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Let’s try this again.

I have been thinking periodically about my poor, orphaned project of last summer, and I’d like to give it another shot.  Firstly, apologies to the zero readers who may have been joyously anticipating my dissection of their favorite contemporary Christian hits from the nineties.  If you know my life situation, then you’re aware that I undertook a major project at an immensely stupid time.  Suffice to say, everything in my life exploded (purposefully) last summer and, however happy that made me, it put me in a position where frivolous writing projects were not an undertaking that I had the energy for.

So why, you may ask, do I wish to start again?  Quite simply, I want to earn my increments.  I’ve been considering Christianity and its impact on my life in some depth since before I tried to start this project the last time, and the rhetoric classes that I have been taking (and will complete shortly, at the time of this writing) have helped me to crystallize some of what has been going on in my head.  I’ve deleted the initial post in this series because it is overlong (which is pretty amazing if you consider how long this is) and goes into too many details, but I’d like to clarify my problems with Christianity and reposition myself as a skeptical atheist who still sees some useful tools from the religion of my youth.

You see, no atheist (at least, no atheist from a religious society) is a pure atheist, absent of influence.  Atheists in American society have been raised in a religious context, and those contexts influence the shape that each individual’s atheism will take. Deconversion requires an active disavowal of the prior belief system, and frequently people depart from that belief system without realizing that the ideologies inherent to that belief system remain in their DNA, giving form to what their future ideologies will be.  The deep conservatism that molds the atheism of much of the skeptical movement, with its intolerance for differing epistemologies and its continuing suspicion of female and minority bodies, is rooted in the conservative Christianity that has so wounded many skeptics.  (That intolerance, in turn, is rooted within a patriarchal society that bends theistic and nontheistic ideologies alike, but I’ll save that for my honors thesis.)  I have wondered why so many atheists are so hostile to postmodernism, which appears to me to be a thoroughly skeptical project in that it questions the established paradigms and permits many bodies to express their lived experiences.  In the end, though, I think that hostility can be found in the intolerance of conservative Christianity for competing stories.  Things are either true or not true, with no room for the subtlety of degrees.  If it is true that Christianity, along with other theistic religions, is sorely mistaken about the source of reality, then Christianity must be inaccurate about everything else, and must be rejected wholesale.  As a postmodernist skeptic, I would argue that every worldview maintains both accurate and inaccurate views, and to discard the entirety of Christianity and scorn Christians based solely upon their likely inaccuracy about the existence of a deity is to engage in the greatest hubris.  Earn your increments!  Every ideology that every person hews to is full of inconsistencies and it is both possible and necessary for people to question and acknowledge the baggage that comes with ideology.  As Dan Fincke at Patheos says, “You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.”

My rejection of Christianity was not based upon evidence or lack thereof, seeing as I abandoned it for neopaganism, which has an equal amount of evidence for its own accuracy (that being none).  I think, in retrospect, that my rejection of Christianity was predicated upon its utter failure to describe anything like my experience with the world, with my faith, and with other people.  The way that I would phrase it now is simple: Christianity, as I was raised to understand it, was insufficiently radical.  I could see glimmers of something worth salvaging in the faith, for sure.  They were there in the extraordinary kindness and patience of a boyfriend who essentially nursed my broken being into some semblance of health after a prior abusive relationship; while I would now attribute this to his own essentially kind and patient nature, I connected this to the unconditional love of Christ at the time, and I was probably onto something without understanding why. I could see them in the way that I was not the only woman I knew who found solace after violence in church communities.  They were present in my absolute failure to internalize the hatred that was endemic to the brand of evangelicalism in which I was raised; the problem wasn’t that I was insufficiently Christian, but that I had taken much more seriously the Christ who hung on the cross than the Christ who exploded the bodies of nonbelievers in Left Behind.  Those who taught me—despite the deep conservatism of their own religious and personal morality—inadvertently managed to tend within me the seeds of radical reconfiguration that were the very root of Christ’s ministry.

