Some Nearly Random Thoughts On Worship Lyrics
It is often said that in hymns we sing about God, while in contemporary worship we sing to God. Of course, like many oversimplifications, this is totally bogus. Take a look at the lyrics of a great hymn like When I Survey or O‚Äô For A Thousand Tongues and you see a mix of internal […]
It is often said that in hymns we sing about God, while in contemporary worship we sing to God. Of course, like many oversimplifications, this is totally bogus. Take a look at the lyrics of a great hymn like When I Survey or O‚Äô For A Thousand Tongues and you see a mix of internal and external detail. The whole grounding metaphor for O‚Äô For A Thousand Tongues is an internal experience; an emotion or state of mind. The difference between saying ‚ÄúO for a thousand tongues and ‚ÄúI wanna worship you, oooh yeah,‚Äù is somewhat linguistic (or maybe poetic).
One key feature when we analyse many of the enduring hymns, is the balance between internal and external detail and in particular, the vivid detail with which the external detail is often rendered. I‚Äôve been doing some back of the envelope calculations comparing the functional vocabulary of hymns to contemporary worship songs (an interesting research project for those of you that way inclined) and the hymns without doubt use a wider vocabulary. That doesn‚Äôt just mean more ways to say the same thing, but more ways to say specific and detailed things.
Now, cut to many of the contemporary worship songs and you get very little external detail and when you do, it is often generic or trite. I don‚Äôt just mean objective doctrinal facts, but rather the kind of stuff that gives you a sense of place in any song (who, what, when, why).
For the sake of the exercise think of a few non-church songs that you like for their lyrical content. Note the external details that conjure up images in your mind. Often it is these snippets from a writer that lift a song, make it unique, interesting.
If we want to understand better why contemporary worship songs compare badly to great hymns or to the best of secular lyrics, I think it is this question of detail and especially, non-generic detail. Secondarily, there is also the issue of the richness or paucity of the vocabulary.
Of course, a great deal of contemporary worship is written to be generic. It‚Äôs almost as if the music was written by focus-group. That was part of the logic of Hillsong in the first place – to write music for their target audience, music that would not sound out of place on the marketing driven radio stations their target listened to. In fact in the seminars I went to, they would openly talk about the radio station programming they were mimicing.
The problem is you end up with a generic product. Imagine a worship lyric that went,
‚ÄúI‚Äôm a 25-40 year old white male, standing in an air-conditioned flourescent-lit hall, not sure why I‚Äôm here but thinking my kids need some moral guidance, oh and Jesus I love you, ooh yeah.‚Äù
Not very engaging is it?
The radio-worship model works to some extent because it is populist and easy to connect with. But a big problem with this approach is the focus on the ‚Äúsingles‚Äù dynamic. Back when I was young, we always talked about the difference between singles and album-tracks. Singles were usually fun, catchy and dramatic, but it was often the album tracks that fans really liked. The album tracks often had the ‚Äúdeepest‚Äù and most detailed lyrics. By the time you were 15, you knew that singles were really a game the artist played to achieve success, make money and keep the label happy, but the album cuts were the place where there was a little more freedom of expression, more room to take risks.
Too much of contemporary worship is written to mimic hit singles. Singles tend to have a very simplistic and generic plot in order to maximise reach. We put the function of worship at peril if we mimic the single writing model while forgetting that it‚Äôs primary function, perhaps it‚Äôs only function is to generate commercial success. It is not a model for creating depth, or for maximising the kind of detail that makes repeat critically engaged listening worthwhile.
In order for a song to function well on repeat listening it needs more detail; powerful evocative detail. It needs to have a blend of who, when and where and bring each of those to life with compelling language. The way we combine these elements builds our sense of the story in each song and the nuance of the relationships it explores.
One point where I agree with Mike Frost‚Äôs recent criticism that contemporary worship speak of relationship with God in ways that do not reflect his spirituality. Well that sort of language doesn‚Äôt reflect mine either. My relationships these days are not about dramatic highs and lows, but a more of a gradual ebb and flow. I think that is the effect of getting old, there is more history around you, the time frames for your relationships start to get played out in years and decades, instead of weeks and months.
It‚Äôs also why I just don‚Äôt relate that well anymore to some of the songs from my youth. The internal detail, or reality for me today is quite different to what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Often we connect with songs because they express conversations we find ourselves having, or wish we could have.
Many of my most powerful experiences of God happen outside the four walls of church, in acts of ministry or care, while travelling or even on long walks. Moreover, many worship songs are very ‚Äúnow in this moment‚Äù focussed, or totalise into a distant future. That refelcts my outlook as a teenager, when life kept throwing me present moments that were new and hard to handle, or when the future seemed like an empty canvas of possibility. However, now life is much less open, far more predictable and the choices I make now deeply conditioned by choices I have made in the past. I‚Äôm not just concerned with the present or the distant future, but also with the short term future and the practical decision that need to be made there. Moreover, I‚Äôm increasing concerned with making sense of my past.
Just this week I had the chance to see Mark Romanek‚Äôs video for Jonny Cash‚Äôs version of Hurt again. It is powerful stuff, quite possibly one of the best music videos ever made. Viewing it made me consider how spirituality changes as you get older. The song focusses on mortality and regret, on trying to reconcile oneself with the consequences of one‚Äôs decisions. The video looks back on Cash‚Äôs life and in some of the most powerful scenes intersperses the old man Cash has become with his out of control youth, returning to his childhood home in mid-life and his attempts to communicate his faith.
As I get older, it becomes clear at some point life and faith starts be less about the dramatic decision that will shape your future and becomes more about coming to grips with what you have done with your past. It‚Äôs about really seeing what loves behind the eyes of those around you as they look at you.
A song like Hurt helps me to think about that (as does Picasso‚Äôs ‚Äúweeping woman‚Äù), but very few contemporary worship songs I have heard offer much in this regard.