Matthew Linder

Matthew Linder earned both his Bachelor of Arts in saxophone performance and his Master of Music History and Literature from Sacramento State University. Currently, he is an Adjunct Music Professor at National University teaching courses on Western, American, and World music. His work on the intersection of popular culture, music, and faith has appeared at various outlets including Christ and Pop Culture, Mockingbird, Pop Culture Renegades, and as a guest on the Sunday Oldskool podcast.

A Call to Lament

In the wake and chaos of grief, we humans long for order. I experienced this longing only a few months ago when my fiancée and I called off our engagement. The pangs of grief were so great that I buried my sadness, hoping to delay the waves of depression that would inevitably come. I spent the next several days trying to forget the pain of losing the woman I loved. Cleaning the house, reading books, listening to records and hanging out with friends gave me a temporary sense of order. Yet the pain lingered despite my best efforts to suppress it.

When grief enters our lives, a cosmic rebalancing is needed. We often react as I did, seeking out hideaways of structure in small ways: organizing a desk, doing the laundry, cooking a meal. But were not okay. Choosing to ignore the grief does not help. When weve suffered a great injustice, the pain will not go away. If only someone could brush away the pain as simply as scrubbing dirt off our shoulders.

Americans are quick to offer platitudes to those who grieve. Think positively. Everything will work out in the end. Pray and God will take it away, we say. But optimistic clichés only serve as salt in the wounds of despair. Thinking positively begets a swirl of manic highs and lows. Were afraid to grieve and to remain in grief too long. Oftentimes the best prescription is to weep, and for those around us to remain silent and weep with us.

The 80s New Wave band Tears for Fears was founded on the idea of fully pressing into pain as a pathway out of grief. Band members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith recount in an oral history of their debut album, The Hurting:

Roland Orzabal: “I had a guitar teacher, and she introduced me to a book called The Primal Scream (by [American psychotherapist] Arthur Janov). And I read it, and it became my bible…The therapist would try to lead you to recall something that happened to you, and your way of mourningand its a deep way of mourningis that you actually cry…I converted Curt, you might say. I suppose both of us were believing we were victims, so we would quite often try and convince other people of the validity of Janovs ideas, but no one would…”

Curt Smith: Once Id got the name Tears for Fears in my head, which was from the Arthur Janov book, Prisoners of Pain, I told Roland. I think pretty much straight away we knew that was going to be the name.

While The Hurting explored their personal experience with this psychological process, Tears for Fears second album, Songs From the Big Chair, uses the method of primal therapy, a form of psychotherapy which focuses on internal psychic pain, to express collective grief in response to great suffering. Throughout the album Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith tell us that if we saw that our tears can heal, then we Westerners might not be so quick to brush aside our own grief or the grief of others:

Between the searching and the need to work it out
I stop believing everything will be all right
Broken, we are broken

—“Broken”

I believe
That if you knew just
What these tears were for?
They would just pour
Like every drop of rain

—“I Believe”

While the biggest hits from the album (Shoutand Everybody Wants to Rule the World) let out frustrations about injustice in the world, the B-side suite provides a framework of allowing ourselves to grieve.

Sounding like an evangelist for primal therapy, Orzabal provides his testimony on I Believe with expressive but purposely weakly delivered vocals. This life is shaped by tears, he sings, beginning with our screams as we exit the womb. And yet our life of tears makes us strong:

I believe
That when the hurting
And the pain has gone
We will be strong
Oh yes, we will be strong…

And I believe
No I can’t believe that every time
You hear a newborn scream
You just can’t see the shaping of a life
The shaping of a life…

These words are set to emotionally vulnerable, almost sentimental music, yet the song ends in a sustained clash of incongruent synthesized tones. A sudden interruption of large cavernous beating drums leads into Broken,signaling that, even if we subscribe to Orzabals faith in primal therapy, we must not forget our pain. Grief is an ongoing, lived-through process.

A process that is also found in the  laments of the Psalms in the Bible. In a lecture series on the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that they are models . . . of learning to have faith in the midst of disorientation, pain and loss. While many Psalms express personal lament, some engage in the form of communal grief that Songs From the Big Chair encourages:

Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power, preserve those doomed to die!
Return sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors
the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!
But we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

—Psalm 79:11-13

How long, Lord God Almighty,
will your anger smolder
against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.

