Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"I Will Make You Hurt"

Warning: Many videos and plenty of music ahead

Over at Times & Seasons, Nathaniel Givens shared this little memory (familiar to many Mormons, I'm sure) in a wonderful piece titled "Why I Listen to Screamo":

On one particular day I remember being in the backseat of a minivan full of my fellow teenage Mormons as we drove to or from some weekday church activity. We were listening to the radio when "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" by The Smashing Pumpkins came on and I started to sing along...[M]y enthusiasm was met by unanimous horror from the rest of the van. This, it seemed, was not what good Mormons listened to. While someone gave me a mini-lecture on musical standards, the radio dial was hastily changed from alternative rock to top-40. My own misgivings–was I bringing the devil into this vehicle?–were laid to rest as Christina Aguilera instructed us all on how to "rub her the right way" in order to convince her to “give it away”. I was pretty sure that, next to that, Billy Corgan singing  ”And I still believe that I cannot be saved,” wasn’t any worse.


Elsewhere, Nathaniel explains that "the reason I can’t abide most overtly religious music is that–to me–it starts from a false place. It tries to emulate or imagine or envision the divine, and in the process it repudiates the mundane." In order "to be authentic, you have to start from where and who you are. So pretending you’re already there won’t work." The difference is between two temples: the Tower of Babel and the House of the Lord where you offer sacrifices upon the altar. "An altar doesn’t actually get you very far off the ground, but at least it’s starting where you are and pointing in the right direction," says Nathaniel. "It’s a failure, but it’s an authentic one and so it means something." What a shame that Smashing Pumpkins was so hastily dismissed, especially since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an incredible album with a wide range of feelings (brought on by songs such as the one above, "Tonight Tonight," "To Forgive," "1979," "Zero," and "In the Arms of Sleep"). In the lyrics and raw emotion, one encounters that authentic failing in which the divine is so often found. How does one not hear this in songs like the ever-haunting "Disarm"?

Luckily, my YM/Scout leader for the longest time was also my best friend's dad. While I was listening to Blink 182 (even their old-school demo material like Buddha), my friend (due to his dad's influence) was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even the chainsaw-wielding Jackal. One Wednesday night, as I caught a ride with my friend, his dad popped in one of his many CDs. Suddenly, a chugging, metal chord progression filled the car, along a with a jolting scream and eerie harmonies.[1] I was caught off guard, but thoroughly entranced. About halfway through, the guitarist ripped into a headbanging solo. Having played guitar for a couple years, my ears perked up. The song, unfortunately, came to an end after only a couple minutes. When I asked what this was, my friend's dad answered (with a smile), "Alice in Chains." The album was Dirt and the song was "Them Bones."

I borrowed the album, copied it, and became an AIC (and Jerry Cantrell) fan from then on. I now own all their studio albums, Facelift through Black Gives Way to Blue (their newest, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, comes out in a couple months), along with their live MTV Unplugged. I even have Jerry Cantrell's solo albums Boggy Depot and Degradation Trip. One reviewer called the latter "The Album to Slit Your Wrists By." Yet, they also described it as "an extremely mature, deeply thoughtful, spiritually riveting trip up [Cantrell's] spine, down his throat to the pit of his stomach and through his mangled soul." The same could be said of much of AIC's work. Reflect on the lyrics of "Nutshell," in which singer Layne Staley croons with despair and loneliness:

We chase misprinted lies
We face the path of time
And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home 

My gift of self is raped
My privacy is raked
And yet I find
And yet I find
Repeating in my head
If I can't be my own
I'd feel better dead

Could there be a better example of one needing redemption, especially since he never found it (Staley struggled with a heroin addiction, which eventually claimed his life in April 2002)? Some may say this fails the test of "uplifting music" (however that is actually defined). But "if having the answer isn’t as important as striving to find it," as Nathaniel puts it, "then a process laden with struggle and tension and discord becomes imbued with nobility rather than some kind of harbinger of spiritual ruin...Sublime humility or frustrated sincerity: there is no reason for me to have to choose one or the other." I remember songs like Blink 182's "Adam's Song" or 3 Doors Down's "Loser" being called "inappropriate" because of their dark subject matter, which would supposedly encourage one to act out the feelings of the song. Far from calling anyone a "loser," 3DD singer Brad Arnold is actually singing about the self-doubt and isolation associated with his friend's cocaine addiction. Despite the highly publicized suicide accompanied by "Adam's Song,"[2] the song was an ode to the loneliness on tour, the prior suicide of a teen, and the struggles of life generally (bass player Mark Hoppus even called it an "anti-suicide song"). For a band with album titles like Enema of the State (with porn star cover girl) and Take Off Your Pants & Jacket, song names "Dick Lips," "Dysentery Gary," or "What's My Age Again?", and lyrics like that of "Family Reunion" or "Happy Holidays, You Bastard," we should hope for something as serious as "Adam's Song." 

