May conservative Christians pause long enough in our denunciations of pop music to wonder out loud what our biggest problem with it is? Is pop music wrong with a capital WRONG, or is it just, well, dumb? And is it possible to be something other than a cultural elitist—can you be, say, a folk artist—and call pop music dumb, the musical equivalent of Twinkies?
I’ve never heard a pastor denounce Twinkies. In multiple years of weekly preaching I, too, have failed to mention that particular spongy, semi-edible substance. An occasional Twinkie down the gullet is probably not a big moral problem. But if I found out that I had a congregant who ate only Twinkies, I’d probably say something to him or her. If every time I looked into his car I saw dozens of unopened Twinkies and hundreds of empty wrappers, I’d be concerned.
I’ve been doing a little B93.7 research—you know, flipping over to our local pop station sometimes during car rides. I object to a lot of the content I hear. If it’s not overtly immoral, it’s so suggestive as to be what we probably would have called overt in previous generations.
But it’s also inane. Lyrics and music both. I’m prepared to acknowledge musical creativity when I hear it, even in a pop song, but I usually don’t hear it. Pop songs seem to offer the same richness to the palate that Twinkies do. Twinkies have two ingredients, yellow and white—wrapped in cellophane; pop songs, by comparison, have rhythm instruments and sensual vocals—wrapped in auto-tune.
We probably pay a given pop song an undeserved compliment when we analyze its worldview (as I confess to having done). A pop song typically isn’t serious enough to be analyzed—it’s merely, in Andy Crouch’s words, “a technologically massaged tool for the delivery of pleasing or cathartic emotions” (Culture Making, 60). But in the aggregate, pop music does send a message.* And it does so in one of the most powerful media God gave us: music. Because of the power of that medium, I’d rather listen to music—”secular” or sacred—written with some kind of God-honoring creativity, even if it’s God-honoring only by common grace (I love what Dan Forrest says here). I’d rather eat musical solid food than musical junk food.**
My wife and I recently renewed our desire not to let TV be our default evening activity. We weren’t watching nasty stuff. We didn’t have to repent from the entertainment equivalent of rat poison. It was just Twinkies. Like Twinkies, “popular culture . . . is a part of the created order, part of the earth that is the Lord’s, and thus something capable of bringing innocent pleasure to believers” (Myers, xiii) But like Twinkies, I don’t want very much of my life spent on it. Here’s Piper:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night…. The most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth…. If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of the world and press all your desire for God, the only One who is not passing away and can satisfy you forever.
And here are the words of Jesus that go through my mind when I think of spending time on cultural Twinkies:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
*You simply must read Ken Myers on what pop music means.
**I credit my old acquaintance Jeff Gray for the seed thought in this post; he also makes a thoughtful point in a later post, objecting three years before I said it to my choice of the word “sensual.” I think he would just say “hyper-emotional.” I’m letting that thought marinate. Meanwhile, I want to say I agree with him that live performances retain a spiritual energy and a person-to-person communication that studio-recorded CDs generally lack. I’m really with him on that; I can hardly listen to studio recordings of choral music (even though I’ve sang for some…). They feel so dead to me. It’s a rare group—like the King’s Singers, or Chanticleer—who can approximate the verve of singing to a crowd when stuck singing to a microphone.