Reflecting On What Ben Witherington Might Say to Lady Gaga – Part 2

To my new readers, thanks for taking the time to entertain some of these thoughts. To long-time readers, know I’m grateful for your continued clicks. My web-traffic has been increasing as of late so I’m trying to make some changes here.  Know that I am grateful for your time – hope some of these posts are helpful to you.

As some of you may know, I have an appreciation for theology and pop-culture, and I admittedly, I get a little nerdy when the two intersect (or when I make them intersect). This is the second post in this series based on a lecture on I attended of Ben Witherington at Gordon Conwell Seminary this past fall. As he lectured on the topic of “humanity being created in the image of God”, I thought of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. [Read more…]

Reflecting On What Ben Witherington Might Say to Lady Gaga – Part 1

“It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up’
cause you were born this way, Baby”

A couple months ago, I got to hear Ben Witherington lecture at Gordon Conwell Seminary about humanity being created in the image of God. As you would expect, it was an excellent presentation but halfway through, I started thinking about Lady Gaga. It’s not that Dr. Witherington’s outfit resembled one of hers (your welcome for that mental picture), it was that as he was sharing of the high place that humanity is set, it reminded me of “Born This Way.”  I find myself thinking about that again.

As you may know, I find Lady Gaga compelling. In fact, my last sermon at Montvale was entitled, “What Jesus Might Say to Lady Gaga.” It was awesome, our church organist got all dressed up and ascended from the baptistry (just kidding, we don’t have a church organist).  Anyway, there are several reasons I find her compelling, all would likely sound petty to insert them here and so I’ll spare you from that. But like her or hate her, she has captured the attention of millions and it’s not just for the spectacle. For many, Gaga inspires people to be themselves.  In some sense, what’s not to like about that?

I love theology and I love music and I’m always fascinated when the two overlap each other. Christianity places such a value on the place of humanity and a careful reading of the Genesis account tells us that humanity is the pinnacle of creation.

[Read more…]

Recommending You Check Out the Music of Zach Williams

I can’t believe it’s been this long but two Thursdays ago, I was with a few friends listening to the great music of Zach Williams at the Bowery Ballroom. He’s among the artists that you should be listening to (like right here)

Zach has a great voice, excellent lyrics, a joy to watch live – He puts on a great show. Also worth mentioning are his fans that were at the Bowery. Obviously, fans show up to shows, that’s not new. But what I thought was interesting is that Zach leads worship at a church plant in Brooklyn but has managed to keep that “leading worship” world separate from the “performing music and artistry” world at the Bowery … but still include the same people. It was cool and as one who has never seen him in a worship-leading context, I found myself thinking about that.

The first time I had seen Zach was at last year’s Q Conference in Austin … at 9AM. Who’s good at 9AM? Zach Williams is. He sang “Names That Fell” with so much passion and energy that we almost dropped our Rwandan Thousand Hills coffee (which is great coffee – you can get it here. And no, these are not sponsors, just trying to support good stuff). I could go on and on about the music of Zach but here’s a video of “I’m Not the One” and “Names That Fell” at the Bowery – you can decide for yourself (“Names” comes in about 4:40 seconds or so).

One last video that my friend Matt told me about. Zach’s wife was involved in a life-threatening accident. I briefly met them at Q, never had any idea. He tells the story here – it’s a powerful 7 minutes born out of pain, confusion, supportive friendships, loyalty of love,  and the celebration of healing – among the necessary substances of great marriages.

Support great indie artists and buy his album from iTunes.

The Arcade Fire Just Released a Brand New Album and I’m Already Wondering What Their Next Will Be About

It could be the premature LOST withdrawal and I know the Arcade Fire just released The Suburbs last week but I have really immersed myself in it, I need to know what’s next.  I feel Suburbs ends with a lot of questions and perhaps a bit of a cliffhanger.  Now I know they won’t actually answer questions, that would be bad art, but I am really interested in knowing what type of album they will work on next.  For me, that’s a huge part of the answer. (Which kinda sucks because they tend to take their time between album releases). But as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Arcade Fire’s new album has me thinking about a number of things.

One, I hear this album has more autobiographical. I think Butler and friends are trying to figure out where they fit in. Does the label “indie band” really even define them in the sense of what “indie band” used to? Some define it as simply owning the rights to your own music, while for others, it’s a culture divorced from the mainstream. Playing Madison Square Garden makes them have more in common with Lady Gaga than Conor Oberst at this point (and that’s not all bad by the way). Like many other bands, I think they are in going to need to spend a great deal of time finding their identity again. That’s going to be interesting for them. And I don’t say that with this ominous prophetic tone expecting them to fail nor am I saying that they have the wrong one now but they’re no longer an “indie band”. As a big fan, I have full faith in them but they’re going to be different.