However, since I had been taught to equate Christ with the Christianity that hated queer folk and women, that had no tolerance for anyone who questioned the (pseudo-) literal truth of the Bible, I abandoned Christ and Christianity, not realizing that I still carried that idea of Christ within me and desperately wanted to live up to it.  I still wanted, and want, to be like the gentle Jesus who has been subsumed by the greed-enabling warmongerer touted by the religious right in the United States (whatever problems there are with the character notwithstanding; he is a complex figure).  I don’t have to pray to him to want to be like him, or even to think that he existed; there are fictional characters who have profoundly influenced my life even while I acknowledge that they are fictional.  Christ was a central figure in my formative years, and he doesn’t have to have been real in the physical sense to have an impact upon who I am and how I conduct myself.

It was not only my teachers who inculcated this gentle Jesus within me.  It was, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, the music to which I listened.  I was shaped by Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition” and by DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak”; I was shaped by “It Is Well With My Soul.”  I was formed by Tony Vincent’s discussion of emotional manhood in “Real Men Don’t Cry” and by the exultant joy in the universe of Avalon’s “Testify to Love.”  I am a product of the contemporary Christian music of the 1990s as much as I am of the secular culture of the time, if not moreso, and I refuse to pretend that this isn’t important to me.  Rather than letting the Christian Right claim the good that I have carried within me as a result of my religious upbringing, I want to reclaim it and name it for what it is: a positive fruit of a largely negative culture.  They couldn’t drill into my head that Christianity is a religion of love without it sinking in, like it or not, and I do not need to accept Jesus-as-God to acknowledge that he is a crucial aspect of my understanding of love today.  Love isn’t theirs alone; it’s mine as well.  That matters to me.  (This is not to say that a background in religion is required for someone to truly understand love; all I am saying is that my religious background had an impact upon my understanding.)

The positive, however, does not negate the often-trite and sometimes-hateful messages contained within the music of my childhood.  I cannot reclaim the songs listed above without also acknowledging the racism of Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Burn the Ships,” the eerie militarism of his “For The Sake of the Call,” or the grotesque bigotry of “Heaven in the Real World.”  (Yes, I don’t like Chapman.  Can you tell?)  I cannot discuss the gentle Jesus without acknowledging the violent premillennial dispensationalism that underpins Glenn Campbell’s “The Four Horsemen” or the terrifying martial mindset behind much of Petra’s imitation of hair metal.  These, too, shaped my idea of Christianity, shaped who I am, and I have to disavow these things if I am to earn the increments of what I took from the faith of my childhood.  (I could discuss neopaganism at length as well, but this is a music blog and I have no real problem with the music from my days as a Wiccan aside from the gender essentialism that underpins much of the religion itself.)

So, when I find the time for another post, we’re going to dive in with the good, and I will likely alternate between positive and negative in order to maintain some balance and to keep myself from burning out from the sheer hatred that I carry for the worst of the music.  This is probably going to be a long-term project, so there may be gaps of weeks between posts sometimes.  While I will try not to post until I have the next post already written (a rule I have already broken by posting this), I will probably (continue to) break this rule.

Let’s go!

“I Am America” by Krista Branch

Yeah, I Am America!  Love that book!  Thank God somebody made a song about it – it’s probably the most awesome song ever!

If that’s what you were thinking, you now have two choices.  Read no further, and spare the embarrassment and disappointment that this essay will make you feel, or continue reading, and get a good chuckle out of the absurdity of this song.  (Any combination of the two also applies).

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present for your consideration “I Am America” by Krista Branch (formerly of American Idol).

Pay no attention to the people in the street,
Crying out for accountability.

If this hadn’t been written in mid-2010, I’d say she was dishing on the Occupy protesters.  Instead, I’m going to take it as a bit of sarcasm, based on the fact that the first fifteen seconds of the video is NOTHING BUT TEA PARTIERS PROTESTING.

Make a joke of what we believe,
Say we don’t matter cause you disagree.

