The youth/maturity tension in pop music, feat. Ellie Goulding’s Delirium

Discussion on pop music lyrics and meaning, from fans and critics alike, frequently feel like an exercise in missing the point. Ripped from the context of their 3 minutes and 45 second productions, they lose most, if not all of their weight. Recognizing that, I’d still like to take a stab at identifying a few patterns.

Possibly against my better judgement, I’ve binge-listened through Ellie Goulding’s new “huge pop” album Delerium quite a few times this week. As most of the songs come from the Swedish production and writing engines of folks like Max Martin and Klas Ahlund, it’s impossible to tell how much, if any input the singer/artist on the label had on the musical direction. The crafting of the vocal takes and synths is magnificent though, even on some of the weak or obnoxious tracks.

On the album we hear a lot of lines like:

I just move as my heart commands
(from “Scream It Out”)

You got yourself in a dangerous zone
Cause we both have the fear, fear of being alone
(from “On My Mind”)

But tonight I’m gonna lose it all
Playing with fire, I was the first to fall
Heart is sinking like a cannonball
Baby kill it, what’re you waiting for?
(from “Something in the Way You Move”)

There is often a deep self-awareness of weaknesses and limitations, coupled with a passionate abandon. One moment, she’s a reflective outside observer, the next moment she’s the actor – making serial youthful bad decisions to get high and dance all night, spend the night with a stranger, etc.

Nearly every other track on the 23-tune deluxe album features this tension in some form. Youth vs. maturity, spontaneity vs. memory, sin(?) vs. wisdom. Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear album from last year (that I discussed here) frequently employed the same shtick: Trapped in addiction but going to live it up(?). Trapped in a bad relationship but gonna be tough(?). I’m sure if my knowledge of the last 20 years of Top 40 was more encyclopediac I would find no shortage of examples. Or maybe not.

The one that comes to mind at the moment is Sheryl Crow’s “Favorite Mistake” (1998). One gets the impression on listening that despite her newfound wisdom, she would make the same mistake over again if given a time machine. It seems that the 3:45 pop song is a “safe place” where one can reminisce on one-night stands, recalling the youthful excitement while distancing oneself from the destructive aftermath. Growing up in Evangelical culture, I was incessantly warned about this kind of whitewashing and I won’t argue with the veracity of that take. But it seems that these songs also have an incredible vicarious therapeutic value that is rarely acknowledged or discussed. At the end of the day though, I think that’s often why we like them, though the “why?” resists analysis.

It seems that most of U2’s writing takes this tension of reflection a further step back. When Bono sings…

The DNA lottery may have left you smart
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart
(from “Stand Up Comedy”)

Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we’re in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And stop chasing every breaking wave?
(from “Every Breaking Wave”)

I’ve had enough of romantic love
I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, a miracle drug, a miracle drug
(from “Miracle Drug”)

…he’s more skeptical of his own memory, of his own passions and ability to make the right decision, even in the present. In short, love is still the subject, but he’s moved on from reflecting on romance to thinking about God. An extra 25 years will do that to you.

The above is all just an exercise in wondering out loud about something I’d like to understand more. But dear reader, don’t think too hard about it. Instead, listen to everything great about this:

Our classifying of miracles as non-miracles

The Irish bard Tadhg Og O hUiginn, who died in 1448, wrote this:

O Son of God, do a miracle for me, and change my heart; Thy having taken flesh to redeem me was more difficult than to transform my wickedness.

It is Thou who, to help me, didst go to be scourged by the Jews; Thou, dear child of Mary, art the refined molten metal of our forge.

It is Thou who makest the sun bright, together with the ice; it is Thou who createdst the rivers and the salmon all along the river.

that the nut-tree should be flowering, O Christ, it is a rare craft; through Thy skill too comes the kernel, Thou fair ear of our wheat.

Though the children of Eve ill deserve the bird-flocks and the salmon, it was the Immortal One on the cross who made both salmon and birds.

It is He who makes the flower of the sloes grow through the surface of the blackthorn, and the nut-flower on other trees; beside this, what miracle is great?

(From A Celtic Miscellany, trans. by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p. 300)

What miracle indeed is greater? Many who have read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy have delighted at his attempt to “reenchant” the world and make the plain, everyday, perhaps boring, and “natural” things seem amazing an magical. Here I think the author is reflecting in the same vein.