Second, I’ve also noticed that this album had more backlash than their sophomore release of Neon Bible. How will they respond? Especially now that they are the new band “on top of the world”. From how I see it, they are in a different position from other excellent bands like the Muse and the Kings of Leon. I am still not really sure what the Muse sing about, although I love’em and no offense to the Kings but I don’t listen to them and think, “Wow they really get me”, instead I think “Wow, roll down the windows, turn it up, I love rock & roll!”

Further I have the even more intrusive curiosity of what their music will be like if they welcome a child between now and their next release. Especially if this album was partially inspired from a picture of a childhood friend holding his young daughter outside a familiar strip mall near where Win grew up in the Houston suburbs. Win is 30, his wife is 32 – this is a blog and I’m just saying. But it reminds of a writer in Spin magazine asking what will Chris Martin complain about in his next album now that he married Gwyneth Paltrow and welcomed a beautiful little girl they named Apple. Martin and company answered with ‘free-trade”.

IF there’s a suggestion box, I’d like to submit the following: an album about what would make the world better. (Like U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. According to Bono, you dismantle it “with love, love.” You can only be angry, jaded and bored for so long before you discover hope, love, and justice. Hmmm … Well, I hope they enjoy this tour, sell out all their venues, get richer ;-), then do something that inspires their listeners. They have plenty of time to figure it out and we as music lovers have plenty to enjoy until they release their next work.  If you are in Arcade Fire fan, I’d be interested in your thoughts on what you think will happen next.

The Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden (8.5.10)

It seemed a bit odd to be in the heart of New York City, listening to an indie band raised in the suburbs singing about the suburbs while thousands gathered (likely from the suburbs) and many more thousands watched online (many presumably also from the suburbs). But I had to keep reminding myself that I live in a world where mothers and daughters line up at midnight to watch movies with beautiful people about love … and vampires.

Indeed, it was a night of unexpected moments – an “indie” band selling out the fabled Madison Square Garden, being watched on YouTube sponsored by American Express be directed by Terry Gilliam who Win knows from the film Brazil (but most recognize him from more popular movies like 12 Monkeys and The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus). In between the opening acts of Owen Pallett (who was fantastic) and Spoon (who are amazing but the Garden was a bit too big for their acoustic sound), a radio dj declared to the 19,000 in attendance that this was a historic night in music. How could the Arcade Fire sell out two straight nights in the fabled Garden? And why would people come to see it when they could sit at home and watch for free?

Selling out MSG in a down economy is pretty amazing.  This is in light of Rolling Stone magazine reporting that summer ticket sales are down for the top 100 concert tours by 12 percent for the first half of this year which is the first time that’s happened in 15 years.   So a band signed with Merge Records should have plenty to feel good about. However, as you listen to the Arcade Fire’s latest offering, The Suburbs, you will learn that this isn’t really true.

As the story goes, inspiration hit Win Butler when he saw a picture of an old friend holding his little daughter in front of Houston strip mall near their old neighborhood. The album is charged with varied raw emotions from angst to boredom to a lamenting off the loss of innocence and returns for another Funeral-esque look into childhood. But just like Neon Bible explored new sounds, most notably the organ, Suburbs mixes a little Springsteen Americana with an epic splash of U2 to fill the stadium in “Suburban War” and catchy bits of new wave in tracks like “We Used to Wait”. What’s different from Neon is that Butler seems to be less angry with the government, the church, and all authority, but more with his own soul as he wrestles not only with suburban life but with getting older. An acute sense of his self-awareness weaves through the album like in the title track, “The Suburbs”, “Modern Man” and “Sprawl 1 (Flatland)”.

There may even be a subtle swipe at the fans who have broken up with Arcade Fire “for not being indie enough” in the lines of Rococo:
“Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids, They will eat right out of your hand, Using great big words that they don’t understand. They say Rococo … They build it up just to burn it back down, The wind is blowing all the ashes around, Oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing Rococo! They seem wild but they are so tame …”

One could not help but think of this while surrounded by the Brooklyn hipsters and the Urban Outfitters. While I am not really sure what qualifies as an “indie band” or an “indie fan” anymore because I know I smelled a lot of Abercrombie cologne and I saw a Jersey Shore wanna-be cast member (I think he called himself the “Imitation” and he may have been Greek but as a citizen of the Banana Republic, I ought to not judge).

