Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Don't let the sophomore slump get you down

I took a much-needed break from seminary studies to hang out with five of my friends several weeknights ago, but what I anticipated to be an uplifting night ended up being kind of a bummer. We met at one of our favorite bars and talked about various aspects of our lives in general ... actually, more accurately, four of us sat and listened and occasionally added our remarks while the remaining two had a very amusing conversation about sex. Good times all around, though I could feel God staring down at me with His arms crossed, and practically hear Him laughing hysterically at what was probably my very red face.

But the bummer came when one of my friends started talking about the numerous people in his life who have disappointed him, to which another one of my friends promptly responded, "Most people suck." Always the optimist, I politely interjected by saying "I disagree with that," in hopes of proposing a non-preachy argument that everyone has the capacity to be good, and that making a statement that most people are bad is not only unfair, but a little arrogant. But I never got the chance to, not least of all because one of my other friends at the table immediately started laughing at me.

She probably didn't mean it that way, but I felt totally patronized. I felt as if the entire table might as well have started patting me on the head and saying, "Awwwww, isn't that cute? He has the naivete to actually love people!" Though I enjoyed the rest of the night, I couldn't help but pine for that respectful debate that never happened. I felt utterly alone in my optimism, even in the presence of one of my devout Christian friends. But more importantly, I was heartbroken for my friends who were denouncing such optimism -- how badly burned were they that they closed themselves off to most people? And how could they do such a thing without feeling utterly depressed and alone in this world? I have yet to read President Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts of Reclaiming the American Dream, but I at least understand the first part of the title more vividly than ever: Hope in the face of the world at large is nothing short of audacious. Not only is it rare, but it's frequently frowned upon by those who know nothing about it. Morrissey, former vocalist for The Smiths, put it another way in their song "I Know It's Over": "It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate/It takes strength to be gentle and kind."

One of the best songs the Jesus Jam performed during the greatest concert of all time is a challenging yet rousing anthem called "Love Your Enemies." The band knew full well that the lyrics would be considered revolutionary by all generations that followed it -- in fact, I can imagine that every audience member at this concert was flabbergasted upon hearing them, especially after hearing so many Stereophonic Pharisees tracks before it about how the "unrighteous" shouldn't even be allowed to hear "The Word" at all. After the Jesus Jam's demise, their fans had inherited a mission to not only start their own bands, but also to keep "Love Your Enemies" in their repertoires, which is quite a daunting task even today. Not that "Love Your Enemies" is a particularly hard song to play once you get the hang of it, but THAT CHORUS -- "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Those words are hard to hear and even harder to sing.

But as musicians continuing the legacy of Awesome God-via-The Jesus Jam, it is absolutely essential that we don't omit "Love Your Enemies" from our performances of "The Word." It's by far the most challenging section of the piece, but the rewards are great for anyone who plays through it successfully, and even greater for those fortunate enough to hear it played well. If we skip the section altogether, we are doing ourselves and our listeners a disservice. It may be easier in the short run to not have to even worry about that section, but in the long run, listeners will notice that a crucial part of the symphony is missing and, mistaking it for a poorly written piece, may never want to hear "The Word" again. In the end, performing "The Word" is not about how much fun we're having playing it -- it's about the healing, nourishment and inspiration the listener is capable of experiencing when they hear it the first time. A superbly rendered version of "Love Your Enemies" will motivate others to pick up an instrument and master it themselves.

But as I learned that night with my friends, far too many listeners don't want to even give first few seconds of "Love Your Enemies" a chance. I think a lot of them may have heard this section in the past, but it made for quite an uncomfortable listen. Perhaps they deemed the musicianship a little too intense. Maybe they felt the melody is just too dissonant. But it's most likely that the words are just too painful for them to hear. They've had too many bad experiences in the past to ever want to listen to a song about forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of relentless hatred and hostility. To put it another way -- and veer into another musical metaphor altogether -- these listeners are stuck on the sophomore slump.

Anyone who has ever actively sought great new music should be painfully familiar with the sophomore slump. It's always a thrill to discover that relatively rare thing -- a debut album that actually has consistently good songwriting, refreshingly innovative sonics and a solid front-to-back flow. For most musicians, the debut album is merely those first few awkward steps after hearing the starting gun, before they actually find their stride and learn how to run. So it's always uplifting and exciting to find musicians that begin the race at a full-fledged sprint.

But with that unexpected starting sprint comes potentially crippling expectations: Now you want these musicians to win the race. You want them to prove themselves as the greatest runners of all time. But sadly, some of these musicians simply lose their energy and finish second, fifth or sometimes dead last. Countless artists have released utterly disappointing follow-ups to those amazing debuts (which I will explain out of popular hearsay as much as actually hearing the music). The Doors brought psychedelic rock to previously unheard-of levels of darkness with their self-titled 1967 debut album, but spent much of the rest of their career in the annals of schmaltzy pop, hackneyed blues-rock and Jim Morrison's drug-addled "poetic" indulgences. Dr. Dre basically revitalized West Coast rap with 1992's The Chronic, but his output has been spotty at best ever since. The B-52's and Pretenders helped define New Wave with their self-titled debuts -- released in 1979 and 1980, respectively -- but the former band has lost much of their endearing quirkiness, while the latter band has essentially become a mediocre Chrissie Hynde solo project. And Guns N' Roses made hard rock tough and ugly again in the face of polished hair metal with 1987's Appetite for Destruction, but it takes a truly special person to forgive Axl Rose's ego or "November Rain."