Scientific naturalism carries with it a curious sort of entitlement. It is as if one DESERVES the salmon in the stream on account of our surviving the million-year Darwinian meat-grinder. Instead of a gift from the immortal creator, we take them for granted, scoffing at little children who still find their presence magical. (I’m looking at you Neil deGrasse Tyson.) Since we think we know for certain how they came about, then we feel allowed to disregard them as a gift. “Hey religions morons, show us a f**kin’ miracle!” we cry. But we have categorized truckloads of miracles out of sight already. We can point at little that isn’t already right under our noses.

Cursing the weather when it ruins romance

A frequent subject of the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is two lovers attempting to meet secretly at night. It rarely works out well. Here is representative passage from his piece The Mist (~1350).

I made a perfect tryst with my slender lovely girl, we pledged ourselves to steal away – but my journey was all in vain. I went out early to wait for her, but a mist sprang up as night came on; a cloudy mantling made the road dark, as if I were in a cave; all trace of the sky was hidden and the empty mist rose to the heavens. Before I could step one pace on my journey not a spot of the land was to be seen any more; neither the birch-wood slope, nor the shore, the hills, the mountains, nor the sea. Woe to you, you great yellow mist, that you did not ebb for a while once you were made! Like a cassock you are of the grey-black air, a very sheet without an end, the blanket of yonder lowering rain, a black weft from afar, hiding the world; like a vapour from the ovens of Hell, the smoke of the world bred up from far off, the smoke of the ghost-fires of Hades, a thick mantle over this earth, the web of the spiders of the sky that fills every place like the high seas.

(A Celtic Miscellany, Trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p.78)

It’s essentially the 14th century version of that music video for Closing Time.

The problems with personal testimonies and how the Holy Spirit overcomes them

As a casual hobby writer and a laymen, I don’t typically post links to the sermons I deliver occasionally at church. However, I got a lot of positive responses to this one and in the absence of a manuscript (I’ve been trying to preach from minimal notes lately), I’ve decided to post a link to the recording here for the handful of those who might be interested.

The outline is as follows:

  • Acts 26 – Paul’s 3rd telling of his conversion
  • Why personal conversion stories?
  • Ways God is being made known to men
  • Ways God does NOT make himself known
  • The richness and diversity of testimonies
  • The PROBLEM with testimonies (We are hypocrites, liars, idiots, poor communicators, and poor listeners.)
  • The double-edged sword of post-modernism: Personal story unquestionable, but immediately dismissible
  • Whom can you trust?
  • “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament”
  • The Good News for those burned by the church.
  • Jesus and the Holy Spirit overcome the shortcomings and problems with testimonies


The Magi (and perhaps the Druids’) recognition of Christ

In the ~9th century account of the death of king Conchabhar mac Nessa of Ulster (Northern Ireland), a great earthquake is observed. The Druid at hand tells the king that the reason for the “trembling of heaven and earth” is the death of Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God, at the hands of the Jews. It then comments that Conchabhar was one of only two individuals in Ireland (the other being the wise judge Morann) to believe in the one true God before the coming of Christianity centuries later.

Now, one could say quite easily that this is obviously a later addition and embellishment on a much older tale, but like much myth, it could contain a grain of truth. With the Magi, the birth of Christ was announced to pagan astrologers who then came to pay him homage. Could not his death also have been marked in such a way that other pagan priests might have taken notice?

Animals as judges

Possibly from the 13th century, this Celtic telling of the return and verification of the identity of Ulysses ends delightfully.

The Recognition of Ulysses

…”good people said the queen “who are you at all?” “I am Ulysses son of Laertes,” said he. “You are not the Ulysses whom I know” said she. “I am indeed,” he said, “and I will describe my credentials”; and then he told of their secrets and their talks together and their hidden thoughts. “What has happened to your looks or your men,” said she, “if you are Ulysses?” “ They are lost,” he said “What was the last of your keepsakes that you left with me?” she said. “A golden brooch,”said he, “with a silver head; and I took your brooch with me when I went into the ship and it was then you turned back from me,” said Ulysses. “That is true,” she said “and if you were Ulysses you would ask after your dog.” “I had not thought it would be alive at all,” he said. “I made a broth of long life” said she, “because I saw that Ulysses loved it greatly. And what sort of dog at all is that dog?” she said. “It has white sides and a light crimson back and a jet black belly and a green tail,” said Ulysses. “That is the description of the dog.” She said, “and no one in the place dares give it its food except myself and you and the steward” “Bring the dog in” said he. And four men went to fetch it and brought it in with them. And when it heard the sound of Ulysses’ voice, it gave a tug at its chain so that it laid the four men flat all over the house behind it, and, jumped at Ulysses ‘ breast and licked his face. When Ulysses’ people saw that, they leaped towards him. Whoever could no get at his skin to kiss him covered his clothes with kisses…

