Pop Music and Twinkies

by Apr 29, 2014Culture, Music5 comments

2014-02-07 18.35.31

A real-life book I saw just a few weeks ago at a local store.

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.

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  1. Dave Lloyd

    I enjoyed the analogy of POP music to Twinkies on the surface but please don’t carry this to the extreme of becoming musical snobbery. The simplest of POP tunes such as George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun has a comparable effect on me as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

    • Mark Ward

      A fair comment, David. For one, I do sincerely believe that Twinkies have an appropriate place in one’s life.

      But, to be honest, I think some of the best of popular music really approximates the value of the best of the Western classical tradition and, I guess I’d say, of various folk traditions. Good pop music can be melodic and evocative. I think some of the Beatles’ stuff has passed from the category of music-associated-with-youth-rebellion into the category of “pop standard.” “Yesterday” is a truly beautiful song just like “She Moved Through the Fair” or some other classic folk tune. I’m not trying, at least, to be merely elitist or snooty.

      My “research” into current pop didn’t turn up any beautiful melodies or evocative lyrics. It all sounded like it was generated automatically by a sex-crazed computer. But I don’t wish to deny the beauty of “Here Comes the Sun.” And I think some music in the classical tradition can be frothy, too.

      I’m super happy for more knowledgeable folks to pile on here.

  2. Carole Vetter Ripka

    The State College Choral Society just presented Forrest’s Requiem for the Living. What an uplifting, God honoring experience. The audience was transfixed and the singers were in a state of exultation! A once in a lifetime experience.

  3. Steve Lawton

    In the world of music for the Church, we sometimes include in our diet what I call “musical roughage”. It is not the refined hymnody of my reformed roots; it is not even the triadic trivia of my gospel roots; it is the unrefined hip-pocket song that follows me out of church, that put’s God’s word in my head, irritatingly unbidden, to guide my feet and heart into an unrefined world. As such, it has value. But, do I want it as a steady diet in divine worship? In a word, “no.”

    • Mark Ward

      Thanks for writing in, Steve. That’s clearly a studied reflection, and it’s put so well.

      Your use of the word “unrefined” makes me think you may have read Ken Myers as I have. If there’s one thing that keeps coming to my mind when I think about pop music, it’s his connection of “refinement” to the creation mandate. We were called to subdue the earth and have dominion, and though I don’t believe that every piece of music must be equally refined (there’s a major place for folk music in my thinking) I do believe that it’s a travesty to reject that refined stuff completely in favor of the unrefined. The pleasures of refined arts may not be immediately accessible, but they are all the greater for the effort it takes to enjoy them.