One of my favourite parts of our family trip to Prince Edward Island this summer came from a travel playlist I put together from Rolling Stone magazine’s recent ranking of the 100 best songs of the century so far. (This is saying a lot, because this particular vacation was jam-packed with the most breathtaking offerings of food, scenery and Island culture). As the four of us drove from one seafood-chowder-destination to another iconic-lighthouse-view, we listened to each of Rolling Stone’s picks and then indulged our inner music critics to give our own rating to the songs. With one vote for each of us, the songs could receive anything from a zero to four-thumbs-up.
The results were fascinating. Very few songs on the playlist got a unanimous four. The ones that did tended to be either the undeniable fun of well-constructed pop (“Uptown Funk” or “Rolling in the Deep”) or else the visceral storytelling of country music, like Miranda Lambert’s “The House that Built Me” or “All too Well” by Taylor Swift (oh, how far I have come from the days when I would proudly declare that I like all kinds of music except country!). In the beginning of our musical odyssey, I was the only one who stuck up for the rap songs, but as we went along, my daughter Cecilia became more inclined to join me. Our shifting opinions on both country and rap remind me that the importance of listening before judging applies in a whole range of contexts. They also tell me that time and patience always go a long way in being able to see a thing’s true beauty.
We had one major fight. My husband and I are such huge Leonard Cohen fans that we were only partly joking when we threatened to pull the car over and make the kids walk back to Ontario when they voted down his masterpiece “You Want It Darker.” When Dan rationalized that “they just aren’t old enough to appreciate this,” that only made matters worse. Both kids were thoroughly insulted that we would question their maturity because of daring to hold a contrary opinion. And yet, the fact that they also voted down “Blackstar” by David Bowie and “Hurt” by Johnny Cash suggests that there really is something about getting older that allows us to receive those songs from the edge of the graveside as the haunting, mysterious and ultimately hopeful gift that they are.
Both the list itself and our family’s response to it left me with a profound sense of gratitude. It was special indeed to spend so many hours with three other people discussing music. And there was also an element of relief in my thanks. I have been a subscriber to Rolling Stone since my eighteenth birthday, but my faithfulness has often involved gritted teeth and angry letters to the editor (which never once got printed). For a magazine that so religiously purports to represent liberal values, it has mostly made female contributions to the rock canon seem a mere footnote (the same could be said for black and minority voices). How refreshing to see five of the top ten songs by female artists, with first and second place going to women of colour!
When St. Augustine pithily stated that “those who sing, pray twice,” I would argue that he is not just talking about adding our voices to hymns, choral mass settings, or even in today’s context, praise music and Christian rock. He is naming the act of shaping the vibrations of the physical world around us into melody and rhythm as inseparable from the creative activity of God at work in our world. He is claiming music as the most primitive and visceral (albeit not the only) opening to a conversation with the One who made us. He is echoing a belief that prevailed down through the centuries, even into the Enlightenment, that the whole universe is designed according to the intervals of harmonic sound, that if we just listen closely enough, become still for a moment, we can hear the infinite expanse of space humming with a melody so compelling, with harmonies so pure, that we will know in that sound the voice of God. Nobody believes in this theory of the “Music of the Spheres” today. And yet, it also expresses a truth that is too lovely, too poetically succinct, to be anything but true.
This is what I heard in Rolling Stone’s top 100 list, and this is what I received in my family’s conversation: prayer. Prayer is in courageous and creative and diverse voices wrestling with those basic questions — why are we here? what is this life for? who am I? how do I respond? Prayer is in the softening and broadening opinions of my family as we let these voices speak to us. Prayer is in ragged beauty that takes time to become apparent. Prayer is in our gut response, in our deeply felt opinions, in our daring to share those opinions knowing our disagreements always get trumped by love.
Prayer is nothing more nor less than conversation with God. Maybe we don’t think of it as sounding even like explicit lyrics, with topics ranging from sex and drugs to grace and death, spoken in the languages of pop, country, rap, dancehall, rhythm and blues, folk, and techno. But we should. If we listen, we’ll hear again of a God who is big enough to hold us — all of us; the promise that if we run to the ends of the earth, even to the rawest and realest of places, God will meet us there. Especially if we are lucky enough to have a few others to listen along with us, we’ll hear a word that is ancient and true and whose sweet music still rings in our ears.