Saturday, April 15, 2017

Not a religious song

A few years ago some poor Christian shared his love for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on some social media I was reading at the time. He was promptly shat upon by also sorts of people who assured him that the song was not a religious song but a love song.

I think they're wrong. I think it and many other Paul Simon's songs are religious songs. That's the key to his success—that he writes religious songs for an era that loves religious music but doesn't want this music to be too on the nose. Simon sometimes puts overt religion in the music while leaving ambivalence and existential angst in the lyrics. It works surprisingly well. When I was a kid and folk masses were in vogue his "Sounds of Silence" was a popular choice and it worked surprisingly well.

It worked because it has no theology about it. Leonard Cohen songs, as has been noted here previously, don't work in Christian liturgy precisely because they come with their own theology and that theology clashes with ours. But "Sound of Silence" has so little theology it may as well have none. It works like a psalm, expressing a yearning for something the singer himself doesn't grasp, probably because he doesn't, Simon's efforts to explain what the song is about are confused and confusing, little wonder that many people concluded it was a young person struggling to talk with God.

The purely musical "religion" in "Sound of Silence" consists in its being very hymn-like; it's in a minor key like many Jewish hymns and it has irresistible call to sing along. The musical connection is much more obvious in "Bridge Over Troubled Water, with its gospel influence, and "American Tune" above, which notoriously borrows its melody from Bach's famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. When I first figured this out as a teenager it got me wondering about the line, "We come in the age’s most uncertain hour." On the one hand, Paul Simon obviously didn't mean Christ's crucifixion when he wrote "the age's most uncertain hour." On the other hand, once you've made that connection, it's impossible not to hear it that way ever after.

So ... what?

Well, that's the nature, and the limitation, os so many pop songs. Robert Christgau wrote once about a teenage girl who thought that the Beatles song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," was about how life was an "eerie, perverted circus." He was quite certain that wasn't what it was about for the Beatles, and it wasn't, but who is to tell a teenage girl it isn't about life being an "eerie, perverted circus for her?

But here's a challenge, try thinking hard about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite". You can sorta see the "eerie, perverted circus" aspect of it in the music. You can see it most clearly in the weird circusy interlude, which is a straight steal from the Doors version of Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song", released just a few months before the Beatles began recording Sergeant Pepper. But what about the lyrics? What can you here in theme? As is the case with just about all John Lennon's lyrics, what you here is nothing at all. As others have noted before me, Lennon specialized in a kind of easy going nihilism. The more closely you pay attention to his lyrics, the less meaning they have.

That's not true of Paul Simon. Many of his songs walk up to the precipice of nihilism but there is a spiritual yearning in them, a craving for God that is there whether he means it to be or not. The teenager who heard an "eerie, perverted circus" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was just projecting teenage angst. Paul Simon was doing something more.

And it still resonates today. As a political ad, the following is empty. Literally empty. I defy you to find any coherent message in it.

But read it as a psalmist crying out for something lost, and you'll start to see possibilities. Possibilities that Bernie Sanders is scared to actually say out loud. For starters, this has to be the whitest political ad ever made. The first non-white person to appear in it is going down a line of white people giving them all the high five! As if the only reason they included her was so she could celebrate whiteness. The imagery, moreover, is all white America. The non-whites are there only to add colour. Bernie grasped, as Paul Simon grasped years before him, that White, Christian America was slipping away. Why? Big question. Too big for here. The important thing is that you could feel it toppling and people were forming sides between those who wanted to try and prop it up and those who wanted to rush around the other side and push it over faster.

If you're one of those who wants to try and save or regain America, and I'll come out of the closet as one myself, the thing you cannot escape is that there was a religious element to America. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”.

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