Can a song change you? Can it get inside your mind and, like Rilke’s archaic torso, demand in no uncertain terms “You must change your life”? In my own experience, I think it is possible. As Balthasar notes, music is a much more internal medium than sight or even touch… it “oscillates” between inner and outer, operating on us on a preconscious, prereflective level. When it comes to pop music, you have the added phenomenon of lyrics, which when wedded to music take on a mysteriously persuasive power. Apparently (and this is not from Balthasar, but from an interview I read with Feist) the German word for a hit pop song is an “ear-worm,” a tune that crawls into your brain and inhabits your skull. A little disturbing, but fitting.
Looking back on my own life, there are a couple of pop songs that I think have changed my mind… and possibly my life… with their beauty, poignancy and catchy hooks. This is especially true when it comes to my own appropriation of religion, ie. my personal ‘religious experience’ – which is to say my constant back-and-forth (can I say “oscillation” again?) between faith and doubt. I’m going to highlight several such songs over the course of the next few posts. Here’s the first instalment (sorry about the sound quality):
Life-Changing Song #1: Burton Cummings, “I’m Scared”
Sure, one might argue that this song from the former Guess Who frontman crosses over into schmaltz. The soaring strings, the epic guitar solo; it appealed to me when I first heard it on vinyl in Grade Seven, which was not my time of greatest musical discernment. Still, I always find myself humming it when I’m outside on a cold and bright “winter afternoon”:
Something in the air
I’m not really sure what it was
But I know that it’s still right there
It’s a song about the experience of the numinous, the existential fear of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which leads right into Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence.” The cold air, the city streets, and finally the sacred space of St. Thomas’ cathedral… they seem to hint at a deeper reality, though what it really is remains permanently veiled. Unlike most Guess Who songs, there are no caribou in the song, and the setting is New York not Saskatoon, but to me this song entails an authentically Canadian religious experience. Cold weather as an occasion for epiphany.
“I’m Scared” taught me that Christianity doesn’t corner the market on religious experience. To sense there is something, or someone “more” out there… it’s a human, not just a “Christian,” intuition; we’re all on a journey to God, inside and outside of the cathedral walls. This, though it may seem obvious, has been a very important lesson for me ever since Grade Seven, and has saved me from fundamentalism many times over. We are all offered glimpses of divine presence, bowled over by beauty: “Never been much on religion / But I should have just fell down on my knees.” Thanks, Burton.