Why Do I Sing What I Will Not Say?

Something’s been bothering me: I sing things I’d never say. I grew up a choirboy, and have sung all my adult life. I love to sing – very little gives me greater pleasure than to raise my voice in song beside others. Sometimes, as part of a chorus, you have to sing things you don’t like: bad music, boring passages etc. And this doesn’t trouble me: it’s all part of the compromise involved in membership of any sort of group. Sometimes, you have to sing things you don’t believe: expressions of religious faith and belief in God that I do not, in fact, have. And that doesn’t concern me either, partly because I’m used to it and partly because I think it’s generally understood that singers in a chorus are not going to all be members of the same religion. People don’t expect me to endorse what I’m singing.

Furthermore, music (and I promise not to get too philosophical on you here) “speaks” in many different languages at once. It’s perfectly possible to be swept up in a melody but hate a song’s lyrics, or love the lyrics but wish someone else had done the melody. Some of my favorite pieces of music to sing have lyrics which I would really object to if I thought about them: but their age and the majesty of their melodies, rhythms, harmonies etc. sweep me away. Usually I’m happy to sing things I’d never say.

What does irk me sometimes is singing lyrics which I actively oppose, statements of values I find problematic in themselves. And this upcoming concert with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is, to put it bluntly, brimming with God. Particularly the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way which, as well as being a fierce anthem of self-empowerment is also a really soppy religion-fest. Usually this doesn’t bother me. But the BGMC is a mission chorus: it exists to create a more tolerant society through music. And I think “more tolerant” should include “more tolerant of people who don’t believe in God”, as well as “more tolerant for queer people” (and all other minorities).

That’s why the overall Godishness of Born This Way (and some of the other songs we sometimes sing) gets to me a bit. In this context, with this chorus, I want to fully put my heart into everything we sing. And, while there’s a good message about self-love and acceptance in the Gaga song (I’m leaving aside for the moment the numerous problems with the “born this way” meme as a moral case against discrimination), there’s also a strong suggestion – to my ears at least – that being gay is OK because God made you that way:

“There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”
She said, “‘Cause he made you perfect, babe”

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes

A different lover is not a sin
Believe capital H-I-M
I love my life I love this record and
Mi amore vole fe yah (Love needs faith) 

To me, an atheist who has seem the harm belief in God and sin has done to queer people in my life, there’s something objectionable about the idea that loving oneself is based on and supported by the belief that we were created by God. If someone asked me to say those words at an event or something, I would refuse. First, I don’t think it’s true, and second, I don’t think it’s a particularly good message to send to young people – many of whom may be questioning their faith and who deserve support in that questioning if that is what they want to do. I can imagine some young people thinking “Aren’t I beautiful in my own way, even thought I don’t think I was made by God?”

I don’t mean to be a drag (just be a queen…”). Genuinely. I love the Chorus – it’s become a second family to me – and you should totally buy tickets to our next concert. But I think it would be wise, especially since the Chorus is singing this one with a bunch of high school kids, for them to consider the message their music is sending to all members of their community. It would be better, wouldn’t it, not to sing “Love needs faith” (even in ancient Italian) and to sing, instead, “You can be loved and love yourself, faithful or not”?

It’s not a big deal – each time I sing the song I just have a little inner-eye-roll. And for a second feel a little less a full part of that family.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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