Okay, I said I wouldn’t do it again, but I did. I promised myself I wouldn’t watch the Super Bowl halftime show. But, alas, I watched it, again. What made me do it? Well, maybe, just maybe, I thought I might learn something new about popular music or the current pop culture.
Sadly, I didn’t learn much. While I don’t listen to popular music, I’m usually aware of who the latest pop music icons are. My younger sons periodically give me an update on who’s who in the music scene.
However, Maroon 5 wasn’t a band I was aware of until I heard they would do the show after other performers had opted out. So, I figured, let me see what their lead vocalist, Adam Levine, is all about. After all, it couldn’t be worse than that Post Malone performance I saw on New Year’s Eve.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed by Levine’s performance. It was actually quite boring and uneventful. A fact confirmed by most honest music critics. He did take his shirt off though, revealing his various “rad” (or whatever word the current generation uses for cool) ink markings. How sexist. How did he get away with that? Janet couldn’t!
But as Levine performed, a touch of sadness came over me. I was reminded once again of how far current pop music has declined since the sixties and seventies. And how much the current younger generation is being robbed of a chance to listen to culturally significant music, music that can define a generation.
Music that can shed insight into the peaks and valleys of the human condition instead of music that offers the same looped melodies with the associated lyrics of sensuality and narcissism.
I’m not talking here so much about how the music sounds. We of the older generation know good music when we hear it. From Beethoven to “Roll over Beethoven”, we know a good tune when we hear it.
What I’m talking more about is what the music says. Did you catch what Adam Levine was actually saying? To be sure my ears weren’t deceiving me, I had to go and read the lyrics.
Check these out.
This Love (Maroon 5)
“This Love” was one of the tunes Maroon 5 performed. Take a look at some of the lyrics.
Who writes this stuff? A 16-year-old? The rest of the song isn’t any better.
Here are some lyrics from another song they performed.
Harder To Breathe (Maroon 5)
Again, the rest of the lyrics don’t get any better. Go see for yourself.
The sexism, violence, sensuality, misogyny, and insecurity in these lyrics are obvious. Is this what our youth is listening to? Seriously!
“I have the tendency of getting very physical / So watch your step ’cause if I do you’ll need a miracle.”
Wow! In the atmosphere of the #METOO movement, this is what the Super Bowl organizers bring us. They feature a group who performs a song where a man threatens to do bodily harm to his girlfriend if she’s not careful. Is that okay? Am I supposed to believe this is serious music?
No wonder why the NFL ratings are tanking. The drastic decline in their product offerings and insensitivity to their fan base is a marvel to behold.
Is Maroon 5 Representative Of Our Culture?
But what if the Super Bowl organizers simply saw Maroon 5 as a popular musical group and figured featuring them would increase their ratings? After all, Adam Levine and Maroon 5 have sold an awful lot of records (Maroon 5 has sold more than 109 million singles and 27 million albums, making them one of the world’s best-selling music artists).
Now, I can’t say I’ve listened to all of Maroon 5’s songs, but I imagine the ones that were played at the Super Bowl are representative of their music.
That means, then, that the music that appeals to our culture today, especially our youth, revolves around the baser parts of human nature, such as self-indulgence, negativity, and sensuality.
I know Don McLean proclaimed the day the music died, but if Maroon 5 is representative of pop music today, then pop music is still stone cold dead.
Not only that. Today’s pop music may also exist in a form that is very dangerous to young minds filled with mush. Billboard calls these catchy-as-hell tunes. Yeah, I bet the music played at Nebuchadnezzar’s idol dedication were catchy-as-hell tunes as well.
Just be careful you’re not like the woman in “Harder to Breathe” or you might just catch hell.
Those of us over the age of 40 know that it wasn’t always this way. Yeah. I know I sound like one of those old geezers lamenting the past.
Well, sometimes the older ways were better, and maybe we should examine them to understand how far we’ve fallen.
Socially Aware Music
As I said, watching Maroon 5’s performance saddened me because I realized how much our current youth was missing out on quality music. Again, I’m talking about what the music is trying to say (note: it’s a known fact that much of today’s music melodies are simply a version of an already existing loop of music).
At one time, pop music lyricists seemed to have their finger on the pulse of society. Yes, there were tons of anti-war songs of course.
But numerous bands were also using their music to convey concepts of true romantic love, brotherly love, tolerance, social equality, and the need to unplug from an ever-growing commercial self-centered world.
Think of the Beatles (“All You Need Is Love”, “Revolution”), Dylan (“Blowin’ In the Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”), Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”), CCR (“Fortunate Son”), Aretha (“Respect”), Edwin Starr (“War”), Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come”), Sly Stone (“Everyday People”), The Byrds (“Turn, Turn, Turn”), Elvis (“In The Ghetto”), The Animals (“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”) and a slew of bands advocating the “back to the land” motif.
Okay, that’s a very small sampling. I could go on and on but you get the picture.
However, let me use one of my favorite rock bands, The Kinks, to further illustrate my point.
You remember the Kinks, right? If you’re like me, growing up you knew a couple of their songs like, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”. Unfortunately, not a lot of their songs got extensive airplay in the U.S. You’ll see why in a minute.
