Reasons to Enjoy Pop Music: A Self-Rebuttal

Quite a while back, I wrote a post outlining “Three Legitimate Reasons for Hating Pop Music.” That post, (which claimed not to bash others’ music tastes) was essentially just me bashing others’ music tastes, going so far as to pretentiously declare that I might cause you to listen to artists with “genuine talent,” and that “reader discretion” was advised. While that post still exemplifies some of my frustrations with the music industry and the consistent unoriginality of chart-toppers, I’ve since come around to realize that there isn’t a single compelling reason to keep yourself from listening to pop music if you enjoy it.

Allow me to make a statement that may shock you if you would place yourself into any of the following categories: folk aficionado, metalhead, self-proclaimed musical intellectual, bass junkie, indie music scout or classic rock apologetic.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking popular music.

No matter how many times you let someone know that you listen exclusively to progressive jazz fusion, you can’t deny that you secretly enjoy the bassline to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” If Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” hasn’t left your vehicle’s CD player since 2006, you can still recall the few times that you’ve scrolled through the radio frequencies, landed on your local pop station, and listened for the remainder of the drive (not forgetting, of course, to dial back to the classic rock station before you leave the car). Even if you decry the merits of any music not written by one of the great classical composers, claiming that Mozart’s work is inherently superior to any work produced after 1900, you have assuredly heard the infectious melodies of One Direction and subtly tapped your foot.

The reason for this is that the enjoyability of any variety of media is entirely in the eye – or ear, rather – of the beholder. As you, your opinions, your emotions, your beliefs and your surroundings change, your tastes change with them. Much to the chagrin of any hipster, there are no particular aspects of a piece of media that can be quantified to determine its quality.

A common pitfall of humanity, especially in modern western culture, is to try to find one’s identity in the uniqueness of your choices in media and entertainment, when in reality, there are few things that could give your identity less meaning. The fact that you listen to a certain variety of music or only read certain books is, in the grand scheme of things, utterly meaningless.

“Wait,” you cry. “Are you suggesting that my music is not superior to everyone else’s?” After all, your tastes are what define you. The idea that your affinity for the intellectual rhythms of mathcore does not somehow set you apart from everyone you know is borderline blasphemy.

Yep. That is exactly what I am suggesting.

No matter how much of your identity is wrapped up in letting others know the distinctions you make in your personal consumption of media, it can’t define you. Attempting to place yourself in a predefined group of likeminded consumers warps the idea of identity just as much as accepting mainstream ideals and diagnosing yourself with Bieber Fever. Man chooses to tell himself the lie that he can find the truth about himself by knowing what he likes, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Paul tells us many times in the Epistles that a Christian’s identity can be found only in the work of Christ. Therefore, be glad! You are free from worrying about such petty conflicts as what your friends might think of your music choices. Whether or not you listen to songs at the top of the charts, your identity isn’t found in the media you choose to consume. This idea isn’t exclusive to mainstream music: it also applies to those who refuse to listen to Christian music because they think it’s uncool. (It’s not necessarily good to listen to Christian music exclusively, but that may be a topic for another post.) In fact, the idea that discriminating between media in any way makes you a better person or one of superior social status is eliminated by the work of Christ. The idiom rings true that “the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”

This cuts the choice of whether to listen to pop music to two simple criteria: whether the song is acceptable to listen to, and whether you enjoy it. Acceptability is a criterion which is generally considered to be pretty subjective, being more of a conscience issue than anything; and enjoyability quite obviously varies from listener to listener. Therefore, if you were to boil the choice down, it becomes simply a matter of whether you legitimately enjoy the music. If you do, great! Listen to it! If you find yourself agreeing with my former self in the belief that pop music is dull, inartistic drivel, then don’t. No one is forcing you to. It’s a simple matter.

When it comes down to it, popular music is just that: music which happens to be popular. It’s not a reflection of your quality as a human being, and certainly not what you find your identity in. Relax about what others think of you, rest in your identity in Christ, and don’t be afraid to play some One Direction when people are looking.

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The Christian and the Dreaded M – Some thoughts on mature video games

ImageWhile the Bible was written for us, it was definitely not written to us as a culture. This means that there are some things, especially in our entertainment-obsessed culture, that seem to be grey areas. One of the most well-known and disputed grey areas is the subject of video games, namely the more violent or mature ones. Since the Bible doesn’t have a commandment that says “Thou shalt not play M rated video games,” this requires some thought and study to decide what is acceptable to play and what is not in the life of a Christian.

