I’ve never been able to understand why my dad listens to oldies. To me, they all sound like the same guitar-driven rock with scratchy-voiced singers, and I would much prefer silence to the voices of Bob Dylan and Thin Lizzy. My friends have never been able to understand why I listen to Russian techno-pop. To them, it all sounds like the same foreign blabber set to an overly excited electronic beat. Oldies mean nothing to me, and Russian music means nothing to my friends, but to my dad and me, our favorite songs consist of so much more than melodies and refrains.
It was the first time I was away from my parents on my mission trip to Russia. I watched wide-eyed out the car window as twenty-one year old Natasha whipped through the foreign city with three other Americans and me in tow. This unsupervised adventure led by my newfound Russian friend was the first time I discovered the freedom of being on my own. As we sped past wild drivers, poorly-fashioned carnival rides and broken beer bottles on the side of the road, the booming of syncopated Russian pop shot adrenaline into my thirteen year-old veins. When I returned to America with only a CD and a photo album as relics of my time there, I found myself clinging to Russian music to return to the raw freedom of speeding through that foreign city with the windows rolled down.
I loved those poorly written songs because they were keys to the past that I had full control over; with the push of a button or click of a mouse, I could transport myself to my first adventures in Russia.
But I have found that although songs wield the power to transplant us to a dimension outside the present, we cannot always trust that this dimension accurately reflects the reality of the past. So often, in my desire for my story to be organized in a singable box, I conflate my actual experiences with the lyrics on the radio.
I don’t think Taylor Swift is so successful because her lyrics are unique; I believe she is successful because her lyrics appeal to the desire for a neatly wrapped understanding of both the joy and chaos of relationships. Without fail, her songs show only one perspective of the relationship, and as we belt out “I knew you were trouble,” and “You’re just another picture to burn,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that in every relational breakdown, there are two sides to the story, two sides that are usually more complicated than three minutes can do justice to. And as we get caught up in the grandiosity of the radio blaring a song that makes everything seem so clear-cut, we simplify our lives; we shave off the bumps and inconsistencies and paradoxes.
(Although I’m often tempted to believe that this song was written just for me…)
Sometimes, though, this simplification of reality has its benefits. There is a mysterious unity in the singing of the National Anthem; Americans of all political persuasions and beliefs are connected by something larger than themselves. After the National Anthem is sung, fans at a baseball game will inevitably split into the rival groups of Red Sox versus Yankees, but for that one minute before the game, not one person will dispute that the ground on which they are standing is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
My study abroad group sophomore year was full of wonderful people, with whom many I am still close friends with. However, many of my groupmates found that their personalities mixed as well as matches and dynamite. After a tense semester full of misunderstanding and hurt, most of us thought we would be glad to part ways when the trip came to an end. On our way to the airport though, someone suggested that we sing “All-Star.” Home seemed closer than ever now, and it seemed fitting to celebrate with a good old American song that we all grew up with. As we belted out, “Hey now, you’re an all-star,” a sense of mutual understanding took over our cramped little van and outshouted our differences, relieving the four-month long tension. And for just that moment, no one would deny that we were friends.
A well-loved song doesn’t only have the power to unify people, but to unify experiences, giving a sense of steadiness as life changes. On a bumpy Russian road as a slightly chubby twelve year-old, scared to death about the mission trip that lay ahead, I held a silver Walkman and listened to lyrics that would become one of those steady comforts. The gentle voice of Erin O’Donnell reassured me with the words, “And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.”
Since that night ten years ago, this song has been what I like to call a “Bethel.” In Genesis 28, Jacob lies down to sleep at an unknown place after fleeing his homeland, and he receives a vision from God. Upon awakening, Jacob falls down in worship and christens the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” saying “God was in this place and I did not know it.” He pours oil on the rock he had used as his pillow, anointing the place as a reminder of the faithfulness of Yahweh. Likewise, that Erin O’Donnell song is a milestone that I come back to again and again when I need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in my own life.
C.S. Lewis describes the longing for transcendence, for intimacy beyond what this world allows, with the German word sehnsucht. Certain songs evoke this sehnsucht, and while on one hand they point us to the Creator, they also strike us with our state of loneliness in a fallen world. A favorite Russian song of mine goes, “Ask me to come with you. I will go through the evil night. I will send myself after you, so that the road doesn’t prophesy the way I should go.” These words sound brittle, awkward in my native tongue, but in Russian, their poetic cadence draws me to worship God, the melancholy melody reminding me both of life’s transience and the gift Christ has given us in overcoming it. But again, this song-induced sehnsucht doesn’t always bring that joyful hope in God; sometimes it calls out, “If only someone else could understand exactly how I do when I hear this song, then I would be filled.” To everyone I know, “Ask Me to Come with You” sounds like a typical over-sentimental ballad, and this hurts. And for now, I am alone in my song, alone in a fallen world where barriers to intimacy are rarely broken.
It is in these visceral responses of loneliness and discontent that songs prove that we are made in the image of God. One author mused that the human soul is too vast to fit in the present. One of the things that sets us apart from animals is our ability to remember the past and to imagine the future. In this sense, songs are a constant reminder of our humanity, propelling us to the awe of the first time abroad as a teenager or prompting us to picture what life might be like after we leave this earth. Songs are not life, and we shouldn’t try to constrain our lives into a ten song soundtrack. But songs do reflect life and vivify life and point to the Giver of life, and sometimes they are just what we need to realize that our souls are vaster than we have dared to hope.