—Psalm 80: 4-5

But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter
and have scattered us among the nations

—Psalm 44: 9-11 

The Psalmslaments are a way of handing those dark proclivities over to Gods good grace, Brueggemann writes. And if we do not do that, the way these Psalms invite us to do that, then we are left with two options of denying them [dark proclivities] or acting them out.”

Like the Psalmist, the song “Broken” addresses our need to act out the grief process. With all the fire and brimstone of a megaphone street preacher, Tears for Fears proclaims our collective brokenness. Searching for a path to relief, they find that everything will not be all right. We are broken, they sing, and a thundering bass-drum combo undergirds the crunching dissonance of the telephone-toned keyboard melody, pushing us into the maelstrom of heartbreak and mourning.

Interjected between the studio and live versions of Brokenis a personal narrative of romantic heartbreak. In Head Over Heels the crushing and oppressive keyboard melody from Broken transforms into a beautiful yet stately piano line with a slight air of unsettledness. On its own, the song deals with the anxieties and pressures of a romantic relationship.

Something happens and I’m head over heels
Ah don’t take my heart don’t break my heart
Don’t throw it away

I made a fire and watching it burn
I thought of your future
With one foot in the past now just how long will it last

Placed between two laments of brokenness, however, it plays as a narrative, a storied example, of what pressing into the pain of grief looks like.

In my own Christian context, personal stories of fallenness, salvation and restoration serve as embodied examples of Christianitys meta-narrative: life in a sinful world, Jesus death and resurrection, and the new heavens and earth. Head Over Heelsoperates in a similar manner as a storied explanation of brokenness that both personalizes and validates our need for healing through tears.

Closing out the album is Listen, featuring a bubbling rounded synth, sampled operatic singing and record scratching, pulling the listener in various directions without ever settling into a space of respite. The cryptic lyrics further confuse the listener: “Mother Russia badly burned/ Your children lick your wounds/ Pilgrim father sailed away/ Found a brave new world/ Cumpleaños chica, no hay que preocuparse/ Soothe my feeling” While the title of the song calls us to listen closely to the words, we are not meant to understand their meaning. Obfuscation is the point, demonstrating that no one knows the true depths of grief, even as we seek to soothe our anguish.

Christians believe that one day there will be an end to these tears, that God will personally wipe away every last drop from our eyes. But as the Psalms and Songs From the Big Chair remind us, as long as we live in a broken and suffering world, we cannot wipe our tears away. A life-altering diagnosis, the end of a marriage, the death of a loved one, a shooting in a church, the sale of baby parts, refugees fleeing a war-torn country: for these things we must allow ourselves to be deeply troubled and to weep. As a psalmic lament, Songs From the Big Chair calls all of us to grieve, but also to find hope in and through our tears. Then maybe we can begin to understand what our tears are for, letting them pour like every drop of rain, and we would begin to heal.

Get Free

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

In a 1999 cover story for Rolling Stone, Lauryn Hill said about her exit from the Fugees, “But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.”[1] Over the next couple of years, however, she would experience liberation of a different nature–a deep spiritual renewal. Hints of Hill’s spiritual transformation were present in her post-solo album interviews[2] and award acceptance speeches,[3] but she clearly unfolded her journey of faith in an unexpected place, via an unassuming solo acoustic guitar performance on MTV’s Time Square Studios. Her 2001 MTV Unplugged No. 2 performance was received by much of the music press at the time as a public breakdown. In an interview with Essence after the performance, the journalist indicated, “a growing concern for her vulnerability. I worry about the 27-year-old’s willingness to speak from the heart about how passionately she has rededicated her life to God.”[4] Other publications were not as gracious calling the performance a “nervous breakdown” filled with “psychobabble, self-help happy talk, ranting, and preaching”[5] and touting “a philosophy tailor-made for the tantrum-throwing, I-don’t-do-stairs world of soul divas and supermodels.”[6]