(From A Celtic Miscellany, Trans. by Kenneth Jackson)

It seems that man is capable of pulling off an endless amount of deceit. Spy craft known no end of sophistication. Secrets can be passed on or extracted. Appearances can be faked. Inside information can be known through other means and the examiner could even doubt their own memory of the situation. Here, the queen does her best to judge and though all the tests are passed, she remains skeptical. What breaks the spell? The dog. Apparently nothing on earth, not even the Devil himself could trick the dog. When he jumps on his old master and licks him, all further questioning is thrown in the trash. What do animals know that we don’t? How to tell the truth.

A translator of ancient languages debunks the ‘Celtic Twilight’

a celtic miscellany cover

Once again, introductions are the best.

In the introduction to the 1951 “Celtic Miscellany” Penguin Anthology, translator Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson takes on the role of crusty old master throwing dilettantes under the bus at every turn.

A word must be said on the method of translation. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century taste would accept – indeed preferred – renderings which were nothing but the wildest paraphrases, at least if they were made from languages which the readers did not themselves know. The late nineteenth century favored an artificial semi-Biblical English which might degenerate into pure Wardour Street [London’s early equivalent to Hollywood]. Traces of these are still with us.

And especially further on:

The explanatory note at the beginning of the individual sections below will tell the reader something of what Celtic literature is. Here it is necessary only to take up the question of what it is not. Since the time when Macpherson exploited Celtic sources to provide a public eager for Romantic material with what they wanted, it has been the fashion to think of the Celtic mind as something mysterious, magical, filled with dark broodings over a mighty past; and the Irish, Welsh, and the rest as a people who by right of birth alone were in some strange way in direct contact with a mystical supernatural twilight world which they would rarely reveal to the outsider.

The so-called ‘Celtic Revival’ of the end of the last century did much to foster this preposterous idea. A group of writers, approaching the Celtic literatures (about which they usually knew very little, since most of them could not read the languages at all) with a variety of the above prejudice conditioned by the pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements and their own individual turns of mind, were responsible for the still widely held belief that they are full of mournful, languishing, mysterious melancholy, of the dim ‘Celtic Twilight’ (Yeat’s term), or else of an intolerable whimsicality and sentimentality. Although scholars have long known, and all education people really acquainted with the Celtic literatures no know, that this is a gross misrepresentation, the opinion is still widely held.

I will freely admit to be being first and foremost captured by this romantic and mysterious “Celtic Twilight” reimagining of Irish/Scottish/British history. My first knowledge of the old peoples came from reading the liner notes to Enya’s ‘The Celts’ album – itself a collection of music composed as soundtrack for a 1987 BBC documentary, long before Ms. Brennan became a pop star (of a sort) in America. Yeats was and still is my favorite poet and Lunasa’s ‘Otherworld’ (which draws heavily on this schtick) still my favorite contemporary production of traditional Celtic music. Everyone from Tolkien to native Tomm Moore (of the Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea animated films) has chosen to mine the world of faerie rather than proper more ‘scientific’ (I almost wrote ‘faux-scientific’) history of the place.

Nevertheless, I’ve read enough of this ‘hard history’ before to know that the creativity and adventure of these early peoples comes through in their literature even WITHOUT a romantic lens. That is why I appreciated Mr. Jackson’s serious efforts to get at the earliest meanings and manuscripts in his translation work. I’ll gladly trust a (somewhat jaded) old scholar who knows at least six ancient minor languages inside out. Who alive now can claim that anyway? In the concluding paragraph, the translator writes:

The most outstanding characteristic is their astonishing power of imagination. The selections given below will, I hope, bear witness to this.

