A Taste for Too-Big Songs
I get cravings for music the way I sometimes get cravings for salt and vinegar chips. A song or an album comes into my head, and my auditory taste buds salivate until I get to hear it.
That’s how Throwing Copper by the band Live came to be on my fall playlist. For a time, and around the release of this album in 1994, Live was the hottest band on the planet. My obsession with them was much more long-lived than their time on the top of the charts. My dear friend Kira and I went to see them a number of times (some of the stories attached to those times would best be covered in a separate blog) and we greeted each album release with awe and wonder.
Throwing Copper was Live’s third album, the one that launched them into mass popularity and apparently was also well received by the critics of the day. Listening to it now, I can say (with regret) that the album doesn’t hold up. The melodies are as warm and reassuring to me as a warm bath. My auditory taste buds thrill to hear it again. But it also undeniably has some of the worst lyrics I have ever heard. I’m not sure there could be anything more pretentious than a male alt-rocker warbling in all seriousness,
“Lightning crashes, a new mother cries
Her placenta falls to the floor
The angel opens her eyes, the confusion sets in
Before the doctor can even close the door.” (italics, mine)
My twelve-year-old daughter was in the car with me when another of the songs from the album popped up. This one — White, Discussion — was not a hit, but it had seemed especially meaningful to me when I wasn’t much older than her. She politely asked that we turn off the music and talk instead, and when I questioned her on her opinion of this beloved song, she did a piercingly accurate impression of Ed Kowalzyck’s overly-intense falsetto.
Her laughing and my cringing aside, I couldn’t help but to join in passionately with each song as it came up and to feel both happy about, and nostalgic for, my sixteen-year-old self. I’m glad that my coming-of-age years were accompanied by an overly-intense falsetto and by lyrics that tried to say too much. Listening now, I hear the all-consuming crushes I had on boys who I was never sure actually noticed me, as well as the awkward break-ups and rejections I had to negotiate in that dance of raging emotions and mostly unrequited love that defines the teenaged years for most of us. I hear the confusion of navigating female friendships, ever-shifting alliances between various girlfriends as we sought to bare our hearts to one another, claim soul mates, but also assert what little amounts of power we could over one another. I hear my own self-righteous anger about injustices I was beginning to understand in the world and perceived injustices I myself thought I was experiencing. I hear my confused relationship with my parents, sure that they couldn’t possibly understand me and also just as sure that they their eternally welcoming embrace could fix any ill. I hear that barely-beneath-the-surface dawning knowledge of mortality that is so much a part of being a teenager; I hear the teenaged insistence that those boundaries of our own mortality be tested with varying degrees of foolishness. And maybe most especially, I hear a spirituality and sense of call that was just being awakened in me. The world, I was sure, was a broken place, and we were a misguided people, and also I was full of wonder and intensity and hope and passion and knew more than anything that I needed to be the kind of person to make a difference.
Others will say that their experience of the nineties is accompanied by Nirvana or Pearl Jam or REM, and certainly they factored into my teenaged soundtrack too and pop up on occasional playlists now. Live would go on to write better lyrics than these ones about falling placentas. But I am nonetheless grateful that the falling placentas of that warbling too-big song ended up being the soundtrack for my most formative years. I’m glad that the bubblegum pop of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and NSync got to play the airwaves in the years that I was trying to pretend I was carefree (in retrospect, I realize that I mostly was). There actually isn’t anything carefree about being a teenager. It’s all growing body parts and out-of-control chemical reactions taking over our bodies and trying to process large quantities of information about the world and negotiating a variety of possible identities in order to figure out who we are and who we will be.
I’m glad that I had music that tried to say too much, songs that were way too big, to help me negotiate those realities. Lightning Crashes yearns to name in the tragedy and seemingly randomness of life an overarching meaning, that out of our mistakes and failures comes new possibility, that our patterns of death and life are fundamentally connected to one another, that death is needed in order to make room for something new. All of the raging emotions with which my heart pulses, those emotions that make it so hard to negotiate love and friendship and that lead my seeking whatever else may be out there, those emotions and heartbreaks have all been felt before. My perceived aloneness is just that, a perception.
It turns out that my taste for too-big songs has only gotten stronger into adulthood. Week by week, and often day by day, I get to invite our faith community into all of the too-big songs that we offer in the average worship service: songs about life and death, crosses and suffering, sin and redemption, principalities, powers, the shedding of blood and the promise of resurrection. Every time we bless the bread and wine of Communion, we invite the whole congregation to join in singing words that try to say everything:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts
Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
In some important sense, the Sanctus (as we call this) speaks to the teenager in each of us, right through all of the things we think we have figured out and into the vulnerable, searching place still inside us. At this point in our worship service we have been invited to lay our souls bare before God, to get honest about our own need and brokenness, and at this moment, it is all getting gathered and raised up into this one song that insists that the ugliness and pain and failings of our lives are not separate from God’s glory, but even now being claimed and redeemed by God’s love and light. Many of us will cross ourselves in the second part of this song, “Blessed is the one…”. For Christians, that blessed one is Jesus, our path and promise. And we cross ourselves as a sign of our invitation to share in that identity. God’s name is written on my heart too. I get to be part of how Jesus is still present and leading among us. Hosanna in the highest!
The best thing about our church’s too-big songs is that I don’t ever sing them alone. We claim that all of the company of heaven joins is with us when we sing. The Sanctus, in particular, becomes for us a ‘thin place,’ one of those spaces where the veil between this life and the next flutters perceptibly. At various moments through our worship services, and especially at that moment, I could swear that I can hear more voices joining in than the number merely represented in the visible congregation before me.
I wonder if I could have become the person and priest and mother that I did if I had grown up to different songs. I am very aware that I need our church’s songs now in order to keep growing up. My favourite part in revisiting these well-worn songs from my youth has been the realization that I’m still that same girl that I was at sixteen, needing songs that will try desperately to say everything, even if that attempt inevitably fails. My heart still pulses with love that feels risky and uncontainable. I know the cost of love and the truth of death in a different way, and I also know how new life keeps bubbling up in the most surprising places. I worry about politics and climate change and church growth and decline and being those arms of unconditional welcome for my own kids. I want them to feel seen and understood, and I am all too aware of how I sometimes fail them. My mixtapes of the nineties are gone and my car playlists include music of all kinds, with a favouring of those that are too big and still try to say too much.