A music post: Tori Amos rocks my world

Last December, I saw Tori Amos in concert in Los Angeles, and it was amazing.  It was stunning, actually.  I sat in my seat with wide, unblinking eyes and did my best to take everything in, to experience everything as fully as possible.  I was there with four of my friends, but once Tori came out on stage in her crazy dress and shiny leggings, my focus was set, and my experience was individual rather than collective.  I suspect the other three did the same.  When it was over, we gushed together.

I learned a few things that night.  I did not realize that I was so familiar with most of Tori’s songs that I would notice slight variations (an unexpected stress on a particular word in a song; a chord that used to be played differently; a slight lyric change).  I did not realize how much of my self was tied up with her music.

I’m one of those Tori fans for life.  It really doesn’t matter what she does (or doesn’t do); I will find a way to love everything she creates.  My experience of her music, my connection to it, has changed over the years.  I used to connect very emotionally to her music (possibly because I was a teenager at the time, possibly because the music itself was more emotional in nature), but my connection with her recent albums (except for Night of Hunters) has been more intellectual.  I want to figure out what the story is behind her songs; I want to hear and understand the architecture of the music and figure out how it contributes to the story; but I don’t often deliberately seek out the little personal corners of myself that connect to this or that piece of music or lyric.  My habit of intellectualizing Tori’s music ended on that evening in December when I sat in the Orpheum Theatre and listened to Tori play.

It was “Precious Things” that did me in.  Sitting there, I was reunited with all of my past selves who had listened to that song and found some comfort in it.

I am, of course, unable to listen to that song objectively.  All those past selves crowd in with their various connections to all the pretty girls, to all the pandering to boys whose faces I no longer remember, to all the times I cut myself down in an attempt to be what someone else may (or may not) have wanted.  I do not know whether that song is powerful in and of itself or if its power largely derives from my experience of it over the years.  Maybe it is infinitely more powerful to me because so many women of my acquaintance also connected with it.  Maybe that’s what music is.

Tori’s new album Gold Dust reminds me of that December concert.  I’ve grown up with Tori’s music as the soundtrack of my life, its ups and its downs.  Tori has grown up, too.  When she sings her songs now, “Precious Things” and “Hey Jupiter,” for instance, she can sing them as the girl she was 20 years ago when she wrote them, as a mature woman, as a mother.  Nothing about Tori’s music is static – every time she changes, it does, too – and I think that’s my favorite thing about her as an artist, that her art gives me the room I need to grow and change and still love what I loved before.

I love early 90s hip hop – and I think I might be a feminist…

I’m helping some friends put together a playlist for their wedding, and that means I get to listen to some of my favorite guilty-pleasure music: early 90s rap and hip hop!  On my way into work this morning, I was rocking out to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and I realized that my favorite early 90s hip hop songs always feature the ridiculous–the threat of violence combined with the exhortation to dance, for example–and I wonder what that says about me.

Officially, I love every single thing about this song–I love anything that makes me laugh–but my favorite verse refers to Vanilla cruising through the town perusing all the lovely ladies and grabbing–but not using–his 9 while he runs away from chumps who may or may not be full of 8-ball.  Running away in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard core?  Seriously?  I love it.

Honestly, white people, just stop it.  Bagpipes are not hard core.  Anyway, I love the notion that House of Pain’s lyrics are so brutal and effective at administering whoop-ass that an actual shotgun is necessary to use as defense against them, but everything will be OK if you just get out of your seat and jump around.

Regarding this one, can I just say that it’s ridiculous that curse words and pot references were edited out of the radio/MTV edits of this song, but the lovely lyrics: “Uh oh, I crave skin, rip shit, find a honey to dip it in, slam dunk it stick it flip it and ride that B double O T Y oh my” are A-OK?  What does that say about our society?  But I still love the song… I’ve got a shovel, and I can dig it, fool.

This one is not my favorite early-90s hip hop songs.  If I’m going to listen to a song that blatantly objectifies women, it’s going to be “Baby Got Back.”  Anyway, I included this one because it’s just so blatantly awful.  To be honest, the sad thing about all of these videos is that these dudes probably did get a lot of booty.  In a just world, a honey who saw Vanilla Ice coming towards her with all of his hubris and dorky sweatshirts would have laughed at him and walked the other way.  But that’s not the way the world works.  Wreckx-N-Effect oh-so-elegantly stated the dominant mores of our society: “Now since you got the body of the year, come and get the award.  Here’s a hint – it’s like a long sharp sword.”  Hooray for you sweetheart–in exchange for being so beautiful and shaking your rump so mightily, you have the privilege of having your body used.  How wonderful.

