Of Agnostics and Jingle Queens

April 22, 2010

David Bazan used to be the impetus behind the stealth-Christian band Pedro the Lion. (I say that because I listened to a radio program that was interviewing him, and a caller said that she felt ambushed by the Christian themes in the music.) The group was controversial in Christian circles because some of the lyrics were a tad risque for the CCM demographic, Bazan drank and swore, and despite the overtly spiritual themes the band certainly wasn’t meeting a Jesus quota. A few years ago the band took a break, Bazan’s marriage nearly fell apart due, in part, to the strain of alcoholism, and he lost his faith.

Sort of. I think.

He opens Curse Your Branches, his newest album, with the lines,

You’ve heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes

Wait just a minute
Do you expect me to believe
That all of this misbehaving
grew from one enchanted tree?

And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die

And why its hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being.

He’s asking the same kinds of questions, demanding the same kinds of answers, that we can find in the Psalms. A few more:

God bless the man who stumbles
God bless the man who falls
God bless the man who yields to temptation

or

All fallen leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

There’s more where that comes from. In fact, this might be the most overtly spiritual set of songs Bazan has ever penned, and the irony is that Bazan doesn’t even believe in the God he’s wrestling with in these songs. There’s a bite to these songs, music and lyrics, that draws the listener in. Bazan sounds like he’s in anguish as he sings some of these lyrics, almost as though this album is a sort of Gethsemane. For my part, hearing songs like these is a refreshing change of pace from the way God is usually handled in music.

In Regina Spektor’s latest album, Far, she’s also got a song that talks about God, “Laughing With.” But that’s about as far as the spiritual stuff goes, which is fine. The album’s fine, too. Pretty typical Spektor– competent, catchy, occasionally a bit too affected for my taste. What I want to talk about here is the way that marketing has changed and subverted the album. The first time I listened through the album I realized that I’d already heard all the best songs. I should note here that I don’t listen to music radio. I don’t even watch all that much television. Somehow, though, Spektor’s songs had gotten through. I’d heard them in commercials; I’d heard them in the few tv shows I’d watched; I’d heard them in movies. Somehow music has become even more inescapable.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind this, honestly.

I don’t begrudge artists these deals. I’m not one of those people who gets exercised when a band “sells out.” I’m more concerned with what gets released for me to listen to. As record labels have died, music radio has become less lucrative, and actual sales of physical albums have cratered, musicians have to take any chance they can to make a living. I understand this. I get it. I’m mostly reconciled to it. One of my favorite bands, The Submarines, has licensed their songs to Apple for use in iPod commercials.

There’s a little bit of a difference here, though. The Submarines didn’t license their songs until after their album was released, and as far as I can tell Spektor’s songs were being licensed before Far came out. This ruined the sense of surprise I had when encountering the music. Now, once again, there’s nothing wrong with hearing a song that you haven’t heard before on a commercial (or wherever) and thinking, “Hey, that’s a nice track. I’ll have to figure out how to get that.” And of course it would be ridiculous to expect that I could go through my life hearing all music within the confines of an album before I experienced its commercial use.

But since the songs off Far were out before the album was released, I made different associations in my head. Instead of thinking about the song itself, or trying to figure out how a given track fit in with the rest of the songs on the album, I found myself thinking, “Where have I heard this before?” Instead of the songs standing alone they were now stuck with connotations of products and TV shows. Again, I don’t blame Spektor for taking the chance to make some money off her music, but I wonder if this strategy doesn’t ultimately backfire.

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