Hillsong’s “Oceans” (Where This Song Fails)

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“Oceans” is the greatest worship song ever.
– Every Contemporary Worship Leader Ever, apparently

If you’ve been in contemporary worship circles, you already get what I’m talking about. In case you’ve somehow been fortunate enough to avoid it, or you’ve been living under a rock for the past four years, I’ll provide a little background. “Oceans” is a 2013 hit by the Australian music empire Hillsong. And when I say “hit,” I mean it. “Oceans” parked its waterlogged strains atop the Billboard Hot Christian Songs list for some 45 weeks in 2014. It returned to flood the airwaves for five more weeks in 2015. Though it’s no “Place in This World” it also found its place in the world of mainstream music, floating up to number 83 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Altogether, it has gone double platinum, with over 2 million in certified sales. That’s a lot of vacations to the oceans of Australia’s Gold Coast, friends. I wonder if Joel Houston owns a surfboard…

Anyway, if you dare to give it a listen, here you go. (Preemptive Dramamine is recommended.) At nearly 9 minutes long, it’s the “American Pie” of worshipy songs.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBJJJkiRukY[/youtube]

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now
So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior…

Anyone else exhausted? I’m ready for lunch, followed by the compulsory hour wait before jumping back in the water. While we’re sitting around poolside, let’s evaluate what we’ve just heard.

Music: How Do You Spell B Minor?

I first learned about “Oceans” when I was still teaching elementary music. A 2nd grade teacher came into my classroom, and asked me to help her with a chord progression on the piano.

“How do I get from B minor to A to D?”

After some piddling around, I figured out she needed a first inversion A major chord. Easy enough. She played and sang a few bars for me.

“I-eee will call upon your name…” she crooned, all Sarah McLachlan-like.

“Oh, that’s pretty.” I said, wanting to be supportive. “What is it?”

“You don’t know?!? I thought you were a worship leader,” she said.

“Um…Music Director, actually,” I replied, aware that she probably didn’t know the difference.

“Oh. Well, this is ‘Oceans.'”

“Oceans?”

“Oceans. You know, by Hillsong United.”

“I see…”

Musically, “Oceans” resembles the rolling tide the lyrics describe. The drums roll under chords, sparse and sustained. Labored and breathless vocal strains float above the accompaniment, noodling around an awkward, repetitive melodic trail. All this is fine for a solo recording. It simply doesn’t work for congregational singing, though. It just doesn’t work. The melody is almost directionless, the rhythm syncopated, the range low and cumbersome. Those qualities alone should make it a fail for liturgical use.

Poetry: How Hard Is Rhyming

I mean, it’s just not that hard. Most of us learned to do it in grade school. So why can’t Hillsong do it?

Waters, fail, mystery, deep, stand.

Name, waves, embrace, mine.

Waters, hand, guide, me, now.

Borders, waters, me, wander, stronger, Savior.

On the most basic level, this is terrible poetry. The most glaring issue is found in the bridge, exacerbated by the ad nauseam repetition:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters…
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander…

Wait a minute! I thought we were trying to walk on water, which will fail of course, because we aren’t Jesus. But then we said “take me deeper.” What happens if we’re submerged, trying to keep our heads above the waves, and we go deeper?

Spoiler alert!!!

We die.

*Shudder*

And this is supposed to be a great piece of songwriting? For the church, no less?

Theology: Jesus, Hold My Beer

“Oceans” doesn’t contain much theology, and what is there must be inferred. There is a hint of trinitarian nebulousness, which is rather easy to do if you’re not really paying attention. And Hillsong is known to not pay much attention to theological detail.

It borrows the recurring charismatic motif of an intimate bond between individual and the Holy Spirit. Here the Spirit is like a captive orca, who is expected to carry us deeper, farther, into the great unknown, in search of new horizons (e.g. blessings). “Oceans” definitely capitalizes on the millennial generation’s thirst for adventure and exploration. But without anything more concrete to go on, we end up in a series of holding tank.

The most glaring theological problem with “Oceans” is that it is completely self-referential. It’s not just the fact that “I” is far too common, though it is. It says, “Do with me what I want you to do!” “Be my personal Jesus.” “I’m capable of so much, but I’m too afraid!” What is lost is who this “You” is that we’re singing about. Is it the God of the Bible? Is it a handsome, burly lifeguard? Who knows? And frankly, according to “Oceans,” who really cares? God is here to meet MY needs, to give Me strength, and to ultimately make my life big and rich and meaningful.

Conclusion: Spirit, Take “Oceans” Deeper

So what makes “Oceans” such a hit with worshipers? Well, it certainly captures a hipster moroseness, with it’s breathy lead vocals, its circular harmonic progression, and its melancholy discontent. The one-on-one, “Jesus and me” intimacy it presumes generally makes a big splash with worshipers. The phrase “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders” seems to resonate with congregants as a profound heart-cry of faith and desperation.

But the end result is a song that ends up treading water in watery, self-indulgent purgatory, without any real trace of the Christian story. The only thing we can really learn about the Divine is that he’s a superhuman life preserver, existing to lead us into the great unknown of earthly adventure and excitement. And judging from Hillsong’s deep commitment to the prosperity gospel, we can safely assume what such a path entails.

Of course, Holy Scripture paints a different (and more specific) picture of human purpose and end goal.

So let “Oceans” drown in the sea of Christian culture forgetfulness. According to CEO Brian Houston, Hillsong already has, anyway.

Photo:
Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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