It is true, there are many ironies but what about all the other bands that write their songs from their McMansions with the Mercedes E-Class in the driveway yet pretend they can still relate to the general culture? My greatest fears is that one day, it will be revealed that Green Day’s American Idiot was partially inspired by Billy Joe Armstrong’s poor landscaper and a tragic venti White Chocolate Mocha experience at Starbucks.

The truth is we need more albums that confront suburban living from people who will admit they were raised in the suburbs and have remained. Albert Hsu’s The Suburban Christian reports that this the first time in American history that more people live in the suburbs than in the cities and rural towns combined. To those who regard themselves as Christians, the reality is not all of us are called to live the urban monastic lifestyle like Shane Claiborne, some of us are called to be here. But just like my dad handed me Mere Christianity and I will one day hand my sons Irresistible Revolution, we need to begin to follow Jesus right where we are.

Among the reasons of why I think many Christians have embraced the music of the Arcade Fire is that they choose to confront their problems, angst, and anxiety in ways that are not only not trite but divorced from the Christian subculture though they use a fair amount of religious imagery and language. This nine-piece miniature choir who exchange instruments and preach to their masses from a stage that is designed to appear as though they are playing from under an overpass highway system creates so much cathartic energy that even with the “kids (that) are all standin’ with their arms folded tight” in “Month of May” let loose and dance a little. In addition, there was an awkwardly placed billboard stand emerging from behind the drums that played videos of suburban experiences like kids riding bicycles in culde-sacs, giving “noogies” in the front yard, and glimpses of young love. Whether you were raised downtown, in a small town, or “in the valley” It seemed to me that almost everyone could connect.

If they could not, there was Win’s wife Regine Chassagne singing a song called “Haiti” which was released back in 2004. She wrote it more as a eulogy but carries an obvious prophetic fulfillment today: Haïti, never free, n’aie pas peur de sonner l’alarme (never fear to sound the alarm), Tes enfants sont partis (Your children fled), In those days their blood was still warm. We were further haunted when she sang Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), “They heard me singing and they told me to stop. Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock. Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small. Can we ever get away from the sprawl? Living in the sprawl dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains. And there’s no end in sight, I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.

Some of us will never move out the suburbs but may we find it in God’s will to create a better suburban culture. One that confronts the pain and restlessness and pursues redemption, forgiveness and hope. If you need an anthem, I can think of no better closing line than in their popular encore “Wake Up”, “With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’, I can see where I am, go-go, where I am, You’d better look out below!”

A Brief Thought on the new U2 Album

Like almost everyone who breathes oxygen, I love the music of U2.  And like so many who pledged their allegiance to the epic works during the days of Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and who lived through the American reactions of Zooropa & Pop (which were brilliantly misunderstood albums not only ahead of their time but in a different dimension.  Some call it Europe but I’m not sure it’s that easily identifiable), you always have a bit of anxiety whenever a new U2 album drops.

I understand why many people despise Bono and his band.  They’re so big that they are “The Man” and we all know it’s cool to hate the man.  I will still never forget the argument I had with someone who told me that if I wanted to listen to real rock’n roll, I needed to listen to Aerosmith.  We all know that Steven Tyler has a life-size poster of Bono above his bed and we all know the best thing about Aerosmith is Liv Tyler. It’s ok, there will always be people who hate God too.   Anyway, while it is not the Achtung Baby reinvention we were promised, No Line on the Horizon is still fantastic.  

Of course so much has been written already, but here are some of the posts I’ve appreciated.

Don Miller’s post was really insightful.  (What else would you expect from Don?).  I don’t know how to summarize it without creating a  long post so you can just read it.

From a NY Times article:

“How do you puncture pop consciousness with a tune anymore?” Bono said later over a pint of Guinness in the restaurant of the venerable hotel Claridge’s. “That’s actually your first job as a songwriter.”

A conversation with Bono is a free-associative adventure. Between thoughts about the album he dispensed fascinating digressions, casual but carefully placed on and off the record. He gave a full-voiced demonstration of Italian opera vowels and Frank Sinatra style — heads swiveled nearby — and mused on cathedral architecture; he described encounters with presidential candidates and plans for his future columns on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. He spoke fondly about his band mates as characters he’s still trying to figure out, about songs as bursts of serendipity and about what he wants in a performance: “spastic elastic energy.” more.”

Reflecting on My Music Listening and Buying

I don’t blog enough about music but I do love it.  Well, that’s kind of a dumb statement because pretty much everyone loves music.  But I do love my music, I love new music, I love hating bad music (although I’m not that big of snob.  I don’t like boy bands because they suck, not because they’re popular.  Radiohead is popular but they’re amazing, therefore I like them.  See?).  

