Tag Archives: secular tunes

Songs of Derision

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Song is a forceful implanter of information. Whether we want it to or not, a properly proportioned and memorably melodious tune can mold our thoughts long after the music has ceased. Because music imbues words with emotional content and fastens them into memory, song is an invaluable and penetrating purveyor of opinion. There is no shortage of studies and anecdotes espousing the aptness of melody for communicating (and manipulating) viewpoints and ideas. Rhythm, repetition, tempo, pattern and other devices act as tools of indoctrination, reiterating convictions and influencing attitudes.

Melody is a neutral carrier of a singer’s intentions. The music is a means of transmitting content, but cannot by itself relate definite viewpoints. The same tune might be used to tell of lost love, impart a moral lesson or petition a deity. When the focus is a human being, the singer might paint that person in a positive or negative light. In the vast treasury of world music, there are probably as many songs extolling individuals as there are songs ridiculing them.

Songs of praise and songs of disparagement are equally capable of sculpting our judgment. Melody encodes the characterization into the brain, where it rests so comfortably and is recalled so effortlessly that there is seemingly no reason to question or refute it. Its message becomes our own.

Depending on the tone of the lyrics, people songs can be a source of uplift or a cause of pain. We can imagine the subject of a heroic ballad being puffed up by the glowing terms with which he is described (hyperbolic though they usually are). We can also picture the subject of a mocking song feeling deflated or fearful at the words he hears. Songs of the latter type are all the more devastating as they typically contain untruths and exaggerations aimed at inciting hostility and aggression.

Derisive songs are meant to break people down. Their success in doing so is proven by their historical prevalence; they are sung because they work. Jeering songs crowded the repertoires of the jesters of Aztec Mexico, skalds of Scandinavia and minstrels of Anglo-Saxon Europe. They remain popular among folk balladeers of West Africa and the Bahamas, and are heard on schoolyards everywhere. The psychological toll of such music is documented, among other places, in the Hebrew Bible.

Although the lyrics of mocking songs are not part of the biblical record, their consequence is described in several verses. The psalmist bemoans, “I am the taunt of drunkards” (Ps. 69:12). Job weeps, “Now I am the butt of their gibes; I have become a byword to them” (Job 30:9). The author of Lamentations cries out that he has “become a laughingstock to all people, the butt of their gibes all day long” (Lam. 3:14). In each instance, the ridicule is felt so deeply that the person turns to divine help. Heavenly reassurance seems the only possible antidote.

Presbyterian minister William Swan Plumer (1802-1880) called scornful songs “an old weapon of the adversary.” He cautioned that the blend of piercing melody and spiteful verse makes taunting music especially hard to bear: “Few have courage to endure it. Under its stroke thousands quail. The natural temper of most men quite unfits them for this kind of suffering. . . . They dread the finger of scorn more than they do the warrior’s steel.” If there is any truth to the tired aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” it most certainly does not apply when words are sung.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Loving Love Songs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Roy Shuker, professor of popular music studies at Victoria University of Wellington, offers a wonderfully succinct explanation of “pop”: “[It] is defined by its general accessibility, its commercial orientation, an emphasis on memorable hooks or choruses, and a lyrical preoccupation with romantic love as a theme.” The last point should not be overlooked. A quick glance at popular song titles exposes a massively disproportionate number of love songs. This is so of ragtime, swing, rhythm and blues, country, disco and everything in between. Cross-culturally we find romance dominating song catalogues of the South Pacific, the Far East, the European continent and seemingly everywhere else.

The inescapable theme of romance on the radio amounts to a kind of sentimental ideology. As musical genius and world-class cynic Frank Zappa quipped, “Romantic love songs are a sham that perpetuate a lie on unsuspecting young kids. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on love lyrics.” Zappa’s point is legitimate: these songs are unrealistic and overdone. Yet our rate of consumption suggests that most people desire them on a deep and basic level.

The perennial popularity of these songs must owe to something. Perhaps their ubiquity simply reflects the universal human longing for romantic partnership. It could also be that these songs articulate something to strive for, especially as a relationship ebbs and flows. Or maybe there is a biological reason, since our prehistoric ancestors evidently first used song in mating rituals. Whatever the source of their appeal, Shuker’s observation holds true: like all popular music, love songs are accessible and standardized.