First of all, when we decide what games are and aren’t acceptable, we have to realize that the ESRB was not sanctioned by God to be the standard for what we should and shouldn’t play. It isn’t perfect. When a game has the dreaded “M” in the lower right corner of the box, it should raise a red flag. However, that red flag should give pause for thought and deeper understanding of why the game is rated that way, rather than instantly forcing you to place the game back on the shelf (or more accurately, click the back button on Amazon). Rather than going by only what is on the back of the box, it’s best to do some research on the positive AND negative aspects of the game. (A great site for this is Plugged In, run by Focus On the Family, which gives bible-based, family-oriented reviews of all sorts of media.) Many M rated video games, much like R rated movies, have positive aspects to them that aren’t covered on that black and white rectangle. There have been plenty of games that most people will believe were mis-rated, whether the rating was too high or too low.

By contrast, we also need to understand that the media we take in can have an effect on the way we live and how we think. This isn’t necessarily always true, which is the reason why some mature video games can be found acceptable. But if you’re blatantly doing evil in “choice” style games such as Mass Effect, you may find yourself drifting towards those choices in real life; or if you’re endlessly mowing down civilians in an open world game like Grand Theft Auto, you may find yourself with violent tendencies, or more disturbingly, viewing the people around you only as targets. Yet, as I said, playing a violent video game will not necessarily make you a more violent person or decrease your value of human life. This is because of the biggest aspect of choosing appropriate media:

Know thine enemy. And in the case of any human, our biggest enemy is the sin that is with us from day one of our lives. It’s our master unless we trust Jesus for salvation, and it’s still a huge temptation afterwards. But, as Luke 16:13 tells us, we can’t serve two masters, because “…either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If our goal in choosing “appropriate” media is focused on seeing how close we can get to the line of “this is sin, and this isn’t,” we’re probably not truly devoted to Jesus, and we’re really just desiring sin.

When you’re choosing your next game, think about the sins that you specifically struggle with. If you have a tendency towards anger or hatred, you should avoid games centered around violence. If you struggle with lust, don’t play games marked with sexual content. If you’re a former or current drug addict or alcoholic, avoid stirring up those desires with a game marked by “drug use” or “alcohol.” If you are susceptible to making video games your idol, you may not want to purchase any at all (or if you really must, buy ones that aren’t deep and immersive or addictive).

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When deciding whether to buy a game, you have to compare both the content of the game and your own maturity. If you think a game will cause you to have intelligent and wise thoughts, such as “Is it ever okay to use violence for a good cause? Was XYZ a good choice? Are lies acceptable in any situations?” then it may be a good choice to play that game. If it may not cause you to have thoughts as deep as those, but the thoughts it does cause are mostly innocent, a la “Whoa! That was awesome! What a cool explosion!” then you may want to consider getting another game, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea to get this one. However, depending on your maturity level, these thoughts can be a slippery slope to cruel-spirited ones like: “Hahahaha! Killing civilians is hilarious!”

However, there are some games that I believe Christians shouldn’t play, period. One of these types of games is the game that blatantly glorifies sin. Games like Grand Theft Auto fall into this category: namely, games that glorify violence, generally in the form of murder, against the likes of innocent civilians, cops, and rival gangs. …Which, of course, you commit in bulk. Desensitization to violence or death is real, and should and can be avoided at all costs. We’re made in the image of God, and life is precious. (It is worth noting, though, that this is very different from a game that has military or justified violence.) Games that depict grotesque, horrid or demonic-looking creatures or claim to show actual demons should also be avoided not only on the amount of scariness, which may or may not apply to you, but because of the dark, false spiritual content that is frequently attached. While there may be some Christians that are probably solid enough in their faith that they can easily pick apart the false religions in these kinds of games, they sure don’t live up to the standards of Philippians 4:8, because dark and disturbing images have a way of sticking in your head, and the twisted spirituality will likely come along for the ride.
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So, all in all, it would be unwise to say something along the lines of “I’m never ever going to play or buy any M rated games.” We have to remember the inherent imperfection in ratings, the effect a game’s content can have on our spirit, and our own maturity and susceptibilities. If you follow these guidelines and select games appropriate for yourself (or your children), these games can become useful for entertainment, stress relief or fellowship with others.

If you’re still a child, the odds are you are simply not able to accurately judge whether you’re mature enough to play certain games. This is why, even if your parents don’t force you to, you ought to continue to rely on them to make the final call on whether you should be allowed to buy the latest shoot-em-up. (After all, you may be just a tad bit biased.) If you’re a parent, don’t instantly drop the ball when you see that M on the box of the game your child is asking for. But, after you compare the game’s content with your child’s level of maturity, don’t be afraid to give either response to their request, even if it means they’ll be disappointed.

Like Wreck-It Ralph, we’ve gotta take it “one game at a time.”