Now here comes the first in a long line of misstatements, under-appreciations, and downright distortions of truth (would you expect anything else from a Tea Partier?).  Ms. Branch, I for one, and most of my friends and left-leaning colleagues, don’t say that you don’t matter because we disagree.  We disagree because we are able to make jokes of what you believe.

Pretend you’re kings, sit on your throne,
Look down your nose at the peasants below.

More Tea Party oppression bullshit.  Moving on:

I’ve got some news; we’re taking names,
We’re waiting now for the judgment day.

Uh huh.  Well, here come the Christian overtones (come, now, you had to know they were just around the corner).  But, um, when the judgment day comes, God will come up to you, Ms. Branch, and ask for a list of names of those who ignored you, looked down on you, and “sat on their throne”?, and deny them rapture?  Pretty sure that’s not how it works.  (For the record, I’d much rather not be raptured, so if that is how it works, add me to that list!  Right now!).

I am America, one voice, united we stand.
I am America, one hope to heal our land.

No.  Just.  No.  First off, Krista, you are not America.  Nor are we all “one voice, united we stand”.  You admitted that yourself just a few lyrics ago when you said that there are people who don’t take you seriously and who “sit on their throne” and look down upon others.  In any event, that’s not how democracy works – good democracy is built on debate and disagreement, not everyone falling into line and becoming “one voice”.  This isn’t Stalinist Russia, for God’s sake.

Further, if we’re one voice and united, why do we need our land healed?  By the way, Ms. Branch, I hope you realized that you just ripped off Obama’s campaign slogan from last election.  Is it becoming more clear why I joke about your like?

Moving on:

You preach your tolerance but lecture me.
Is there no end to your own hypocrisy?

I can honestly say I don’t know any liberals who lecture conservatives and claim to be tolerant.  Those who do lecture don’t claim to be tolerant.

Your god is power, you have no shame,
Your only interest is political gain.

Well, at least you aren’t…wait, doesn’t this describe Sarah Palin?  And Michelle Bachmann?  And, uh, just about everyone who funds the “grassroots” Tea Party movement?

I’m not going to go on.  There are more lyrics, all in this vain, that I could analyze, but you get the idea.  So what about the music?  My trusted colleague, friend, and co-blogger pointed out that this song has a really, really strong contemporary Christian feel to it.  I can’t put my finger on it, and I don’t care enough to tear the music apart and point at the bits of theory and the intervals and whatnot to see why, it just does.  Listen for yourself or take my word for it.

Man, this review frustrated the shit out of me.  For Way Back Wednesday, I’m going to do a song that takes considerably less out of me, but which I’ll be able to give considerably more to – a real emotional tour-de-force.

Overthinking ET: Katy Petty f. Kanye West

Color scheme: Deep greens, ribbony.  Her voice is red.  His voice does not feature visually.

The first thing I’d like to say about this song is that Kanye’s preening, explicit self-congratulation doesn’t fit into the overall vibe, which is saying a great deal for a Katy Perry song.  Where Perry (or her producers) somehow manages to convey a feeling of mystery and wonder about the pairing implied by the lyrics, Kanye is this side of outright saying, “And then I get to touch her with my penis!”  Stay classy, Kanye.

Now to the overall content.  The song itself is deeply problematic, particularly after the inclusion of Kanye, because it perpetuates the fetishization of the “other” in interracial relationships, and in particular in relationships between black men and white women.  For Perry, the experience of being with a black man is so strange as to warrant comparison to the most fantastic pairings her mind can conjure.  “Could you be the devil?  Could you be an angel?”  While there is, perhaps, a certain element of societal censure that still accompanies pairings between white women and men of color, this song takes that cultural othering and raises it to a point of primary importance within the couple, and the censure itself makes the contact all the more erotic.  “They say be afraid; you’re not like the others…you open my eyes and I’m ready to go; lead me into the light.”

