I don’t know how I remembered: Linkin Park? There was a whole wave of pop rock bands that got big shortly after I graduated from college in 1997. In the five years that followed, I was securely snug into Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. Many of us were writing our own worship tunes. And we didn’t listen to the radio, so we missed Linkin Park.*
When I took the position at Hope College in 2006, a year had passed since (according to wikipeida) Linkin Park had reached international fame. Yesterday I pulled up a few of their videos on youtube and now so much of the super-pop worship music makes much more sense to me.
And another: Newsboys. Again, we weren’t listening this band in my church either. Their worship hits began hitting CCM radio in 05-06.
I made a definite effort last summer to find a few songs that were over 112 bpm…maybe even 115. Halfway through the school year one student asked me why I didn’t lead any uptem-po music. I mentioned the few songs that we’d added, and he responded, “no…I mean really fast…like over 130 bpm.”
He ended up emailing me a link to five songs ranging from 130-144 bpm. I confess it is only till just this past week that I looked up the songs on youtube.
My first obstacle is watching people worship. I don’t understand the need to video the arena worship rock event. The lights and the rest of the visual production don’t draw my attention to God. My attention is fixed on a spectacle.
My second obstacle is the lyrics. Lyrics that fit such fast tempo tend to be overly simple. Of course, there is nothing wrong with simplicity. Some of the simplest things can be the most profound. There is nothing wrong with rehearsing the core truths of the faith. Merton said we will always be beginners—all of us.
The question is if the simplicity serves a consumable good or a transcendent reality. This is where the subjective responses to the songs is apparent. Who I am and how I’m made as a musical creature makes it hard to listen to these super-pop worship songs on the internet and discern if or how they could ever serve my campus ministry. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though. I remember “Trading My Sorrows” from a long time ago. When did I become too cool to sing and dance to that song? In the right context at the right time, perhaps that song could still be very helpful for my spirit and worship. Likewise, with the right leadership and the right context perhaps any of these super-pop worship songs could move us closer to the presence and likeness of Christ. Perhaps!
The great fear is sentimentality. Milan Kundera’s definition of the kitsch is synonymous with sentimentality: "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."
Sentimentality, then, is an emotion about having an emotion. Thus my concern about the spectacle of the video performance: is our emotion a reaction to God, his truth and revelation or to the A/V production? But you say, so much good music and film is made with vast amounts of production. Surely Bach’s cantata’s were an enormous production? Again, the question between manipulation and formation is whether the production draws us into the revelation of God, or if we become distracted by the gadgetry of our technology.
The jury is still out for me on the matter of super-pop worship. I confess cynicism and elitism. I want to be a leader who loves his people. My realization is that much of the difference between what the aforementioned student and me is age. If he is 20 years old, that means he was born in 1991. When I was 16 I was listening to Rich Mullins and REM. When he was 16 (only four years ago), he was maybe listening to Linkin Park and the Newsboys’ worship records or some derivations. It is hard to believe that I am a veritable dinosaur…just when I was starting to love playing the electric guitar.
Here is the next layer of the issue at hand: Kundera’s other famous quote about Kitsch: “Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists.” Many of my counterparts, leaders my age, have moved beyond anything above 90 bpm in order to avoid kitsch and sentimentality altogether. Yet the Psalms call upon us to shout to the Lord and even to dance and clap our hands. How does their music lead their worshipers into this biblical worship expression? Yes, pop music can be awkward, a prickly pear of an issue. However, we are called to redeem our culture and that means wading into the proverbial shite. At least I know that is what I am called on in the love and service of God and these college students.
U2 is on tour this summer. I'm not a huge fan myself, but another way of getting at my musings above is by asking how many of my college students would even want to go? I know of at least two who did. Another student a few years ago really hit me between the eyes when he referred to U2 as "dad-rock." I'm not a huge fan, but still...I feel old.
*I admit that I may have missed the other, real bands that have affected the sound of super-pop worship. Anybody have suggestions?