Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture and faith.
“ Romantic love and sex are seen as the harbingers of an ultimate transcendent reality, where the physical reaches the spiritual.”
Any given week on Top 40 radio stations pop artists are singing songs about love and sex, two topics which musicians have been obsessed with from ancient days. An exemplar of an ancient song book covering these topics being the 11th century manuscript, “Carmina Burana” (“Songs from Beuern”). More than half of its content is focused on love and contains surprisingly sexually risqué material for the era. The Bible itself contains a song about erotic married love, even referring to it as the “Song of Songs”. However, the current zeitgeist of love songs is quite different from previous ancient incarnations. Romantic love and sex are seen as the harbingers of an ultimate transcendent reality, where the physical reaches the spiritual.
A survey of current radio hits reveals language (intentionally or unintentionally) reflecting on romantic love as key to a meaningful existence. Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me” looks toward his love as the bread of life (“As long as you love me we could be starving”) and makes himself the most valuable person in her life (“I’ll be your platinum, I’ll be your silver, I’ll be your gold”). Big Sean’s rap captures the spiritualization of their love beginning with, “I don’t know if this makes sense but you’re my Hallelujah.” Furthermore, Bieber’s identity is found in this girl (“Ask me what’s my best side/ I stand back and point at you”) and he pours out living water on their relationship (“But the grass ain’t always greener on the other side/ It’s green where you water it”).
Rihanna’s “Diamonds” transports love to the heights of the heavens where the lovers are “like diamonds in the sky.” Through this “vision of ecstasy,” she becomes “alive” because she finds life’s meaning in him (“At first sight I left the energy of sun rays/ I saw the life inside your eyes”). She then throws all her cares away (“Palms rise to the universe/ As we moonshine and molly”) as she envelopes herself in a love that bestows upon her eternal life (“Feel the warmth, we’ll never die”).
Irish boy band The Wanted in “Glad You Came” sing of transformation coming through another human being (“My universe will never be the same/ I’m glad you came”) and their trust is in the temporality of romantic love (“And all that counts/ Is here and now”). Bruno Mars’ “Locked out of Heaven” equates sex with religion (“Never had much faith in love or miracles…/ But swimming in your world is something spiritual” and “You bring me to my knees/ You make me testify/ You can make a sinner change his ways/ Open up your gates cause I can’t wait to see the light”) being “born again” through the sexual act. For Bruno, sex elevates him to “paradise” and when his lover refuses to take him there, he feels like he has “been locked out of heaven.”
Seeking transcendence through a romantic relationship (as these pop songs do) is what Pastor Timothy Keller refers to as an apocalyptic romance. This term borrowed from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker is defined as:
If he no longer had God, how was he to do this [find meaning in life]? One of the first ways that occurred to him… was the ‘romantic solution’: he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object. The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life.
Contemporary love songs are a reflection of our culture’s search for ultimate meaning, by thrusting the divine upon an imperfect person. A reversal of the perfect divine who thrust upon himself our flesh to be the bread of life, the living water, make us born again and give us eternal life. Transcendence is found in another person but only in the god-man, not in the person we have turned into a god.