1989 and the Need for Musical Diversity in Worship

Thanks to a friend of mine, I recently came across an interesting blog post entitled “liturgical lessons from Ryan Adams 1989” by James K.A. Smith, professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and a fascinating forward-thinker. (Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom is on my reading list.)

Here’s the gist: Ryan Adams took Taylor Swift’s hysterically happy album 1989 and transformed the lyrics and melodies into a subdued reflection on the meanings behind her texts.

Jim Smith’s discussion of this transformation is brief (i.e. it’s a short blog post) so you should really go read it yourself. But for those who lack either time or motivation, here is a (too lengthy) quote:

“When you listen to Adams’ cover of Swift’s album, you finally realize how incredibly sad it is–that buried down beneath the perky melodies and auto-tuned precision of a pristine sound is a lyrical world of heartbreak, disappointment, and despair.

“Not until you hear Adams’ mournful rendition, in the gravelly timbre of his voice, does the truth of 1989 disclose itself. It’s like, up to now, the melodic tenor and sonic grammar of Tswift’s album was lying about what it said. The sound isn’t true . . . Adams’ cover tells the truth about the music, and thus tells the truth about a sad, broken world by redeploying Swift’s lyrical honesty in a sonic environment that fits.

“We live in a society that wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat . . . And this cultural penchant for a certain sonic grammar seeps into the church and the church’s worship, so that we want songs and hymns and spiritual songs that do the same. But as a result we often create a (pre)cognitive dissonance between the Bible’s honesty, carried in our hymns and psalms, and our pop retunings. Or we embed them in a sonic liturgical environment that endeavors to be, above all, ‘upbeat’ and positive–a weekly pick-up encouraging you to just ‘shake it off.’

“Worship should be a proclamation that tells the truth, not just lyrically, but sonically. And that means music that resonates with broken hearts.”

I’ve been ruminating on this. One conclusion we might draw is that contemporary worship music, the stream of song that sets ambiguous biblical catchphrases to happy-or-sappy major-key pop tunes, fails the Church by not selling laments for us to sing.

But I suggest we take from this a different lesson. Becoming aware of the cognitive dissonance in our worship materials points to the need for musical diversity in corporate worship.

Understandably, the music produced by, and for, white middle-class suburban America has a hard time dealing with lament. Some other cultures, however, have rich liturgical repertories that can compliment contemporary worship music. Certain selections in the global hymnody stream of song, for example, excel at setting corporate lament to music. Black gospel and some blues also do this well.

However, if a congregation uses only one particular thread of music to sew together its worship, it misses out on the beautiful tapestry of song supplied by all God’s people in all places at all times. To use a different metaphor, if a congregation is too enamored with how it sounds in worship, it does not hear the voices of other Christians – around the world and down the street – in the present or the past. This congregation refuses to join the great Song of the Church that, by grace, progresses from lament to glorious redemption in Christ Jesus her Lord.

Let us remember that Communion is not only between the individual and God; it is also communion among believers. We live together. Let us also eat together and sing together.

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