While these songs from Blink 182 or 3 Doors Down are hardly high-quality examples, the idea is nonetheless the same: in some sense, their music and lyrics redeem these tragedies. When asked about his inspiration for the song "Jeremy," Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder said he felt "the need to take that small [news] article [about 15-year-old suicide victim Jeremy Delle of Richardson, TX] and make something of it – to give that action, to give it reaction, to give it more importance." Before, it was nothing more than a paragraph in the newspaper. Few would know about it. Now, it has a life and history that touches millions in the form of a song.

Even better, these songs can take on different forms and meanings with various musical interpretations. For example, what's great about the unplugged version of "Nutshell" above is that the original guitar fills have been stripped down, instead playing a quiet, supporting role to Staley's desperate "ooohs" between verses (rather than the other way around). However, the electric ending seems to embody and expand the soul of the song by contrasting with the majority of it. The distorted, muddy leads maintain the lyrics' hurt and almost bring the fragile song to a breaking point. The acoustic ending to some degree lacks this. But it is fully captured in several live, extended versions (especially with Staley no longer able to offer his passionate vocals):

Feelings of inadequacy pervade songs such as Radiohead's "Creep" (or should it be The Hollie's "The Air I Breathe"?). In fact, singer Thom Yorke regretted the radio recut that sang "so very special" rather than "so f**king special" because much of the song's sentiment and anger were lost. The song, in Yorke's words, acknowledged that "there's the beautiful people and then there's the rest of us." Wanting to be "special" with a "perfect body" and "perfect soul" is the desire to feel that "the worth of [one's soul] is great" (D&C 18:10). Yorke's tortured vocals along with the heavy crunch and distorted chaos of guitars captures the essence of love and loss: both of another and one's self. 

Yet, when singer Carrie Manolakos (formerly of Wicked) covered the song at the Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, she carried the pain even further than Yorke. As one commentator put it, "There are covers of songs, and then there are covers of songs. This is the second one" (much like dinner jackets apparently). And it deservedly went viral. As she crescendos in the bridge with "She's running out/She's running/She's run run run/Run," you feel a new sting; one different from that of Yorke. This is especially true as she returns to a soft, self-depreciating style in the following verse and chorus. The sense of longing and inadequacy is brought to an overwhelming head and all the singer and listener can do afterwards is smile and sadly laugh at themselves for thinking they deserve anything better. Longing for love is truly human. Desire (not lust), in the minds of some philosophers, ultimately leads to God.

Trent Reznor's (Nine Inch Nails) "Hurt" is quite obviously a song of self-harm and addiction: "I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real/The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything." It is wallowing in pain and remorse at rock bottom. Reznor asks, "What have I become?" and answers "My sweetest friend." Why? Because "everyone I know, goes away in the end." He has cut himself off from friends, family, and the outside world. He is utterly alone. To those close him, he says, "I will make you hurt." If he "could start again, a million miles away," he would "keep [him]self." He'd "find a way." But what Reznor's version implies is that, in the midst of his loneliness and darkness, he cannot "find a way." It is not even a hope, but an impossible, futile dream. 

Johnny Cash, a deeply committed Christian, turned that impossible dream into a repentant hope. Changing the lyrics "I wear this crown of shit" to "crown of thorns" and incorporating images of the Crucifixion in the music video, Cash provides redemption for Reznor's original protagonist. The words "You could have it all, my empire of dirt" reminds me of King Lamoni's father crying, "O God...I will give away all my sins to know thee" (Alma 22:18). He is building the altar Nathaniel spoke of. The glories and tragedies of the world are laid upon it. The human condition is fully captured in the video. Shots of Cash's glamorous days as a rock star are contrasted with his abandoned museum, a deteriorating home, and an old, weary Cash. This gives life and meaning to Cash's interpretation of the song. Trent Reznor originally felt the cover "sounded...wrong, something alien." But after he saw the video, he concluded that "it wasn't my song anymore" and it had become an "unbelievably powerful piece of work." The song becomes a recognition of one's sins, a plea for help, and a commitment to change. "If I could start again" becomes the beginning of a promise. The way he would find would be, if the video is any indication, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6).