According to Wiki, The Kinks had five Top 10 singles on the US Billboard chart. Nine of their albums charted in the Top 40. In the UK, the group had seventeen Top 20 singles along with five Top 10 albums. Four of their albums have been certified gold.
In the last few years, after being reintroduced to them by my sons, I’ve come to understand the real potential of popular music and what some of the more socially aware groups were trying to do.
The Kinks, though, stand out to me as one of the truly insightful groups of the ’60s and ’70s in that they were able to truly capture the signs of a slow disintegration at the core of their culture and how it affected the common people.
Welcome To The Village Green
In 1966, the Kinks produced The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. In this concept album, Ray Davies wrote a series of songs that reflect a common theme, the need to recapture the traditions of a simpler, bygone way of life.
Here’s a stanza from “The Village Green Preservation Society” so you can get a feel for the song.
How would a song with those lyrics fare on Billboard’s Top 100 today? By the way, the melody is exceptional, as they are in all the Kink’s songs. After listening to their songs for a while your subconscious will absorb the music, and you’ll find that melody stuck in your head for hours. Here have a listen.
In post-war England, Davies knew that something in his culture was changing, and not for the good. The old ways were being abused and discarded. England’s culture was being transformed from one of charm and civility into one of commerciality and coldness.
His mention here of Tudor houses and antique tables stands in stark contrast to the new utilitarian Brutalistic structures starting to dominate the English landscape.
And Davies saw it as his duty to let his audience (young people) know that the times they were a changing.
Missing The Village Green
In the song “Village Green”, Davies wrote this,
Remember these lyrics are from one of 60’s preeminent rockers at the top of his career. However, Davies understood that it was the simpler things in life that were ultimately the most fulfilling.
Consider what rock music icon Pete Townshend of The Who said about the songwriting in the Kinks Village Green Album:
For me, The Village Green Preservation Society was Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.
Wow! A pop poet laureate. Like Adam Levine. Not!
However, the village green had another meaning for Davies. Davies said of the village green,
Everybody’s got their own village green, somewhere you go to when the world gets too much.
The village green was a place where one could escape from the pressures of the world. Consider that in contrast to losing oneself in the lust and sensuality of today’s music.
The theme of an increasingly difficult existence in the modern age for “simple people” intensifies in the Kinks and Davies subsequent work.
20th Century Man (Kinks 1971)
Read these lyrics from “20th Century Man”.
This song was written by Ray Davies in 1971. Hmm…. Doesn’t it sound like Davies could’ve written this yesterday about our 21 century?
In these lyrics, Davies again laments what has become of post-war England. He sees a country (he may also be referring to the U.S. because I don’t think England ever used napalm) turned into a warfare state, a welfare state, a bureaucratic state, and a police state. One in which there is a loss of privacy, liberty, security, and a decline in classical culture.
The current state of affairs has driven him to become a paranoid-schizoid on the edge of insanity.
However, Davies’ 20th-century man is not insane. That’s because he wants something different, and he can imagine something better.
A New Jerusalem?
Interestingly, Davies mentions the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem. This is probably a reference to a poem written by British poet William Blake in 1804. In that poem, Blake writes of a past fictional visitation by Jesus to the green pastures of England. However, Blake laments that England, which should be like the New Jerusalem, is being ruined by the “Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. This poem became so famous in England that it continues to serve as a sort of national hymn.
While Davies alludes to Blake, he also echoes the American Southern Agrarians of the 1930s. They, like Blake, valued such concepts of agrarianism, conservatism, and religion over against the increasingly negative effects of modernity, urbanism, and industrialism on American.
We don’t hear much of the call of Blake, the agrarians, or Davies anymore. But can there be anything more needed in our time than detaching ourselves from the constant bombardment of technology to spend time recharging our batteries while enjoying the peaceful solitude of the village green?
No, Davies’ 20th-century man had not gone insane yet. He knew his culture had disintegrated, and he didn’t want the status quo. He wanted to either leave it or find a solution.
The themes of the social, economic, and cultural decline continued in many other songs. Let’s take a quick look.
Shangri La (Kinks 1969)
In “Shangri La”, also written by Davies, the plight of the working man is depicted. He’s someone who is trapped in a miserable existence by mortgage payments, gas bills, water bills, and car payments. At the end of his life, he’s left with some meager material comforts. But he never complains because he’s been conditioned to believe that that’s the way things are supposed to be.
Hmmm… I don’t recall this being mentioned in any lyrics today, even though…
Is this the way things are supposed to be? I don’t think so, and I don’t hear many pop stars singing about it.
Dead End Street (Kinks 1966)
In “Dead End Street”, Davies writes about a couple mired in debt and living in a decrepit two-room flat on Dead End Street. They want to work hard, but there are no jobs for them. The two come to realize that they will never leave Dead End Street and will probably die there.
Wow, that couldn’t possibly be a prophetic reference to today’s younger people, could it?
Anyone hear of the college student loan debt problem. Check out these recent headlines:
Have our youth reached a dead end, and they don’t realize it?
Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t heard anyone today writing songs of that problem. Perhaps the goal of today’s music is to keep us brainwashed.
Brainwashed (Kinks 1969)
In “Brainwashed”, Davies continues his commentary on the economic and social decline of the British working class.
This song echoes the theme of “Shangri La” but in a much grittier way. However, here Davies identifies who is doing the brainwashing.
Davies lays the fault for the decline and brainwashing of the people right at the doorstep of the aristocrats and bureaucrats. The top 1% so to speak.
Again, this couldn’t possibly be happening today, could it? Consider this statistic from The Washington Post,
From 2013, the share of wealth owned by the 1 percent shot up by nearly three percentage points. Wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent, meanwhile, fell over the same period. Today, the top 1 percent of households own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. That gap, between the ultra wealthy and everyone else, has only become wider in the past several decades.
It sounds as if maybe the “yellow vests” in France have got a whiff of Davies lyrics. They certainly aren’t hearing it from today’s songwriters.
Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)
In this concept album, Davies writes several songs dealing with war. These include “Mr. Churchill Says”, “Some Mother’s Son” and, “Yes Sir, No Sir”. In these songs, Davies doesn’t glorify war. He’s shown war to be the nasty business it really is. Young people die, deserters are shot, some mothers suffer the horrific loss of their children, and civilians die and endure hardship, sometimes long after the war is over. War is sometimes necessary, but it’s never a good thing.
We Gotta Find A Solution
In “20th Century Man”, Davies implored, “We gotta find a solution.” As far as I can tell, he didn’t really have a specific one. But I think he felt that his music could give some relief to people looking for a way out of a trapped existence.
Not all of The Kinks’ songs dealt with the vicissitudes of life. Many of their songs were fun and upbeat (“Australia”, “Have a Cuppa Tea”, “Celluloid Heroes”, “Low Budget”, “Sunny Afternoon”).
In the 1978 song “Rock And Roll Fantasy”, Davies hinted at how his songs could help people.
Here are a few stanzas.
For Dan, in the song, it’s music that lifts him out of his humdrum existence. Davies understood that. His music had a purpose. It was not only to be society’s conscious but to also provide people with relief, albeit temporary, from the stresses of life. Sort of like the village green.
Unfortunately, he had no specific solution to the disintegration of the culture around him.
However, one of the most popular pop icons did try to offer a solution.
John Lennon’s Solution
In his song “Imagine”, John Lennon of the Beatles, longed for a world of peace, brotherhood, and one devoid of war, greed, and hunger. Bravo John for reminding us of these high ideals. Maybe some of today’s songwriters can realize that these are the things that make for good lyrics and make people realize that they can be better versions of themselves.
Unfortunately, John’s solution to the world’s problems was lacking.
“Imagine there’s no heaven… No hell below us… Imagine all the people living for today… Imagine there’s no countries… And no religion, too… Imagine no possessions…Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
(Sorry I just had to share this. While looking up the lyrics to Lennon’s song, the lyrics to Ariana Grande’s Imagine came up. Check them out, and then see if you can stop yourself from breaking out laughing.)
Nope, visualizing world peace won’t work. It might work if you were Thanos and could eliminate all the world’s bad people in an instant. Oh, wait, no, it wouldn’t. Because Thanos can’t stop good people from becoming bad people. In everyone’s heart, there dwells an island wickedness that makes them capable of bad things.
Besides, John’s solutions are utopian socialist in nature which history has shown to have consigned millions of people over the years to poverty, misery, and death.
The Solution? Writing Music With A Chest
Obviously, music has to regain a soul. It has to develop what C. S. Lewis called a chest. Lewis described the “chest”:
The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
The chest is what differentiates men from animals. It embodies concepts like love, peace, harmony, self-sacrifice, truth, honor, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, patience and self-control.
Lewis warned that if we continue on a course without a chest, a dystopian future awaits us. He wrote,
We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.
We tolerate the teaching of evolution in our schools, and then are shocked when our young people act like animals, and then turn their backs on God. We tolerate the teaching of alternative lifestyles in our schools, and then are shocked when we hear of confusion in who can use which restroom.
So it goes with music. Music has no chest. It has no moral compass. So we have dystopian music.
Most importantly Lewis pointed out that the above concepts do not come by individuals naturally. They have to be taught.
But there was one person in whom they didn’t have to be taught.
The Only Man Born With A Chest
While I’m not aware of Davies’ religious beliefs, I do know that he was raised in a culture heavily steeped in Christian beliefs and traditions. It was a culture that believed that love, peace, justice, and righteousness were transcendent values that must be preserved if society was to function well. It was this culture that influenced the social consciousness of the music of the 60s and 70s.
This culture, however, didn’t arise ex nihilo. It arose out of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. He was truly the only man born with a chest.
Jesus Christ didn’t have to be taught these concepts because he was God incarnate. He was the embodiment of love, joy, peace, goodness, faithfulness, kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control.
There is only one way for songwriters to produce music with a chest. That is to take His yoke and learn from Him.
Perhaps when that happens, we can again imagine a New Jerusalem on earth.