The Furious Prophecy of Titus Andronicus

In my last two posts we established the following: Prophecy is the province of the honest. A prophet need not be a religious, a mystic or some visionary of the distant future, but may very well be the old woman at the grocery store who tells you the Honest Truth, that you’re beautiful, a miserable human being, or whatever the Honest Truth may be. For though the Old Testament prophets often foretold the future, they were just as likely to tell the Present:  “You are living in sin.” “Israel has abandoned God.” Prophets tell it like it is, for the simple reason that they speak for God, who see the world precisely as it is.

And so everyone hates them. No one in recorded history — from Moses to Jonah to Elijah — clamors for the role of prophet. We might be mildly amused at a man predicting the end of the world. We’ll start raging when he tells us that the world ending is of little importance, for we’ll certainly destroy our own worlds by our evil and stupidity — bumbling, crashing apocalypses that we are. A prophet’s message is appreciated by few, but when it all comes down to it, the Truth about the Present is exactly what we need to hear.

This is the problem with modern pop singers, not that they are lewd, banal, auto-tuned, or any of the rest: They are anti-prophets. Simply speaking, they do not tell the Truth about the Present. The basic Top 20 hit, for the past 10 years, has revolved around this single idea:

1) We will go to the club (synonymously speaking, we will get on the floor).
2) We will get drunk.
3) We will party all night and/or hook up with someone.
4) We will repeat this event tomorrow night.

On the Floor, I Gotta Feeling, Last Friday Night, Raise Your Glass, Till the World Ends, Dj Got Us Fallin’ In Love, Young, Wild and Free, Like a G6, Scream, Glad You Came — all these songs revolve around this singularily fascinating premise, best elucidated by the poetry of Nicki Minaj:

But f-ck who you want, and f-ck who you like
Dance our life, there’s no end in sight
Twinkle, twinkle, little star

Now everybody let me hear you say ray ray ray
Now spend all your money ’cause they pay pay pay
And if you’re a G, you a G,G,G!
My name is Onika, you can call me Nicki

Get on the floor, floor
Like it’s your last chance
If you want more, more
Then here I am.

Now the dogmatic moral principles of Ms. Minaj are not what I wish to discuss here. I wish to point out that the life described by Onika, who I may call Nicki, is a life lived by no one. The pop songs lie. Of the tiny population who has enough money to obey the demands of these songs — to visit clubs nightly, drink and “dance all night” — I can only guess that the majority of them do not feel “young and wild and free” the next morning. Hangovers do not have that effect. Of that population of men and women who will obey Nicki Minaj and “f-ck who they want, f-ck who they like,” there exist few songs describing their future lives of crabs, abortions, and broken hearts. I assume this is because such topics are ill-suited to a background of “thwump, thwump, thwump, thwump.” The average pop song lies about the present — it lies about life itself.

This, I believe, is one of the reasons these songs are popular in the first place. No one wants to hear that actions have consequences, and it’s fun to nod your head with the idea that our primary purpose in life is clubbing. If prophecy is hated, anti-prophecy is mindlessly enjoyed.

Where then, is the truth about the Present? Where can the beautiful, striving, secular world experience the reality of prophecy? Here’s my opinion, if you like it you can take it, if you don’t, send it right back: In the songs of certain indie bands, rock, rap, folk or otherwise.

Indie bands, in their relative obscurity, have very little incentive to lie about the Present and thus make their songs mindlessly enjoyable. When absurd sums of money are cut out of the equation, the band remains a vehicle for the songwriter to express precisely what he or she sees as true. To be clear, indie bands have a unique advantage over pop musicians in that it is taken as a given that most people won’t like them, or bother listening to them, as most people didn’t like or bother to listening to the prophets.

I will use the group Titus Andronicus as my primary example. These men, a punk rock group from New Jersey, are by no means religious. If anything they’re Absurdists, and their songs offer precious little hope of redemption from meaninglessness. But they have moments, these shining lyrical moments, in which the Catholic listener can’t help but inhale and lean closer. We are given, for once, a seemingly honest look at what the modern world is busy declaring is the very stuff of happiness, in bitter, 14-minute, overdriven glory.

