Thursday, September 28, 2017

Value and Validation

I was reading an interesting article about the place of Macklemore in the cultural conversation.* The article included a video from his new album - a song featuring Kesha. I thought the song was below average, in fact the only parts I enjoyed were the parts Kesha sings. It got me to thinking that she, herself, just put out a tremendously well-received album that I hadn't yet listened to. So I listened to it.

It's tremendous, by the way, ranging over a bunch of different styles and musical genres, all of which are pretty good. Kesha, herself, has an improbable story - the daughter of a semi-successful songwriter, she came to prominence as her family hosted Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie during their ill-fated reality show The Simple Life. She was soon after handpicked by mega-producer Dr. Luke and signed to a record deal. The Song Machine - a book about the manufactured pop sound of the last two decades - makes it seem like Dr. Luke (not a doctor) chose Kesha specifically as part of a project to literally create a pop star from scratch; it depicts her as more of a tool, from his perspective, than even an artist.

This all came to an ugly head when Kesha accused Dr. Luke of sexual and financial abuses and sued to be released from her recording contract. This request was denied and it was ruled that the statute of limitations on the rape allegations had expired. She was left to release her newest album, the one I listened to, through Dr. Luke's label, even though he had nothing to do with its production.

Kesha's carefully curated persona through most of her career had been as a drugged up, sexually adventurous, party queen - her songs were generally about drinking and laughing off disastrously bad decisions in a way that makes teenagers excited and parents concerned. Typical pop music to the extreme. With the new album Kesha is being more personal, exploring the depths and breadth of her actual reality, and dealing with all the crap in her life (of which the above description is just a tiny fragment).

We went from seeing this Kesha

To this one

It's a little jarring, both to see how pop culture is manipulated and to see what it can do to real people. Kesha's new album isn't polite - there are a bunch of tracks marked explicit and while there are some potential Top 40 hits there, it's mostly about an artist expressing herself. In other words, it's real art. I recommend the whole thing - it's not too long and it's insanely real, especially if your aware of Kesha's journey to making it.

One of the songs that really caught my attention is called "Hymn." I tend to enjoy music that uses religious language or overtones, especially the songs that challenge the staid assumptions of religiosity. This one, in particular, talks about being a "hymn for the hymnless," a song for "kids with no religion."

I got it, immediately; it really resonated with me. She's not talking about religion persay (and you can read a longer description of Kesha's thoughts on the song here), but about people who feel left out. It's a song for people who don't fit in.

I wouldn't say I've been an outcast in my life; I've rarely felt alone. I have, however, often felt like I don't fit in. I tend to challenge the status quo, mostly because I believe deeply that somebody should. I also tend to think differently. I like this song in particular because of the religious language. Christianity, a movement of outcasts, specifically designed to include and accept everyone, has become one of the most exclusive, homogeneous movements around. Even in the midst of our deep Christian divisions, we tend to be people who like to congregate with people like us.

I love that the very fact this song includes explicit profanities, it'll be rejected by many Christians as bad or troublesome or dangerous, when, to me, it seems downright prophetic. I get that it sounds like an unapologetic apology for all things hedonistic and sinful. It's got overt celebration of selfishness and individualism - generally things Christianity frowns upon. I think, though, above it all, "Hymn" is a declaration of human worth - that's something the Church could use more of.

We have theological statements about how grace and salvation is a free gift from God, but we tend to supplement those statements with actions that show we really do expect a specific standard of behavior to really belong. A lot of the things Kesha has done or sung about are not the kinds of things I want for myself or my children; they're not things I'd condone - and not because they're inherently bad, just that they tend to be harmful. However, when we hold the ideal up as the standard, we all end up falling short. It produces shame and guilt that only lead to a devaluation of self-worth and, often, a devaluation of someone else's worth in our eyes.

Yes, there's a balance between judgement and grace, especially when we actually have the kind of relationship with people where they can hear hard truths as love. The problem we run into is that almost everybody already knows their guilty, but almost nobody really believes they're loved (and lovable). The balance can't be 50-50, because we don't need to hear judgment in equal measure with love. We need a lot more of the latter. It is love and acceptance that's truly transformational.

I believe that. More lives are changed, more positive, healthy decisions are made, because people are loved and accepted in spite of their faults, than will ever be changed because those faults have been highlighted and condemned.

People aren't perfect and they certainly aren't all the same. The expectations we have for each other might be made with the best intentions, but if they're not true to who people are, they're not expressing the kind of value and validation we need to be loved - to be truly human. Just this week I heard and friend and mentor of mine say some powerful words. They perfectly express the reality of this seeming paradox and they fit perfectly with this post, that I'd already been constructing.

He said, "I don't mind the 'I'm okay, you're okay' culture we're in" - this is not what you'd expect from a pastor, for sure - "because what it's really saying is that I'm valuable and so are you."

This culture of acceptance - "I'm okay, you're okay" that's so often decried in religious circles is not meant to be a discussion of the individual merits of an opinion or action or belief - it's meant as the validation of someone's humanity. We're saying, "You are a human being, with experiences and insights that come from real living; you have the right to believe what you believe, even if we disagree."

There's no ability to even get to a discussion of our various views, until I accept your right to come to your own conclusions. That kind of fearless freedom is, truly, at the heart of human life as Jesus understands and explains it. It should be at the heart of Christianity - although it so rarely is - and it's definitely at the heart of Kesha's new album.

I may not agree with the content and substance of the words in these songs, but they express a fierce determination to prove personhood and value in the face of inexplicable tragedy. For someone who's been dehumanized and devalued in ways we can't fully understand to be able to stand up and produce such a strong statement in defiance of those circumstances is entirely worth celebrating.

This new album, Rainbows, is a triumph of the human spirit - and there's a particular, if unintentional, gospel lesson there, if we've got the ears to hear it.

May it be so.

*It's a pretty intriguing topic - a white rapper comes to prominence with culturally conscious and often challenging lyrics and takes the world by storm, winning Grammys with solid, but inferior material over a black rapper (Kendrick Lamar), who's essentially a better, more credible version of the archetype Macklemore was chosen to fill. It wasn't really a position Macklemore asked for, but one he really struggled with.

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