Nevertheless, though we tend to focus on sophomore slumps because it IS easier to laugh and hate than to be gentle and kind, numerous artists who fell prey to this curse quickly recovered and delivered on their initial promise. Ramones and The Clash both released second albums that fell short of the simple rock & roll revolutions they instigated on their self-titled debuts, but they more than redeemed themselves respectively with 1977's Rocket to Russia and 1979's London Calling, both considered two of the best punk albums ever made. U2's 1980 debut album, Boy, was followed by the comparatively lackluster October before they came back with even bigger statements and more riveting tunes on 1983's War. Pearl Jam followed their grunge powerhouse of a debut, 1991's Ten, with the inconsistent Vs. before taking a real walk on the wild side with 1994's odd but brilliant Vitalogy. And outside of the great first album/worse second album/better third album pattern, Bob Dylan basically screwed around for much of his post-Blonde on Blonde career before unexpectedly dropping the classic breakup album Blood on the Tracks in 1975.

Music nerd indulgences aside, the point is that we can't wallow in the throes of sophomore slump disappointment forever. I've seen it again and again (in myself, too) that listeners will stop listening to an artist just because they had the gall to upset their otherwise "perfect" repertoire and release a subpar record. All of a sudden, they decide not to follow this or that band anymore just because of a single misstep. Or even worse, this disappointment "puts things into perspective" for the listener and they decide this or that band was never really that great to begin with. Sometimes they base their level of disappointment on the simple fact this or that band are doing something DIFFERENT. Heaven forbid anything about their sound changes or progresses.

It is absolutely crushing for me to see my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ or otherwise treat people much the same way. As I said before, adopting the attitude that "most people suck" is not only unfair to that person, but it's a little arrogant since it more or less assumes that whoever is making that statement isn't one of those sucky people. By putting all your faith in flawed human beings alone, you are already begging for trouble. People are going to trespass against you sooner or later, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. But we are called not just as Christians, but as human beings to forgive each other for those trespasses. It may be hard to listen to and sing "Love Your Enemies," but it's absolutely necessary if we are to get the most out of Awesome God's greatest love songs. And once you familiarize yourself with it, "Love Your Enemies" not only becomes easier to sing and listen to, but it can be kind of fun.

On our way to an internship interview this weekend at Fuller Theological Seminary's main campus in Pasadena, Calif., my mom and I got into a huge fight. I expressed my anger toward her becoming very upset over the fact she had managed to get dog poop on her jeans, after which she proceeded to lecture me for not letting her vent about something that had nothing to do with me. Long story short, one unnecessary rehash of our sometimes volatile past led to another, and it more or less culminated in her sarcastically apologizing for not being a perfect mother. All of a sudden, it dawned on me like the midday sun in the middle of July in Phoenix, Ariz.: Humans screw up sometimes, and it's totally unfair to see a person for the number of mistakes they've made instead of their overall, wonderful, God-given character. Performing and listening to "Love Your Enemies" may be challenging, but by doing so we are ultimately rewarded with life, while holding a grudge (and consequently acting upon that grudge) can only lead to death. Phoenix-based folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad summarized this notion in their song "People": "People are wasteful, they waste all the food/People are hateful and people are rude/But God, I love some people sometimes/Because people are very, very special/And people are impatient, they don’t know how to wait/People are selfish, people are prone to hate/But God, I love some people sometimes/Because people are the greatest thing to happen."

And we are the greatest thing to happen. So to my friends who unintentionally bummed me out the other night, I forgive you and love you for the broken but beautiful souls you are. Because of the Jesus Jam's timeless rendition of "The Word," we will always be better than the sophomore slump.


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  2. Two things I have to say:

    "November Rain" is f-ing epic, man. Unfortunately, so is Axl's ego.

    While reading through this, I am reminded of the lyrics to "The Grudge" by Tool, the first track off of their incredible album "Lateralus":

    Wear your grudge like a crown of negativity.
    Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.
    Desperate to control all and everything.
    Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.

    Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
    Justify denials and grip it to the lonesome end.
    Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
    Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.
    Saturn ascends, choose one or ten. Hang on or be humbled again.
    I'm born again....

    Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
    Justify denials and grip 'em to the lonesome end.
    Saturn ascends, comes round again.
    Saturn ascends, the one, the ten. Ignorant to the damage done.

    Wear your grudge like a crown of negativity.
    Calculate what you will or will not tolerate.
    Desperate to control all and everything.
    Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.
    Wear the grudge like a crown.
    Desperate to control.
    Unable to forgive. And sinking deeper.

    Defining, confining, sinking deeper.
    Controlling, defining, and we're sinking deeper.

    Saturn comes back around to show you everything
    Let's you choose what you will not see and then
    Drags you down like a stone or lifts you up again
    Spits you out like a child, light and innocent.
    Saturn comes back around. Lifts you up like a child
    or drags you down like a stone to
    Consume you till you choose to, let this go.
    Choose to, let this go.

    Give away the stone. Let the oceans take and transmutate this cold and fated anchor.
    Give away the stone. Let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

    Let go! Let go! Let go!

    (Cheers. --Nick Greenwood)