Tonight two great ships will pull back to their ports
Depleted of everything that shoots flames and reports
And in the morning the shells will wash up on the shore
And the mighty of Earth will have no other recourse

But to shiver and shake and make shit in their shorts
Because we have been told that if you’ve been assured
There’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you
Prepare to be told “That shit’s gay, dude”

Well, I guess that what they say is true
That there is no race more human
No one throws it away like they do

The things I used to love, I have come to reject
The things I used to hate, I have learned to accept
And the worst of the three, you now have to expect
Satan ain’t hard to see without craning your neck

He’ll be seventy-some inches tall
He’ll be chugging a beer and he’ll be grabbing his balls
He’s a remote explosive waiting for someone to call
He’s just eighteen for now but he’s going to murder us all

Solidarity’s going to give a lot less than it’ll take
Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?
Is there a human alive that can look themselves in the face

Without winking?
Or say what they mean without drinking?
Or believe in something without thinking, “What if somebody doesn’t approve?”
Is there a soul on this Earth that isn’t too frightened to move?

I think the wrong people got a hold of your brain
When it was nothing but a piece of putty
So now try as you may
But you will always be a tourist, little buddy

And half the time I open my mouth to speak
It’s to repeat something that I heard on TV
And I’ve destroyed everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen
So I’m going back to New Jersey, I do believe they’ve had enough of me

So when I leave Boston, my tail is between my legs
After deep cups of patience have been drunk to the dregs
And now I’m heading west on 84 again
And I’m as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been

And there is still nothing about myself I respect
Still haven’t done anything I did not later regret
I’ve a hand and a napkin when I’m looking for sex
And that’s no one to talk to when feeling depressed

And so now when I drink, I’m going to drink to excess
And when I smoke, I will smoke gaping holes in my chest
And when I scream, I will scream until I’m gasping for breath
And when I get sick, I will stay sick for the rest

Of my days peddling hate out the back of a Chevy Express
Each one a fart in the face of your idea of success
And if this be thy will, then fucking pass me the cup
And I’m sorry, Dad, no, I’m not making this up

But my enemy, it’s your name on my lips as I go to sleep
And I know what little I’ve known of peace
Yes, I’ve done to you what you’ve done to me
And I’d be nothing without you, my darling, please don’t ever leave

It’s neither pretty, nor holy, nor — when we really get down to it — any sort of song to base your life on. It does, however, tell the Honest Truth about what life is like when all values have been rejected, and it is — from my own experience — an authentic depiction of young, modern angst. The furious prophecy of Titus Andronicus gives us a glimpse of Truth about the world, and we would do well to heed them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anna.dawson.9 Anna Dawson

    That wasn’t the Titus Andronicus that gets me all riled up, but ouch. It certainly expresses about the same hopelessness and misdirected agony.

    I’m wondering your thoughts on whether this sort of prophetic vision extends to the visual arts, the horrible sorts of paintings that are not by any means beautiful, nor meant to be, but express or display much the same disdain for the world we live in. (I’m thinking, for example, Guernica.)

  • musiciangirl591

    yeah, there’s a good reason why i don’t really listen to the radio anymore lol, WOOOOO! lets have fun and drink, next morning bleck

  • Thom Bombadil

    The Darkwave band The Cruxshadows have a few songs centering around heroic virtue from a usually pre-Christian (Greco-Roman) perspective. Good stuff.

  • badwolf

    Sax Rohmer #1 – The Mountain Goats

    • http://indefinitecrisis.wordpress.com/ Michael H

      For that matter, the entirety of their “Life of the World to Come” album.

  • Seanmatthewmcg

    This is why I listen to metal bands like Underoath and Oh, Sleeper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maryliziz Mary Liz Bartell

    As dreadful as the values of this generation may be, I can’t imagine how worse it will be in the next generation. We need to heed God’s word more if anything can be done to re-direct our civilization to Love, Honor, and Kindness, or else swirl down the drain to the sewer of Sin and Self-Immolation in Greed, Sexual Deviance, and Hatred! Excellent post Marc, as every one of these thought provoking posts are… I am glad this generation has you to point to the symptoms of the disease and see it for what it truly is… the folly of human nature without God in our Lives. God Bless, keep up the good work!

  • Reluctant Liberal

    I don’t agree that the song portrays what happens when all values have been rejected. It depicts what happens sometimes, but I think there are lots of people just living small, shallow lives.

    Anyway, the song is about more than just a rejection of values, it also tells a bit of story about why those values were rejected. And while the main target seems to be popular culture, I don’t think Christianity or Christians can hold themselves aloof from the criticism. The poor are poorer, corruption is more rampant, and people are doing their best to just scrape by. These changes for the worse took place after the values voters movement got going. Christians have increased their political voice in the past few decades, and things haven’t gotten better.

