This started out as a post about Jesus, and ended up as a post about Ellie Goulding. Stay with me here.
A while back, I posted about the song "Audience" by Cold War Kids. My friend Korey left this comment:
do you know what this song is about? 'cause im pretty sure it's about Nathan's deep reverence to jesus christ - his very own, 'audience of one'.Now, I'm going to take issue with parts of that, but, before we go any further, it's worth pointing out that nothing Korey says right there is in any way untrue. I've heard the same stories about CWK's religious background, and his interpretation of "Audience" certainly makes sense. Furthermore, I think most people will side with him in the argument I'm about to create. But let's do it anyway.
the reason being, of couse, is that the band is very VERY christian and, if im not mistaken, several of the guys met while at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (I only know this because my best friend's band used to open for CWK during a residency at DiPiazza's in Long Beach many moons before their meteoric - and if you ask me, undeserving - rise to fame in 2006.)
anyways, nothing against christian rock, christians, or christianity in general, but i tend to stay from songs with overtly religious overtones (even ones with catchy piano riffs), and thought i'd share my piece.
I grew up listening to a lot of Christian rock. There were times when I listened almost exclusively to Christian rock. And, therefore, I absolutely sympathize with anyone who makes the decision to avoid the genre altogether. It is, without a doubt, a smart move. You will avoid so much bland, derivative trash that it will more than make up for the fact that you will miss a handful of good songs. When I inevitably get around to writing a book, it will more than likely be an investigation into the effect that years of listening to Christian rock had on me. I want to start another blog where I just pick apart horrible late-90s Christian rock songs. You will be happier if you take Korey's side in this made-up one-sided internet argument.
But I take issue with the assumption that this song has to be Christian rock, that there is one definitive interpretation for the lyrics of any given song. Korey's point seems to be that Nathan wanted this song to be about Jesus, and that therefore it is ABOUT JESUS, and those of us who are not fundamentalist, evangelical Christians (and Korey is not, and I am not, and I would guess the vast majority of people who read this blog are not) should avoid this song, lest it get its stink on us.
Art, though, is always open to interpretation. When it's not, it becomes something vulgar. There are, to be sure, plenty of Christian rock songs that are not open to interpretation (the kind of "I love Jesus, Jesus is the best, if you don't love Jesus, you're going to Hell, don't question anything, we're right and you're wrong" nonsense that strains the definition of the word "lyrics"), and yes, this song (and its writer) might share a lot of ideological ground with those songs, but "Audience" is too well-done, and it's open to interpretation. As a listener, I am free to come up with an interpretation that edits out the spiritual aspect completely.
My interpretation, in a nutshell, is this: Each of us is his or her own audience of one. Life can be mundane. We are not movie stars, we are not celebrities, we are not capital-I Important. As we go about our daily lives, we complete tasks knowing that sometimes, no one cares, and that most of the time, very few people care, at least on a global scale. And yet, everything we do is shockingly important, because this is our one shot at this. As the Hold Steady put it, "We make our own movies." Even though sometimes ... the audience is just us. And, as Korey admitted, that's one catchy piano riff.
According to Wikipedia, Solipsism is the philosophical idea that one's own mind is all that exists. Solipsism is an epistemological or ontological position that knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified. The external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist.
It's ... not much of a worldview, I'll grant you that. And yes, I'm twisting the concept to fit my own argument. But, when it comes to music, I think solipsism is a worthwhile philosophy. This is what the song means to me, and so this is what the song means.
I'm saying that I can't be wrong, and I'm saying that, if you disagree with me, totally and completely and emphatically, that you can't be wrong either. Is this a wise worldview for a blog where I pretty much exclusively talk about what songs mean to me? Maybe not.
All this, somehow, brings us back to Ellie Goulding. Earlier this week, I called her album "almost defiantly optimistic," claimed that it "all but bleeds hope," and concluded that I was "left with the feeling that everything was going to be okay, because we were going to make sure of that." Listening to the album a few more times, it dawned on me that some people (maybe even most people) could come to the exact opposite conclusion regarding the emotional tone of this record. Then I considered the possibility that Ellie Goulding herself might have written these songs hoping to create the exact opposite feeling in me, the listener. If you read this album's lyrics as a book of poems, you could logically find bitter torment, failure and sadness, with only a few rays of hope coming through. I guess I'm asking you not to do that.
Start with the song titles: "This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)," "Every Time You Go," "Wish I Stayed," "Your Biggest Mistake." As an outline of the record, that list comes up a little short in the optimism department, and the lyrics to each are, for the most part, a book of lamentations.
But not all of them. And that's where our focus should be.
In "This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)," the song's title is half the chorus, but the other half is the line "This love is be and end all." Maybe this relationship will destroy both of us, we say, grinning, but the flameout is going to be glorious and epic. And we will dust ourselves off, no worse for wear, and wow will we have a story to tell.
"Every Time You Go" (which is featured here and, at gunpoint, is probably my second-favorite song on the album) includes the this exchange: "Now I'm tired of trying to keep you / All I want to do is sleep / But perhaps when I'm sleeping / You'll get back on your feet." Even when I give up, I will never give up. Even in resignation, I believe. "It's not so hard / It's not so hard." Always defiant.
"Wish I Stayed" revels in the freedom that "You can fall if you want to" and repeats the mantra that "We never gave up hope." Maybe we should have, maybe that would have been the responsible thing to do, but not us. Oh, not us.
Even "Your Biggest Mistake," the emotional low point of the record, keeps alive the possibility that "Maybe you can right all your wrongs." Furthermore, the song's placement on the album, right before the conquering light of "I'll Hold My Breath" seems to stand for the proposition that those doubts were fleeting, that the mistakes served a purpose, and that nothing that came before could stop us from what is to come.
You could argue that I'm grasping at straws. You could say that I'm looking at these lyrics from an already-skewed viewpoint. And that's entirely true. Because I've heard these songs before. Because these songs are lyrics and music. And that changes everything.
Listening to this voice, over these tracks, with this production style, I get limitless, boundless, youthful optimism. Everything can be overcome and, come to think of it, here is a list of things that we have had to overcome so far. Other obstacles will follow. And we are ready. When Ellie repeats the line, "I've seen you in a fight you lost" on 2009 lead single "Under the Sheets," I can't help but hear it as, "I've seen you in a fight you lost, and now I know there's nothing you can't survive ... I've seen the worst, and I'm not scared." Does that interpretation largely contradict the death-spiral mess the rest of the song's lyrics seem to create? Of course it does. But that's what the song means to me. And that doesn't necessarily have to make any sense.