I was in junior high when these songs came out, and I admit that, at the time, I loved them because they sounded cool, not because they were funny in an ironic way.  And it’s only as I grow older (and because I have daughters instead of sons) that I see what’s so awful about the lyrics of some of the songs and what they represent.

Anybody else love early-90s hip hop?

I really hate most 70s rock music…

My office is hosting a party to celebrate a beloved faculty member’s tenure as Dean, and I got assigned the lovely task of putting together a playlist of his favorite songs to play at the event.  As a consequence, I have spent most of the day listening to such delightful bands as Asia, Ambrosia, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, and the Strawbs.  Until a few weeks ago, I was blissfully unaware of these bands (especially the Strawbs… good Lord!).  With prolonged exposure to these bands, I have been able to determine that (1) I don’t mind psychedelic rock from the 60s, but I really hate it from the 70s; (2) at some point in a man’s life, it is no longer OK to have long, stringy hair…the boys from Metalica and Bon Jovi had it right when they cut theirs off to a respectable length; (3) I am exceedingly grateful that my dad never listened to this stuff while I was growing up!

Not sure what sort of music I’m talking about?

It’s classy stuff, and, yes, I do believe that is a mullet.

You might also be wondering why I have these album covers easily at my disposal.  That’s part two of my random project: compile the music into a playlist and create a slideshow from images of the bands’ cover art, concert posters, and concert photos.  It’s possible that I wouldn’t be so bitter about listening to this stuff all day if I didn’t have to be looking at (after searching for) pictures of them as well.  To put all of this in the proper perspective, however, I do have to point out that I would rather listen to Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” all day on a never-ending loop than listen to 10 minutes of KISS FM…

From deepest woe I cry to thee… Oh Lent, I miss you.

In a recent email to a friend, I mentioned that I vastly prefer the music of Lent to the music of Eastertide.  Obviously, I’m just going to have to shore up all of that lamentation and penitence for next year.  To tide me over, however, I will here present a sampling of some of my favorite Lenten music.  If you play the videos embedded below, you’ll notice a certain trend.  My favorite Lenten music is full of drama and honesty.  Lent is not a time for smugness, and I have to admit that I revel in all that honest soul-searching.  However odd it is, Lent is the one time of year that I feel almost normal.

As an example, here’s the text of verse three of “Creator of the Earth and Skies”: “We have not loved you: far and wide, the wreckage of our hatred spreads, and evils wrought by human pride recoil on unrepentant heads.”  I couldn’t find a performance of the hymn to post, but it’s Hymn 148 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, words by David W. Hughes (1911-1967), Uffingham tune.  Anyway, what I like about this hymn, along with many of my favorites from the Lent section of the hymnal, is that it strips away the veneer that we use to cover our humanity, that lovely fig leaf of self-delusion that we use to convince ourselves that we are naturally good.  I’m not entirely certain why I get so annoyed by this veneer, but I do.  When I encounter it in life or in hymns, my fingers itch to point it out as folly, to tear it away.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s verse 3 from “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope in doctrine, one in charity.”  (Words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), music by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), St. Gertrude)  I infinitely prefer the version of humanity and Christianity offered by Hughes, because that’s what I see on a daily basis.  I can’t recall ever looking at the whole picture of humanity and supposing that we were united in charity.

I’ve divided these music selections into three groups: (1) hymns that focus on individual penitence, (2) hymns that focus on how much it sucks to be Jesus, and (3) choral anthems that carry the themes of Lent.

1.

“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” – BWV38.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite from among the two hymns featured in this section.  This hymn, whose German title is shown above (from the original words by Martin Luther in 1524) is styled as “From deepest woe I cry to thee” in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 from an English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1863) that was slightly altered for the hymnal.  The words beautifully encapsulate the themes of Lent: penitence and the acknowledgement both of God’s grace and mercy and of our own unworthiness. My favorite verse is the second:

Thou grantest pardon through thy love;
thy grace alone availeth.
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast themselves of aught,
but must confess thy grace hath wrought
whate’er in them is worthy.