    Which is not to say that Christianity is to blame. I’m Christian. What I’m saying is that Christianity doesn’t seem to be helping, so Christians should stop pointing the finger at our obviously bankrupt popular culture and start looking at themselves and the ways they contribute to bankrupt culture. The principles of subsidiarity apply. The person is the most basic element of society and the person I can change most easily is myself.

    I also think the finger pointing has allowed Christians to ignore their historic role as advocates for the poor. The dignity of human beings can be degraded in all kinds of ways, and focusing on only a handful of them has given the others free reign.

    • http://twitter.com/thomjwillis [unnamed file]

      It’s not that Christianity is not helping. It is that Humanity is not helping, because we are sinful. It’s one thing to hold an idea to be true, it’s another to behave in accordance with that idea. That goes for people who believe in Christianity as much as for those who believe in Confucism. If Christianity isn’t ‘helping’ (an odd concept for a Christian to entertain) it is because Christians (i.e., human beings) are not living out their faith, not because of any problem inherent in Christianity or the Church. The problem is inherent in Humanity – original sin.

      • Reluctant Liberal

        Part of my point, though, is that to all appearances, Christians HAVE been living out their faith more (at least in politics). (And by Christianity I mean the Christian community).

        You can do as Andrew has below and no-true-Scotsman your way out of Christianity’s failure in politics, but besides that you need to start looking at what’s been going wrong inside Christianity that our problems have been getting worse when Christians are more vocal.

    • Andrew O’Brien

      I know this might seem like sort of a cop-out answer to your post, but there are many different “versions” of Christianity out there. Most of these versions I reject as false, and I can see how their world views have not helped the world. There is, however, I think an authentic Christianity practiced by a very few that does help the world from the problems you mention.

      • Joshmastan

        Just to be clear, Christianity is not contingently affiliated with the political realm. Jesus was expected by the people to come back AS a political or military leader. But that wasn’t the case. Same thing applies to today. What he taught CAN reshape the political realm, but that is not where it is primarily aimed, in the big picture at least.

        What goes wrong when Christians become more vocal? Is it circumstantially by virtue or by our culture that the Christian voice does little/makes worse? In regards to “voice” and “worse”, how do Christians fit? Is it that the present “big” voice is antithetical to Christianity in nature? Are all the “good” Christian voices just not being heard and instead monastically sitting silently within whatever academia they’re being housed within?

  • Dudley

    Have you tried listening to the Hold Steady? Craig Finn is a Mass attending Catholic, and a helluva songwriter. Try the album “Separation Sunday” for starters

  • Samantha

    Mumford and Sons has a new album coming out Sept 15. Everyone should get it.

  • Matt

    Just wondering why you censored the f-word for Nicki’s lyrics but not for Titus’.

    • http://wasteyourtime.mtgames.org/ Scaevola

      My guess is that the Titus Andronicus was a cut-and-paste affair, due to its length, while the Minaj was short enough for him to type out (and thus bleep out) himself.

  • Guest

    Eh. The post started out with promise, but I think it sort of dissolved into ‘why songs I like are the kind Catholics ought to like.’ Fact is, prophecy is more than just telling it like it is. Telling someone they are stupid or ugly or lousy at a sport may not be prophecy at all, if it doesn’t offer something, some hope for redemption, some hope for something. It may just be being mean, peddling hopelessness, advancing my own personal failings or disappointments under the guise of ‘a message bigger.’ It may be a rant, a fuss. It may be nothing other than, to quote Weird Al: a time to listen to me whine about nothing and everything all at once. Not that I’m defending pop songs of the last 10 or 80 years. I just think this post had a lot more to say, and might have done better to have stayed in the oven for a little longer.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      Weird Al was quoting Green Day – Basket Case
      Both very good songs, and I get your point completely. :D

      • Guest

        Yeah, a great song using the quotes from songs to illustrate a valid point.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KDQFQTMD56CJAKMLXRFYUDNCPQ Montague

      Just to nitpick but there needn’t be hope in prophesy, though it is concerned with the future certainly. Even Chesterton says that we are not always meant to be told everything is going to be okay.

      “But you and all the kind of Christ
      Are ignorant and brave,
      And you have wars you hardly win
      And souls you hardly save.

      “I tell you naught for your comfort,
      Yea, naught for your desire,
      Save that the sky grows darker yet
      And the sea rises higher.

      “Night shall be thrice night over you,
      And heaven an iron cope.
      Do you have joy without a cause,
      Yea, faith without a hope?” -from The Ballad of the White Horse

  • silicasandra

    Aw, I was hoping for some stuff on Shakespeare! But this is good too. My husband and I have basically become “old people” to our friends, and we haven’t listened to pop music for a while – it’s just too depressing.