Suffering, as I noted in my last post, is an intrinsic part of reality. We are expected to mourn with those who mourn. Confronting suffering, pain, and sin head-on is the life of Christian. If our example is Jesus Christ, a man who "loved people in great misery who were taken from Him and did not understand Him" and was then "beaten and executed for espionage and treason,"[3] how then can we as disciples not look misery in the face? We can shy away from music that is filled with angst, despair, and sadness. We can look at it as "unworthy." But we might miss out on something beautiful. As philosopher Roger Scruton noted, "Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways...[I]t speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend."[4]

Much like Meyer Music Markets slapped an "Explicit Lyrics" warning sticker on Frank Zappa's instrumental album Jazz from Hell, many Mormons slap labels on music they too are unfamiliar with. Before lecturing the youth (or anyone for that matter) on musical standards, try to become acquainted with it first.

1. The screams were improvised by Staley. See David De Sola, "How Alice in Chains Found the Most Memorable Voice in Grunge," The Atlantic (April 5, 2012).

2. It should be pointed out that the suicide victim was a survivor of Columbine. While the song was obviously used to stir negative emotions, those emotions would likely have spawned from his traumatizing experience with the school massacre.  

3. Samuel Brown, "The Work of Faith and the Weight of Glory," Fireside at the Arlington Stake Center (Texas), 27 January 2013.

4. Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Kindle edition. "Preface" (Italics mine). To be clear, Scruton is actually a critic of rock. In many ways, I think he is correct. In others, however, I find myself agreeing more with RealClearReligion columnist Mark Judge.


  1. Ah...thanks for this brilliant piece! I can still remember feeling conflicted when my seminary teacher railed against Metallica's "Master of Puppets" (and by implication, ALL Metallica), though I insisted that the song represented a personal struggle that is entirely inspiring.

    Also, regarding covers: I've always believed that their are those occasions when a cover is so powerful it becomes an entity of its own. The artist of the cover takes ownership - the song wasn't their's to begin with, but it is theirs now kind of thing. I wish had an example off the top of my head, but unfortunately I'm drawing a blank as I am in a rush to get to school. But thank you for writing this. Although I am not a huge fan of most of the artists you talked about here, the idea's you are articulating are spot on!

    1. I remember a talk at EFY that did nothing, but explain how vulgar a Metallica concert was (I've been to 2 and neither were particularly vulgar, though they've cleaned up in their later years). My friend and I then played an instrumental version of "Nothing Else Matters" for the variety show. "Master of Puppets" is about definitely about addiction. Even James Hetfield (when he was trying to sober up) said in a TV special that he reinterpreted the lyrics in light of his own struggles, even though he had originally written them about addictions he personally knew nothing about.

      I also read 'Johnny Got His Gun', 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', and several works by H.P. Lovecraft due to Metallica's music. So, can't say metal never taught me anything.

    2. Don't forget that Metallica also taught about the Exodus from Egypt...

      Johnny Cash almost made it into my EQ lesson today with his song Redemption, but somewhere between sacrament and the second hour I lost all of the lesson materials which I had printed out!

      Any way, this post reminds me of Keb Mo's utterly infuriariting change to Folsom Prison Blues. "They said I shot a man in Reno/ but that was just a lie..." Whaaaa?
      Keb Mo took a powerful, chilling, haunting song about a man unrepentant of a sensless murder, and changed it into sentimental tripe.

    3. Pastor John Van Sloten wrote a book entitled 'The Day Metallica Came to Church'. Check out this sermon on the wrath of God and Metallica: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXaiCOFb3XE

    4. Hey remember when OUR mom took my Black Metallica tape?! Yes, the same mom who drove you to Houston to see them in concert. -__-

  2. The TV special was MTV Icon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYO57qPoNWs#t=15m16s