 Perhaps I should explain a bit of my theological background in order to shed some light on this reflection.  I grew up in a funky church that emphasized works and glossed over that whole faith/grace/all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God bit.  As an early teen, I switched to a somewhat evangelical church that comprehended a better balance between works and faith, but, both because of my earlier background and because of the twisty ways teenage minds shape and bend theological messages, I began to view God as implacable–no matter how much I repented, I still felt condemned for my sins, unable to accept the grace of God.  Now, I could spend an awful lot of time attempting to work out all of the intricacies of that one sentence, and maybe I will at a later time.  For now, suffice it to say that I was still attempting to earn my salvation through good works, and I was never able to be quite good enough to attain it.  After I switched to the Episcopal Church, I had the good fortune to interact with a priest who felt strongly about grace, and I began to understand just why it’s so difficult to accept it.

We human beings hate feeling grateful or obliged to someone else.  It is an extremely difficult emotion for us to manage.  From early childhood, we want to be independent, to do things all by ourselves, to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished.  My elder daughter is almost three, and she has reached the independent stage with a vengeance.  She wants to climb the stairs all by herself and put her shoes on all by herself, and she becomes incredibly frustrated when she is not able to do so.  As we grow into adulthood, we like to think that we cast off all of the quirks of childhood, but we do not.  We yearn to be acknowledged for the things we have done, to have others recognize that we did them “all by myself,” and it is almost shameful for us to have to admit those occasions when we have received timely assistance from others.  It is as though we are convinced that there is no value in accomplishing some task if one does not do it entirely by oneself.  But how foolish is that?  When was the last time you accomplished anything entirely by yourself?  I would be nothing without the assistance of my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, etc.  Even the very few things that I do well I cannot really claim: I write well, but isn’t that largely because of the efforts of one Frank Jansson (my high school English teacher)?

If it is difficult for us to acknowledge an obligation or gratefulness to another person for assistance in our day to day lives, how much more difficult is it for us to acknowledge that our salvation (however we comprehend it) is entirely outside our control.  I still struggle with it.  At the evangelical church I attended, we teens in the youth group were taught that each sin we committed was another nail piercing Jesus’ flesh–that if we could stop sinning, he could stop suffering.  As an adult, I view that teaching as patently ridiculous.  First, we really can’t stop sinning because it’s in our nature to be schmucks sometimes.  Second, Christ died once–it isn’t a continual sacrifice, it’s a continual redemption.  When we repent, God doesn’t say, “Um, let me think about it… I’ll get back to you later when I decide whether or not you deserve to be forgiven for that one.”  Instead, our forgiveness and atonement is already there, just waiting for us to accept the gift, because we never deserve to be forgiven, but we are forgiven regardless.

During Lent, we are encouraged to take an honest look at our lives and to reflect with penitence on the need for redemption and the beautiful gift of mercy God gives us.  This season of reflection prepares us for the yearly celebration of this gift at Easter.  I have a tendency to live in Lenten ways all the year through, because I find such comfort in the idea that God loved me enough to make such a sacrifice that no matter how much of a schmuck I will ever be, that unconditional love will never fail.  I no longer believe that God is implacable, unwilling or unable to forgive my great transgressions.  Instead, I happily believe that no matter how much nonsense I dish out, God is more than capable of forgiving it.

“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun” – John Donne (1631-1673), Dresden, arr. John Ness Beck (1930-1987).

I expended all of my theological mumbo-jumbo in discussing the first hymn of this section, so I’ll just highlight my favorite verse from this hymn, from a poem by John Donne.  Verse 3:

I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
and having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

2.

“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” – Johann Heermann (1585-1647), tr. Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Herzliebster Jesu, arr. J. S. Bach (1685-1750).

I’m not quite as fond of the ‘boy, it sucks to be Jesus’ hymns as the hymns from the first section.  Honestly, I think a meditation on the sufferings of Christ can be overdone.  However, I truly love the two hymns I’m posting here.  My favorite verse from “Ah, holy Jesus” is verse 5:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

“O sacred head, sore wounded” – Robert Bridges (1899), Passion Chorale

For true Lenten drama, you can’t really outdo “O sacred head, sore wounded.”  My favorite verse is verse 4, which is starred in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (meaning it can be omitted).  Thankfully, we sing all 5 verses at my church.

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.

3.

I sing in the choir at my church, and I just adore the music we do during Lent.  I find that I cannot get sick of renaissance motets.  Anyway, here are two of my favorite Lenten anthems.

“Call to Remembrance” – Richard Farrant (c. 1530-1580)

“God So Loved the World” – John Stainer (1840-1901)

If you made it through all of this giant post (and watched all those videos), cheers, and thank you for your patience!