Music critic Steven Hyden wrote a smart book that I am currently devouring called Your Favorite Band is Killing Me. He uses classic pop musical rivalries like Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Beatles and the Stones, etc. as a jumping off point to discuss what we value as people and how we use music to mobilize those values. In a rather insightful passage, he says the following:
“If you’re reading this book, there is probably an artist or band whose music you have an intense personal relationship with. I would also guess that this artist or band came into your life during a time when you were highly vulnerable. if this is the case, this artist or band might be the closest thing you had to a confidant. in fact, he, she, or it was better than a confidant, because his/her/its music articulated your own thoughts and feeling better than you ever could. This music elevated the raw materials of your life to the heights of art and poetry. It made you feel as if your personal experience was grander and more meaningful than it might otherwise have been. And naturally you attributed whatever that music was doing to your heart and brain to the people who made the music, and you came to believe that the qualities of the music were also true of the music’s creators. ‘If this music understands me, then the people behind the music must also understand me,’ goes this line of thought.” (pg. 34)
He concludes with the sentiment: “the reality of music fandom is that it’s a one-way street. Music can’t love you back….its basically a socially acceptable version of having an imaginary friend.” (pg. 35)
While it’s true music we play on our radio, I-things, jukebox app, or croon to in karaoke, might help us make sense of the inarticulate stirring of our hearts, ultimately, that music is only meant for you indirectly.
We do have songs that are meant for us directly, the written word of God in the psalms. They are the inspired word of God and in a very radical way directed to each individual soul to articulate the stirrings of our emotions. St. Athanasius in his short treatise on the Psalms, Letter to Marcellinus, has this to say:
“and it seems to me that these words [of the psalms] become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them.”
Athanasius goes on to say that the recitation of the psalms is a transformative act. It allows us to utter prophecy in the first person and in doing so, we acquire the mind of Christ. “Thus as in music there is a psalter so the man becoming himself a stringed instrument and devoting himself completely to the spirit may obey the will of God.”
Comparing Hyden to Athanasius. We can say a couple things. First, both agree that music touches the soul and allows us to say with the words of music what was once unutterable. This is one of the most important features of the human psyche the ability to use words. It was gives us power, comfort and solace. Conversely, that which we cannot discuss, conjure up describe, are often the things that frighten us the most.
Second, Hyden gets it right. A pop music star, even the most noble among them, could not have written the song with you in mind. At best, they are just writing with enough personal experience to sound real and enough public appeal to receive general acceptance.
Instead, the psalter, the inspired word of God, was written down with us in mind. Only a divine God can have that personal, intimate reach, beyond the general audience. As it says in the psalms, God created us personally: “It was you who created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 138) and continues to know us as we progress in our joys even our sorrows, “You have kept an account of my wanderings; you have kept a record of my tears; are they not written in your book?” (Psalm 55)
On the other side of the pen of the psalter is an artist who is not simply an imaginary friend, but a God who wants a two-way relationship with us, so much so that he gives us words to say to him, even when we lack the words to speak. He fashions the script so with ease “everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.” (Psalm 150)