Some time ago, I came across a piece by respected Christian songwriter Joel Lindsey about songwriting. He talked about the experience of teaching a seminar where people brought their ideas for honest feedback. But at the end of the day, only one had really stuck with him:
As I lie here in bed thinking back over all the songs I heard today, I can only really remember one song. It was a trainwreck of a song that needs probably more work than all of the others combined — it needs a complete overhaul, actually. It was an overly familiar title, didn’t have any semblance of a structure, the writer used the same rhyming words over and over and over, the lyrical hook didn’t match up with the melodic hook and, worst of all, the grammar was awful.And yet…I’m in bed almost 12 hours later and it’s still on my mind. Come to find out the song was written about the writer’s son who is serving in the military in Iraq and this song was written for him and his buddies. Although the lines were non-sequitar [sic] and seemed to come at you like a machine gun there was emotion dripping in every single word. There was obvious pain, fear, angst, and sadness woven so beautifully into the melody and into the meat of this song that I felt bad for having to say that I doubted it could get cut in its current form. But I begged the writer — don’t lose the heart of this song…learn how to structure it in such a way that the emotion is in some kind of manageable form, but don’t lose that.
I for one know exactly what Joel means. What about you? Have you ever heard a song that maybe wasn’t quite as bad as what Joel is describing, maybe it was decently good, but there was so much about it that you just didn’t like? And yet…there was something in the pain it was describing that just tugged at you?
There are two songs I want to discuss today along these lines, and they are both CCM songs. I’ll have to ask my SG fan readers to bear with me here, because it’s part of the point I’m trying to make. The first one is by a group called Sanctus Real. Their music is pretty standard light Christian rock. The lead singer, Matt Hammitt, wrote a song called “Lead Me” about his relationship with his wife and kids and what that meant when combined with his career. He and his wife went through a period of struggle in their marriage, and they had to fight to keep it together. Many Christian singers and their wives could identify with this story: Matt’s sheer absence from home was putting a strain on the entire family. So the song “Lead Me” was birthed out of the pain his family has walked through. The verses are written in his voice as a father, trying to have his career and telling himself that his wife and children will be all right on their own. But then in the chorus, he hears them saying:
Stand up when I can’t
Don’t leave me hungry for love
But what about us?
Now listen to the song with the accompanying music video. Remember, musically this is typical CCM fare. Don’t expect an inspired melody or stellar vocals. This isn’t about music. It’s about pain.
Pain: You feel it in this song, in the video, and in Matt’s voice. That’s what I’m trying to put my finger on here. Also worth watching is the interview with Matt and his wife that pops up immediately as a related video on the embed.
The next song is by a new artist named Chris August. It’s called “7 x 70.” Chris tells the story behind it here. It was a last-minute addition to his debut album. Producer Ed Cash suggested that he write a song about “what hurt you when you were little.” Reluctantly, Chris went home and wrote the first part of the song, then brought it to Ed the next morning. When he played it for him, Ed told him that it needed to be a song about forgiveness. “Forgiveness?” Chris asked. “You told me to write about something that hurt me.” “Right!” said Ed.
“7 x 70 times. If that’s the cost, I’ll pay the price.” Admit it—that sort of hits you in the gut.
I would be the first to say that these songs are not masterpieces. And yet, the pain that they communicate makes them stand out to me in a way that other songs don’t, even though they may be better crafted. They’re raw and honest. They address the fact that life is not always beautiful and easy. And yet in the midst of it, they find hope in crying out to God.
I’m going to be honest and say that I have trouble finding that in southern gospel music. Part of it has to do with the fact that at least half of the SG repertoire (it seems), is composed of purely upbeat, fun material. But that’s not the only factor, because SG has plenty of ballads as well. And yet even there, I see a prevalence of the big ballad—the grand, sweeping statement of faith with exciting orchestration that ends on a long, high note. There are many great songs that would fall into this category. But they’re not painful. How often do you find a southern gospel song that expresses genuine brokenness? I’m not saying that they’re not out there, I’m just saying you have to go looking to find them underneath the catchy songs about heaven and the power anthems. And I have nothing against catchy songs about heaven or power anthems. It’s just that every once in a while, I’m looking for something real. It doesn’t have to be impeccably delivered or flawlessly written, but it has that something about it that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when you hear it, you feel it.
Then I found myself saying something that surprised myself even: if I had to choose between a well-crafted song and a song with this kind of emotion, I’m going to pick the emotion anyday. Because if a song can’t make you feel something, then why bother? But what makes a song truly great, in my opinion, is when it has both.