text is really a peripheral concern, and aesthetics are not even on the radar. Just give me that catchy tune from the radio!

    I find myself waging war against this mentality in my parish on a daily basis. It can be exhausting and frustrating and depressing and seemingly futile… yet my conscience will never allow me to go down without a fight.

    Feel free to continue borrowing those great hymns of the faith from us Protestants, Jeff! We’ve forgotten most of them, so it would be nice if somebody dusts them off every now and then. ๐Ÿ˜›


  23. This is why choral settings of the texts of scripture will always be the best music humankind has ever produced. The text is profound and sets the ethos, but could just as easily be considered a superfluous series of syllables serving as a springboard for the composer to write something that sounds great. He who listens with faith receives nourishment for his soul, yet he who listens without faith is still filled with inspiration.

    if you have a ‘music pastor’, really that is his primary job, to pet the music people

    I fell off the sofa laughing. Oh, the multiple levels of truth to that one. I do indeed spend a good deal of time “petting the music people.” I’m going to use that phrase whenever I’m dealing with a primma donna. Fortunately, the vast majority of my “music people” are simply good-hearted volunteers who just need a little encouragement from time to time. There is an art form to effective petting.


  24. [if you have a ‘music pastor’, really that is his primary job, to pet the music people].

    They’re not called “Music Pastors”, they’re called WORSHIP Leaders or WORSHIP Pastors.

    Because The Pretty Ones Looking Good On Stage (with all the rock concert-level audio and graphics and stage gear) are called WORSHIP.


  25. I’ve been a huge OtR fan for over two decades, and just had the privilege of seeing them at Calvin College about a week ago. Their music is incredible (and even better live)!

    Linford shared that part of their hope is for their music to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’ll preach!


  26. I had a very apophatic entrance into the kingdom. It involved having my soul restored- dethroning self, preceeded by turning off culture( so to speak). No more music in the ears, cultural images, like TV. I now see some prevenient things that were happening, but turning the garbage off prepared me for letting some very helpful man-made art in( Wesley sermons…contemporary Christian). It was, in the words of Mule Chewing Briars, a dramatic spirit filled baptism.


  27. >And good art is usually too specific for that.

    Agree completely. To price of ‘success’ is that one has to be generic.

    How many ‘profound’ socially conscious rock songs lyrically boil down to “can’t we all just get along?” Answer: Clearly not. Next.


  28. >He accepted the displeasure he experienced from these hymns as a kind of
    >discipline and mortification of his will and appetite.

    I have read his brief foray into this topic many times, over and over. It had been very helpful as I have much the same feelings about music as he expressed. This ‘passage’ of his helped me get through many interminable church meetings.

    I would love a church that had *none* [music]. I’m tired of music, listening to people debate music, argue about music, and all the massive infrastructure [including the egos] required to make music. I’m tired of watching the pretty girl who is not really very nice at all get preferential treatment – honestly – solely because she looks good on stage [if you have a ‘music pastor’, really that is his primary job, to pet the music people].

    I’m almost where the author of this post is – pop music is [*almost*] entirely bad poetry. But I’d go further – music, of any category, is [*almost*] entirely comprised of failed poetry. That is why you need to add a beat and a tune, because it cannot stand on its own. You need to add noise to tell you how to feel about the words as the words themselves cannot get you there. I’ve heard a lot of the music that music people like, and NPR people like, and popular music… meh, the quality is all about the same. There are gems among the ash, but there is a whole lot of ash.


  29. C. S. Lewis intensely disliked the hymns sung in Anglican churches where he worshiped. I believe he said that he considered most of them third rate poetry set to fourth rate music. He dreaded them.

    At the same time, he felt that, as he said, if the laborer in black boots across the aisle from him could visibly derive so much from them these hymns, and sing them with such gusto and devotion, it was incumbent on him to put aside his own preferences and likes in recognizing a greater purpose to church music and singing than meeting the canons of his own personal taste.

    He accepted the displeasure he experienced from these hymns as a kind of discipline and mortification of his will and appetite.

    But then, I don’t believe Lewis wrote much about “art”‘; he did write about what he considered great music or great literature, etc. But I think the idea of a category of cultural expressions grouped together under the word “art” is a very modern phenomena, and although he lived in modern times, Lewis was, as he said, a “dinosaur.”


  30. No. As I said, great art begins with the artist asking him/herself those questions. No art is going to answer all four; very little art will even come close to answering one. It is the questioning by the artist that is the genesis for great art.


  31. Not sure if this is what you mean, but it sounds like you are saying that good art is always trying to answer a question (and not just any question, but one of a number of quite specific questions). Is that what you mean?


  32. I’m enjoying Meet Me At the Edge of the World. It’s taking a bit long to warm up to especially since I usually just listen to music now with it in the background – for OtR I need to actively listen in order for it to sink in.

    Jeff – if you’ve never seen them live, I encourage you to go. Their concerts are a kind of magic.

    But I would push back on one part. Can you give an example of some good music art that would be good for a worship service? To use Over the Rhine, I can’t think of a good example. Bits of various songs would work (thinking of the chorus of “Changes Come” for example) but I am not sure if whole songs would work for corporate worship – mostly because I get the sense that if a worship song deals with our response to God it needs to be generic/widely applicable to the worshipers. And good art is usually too specific for that.

    (Ok, that last part is rambling and I probably couldn’t communicate things better even with a decent amount of sleep in me ๐Ÿ˜ฆ (you blog authors make the writing look too easy))

    There is all this untouched beauty
    The light the dark both running through me
    Is there still redemption for anyone


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