Years ago, a church family gave me an ipod for Christmas.  Not only did that move them up on my prayer list, but it really helped my music listening experience.  Prior to that, I had various CD cases that I would drag around with me.  The Ipod of course changed that.

Oddly enough, I still buy most of my music on CD.  I bought the new Coldplay Viva La Vida album on cd, imported on itunes, threw it on the ipod, and flipped through the liner notes, etc.  I like imagining certain bands sitting together discussing what the artwork should look like and why.  What should be contained inside the liner notes and on days when I have too much time, I compare things like the people they thanked in this album versus the last.  I find it interesting.  In addition, I look at a couple websites, read magazines (I subscribe to Rolling Stone and Paste).  Speaking of Coldplay and Rollling Stone, I liked Chris Martin’s interview, “The Jesus of the Uncool” in Rolling Stone.  And as the cd collects dust on my shelf, I enjoy listening and discussing certain albums with others. 

Radiohead was interesting because they first made In Rainbows available by download for any donation on their website.  I gave $5 because I’m a big spender.  (I’m serious, if you check out the sites, I think that was the highest donation they took in but it was what I was willing to spend and I loved the idea.)  Then, when the CD was released months later, I bought it too.  I like looking at my CD’s, DVD’s, and books on my shelves (and I wonder how long it will take me to get Kindle or the Sony Reader.  If I traveled weekly, I’d probably consider it).  I like the tangibility of certain things.  You can check out a brief Paste article regarding Radiohead’s downloads and sales numbers with In Rainbows here.

Anyway, I am interested what will happen in the music industry.  I read this interesting article in the NY Times, “Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan“.  Though it’s more about how new artists need to attach their music to products and commercials (like Yael Naim’s “New Soul” promoting the MacBook Air), it speaks to the changes in the music industry.

 For those interested in great music and love independent music,  here’s someone you should know – Andy Zipf.  He’s a real artist, he’s  refused to sell out, and he actually loves to travel and play shows for  people. In some ways, he’s already doing the future of music thing.  For instance, his music is only available by  digital download.  He will  be playing our first youth group of 2009 with a concert and  conversation.  (Let me know if you’re interested, I’d be happy to get  you directions).  Check out his music here.

Do you like music, what about free music that isn't lame?

Last year Derek Webb made available She Must and Shall Go Free for free on his website.  Many had already purchased it but many loved telling non-fans of the great deal.  Free music confirms to your friends that the musician you are recommending is not pretentious.  So this week, I received an email from Sandra McKracken’s site (Derek’s wife) of a number of albums being available.  Click here and enjoy. 

(sorry about the size, when I learn how to blog, I’ll do better).

Reflecting on Rufus and V-day

So for Valentines’, my wife and I headed into NYC and saw Rufus Wainwright.  Here’s the story, a couple years ago, I listened to a couple mp3s of Rufus at his piano.  He was great and I loved the soul in his voice.  Now, my wonderful wife does not keep up with my taste in music. So there are only a few bands./musicians that I tell her, “You have to hear this!”  She gets bored with that. So I never mentioned Rufus to her.

Then one day, she came home having seen Rufus perform at some kind of ballet recital in Philadelphia.  Rufus became part of our musical canon, along with Sufjan, Iron and Whine, KT Tunstall, etc. 

Some are surprised that we like him so much since he is gay and we are allegedly good Christian people.   And not only did we not protest the concert, but were delighted to give him money to sing to us on Valentine’s Day.   God bless Rufus, why not, He blesses you and me.

Should Christians listen to music performed by gay people?  Why not, they listen to ______.   Sorry, it’s not that kind of blog.  But I think you get the point.  Unless Dan Brown has some long-lost vinyl recordings of Jesus singing to himself, then there’s not whole lot of options.  Are we not a bunch of sinners listening to a bunch of other sinners?

Listen to Derek Webb … on his podcast

 I’ve been trying to catch up with the Derek Webb podcast lately.  Really appreciating it.  He’s been doing it for a while.  If you are one who enjoys his music, most likely you’ll enjoy the podcast as well.   

In the third podcast, he is summarizing good art and the Christian involvement. He insists that it’s his (like all artists) job to produce bold and truthful art.  Derek also says that too many Christian artists want to be popular and sell a lot of cds as opposed to making great art.   We have all heard that a million times before but what I appreciate about it is that it’s

coming from someone who actually is selling records.  Someone who has enjoyed the royalty checks from the Christian music industry and someone who turned his back on it.

 He also mentions his appreciate for Dylan and Wilco – can’t wrong with that.  

Check him out here.