Near the beginning of the performance Hill tells her audience, “Fantasy’s what people want but reality is what they need. And I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” According to Hill, reality begins with refusing to dress up her body or voice in the way that the music industry expects her to do. In her performance, she wears jeans and a NY Mets hat while singing with a hoarse, tired and cracking voice. Furthermore, Hill uses performative techniques akin to leading a church service with the understated vulnerability of her unaccompanied acoustic guitar. She utilizes testimony, preaching and singing songs of worship, all in a hip-hop folk style to witness to her audience a message of liberation through the gospel. A gospel she believes, in the words of Jesus, proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and the oppressed, and recovers the sight of those blinded by the system.

In a 2012 paper titled, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill,” La Marr Jurelle Bruce argues that Hill purposely aligns herself with the trope of mad, black woman in the vein of other female vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.[7] Hillis not trying to destabilize her audience’s gendered and racial expectations but works in a performance mode perceived by listeners as someone who has gone crazy, when, in fact, she has not. Though she refers to herself throughout this performance as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable”[8], she is operating in a different mode, as a modern day prophet. Hill is prophetically speaking against “the system.”

She identifies enslavement to materialism, celebrity worship and self-centeredness as aspects of this system, which she names as part of late-capitalist American culture and people’s inner lives. But most notably, she opposes the historic and present racial discrimination against African Americans and uses her personal gospel transformation as a guide to speak up for those oppressed by the American justice system. The liberation Hill sings of is both physical and spiritual. Through this comprehensive sense of the gospel, Hill addresses the issues that lie at the center of both the oppressors and oppressed, a sinful heart in need of grace.

The beginning song tryptic of “Adam Lives in Theory,” “Oh Jerusalem” and “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” outlines Hill’s belief on the source of personal and cultural oppression. Hill drops her strongest critique of the sinful world in “War in the Mind (Freedom Time).”

According to Hill, in her extended forceful raps, reminiscent of the delivery of African-American preachers, people’s minds are splintered realities in Western post-modernist cultures. She deconstructs any and all -isms–religions, televangelists, and academia–in broad strokes. These systems Hill describes as depraved and sinfully disordered but also acknowledges that individual human hearts are implicated. All of humanity is so wrapped up in these realities, Hill sings, that when “Truth comes, we can’t hear it/When you’ve been programmed to fear it.” At this point, a tonal shift occurs which becomes the foundation for the rest of the performance. Hill in her gritty, sandpaper-toned preaching rap tells her audience, “Where there’s no repentance there can be no admission/And that sentence, more serious than Vietnam/The atom bomb and Saddam and Minister Farrakhan.” The audience applauds in response to Hill’s call for repentance and then she goes on to explain, “His word has nailed/Everything to the tree/Severing all of me/From all I used to be.” Referencing the transformative power of the gospel on her life and as the vehicle through which freedom is obtained.

Thus far in the performance, Hill has spoken against oppressive systems and hinted at the gospel as a liberating force. These themes are then injected into real world struggles experienced by African-Americans in “The Mystery of Iniquity”, “So Much Things to Say” and “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel).” In “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel),” Hill humanizes the problem of systemic racism by retelling the story of the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, by four plainclothes NYPD officers with forty-one bullets. At trial it was discovered that Amadou was reaching for his wallet in his pocket (and not a gun as the officers believed) when he was shot[9]. Prefacing the song, Hill explains the difficulty she encountered writing this song and how God intervened, providing her a direction: “Now I realize that this song is about freedom. You see. We can look at one human being but it’s about the spirit of freedom being taken out. And how it’s taken out in all of us.”[10] Tragically set using flowing arpeggiated minor chords in the lower register of her acoustic guitar, she sings about how black lives are thought of as “cheap,” “easy to be wasted” and views the shooting as history repeating itself. In her devastation over Amadou’s death, she finds comfort in Psalm 37:1, “Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man” and subscribes what Pilate said in response to the Jews at Jesus’ trial to Amadou, “His blood is on their hands.” Singing desperately and pleadingly she loses her voice asking her audience to wake up from their sleep regarding tragic deaths like these and from now on to “choose well,” “rebel,” and repent.