This two-part character is even present in romantic songs of the ancient world. A good example is Psalm 45, the sole love song in the Psalter. It was composed for royal weddings and is stamped with the mark of convention, both lyrically and musically.

Beauty was associated with royalty in ancient Israel, a norm conveyed in the verse, “You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace . . .” (v. 3). In ancient Near Eastern cultures, wives—including queens and princess brides—were expected to leave their families, places of origin and religions of birth. That custom is reiterated thus: “forget your people and your father’s house, and let the king be aroused by your beauty; since he is your lord, bow to him” (vv. 11-12). The psalm also includes a perfectly generic description of the processional: “The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings, is led to the king, her maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you” (vv. 14-15).

The psalm’s music was similarly standard. Its heading contains the designation al shoshanim, which many scholars agree specifies a tune to which the text was sung. Shoshanim is commonly translated “lilies” and is a stock erotic metaphor in the Song of Songs. In the context of Psalm 45, it is most likely the title of a popular love song, which we can imagine was as sugary to the ears of Israel as our love songs are to us.

It is logical to predict that audiences will lose interest in a subject that is rehashed, reshaped and restated again and again. Over time, one might assume, the topic will collapse under the weight of its popularity. Human nature is such that we constantly crave variety, and we are keenly aware when a theme or idea has run its course. But instead of meeting this fate, love songs constantly proliferate in every age and musical idiom. These songs reveal a fascinating truth about ourselves: even as we admit that they are, for the most part, mawkish and excessive, we cannot get enough of them. They constitute proof of sociologist Bryan S. Turner’s point: “Human beings are primarily sentimental creatures, not rational philosophers.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Singing About Singing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The Hebrew Bible includes numerous song texts referencing the act of singing. Most conspicuous and recurring is the exhortation “Sing to the Lord,” which is found in so many places as to make it the refrain of the Bible itself. (A partial list: Exod. 15:1, 21; Jgs. 5:3; Isa. 42:10; Pss. 13:6; 95:1; 98:1; 96:1; 149:1.) Singing about singing is at the same time odd and common: odd because it is an act declaring itself, common because it is a frequent and effective theme. It occurs in religious hymns of most faiths, and appears with equal regularity in secular tunes (e.g., “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sing, Sing a Song,” “As Long as I’m Singing”). This subgenre of song—call it “reflexive”—can come across as redundant, ironic or even inane. After all, it is obvious that the person who is singing is singing—we need not be sung the fact.

Of course, self-comment is found in other art forms. There are plays within plays (Hamlet), movies about making movies (The Blair Witch Project), paintings depicting painting (The Artist in His Studio), and books about books (Fahrenheit 451). What distinguishes self-referential songs from these other creative ventures is directness and simplicity. A novel like Fahrenheit 451 might be centered around books and literacy, but that does not restrict the intricateness or amount of characters, plotlines, imagery, expressive language and so on.

In contrast, singing about singing usually involves the affirmation that one is singing, followed by some justification. Typical is Psalm 98:1: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has worked wonders; His right hand, His holy arm, has won Him victory . . .” The activity is the focal point, whereas the substantive words are, to a degree, ancillary (i.e., why and for whom one is singing). This is true whether the lyrics are prescriptive—“Sing to the Lord”—or descriptive—“I’m Singin’ in the Rain.”

So, what accounts for the popularity of these songs? The answer probably lies in the act of singing—or, more precisely, the preeminence of music over words. To this point, Catholic priest and scholar Richard Viladesau has written: “Singing enables us to step back from the word’s immediacy as communication, and to make it an aesthetic object.” When a song begins with a directive to sing or declares that singing is taking place, our attention is placed on the action itself. It is not an intellectual exercise, but an exercise of the spirit.

There is considerable difference between singing “Praise the Lord” and singing “Sing to the Lord.” The first zeroes in on a message; the second extols the virtue of song. Songs about singing endorse singing for singing’s sake. Though they may have an air of redundancy—the singer is singing that the singer is singing—the performance is its own reward.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.