Below, just for fun, is the cheesiest looking “Celtic” album cover I could find:


Communication breakdowns: pedagogy, context, and memory

Someone goes to school and they don’t learn anything. They are frustrated. They had a legit dream of being smart or skilled, but it didn’t materialize during their education. The knowledge is real and out there, but it didn’t successfully transfer. This happens all the time. Why?

It’s a communication breakdown, and the chain of transmission has many potential weak spots.

1. The teacher is stupid. They don’t actually know.
2. The teacher’s methods are bad and they couldn’t get the information across well. They know, but can’t effectively articulate it.
3. The student was not listening, not paying attention. They just missed it as if they hadn’t shown up.
4. The student is too young or inexperienced to give the knowledge context and remember it.
5. The student is stupid, not well formed, and doesn’t understand it.

I’d like to elaborate on these just a bit. Students are quick to criticize poor teachers. Their failure could be due to primary (#1) or secondary (#2) problems, but the result is the same. For the student that has a long track record of successful learning in academia, they will assume that points 3, 4, and 5 are OK and that the problem must lie with the presenter. In my experience #1 is actually quite rare. Bad pedagogy is the chief offender. Even someone with only a mild understanding of their subject (perhaps they were a last minute substitute) who is a skilled teacher, will far outperform a brilliant professor with bad lectures, ill-conceived assignments, and limited feedback.

In the world of classical music (this would include academic jazz), many world-class performing musicians are notoriously terrible teachers. Studying under them may allow you to name-drop a famous person on your resume, but you are likely to develop much more as a student under someone you’ve never heard of who is an excellent pedagogue. I assume the same could be said for other fields, but I suspect that it may be more pronounced in the performing arts.

Those on the giving side of the knowledge transfer are of course going to be quicker to criticize the receivers. And they have not shortage of precedent in doing so. How can you not blame students that don’t show up to class, don’t pay attention, don’t read the homework, don’t ask any questions, and appear to come from backgrounds where they barely learned to read in the first place? These problems are all so common as to be completely boring to consider. And yet, because their appearance is ubiquitous, it can in turn encourage lazy pedagogy. If the problem is always “out there”, then why work harder to make our teaching better? It’s good enough already, right? Maybe not.

If I were to have made this communication breakdown list ten years ago, in my twenties, it would have only had 4 items on it, that mirrored each other (Teacher -> Teaching -> Listening -> Student). On closer reflection though, I had to add another link in the chain, in-between the student possibly not listening, or being too stupid to know what he or she heard. This is where things get interesting, at point #4 in the list above.

You can be an excellent student, a strong reader with 14 years of straight As under your belt. You can also be driven and attentive. The teacher can be excellent – very knowledgeable, well organized, interesting, engaging, and sometimes even funny and inspiring. But then, in hindsight, you STILL missed a bunch of important stuff. It sure felt like you were learning something useful at the time, but now you aren’t really sure what it was. Was it anything? What went wrong?

It may be that you could not store the information in your memory in a meaningful way because you were not able to give it enough context. You were young and just simply haven’t had many experiences. Maybe some point the teacher made would have stuck really well if you had grown up with a bunch of siblings, but you were an only child. Some potent analogy that was frequently used went over your head because you grew up in the city instead of around a lot of trees (or vice versa). Maybe some illustration (that you thought you understood and could even repeat accurately on the test) just didn’t carry much weight to a 19-year-old girl, but would now make a ton of sense to a 35-year-old mother. Maybe something else would have stuck if you had been a soldier, but it just couldn’t find a place in your head given your background when you absorbed it. Some key piece of wisdom slipped past you because you didn’t have a shelf to put it on in your head. You were still building the shelves and it got set on the floor and forgotten.


It’s been a few years since I tackled them, but I think THIS region in the communication chain is what Jamie Smith is trying to put his finger on with his spiritual formation and “cultural liturgies” stuff in his Desiring/Imaging the Kingdom books. It also helps to explain why we sometimes fail to communicate the Gospel. The preacher can know the gospel really well and be heavy on grace with zero heresy to be found. He can then articulate the message very clearly in a way that engages the listener. And the listener is really paying attention too. They aren’t distracted. Not only that, but they’re intelligent, and they understand what’s being said. They aren’t confused. Maybe they are even initially (for say, a week or two) fairly excited or interested in all this Jesus stuff. But then it fades away and they don’t remember or seem to care about it anymore. And to their friends, it doesn’t seem as if they are particularly worldly or that cares and stress choked it all out of them in the meantime. They are doing OK, but it just didn’t “stick”. Why?