Prophetically uncovering sinful hearts, which create and sustain these unjust systems, Hill reveals God’s heart for liberation of the oppressed but then in “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” she identifies as one of the oppressed, vulnerably singing about her own need for gospel liberation.

In the simple narrative, Hill details her internal struggle between Satan, who tells her peace of mind is not possible, and God, who says it is impossible without him. She sincerely seeks God’s truth, loving embrace, and longs to repent of her past, leaving her old self behind. Shifting from smoothly strummed chords to a heavy-laden reggae beat, Hill repeats over and over again that it is possible to find peace of mind with God’s gift of freedom. Here justice and peace are intrinsically linked by Hill, in the sense that justice will bring about a peace that “means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.”[11] In that space of acceptance of God’s freedom and rest she can sing softly, “What a joy it is to be alive/To get another chance,” and then overwhelmed by God’s grace in her life she tearfully sings about the peace she has found.

Following this emotional unloading is a twelve minute interlude, that functions like a sermon on sin, total depravity, materialism, pursuing God-given passion, gospel transformation, spiritual warfare, and marriage, with the goal of weaving into her audience a picture of personal and societal peace. Within this sermon, she also provides the framework for her performance and the gospel of liberation:

And that’s what all these songs about. Problem, cause and solution. Free your mind. Yeah. It’s like we all think that the gospel is join a church building and that’s deception. You know, the real gospel is repent. Which means let go of all that crap that’s killing you. Life is supposed be a pleasurable experience not this torment.[12]

Hill’s powerful prophetic words for gospel justice within a broken system were not well received beyond MTV’s Time Square studio by critics or consumers. She still continues to be viewed, as she testified to in this performance, as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable” and is comfortable with accepting those labels. Her intent as a musical prophet is to wake up her audience from the slumber of consumerism, self-centeredness and racism of late-capitalist American culture. As Dr. Claudette Carr writes in a January 2014 post at Afritorial, “Lauryn Hill, is positioning herself in the tradition of Old Testament Prophets, as an outcast… a Concious [sic] Pariah.”[13] Like Jeremiah, she weeps over the injustices in this world and like John the Baptist, she is preparing the way for her audience to see and accept the liberating freedom of the gospel. Hill’s performance, then, captures the love of God for each individual sinner and his love of justice, in this case, particularly for African-Americans suffering under systemic racism. And her prophetic call is for all of humanity to respond by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. Hill’s final words echo what the Apostle Paul wrote in the Book of Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” she proclaims:

God is saying, “Get free. Confess, man. Understand that. Look everybody is going through the same stuff. Same issues it’s just a bunch of repression.” And I’m sayin’, “Man, life it’s too, too valuable, man, for us to sit here in these boxes all repressed, you know, afraid to admit what we really going through.” You know what I’m sayin’? I’m tired of that.[14]

 

[1] Touré. “Lady Soul”, Rolling Stone. February 18, 1999. Accessed February 3, 2015.

[2] See Ibid. and Pearl Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, Essence, July 1, 2002, 89-94.

[3] See Lauryn Hill, “Album of the Year Acceptance Speech”, 41st Annual Grammy Awards, CBS, aired February 24, 1999 and Lauryn Hill, “Essence Award Acceptance Speech“, 13th Annual Essence Awards, Turner Classic Movies, aired June 2, 1999.

[4] Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, 90.

[5] Nathan Rabin, “Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged Version 2.0”, The A.V. Club, May 21, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[6] Alex Petridis, “Songs from La-La Land”, The Guardian, April 26, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[7] La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill”, African American Review (45, no. 3, Fall 2012), 371-89.

[8] Lauryn Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, with Lauryn Hill, Colombia Records, 2002.

[9] Jane Fritsch, “The Diallo Verdict: The Overview; 4 Officers in Diallo Shooting Are Acquitted of All Charges”, The New York Times, February 26, 2000. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[10] Hill, “Interlude 3” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[11] Tim Keller, “Justice”, (sermon, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, NY, October 23, 2005)

[12] Hill, “Interlude 5” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[13] Claudette Carr, “Locating Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism.” Afritorial. January 14, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[14] Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.