The troubling nature of her characterization of this pairing is further reinforced by the language she uses in the chorus.  “Kiss me; infect me with your loving; fill me with your poison.  Take me, wanna be your victim, ready for abduction.”  These lyrics are deeply unsettling when placed within the context of an interracial relationship; while we have perhaps moved past the spectre of mass lynchings, the shadow of Emmett Till has not entirely receded, and there is still a very real fear within society that white women are corrupted by the touch of men of color.  This fear of pollution serves only to further fetishize the man within the song, as Perry’s lyrics presume that it is possible and desirable for the touch of this man to corrupt her; indeed, the only attribute she describes as desirable is his otherness.  The lyrics about abduction are similarly worrisome because they imply that she has to surrender agency in order to fully submit to the corrosive influence of the other.  Claims of seduction and rape were used frequently in order to absolve white women of culpability when they chose to engage in relationships with black men not a century ago, and the fact that Perry cannot enter into this relationship entirely of her own free will presents a very real problem in the framing of this song within society.  Not only is she fascinated by this other, but he has to force her to submit to what she has outright stated she wants.  While this sort of play is not problematic in a consensual relationship between equals, there is something rather unsettling about this request in the context of a society which, as she states, has told her to “be afraid” because he is “not like the others.”

Two different lyrics engines listed the lyrics to the climax of the chorus as “Boy, you’re an alien.”  I really hope I don’t have to explain why there is a problem with implying that you are calling a black man “boy.”  It wouldn’t fit with the tone of the song if she was saying, “Oh, boy!  You’re an alien!”  Perhaps she is, but if so then she really needs to work on the context of her lyrics.  (Which would be shocking, of course.)

I would also like to ask why, given the interracial implications of the song, he comes from, “A whole ‘nother world, a different dimension?”  Why?  I understand that there are cultural differences, but the implication that this man is that far separated from her (so far separated, in fact, as to have “different DNA”: what.) does nothing more than contribute to the idea that there is something fundamentally different about people of different “races.”  For all you know he might live down the street from you, Katy; why are you so weirdly obsessed with his “other”ness?  I’m sure the sex is great, but why does that make him both “supernatural” and “extraterrestrial?”  Why can’t he be just a person, just from Earth, with whom you enjoy some outstandingly hot sex?

Kanye’s verses vacillate between being offensively stupid (“They’re calling me a alien, a big-headed astronaut; maybe it’s because your boy Yeezy get ass a lot”) and further cementing the bizarre fetishization of Perry’s lyrics (“I’ma disrobe you, then I’ma probe you; See, I abducted you, so I tell you what to do”).

I don’t know that the song would be as problematic if it wasn’t for the presence of Kanye, who serves both to make the song less intelligent (and this is possibly, in my opinion, Perry’s smartest song, which I’ll grant doesn’t say a great deal) and to create a character to whom Katy sings.  It may very well be chance that she is singing all of these things to a black man, but hope that we have the cultural awareness to understand why these lyrics are extremely troubling in the context of an interracial relationship, and why these ideas should really, really be discouraged, seeing as we’re in the twenty-first century and all.

Lyrics obtained here.

 

Well, then.

I overthink music because I love it and because I want to see the society in which we produce music become a better place.

I can’t make any statements as to how often I will overthink music here; however, inbetween writing papers for school, which takes up approximately three hundred percent of my time, and spending time with my family, I’ll hop on here and maybe write a few things about my preferred atrocious abominations against music.  I have a lot of them.  Not all of my analyses will be of pop music, either, since I have at least a passing interest in most genres.  There will also sometimes be some minimal analysis of the videos, but I’m nowhere near as strong at visual analysis (and don’t think that means anything about my lyrical or musical analysis, either).

I’d like to promise a thorough semiotic analysis of every song, but I can’t because my attention span is short and, alas, sometimes the posts will regard the color and texture of the music instead.  Perhaps I’ll just post how much I love some songs some days.  WHO KNOWS

Next week (or whenever I get to it): E.T. by Katy Perry (f. Kanye West).

Enjoy!

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