Three Legitimate Reasons for Hating Pop Music

Warning: this article contains strong opinions. It may change some of your beliefs about music, or in some extreme cases, have you listening to artists with genuine talent. Reader discretion is advised.

The term “pop” has evolved over the years. Pop music originally was a softer version of rock and roll, and more appealing to the masses. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summarizing pop music:

“There are core elements which define pop. Such include generally short-to-medium length songs, written in a basic format (often the verse-chorus structure), as well as the common employment of repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and catchy hooks.

So-called “pure pop” music, such as power pop, features all these elements, using electric guitars, drums and bass for instrumentation; in the case of such music, the main goal is usually that of being pleasurable to listen to, rather than having much artistic depth. Pop music is generally thought of as a genre which is commercially recorded and desires to have a mass audience appeal.”

I think this is a pretty fair definition. Like any branch of music, pop has many subgenres (some good ones including piano pop and pop / punk), and there are a few of these that I enjoy. However, in recent years, “pop” has come to mean “whatever music is popular.” The problem is that most popular music is terrible music.

In general, I try not to bash anyone else’s music tastes (and I don’t plan to in this article), but I’m baffled why so many people enjoy music from the Top 40. I can’t understand why they don’t see what is so blatantly clear to me.

1. The music is mind-numbingly dull.

Part of this is personal preference, but the other part is the repetitive, redundant and repetition-filled songs. Really, though, have you ever listened to Top 40 radio with a critical ear?

Most “pop” songs use the exact same structure: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus. I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with this structure; many artists of other genres use it successfully. At least, there’s nothing wrong with it on its own.

It gets more repetitive when you break it down further, though. After hearing Top 40 radio all summer at my local public pool, I quickly noticed something worse: they all used the same chord structure, or at least something similar. You’ve got your happy / dance songs, your sad songs, and not much else. This, too, is not that bad on its own, but it gets even worse.

Then you have the blatantly obvious: there’s little change in sound from song to song, almost ever. Most “pop” music today has a thumping beat, some kind of synth sound, and a singer. None of these elements on their own make for bad music necessarily, but when you put them together, you have a specific formula for producing music that people just eat up, for some reason. Some other musical things wrong with “pop” are:

Autotune: This serves no purpose. If the artist uses this to cover missed notes, they should buy singing lessons instead of buying fame. If the artist just thinks it sounds cool…it just doesn’t. They’re smothering any emotion the song was trying to convey.

Attitude: If these people are trying to sound like they don’t give a (insert interjection of the artist’s choice here), they’re succeeding. And I don’t understand why people like it.

Ke$ha: In addition to following the “pop” formula exactly, Ke$ha talk-sings. Her voice moves up and down, but it’s not really singing. It has a vague rhythm, but it’s not really rapping. It just sounds kinda stupid…and on top of that, it’s autotuned. And this garbage sells millions. It makes me angry.

Still, most of what I’ve said so far is just my personal preference. If you’re not bothered by a simple, repetitive structure, that doesn’t really bother me. There are plenty of artists I like that have a somewhat predictable sound; so this reason may only apply to a few people. (However, I cannot understand anyone liking Ke$ha.)

But this isn’t where the real problems are.

2. The lyrics show one desire – the opposite gender.

Have you ever wondered why children nowadays are more infatutated with romance, and earlier, than ever before? It could have something to do with the music they hear.

Take Justin Bieber. Who makes up most of his fanbase? Teenage girls. I’m not generalizing, I know that not all teen girls like the Biebs, but it’s a fact that most people that like his music are teen girls. Why is this? Because everything he sings is a love song of some sort.

Some examples are such lyrical masterpieces as “Baby,” “One Less Lonely Girl,” “Boyfriend,” and many more. I’m not saying that love songs are a bad thing, but it’s literally ALL HE SINGS. The ONLY exceptions are “Pray” and his covers of Christmas songs. And when someone listens to love songs constantly, romance is gonna be on their mind constantly.

Obviously music isn’t the only culprit responsible for lovestruck eight-year-olds, but it certainly contributes. What few songs in the pop industry are not about love are generally about alcohol, partying and even drugs. It’s amazing what gets on the radio – I can think of a few songs which are either blatantly sexual or talk frankly about smoking weed or doing drugs. But hey, that’s what people like, right?

Which leads me to the biggest issue with “pop” music.

3. It’s all a money grab anyway.

Justin Bieber is a talented guy. I have no problem admitting this. Yet, when I hear his music, I don’t hear much of his talent. Why is this? Production. (I know this is a little hipster-y, but this whole section also explains why I like indie music, and why it’s almost always better.) I looked up some old JB videos, and I respected him. The guy was a good singer and a good drummer. Why the change?

