"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Sounds
October 4, 2006

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’ For A Thousand Tongues and you see a mix of internal and external detail. The whole grounding metaphor for O’ For A Thousand Tongues is an internal experience; an emotion or state of mind. The difference between saying “O for a thousand tongues and “I wanna worship you, oooh yeah,” 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’ve 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’t 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’t 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’s almost as if the music was written by focus-group. That was part of the logic of Hillsong in the first place Рto 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,
“I’m a 25-40 year old white male, standing in an air-conditioned flourescent-lit hall, not sure why I’m here but thinking my kids need some moral guidance, oh and Jesus I love you, ooh yeah.”

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 “singles” 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 “deepest” 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’s primary function, perhaps it’s 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’s recent criticism that contemporary worship speak of relationship with God in ways that do not reflect his spirituality. Well that sort of language doesn’t 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’s also why I just don’t 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 “now in this moment” 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’m 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’m increasing concerned with making sense of my past.

Just this week I had the chance to see Mark Romanek’s video for Jonny Cash’s 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’s decisions. The video looks back on Cash’s 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’s 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’s “weeping woman”), but very few contemporary worship songs I have heard offer much in this regard.

Responses
Rodd Jefferson 16 years ago

Fernando,

These are very insightful yet somewhat frustrating words. I think I understand what you mean, but what kind of worship songs suit you best? What sort of content should they have?

Your point about ‘singles’ is totally true, and also convicting. As I write I try to make each song stand as a ‘hit’ on it’s own, and I work hard to try and use common language without sacrificing too much of the beauty of music and lyric as an artform.

Thanks for posting this – I want more dialogue on this one, so please have a go at answering the questions I’ve raised here (if only for my sake!).

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Yeah, I made sure to put the word random in the title, because I’m still trying to think aloud about this stuff.

I will come back to the hits thing in a follow up post tommorrow. Maybe we need to be writing albums and collections, instead of writing hits?

My first draft of this had a few examples, but I pulled them for the sake of space. One thing I want to try and do is create a few little quicktime movie presentations pulling some hymns and songs apart to explain the ideas of internal and external detail and how that works.

I’m trying to focus not just on theological content, but also things like positional detail – you know, here I stand, i fall at your feet, I kneel before you – those sorts of generic verb descriptions. Surely we can do better there. Also, I’m keen for more of a sense of place, e,g, I live in the city, not on a farm where I see deer panting all around me. That sort of thing.

Thanks for posting though. My thoughts are not formed here and I NEED the dialogue with others who are trying to write better worship material.

Rodd Jefferson 16 years ago

Fernando,

We’re very much the same in this regard. I do some of my best thinking outside of myself. Here’s my thinking:

1) There’s something about the Psalms. How can lyric / song written so long ago speak so wonderfully of a genuine relationship with God? Simple, it’s God’s words, I suppose. The thing that is key for me about the Psalms is how un-church-like a lot of the expressed thoughts are – hoping for enemies to be destroyed; crying out to a God that is absent; longing for life to be different because of the pain and the struggles. This very strongly suggests to me that we need to work a lot more on a balanced expression of worship to God (yes, it’s still worship!!).

2) Jesus communicated to us what it meant to belong in the Kingdom of God using words that really made sense to the people of the day. He uses well-structured imagery that most people were able to connect with because it was relevant and ‘common’.

3) Whilst it’s clear that our life experience changes our view, this accumulated over our lifetime, there has to be something about corporate worship that is ‘for the body’. I’m certain that expressing something together as God’s gathered people forms a major part of not only our worship of God and our serving one another, but also as a glimpse of heaven when God gathers us all together. I’m not saying that we should dumb down our lyric to the lowest common denominator, but we do need to use words and imagery that everyone can relate to. Perhaps this is why hymns were so effective?

4) We’re done with temples and Old Testament sacrifices, and yet God’s Revelation still has so much temple imagery. We observe sacrifice, songs of worship, a God sitting on a throne. Is there still a place, therefore, for the kneeling, falling at-the-feet, or even standing together in worship??

Really enjoying the dialogue, I’ll be praying that in between the plank-spanking (that’s guitar playing to protect my online friend) you’ll have some clarity on this one. Want to write a book?? 🙂

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Rodd – great thoughts, here’s some off-the-cuff replies.

1. You will get nothing but agreement from me there. We could all do a LOT worse than just devoting time to setting the psalms to contemporary music. While we are at, we could also think about setting some of the wisdom literature to music as well. I will always be thankful to Trevor Kettlewell for taking the time to make Me’Shell N’Degeocello’ Ecclestiastes: Free My Heart happen while I was at Gordon. That was a mountain-top experience!

2. Maybe this is not what you are saying, but I’m hearing the Jesus was a populist argument and I don’t buy that (haven’t for over a decade). Yes Jesus used common metapors and exmaples, but he used them at times in difficult and far from obvious ways (as did Paul).

Imagine, for the sake of the argument, writing a song about a pub. Now, a pub is a common location, we all know pubs. Imagine you are commissioned to write for Britney Spears – how much detail will the song have? Now, imagine you have to write for Tom Waits (pub now full of cuban sailors and barmaids called Buelah and Edna?) or Sting (pub now in northern England with wood fire, hunting dogs and people quoting greek mythology?). It’s still a song about a pub, but not the same song.

3. Maybe we need a little more PIxar and a little less Polydor? What I love about good animated films is that they work for both parents and children. My daughter is 5 and she loves Cars, but she doesn’t get the whole “roadtrip-nostalgia” thing that nails me every time I see the film. Perhaps we need more of that, rather than just opting for juvenile imagery.

I believe the good hymns are so effective because their narrative world is rich and vivid; they stand repeat listening. At the risk of sounding even more elitist, I also think they are effective because the best hymns are jolly well written and have amazing music (for their times).

4. Without doubt.

As far as a book goes. I love the idea of writing a book, but I seem to have bad Karma when it goes to actually making it happen. Oh well.

Toni 16 years ago

Good thoughts Fern. I’m still digesting somewhat.

Something I stuggle with is the frequently crass musicality of older tunes – somehow crass modern music doesn’t bother me *as much*. 😉 The really obvious play on emotions and mood is as unpleasant as all those cookie-cutter worship songs with Jesus is my homeboy style lyrics. This may just be my sensitivities and not a problem for most people. And some people actually like having their emotions tweaked that way.

There is a problem with making historical worship our own, rather than just stepping into the shoes of those that originally came up with the style: otherwise we step back out again. So how do we write “Oh for a thousand tongues” in current parlance while maintaining depth and meaning? Tricky.

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