Insufficient context. Inexperience. They need more shelves in their heads to put valuable things on. The rooms haven’t been built yet. Timing is everything. Mysteriously though, the Holy Spirit can stick around with us and make the sharpness of our sin and the attractiveness of Christ continue to bother us and fascinate us, even though we aren’t quite sure what to do with it. When this is going on (and it must go on!) then the communication breakdown is mended by an outside force.

Girard’s money quote regarding euthanasia


This magazine cover has repeatedly greeted me in the specialty grocery store checkout line this past month. Your RIGHT to die. Rights are good, right? Mo’ rights, mo’ betta, right? This is a difficult topic to discuss. I think for now the only thing I have to say in reply to the push for normalizing assisted suicide is to repost this quote from the late Rene Girard:

The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming euthanasia will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable, for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.

(Emphasis mine. I’m afraid I don’t recall the origin of this, though it may have been referenced in something Gil Bailie wrote.)

Reflections on E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet

I just finished reading Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet to the children. I was not familiar with her work, but had read once or twice that her children’s books were an influence on Lewis. I’d like to make just a few notes about this children’s book, written in the very early 1900s.

1. Everyone treats the servants like trash. Even the young children boss them around and call them stupid. Nowhere does the author ever hint that this isn’t entirely acceptable behavior. The author provides regular commentary on the children’s morals, but never once touches on the treatment of the servants. They are garbage. Even the burglar they catch breaking into their house is shown more respect than the cook and the maid. It’s difficult for me to imagine even a particularly snooty or racist person today mistreating hired staff this overtly today, at least in the USA. What do I, a son of rural Western farmers know of this history? Nearly nothing, though I suspect it was more often like this than what one sees in Downton Abbey.

2. The plots of the chapters themselves are fairly weak. The adventures are only mildly adventurous. The difficulties are often resolved through some kind of deus ex machina device in the last two pages. On the other hand, it’s also interesting to think that what might constitute an adventure would be different to children in 1904 than today. We’re used to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Avengers. To them a visit to a tropical island or a trip to find a bag of coins in an old tower in France might approach maximum excitement. Also, to young children under 10, even an old treehouse can be a lot of fun. There are days when I wish that I could be enthralled by much less flashy things. Sometimes I even am. Books help.

3. The thing the author really gets right is the interaction between the four young siblings. The quirky balance of tender care mixed with petty bickering is something that cannot be accurately captured unless experienced first-hand. I was curious if this knowledge came from the author’s own childhood, but (according to Wikipedia) apparently not. It must have come from her own many children (several of who were adopted from her philandering husband’s multiple mistresses!).

4. The lack of foreshadowing in the book left me at several points thinking that it could have been written quite a bit more interestingly than it was. Some great opportunities for tie-ins between chapters would have made the world richer and the story more cohesive but they were not often taken. I’m no writer of fiction and will rarely dare to make a comment like this, but this time I couldn’t help but feel like I could have improved on the telling with minimal effort. Some of this came out in an additional inserted commentary when reading aloud.

5. The lack of parental oversight is astounding when compared to our safety obsessed culture today. The young children are left alone to play by themselves for sometimes a week at a time! Their father goes to work every day and the mother usually takes care of the baby, but she frequently leaves the house for several days at a time to visit relatives. The servants are sometimes around, but not really paying attention to the children – they have other jobs to do. The children make fires at home and prepare food and go shopping and even take the train to neighboring towns without thinking twice. My wife commented that the same thing happens in many of the Anne of Green Gables books – young children of age six or so are left at home all day without adults watching them. Frankly I think this is just fine and the fact that if you do this today you are likely to be thrown in jail (no hyperbole) is tragic on several levels. It all depends on the particular child and the environment of course – how can I possibly qualify this statement enough? Still, it could be completely fine. We (my wife and I) frequently try to encourage independence in our children, but I must say it doesn’t end up coming close to looking like what seems to have been commonplace a hundred years ago. I wonder what it would take for this to become normal again?