A confession: I love sad songs. My most played artists: The Weeknd, Kanye (808s and beyond), Drake (post-Take Care), PARTYNEXTDOOR, and a healthy amount of Gallant, dvsn, Daniel Caesar, River Tiber, JMSN, and How To Dress Well.
The only counterbalance to my listening habits: choral music. Everything else is similar. There’s something deeply spiritual about listening to music people describe as sad, depraved, and filled with drugs, alcohol, and sex.
I say that because the music is so aware. There’s no pretending, when you listen to the Weeknd’s wails: “I’m all alone…I always want you when I’m coming down…” (Which, I’ve recently discovered, has a Fate/Stay sample…). He wants something, he’s craving something, and it’s more than drugs. It’s self-aware self-destruction, and it’s honest. Even dvsn’s album, especially The Line, is filled with a deep longing for intimacy, filled with a beautiful sound but also a horrible tension of “what if it never comes?”
We’re all like that, in different ways, finding a fix for our needs. That’s why I found the gospel so meaningful – it offered me what I needed. This music is about our state before that.
It’s also not as if the artists pretends like God isn’t listening, either. I won’t even touch the body of critical work about religion in hip hop, just reference a few songs. Kanye’s Ultralight Beams (with Chance’s solo, acapella line: “Glory be to God”) reflects how his faith (remember his first hit was Jesus Walks…) and artistry come together. Gallant’s Bone and Tissue, asking about whether his value can come from more than an abstract higher power. Daniel Caesar’s Death and Taxes, from his interviews, is his soul-searching, negotiating his family’s Christian upbringing and his disillusionment with what faith has promised and given him.
Even without such direct references, the issues these artists sing about are so real and palpable in the music that Christians do themselves a disservice to not listen – these are the problems real people face. The deeply spiritual I’m referring to is such an open window into what people want from the world and what it looks like to respond to a broken world.
Most of my work during my last year of undergrad was deeply troubling. I finished up my Asian American studies minor and took classes centered on these themes: mass incarceration, torture and dehumanization, visual culture and war as everywhere, the history of Asian American media and representation, and and ideological practices of creating the other. I understand the world better, but it is impossible, I think, to read from a book like Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, or Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, without slowing down a little. The emotional impact is reeling and I had to learn to shrug it off, put my emotions away, and focus so that I can learn.
Such an emotional shunt was draining for an emotionally driven person like me. I ended up finding rest in particular works of fiction: the music above, and TV/Movies/Anime in which I could be certain the main character was victorious. I mentioned this in Why Three Gates, but certain victory is the gospel answer for me. It anchors me to the reality of the Kingdom of God – that God is already victorious, and that the things I read about will come to pass one day. It makes me feel better to see that.
At the same time, I listen to this music because it reminds me that the broken systems and ideologies I read about are not only abstract. That part of the gospel, the world two, affects people, who respond to it in real ways. When I listen to these responses, I’m hear a calling to answer a deep need – to name these things.
This summer though, I’ve decided to put some of the academic work away and read for pleasure. I’m reading through Haruki Murakami’s bibliography chronologically. I’m only just reading A Wild Sheep Chase now, but his writing speaks to me in the same way as the music. I just understand, he’s writing to my soul about my displacement, maintaining relationships, navigating a world that doesn’t have the same lens as me… themes I’ll continue to write about.
I found new music, too, and she is amazing. Julien Baker(‘s music) is everything I’ve ever needed. Her sadness helps me express my own.
I’ll borrow a few words:
To say that Sprained Ankle is “devastating” is a gaping understatement. This is the type of album that opens up like a sinkhole and drags you into an emotional wellspring before you have a second to recognize how bottomless Baker’s heartbreak is… Baker’s lyricism is unabashedly explicit, and Sprained Ankle discusses depression, substance abuse, and general crises of faith in detail and her admissions are brave. Baker speaks to God directly throughout (“I think there’s a God and he hears either way/ When I rejoice and complain”) and is finally answered on the album’s closer, “Go Home.”
And the New Yorker’s Julien Baker Believes in God:
All of these quotidian places become temporarily sacrosanct when Baker is performing in them; the raw purity of her vocalise seems to convert the everyday into the divine. With Baker in the frame, any parking lot can revert into a paradise… Baker acutely remembers the clammy-palm anxiety she felt when she came out to her parents, at seventeen. Instead of turning her away, however, Baker found that her family was suddenly, radically accepting. She told one reporter that her father took a Bible down from a shelf and spent the next hour finding scripture to support her, to prove that she was not going to Hell. It was in this moment that Baker confirmed her belief in God, though not in the judgmental being she had been raised to fear and hide herself from.
Her music is profoundly real, cutting yet filled with faith. It is a real response to brokenness and pain from a refreshing perspective: calling out to a God who answers. Listen to the album; don’t forget Sad Song #11 (Funeral Pyre), and tell me when you break down in tears listening to Everybody Does.
Actually I feel dissatisfied borrowing words.
I’m disappointed that I missed her LA show by 2 days. This woman, her music, and the way people are responding to it – is the gospel. I’ve been reading responses to her music (just search her name on Reddit and poke through a few threads) – how they deeply resonate with the emotional, the vulnerable, the “tenuous balance between self-loathing and redemption”(see here).
That is the reality of the Christian experience. A God that is near and purifying, so much so that we tremble in fear in his presence. One who makes you question who you are, constantly alienated from everything you knew, but one who draws you nearer and closer. She is singing about those emotions, the same ones we constantly experience. And people understand. It’s not her intention to evangelize through music, I don’t think, but that people can see such an intimate part of the Christian experience, it’s something you don’t capture in worship music.