  • Eusebius
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Angelo-Ocampo/100000081911147 Angelo Ocampo

    The likes of Nicki Minaj are an insult to music!
    Thanks for exposing their failures!

  • momofthree

    This post reminds me of the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. It talks about the real sadness and emptiness following an abortion…from the guy’s point of view.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KDQFQTMD56CJAKMLXRFYUDNCPQ Montague

    #SWITCHFOOT !!!

    So now we know why we like Switchfoot

  • Brimstone

    This is an awesome article, and I love Titus Andronicus. Are you going to cover The Hold Steady, who are one of their big inspirations and are much more explicitly Catholic?

  • kmleo

    This post reminds me of the blogger at “Twisted Mystics” who comes on the Son Rise Morning Show from time to time. He gives comment on how to hear secular music through the lens of a devoted Catholic. It is quite comforting, even with a song as devastating as the one you discussed here, to find Christ in all places. Even though I couldn’t get past :20 of this song being performed by the artist, I appreciated the lyrics.

  • Helena

    My favorite pop culture prophecy is the movie “Stardust.” It’s prophetic voice is analogy, so a lot of people don’t get what I’m talking about, and I doubt the movie-makers even realized what they were saying, but they tell the truth about the characters they were writing about, and (accidentally?) thereby tell the truth about us. It shows with unmatched thoroughness the causes of where we are, its good and bad points, and the cure for its evils. I am 31 and I found the movie resonates deeply with me; but that people several years older than I have not had the same experiences. I would be very curious to know if those of you now college-age or younger see the same things in the movie that I do, or if your life experiences differ too much.

    • Isiah

      I can guarantee the writer of Stardust knew what he was saying. Pssst, He’s an Atheist. A smart one too.

      • Helena

        Since the good stuff in the movie is all on the level of natural law, the theology or lack thereof of the author is not really in play, here. I guess I was vague, but now I will clarify: I don’t think “Stardust” has anything to say to theology or religion, but it has a lot to say about human relationships, fidelity, courage, overcoming a relativistic/materialistic upbringing, and other natural virtues. As the CCC explains, all of these things can be known about by natural human reason, although revelation helps us to know with certainty. In other words, a reasoning athiest can have something of great value to say on these subjects. And an athiest who tells as much of the truth as he sees, fully striving to use the talents that he has, can be a lot more helpful to “the good guys” than someone who knows a lot more theology but draws back from the telling, or refuses to use his talent to share it, or lacks the talent to communicate theology and refuses or is unable to seek out those who can communicate well.

        I imagine from your tone that you mean to imply that the writer of “Stardust” is trying to draw people away from belief in God. If that is what you are saying, question (1) is which writer do you mean? Book or screen? with the follow-up question (1a) of do you, and why do you, find reason to believe a definite intent to manipulate those of religious belief? While of course one’s world view influences one’s writing, I do not find it logically inescapable that I can only participate in culture produced by those who share my belief in God. Of course, if you have something like that polar-bear movie, where the author of the books shouts about how he wants to destroy the Church, or whatever, then that seems like culture worth avoiding. Question (1b) is whether you think director, producer, editors, etc. are complicit in any
        mal-intent? After all, Gandalf as played by Ian McKellen gives a
        speech about our eternal destiny that is not deprived of its power by
        the actor’s personal views, and “Amazing Grace” is not suspect because
        of the (lack of) religious beliefs of those involved in the project (the lead actor and director very carefully point out in the first five minutes of commentary that they are not religious people, although they have friends who are Christian).

        Question (2) moves from intent to fact: is there anything in the movie that is, in fact, detrimental or offensive to Christians? I don’t mean, does the movie portray evil, because if you had no evil you’d have no plot. Does the movie at any point glorify evil, or demonize good, or encourage the objectification of people? Do the bad guys win? Do the good guys lose, or look stupid for being good? Is there some underlying anti-religious symbolism? What is objectionable in the film itself?

        The most obvious thing for a Christian to dislike is the portrayal of the ship captain, and I just want to preemptively reject that line of reasoning. He is a rounded character, the antidote to the objectification which Mr. Barnes so wisely protests, and I don’t recall that at any time his particular issues are portrayed favorably or as an advantage to him.

        Now that I’ve written more than a sentence per your word in reply to your post, feel free to reply that I read much more into it than you ever meant to say :)

  • http://twitter.com/iQuoteCatholics Catholic

    Well written =)

  • Korey

    you hit it right on the fucking head man


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