I don’t listen to the radio very often. It’s not that I don’t like the radio—the real issue is that I am a CD junkie and my truck is my sound booth. Lately I have been listening to Rhett Miller’s live cover album The Interpreter and Jason Isbell’s new album Southeastern. But when I am with my wife, the radio gets some love. On my way to the grocery store last weekend my wife and I were listening to country music radio and my ears were piqued by a fantastic song: “Springsteen” by Eric Church.
Despite having spent minimal time with the radio on, I know the song by heart. It’s gotten pretty solid airplay for at least the last two years, and it is one of my favorite mainstream country tunes. “Springsteen” has staying power. It’s an incredibly listenable tune with a pleasantly driving rhythm and good lyrics. While it’s no “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (then again, nothing is), it is an utterly pleasant song. The heart of Church’s “Springsteen” is memory—longing for a past love, and a desire to relive it. The song effectively brings the listener into Church’s own nostalgia.
I have covered nostalgia before in God and County Music, but this kind of nostalgia is a little bit different. Church’s “Springsteen” isn’t longing for an era that is gone, but a past event captured in a personal memory. The difference is massive. Generational nostalgia comes from an idea of something that was either never experienced, or only experienced impartially. Church’s nostalgia comes from a direct, specific experience. Somehow, both kinds of nostalgia make an amazing (and half-true) world out of the past, but the world Church’s nostalgia creates is a personal one.
Memories have power. A smell, a song, a phrase, or a photo can let in a flood of potent emotions without any warning. There are times that, driving down a certain road, I have been suddenly overcome by a wave of sentimentality because of some small memory associated with the road—and I assume that I am not alone in this recurrent experience. When Church sings,
Even though you’re a million miles away
When you hear Born in the USA
You relive those glory days
So long ago
I am inclined to think that he is probably right.
Part of the brilliance of Church’s song (which, impressively, Church wrote himself) is in its association of memories with simple triggers such as a song by Bruce Springsteen. Heck, Born To Run was in my CD player on my wedding day, so now I can’t listen to “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” without thinking nostalgically about putting on my suit and taking pre-wedding photos with my bride-to-be. In my memory, my wedding day was perfect. Now, in reality it was not perfect, but for the rest of my life, whenever I listen to The Boss I will look back on my wedding day with idyllic joy.
Even crappy times get this treatment. For example: high school football. When I hear certain songs or go to a high school football game at my alma mater, I am flooded with euphoric nostalgia—even though I was a mediocre football player and I sat out my entire senior year because of injuries.
A “realistic” song about a 17-year old kid would be depressing. It would be all about awkwardness and insecurity with a sprinkling of good moments. By contrast, Church’s song glorifies a time that was probably not glorious all the way through. But that is okay, natural even. It may even be more “real” than a precise portrayal of the time.
CS Lewis called memories a glimpse of the restoration of creation. According to Lewis, God has given us “glorified memories” to point us to the coming consummation of creation. He says,
“This glorification is not only promised, it is already foreshadowed. The dullest of us knows how memory can transfigure; how often some momentary glimpse of beauty in boyhood is
‘a whisper, which memory will warehouse as a shout’
“…That is the beginning of glorification. One day [our memories] will be more radiant still. Thus in the sense-bodies of the redeemed the whole New Earth will arise. It was sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption…” (Lewis, Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer)
Lewis would see pure truth in Church’s recollection of his youth, even though a videotape of the remembered events may not look as glorious. That is because memories are “ sown in corruption” but “raised in incorruption” in our minds. Therefore, Church is recounting a reality yet to come based on something that has already happened. In a way, the song “Springsteen” is a glimpse of heaven—perfect harmony where we will all “be so alive, never been so free.”
Country music is packed with this kind of nostalgia (for another example, see below), and this is especially clear if considered in light of the coming redemption of creation and the redemptive longing that humans have. Country songs rooted in memories—songs like “Springsteen”—can give us a little picture of restored creation.