His career follows the same path as a lot of “pop” artists: He was discovered by an agent while he was singing something good, then was turned into a pop idol. It wouldn’t have mattered if Bieber had wanted to sing another style of music; his producers knew that songs with power-pop instrumentals were popular, so that’s what he sung. They knew that tween girls would go crazy over him, so they had him sing love songs. And a star was born…or something like that.

It’s surprising how many pop idols were once just humble, talented singers. Justin Bieber, One Direction, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, just to name a few. In fact, many pop idols were once Christians or at least religious. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry used to sing in their churches, and even Lady Gaga used to be Catholic. We can’t judge for sure whether they are Christians, but most of them don’t seem to show it with their lifestyle.

Because that’s what many producers and record labels do: they take people with genuine talent and reimage them into whatever’s popular. (Compare Owl City’s old music with his new music for an easy example.) Sometimes I wonder if the stars themselves really realize how much they’ve been taken advantage of. Sure, their career will end with them being rich, but when they decide that they want to start writing their own music and make songs with meaning, their fifteen minutes will already be up. It’s sad, really.

When you hear the next terrible, overproduced pop song on the radio, you’ll know it’s not really the artist’s fault that the song stinks, but the producer(s). I’m not saying producers are evil, but many of them take advantage of the artists and strip them of their old identity and ther creativity, and replace it with what the masses want. That’s just what the industry does.

So that’s why I hate pop music. It’s not wrong to enjoy some of it. Even I have listened to One Direction voluntarily…multiple times. So if there’s some pop that you like, I’m certainly not telling you to stop listening to it completely. However, I have trouble listening to most of it because of my personal music tastes and the tasteless lyrics, but even if I could reconcile those, I don’t think I would ever pump any of my money into the pop music industry because of what it does to talent and the people who have it.

What Makes A “Christian” Band?

Music is an amazing gift. It can uplift us, it can sympathize with us, and it can tell us stories. Many bands are created by Christians, ranging stylistically from praise and worship to death metal. Yet, this question is asked of almost every band: “Is __________ a Christian band?” The truth is, there’s no one definition for a “Christian band.”

Many people have taken positions on what makes a band Christian, but I would consider a lot of them to be wrong. One interesting quote was made by Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf:

“I don’t know what you mean by a ‘Christian rock band.’ It’s hard to say that because people all have a different definition of what that means. If it means that we’re Christians, then, yeah, we’re Christians, but if a plumber’s a Christian, does that make him a ‘Christian plumber?’ I mean we’re not playing for Christians. We’re just playing honestly and that’s going to come out.”

A lot of people seem to have taken this idea to heart – similar comments can be found all over the internet. The problem is, Lacey’s comparing apples to oranges. When you call a plumber, you’re not asking him to do anything related to your mind or soul. It doesn’t affect your beliefs when he says: “Well, I unplugged your drain and toilet. That’ll be fifty bucks.” However, when you listen to music, something unique happens. The music transports you to the viewpoint of the songwriter, and if the music has a Christian message, that’s probably what you’ll be thinking about while you listen. The same is true for secular or even evil messages – your mind will dwell on those while you listen. (I would consider Flyleaf a Christian band – keep reading for why.)

Another popular viewpoint is that the idea of a “Christian band” is just silly. A frequent comment goes along the lines of “LOL. Christian band. When DC Talk died, it didn’t go to heaven.” This argument just doesn’t make sense, though. It’s attacking a position that doesn’t even exist. No one (I hope) thinks that bands have souls and go to heaven when they “die.”

The most frequent mistake people make, though, is when people over-label bands as Christian. Many people seem to assume that if a band puts out a mostly positive message and doesn’t cuss while doing it, then the only explanation is that it’s a Christian band. It REALLY irks me when someone labels a band Christian because they have one vaguely faith-related song, or one or two of their members are religious. Linkin Park is not Christian. Seriously.

So, how can you define the great line between secular and Christian music? (Underoath fans, see what I did there?) Like I said before, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition. Like many things, you just have to take it on a case by case basis. The main thing you have to look at are a band’s lyrics, which should show where the band’s heart is at. This is the best indicator, because it tells you what message the band really wants to get across. Not every chorus has to be shouting “HALLELUJAH, GLORY ON HIGH!”, but the way you judge a band’s Christianity is similar to the way you judge a person’s – the Gospel doesn’t have to be pouring out of their mouth constantly and awkwardly, but their life and words should show that that’s what they are truly centered around.

So, in the end, whether a band is Christian or not is really up to the interpretation of the listener. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even bad to listen to non-Christian music. It’s fine for entertainment, or for a glimpse into what they believe, but if you’re looking for something to nourish your soul with, it’s best to listen to something that centers around the most positive message of all: the Gospel of Christ.