03 October 2005

Letter to Derek Webb

In the midst of working on that essay for Mr. Hunt, I took Tim up on his challenge to write to this CCM artist, Derek Webb. Read the lyrics to his song here. What follows is my letter to him:

Mr. Webb:

I should say first that I have never actually listened to any of your music and I suppose that this makes me a poor critic of your work. But after a friend posted lyrics to your song “Wedding Dress” on his blog and I made a critical comment about your lyrics, he suggested I write you myself. To be frank, I would rather not write this letter, but it doesn’t make much sense to simply bad-mouth your song and not take the opportunity to hear from you as an artist. What I originally wrote on my friend's blog follows:

"I find it interesting that Christian literature and art likes to champion the idea of the 'whore' or the loose woman, as opposed to the loose man. This kind of thinly-veiled misogyny isn't helpful for our discourse at all, I don't think. It may convey an idea that we (vaguely) understand (although I haven't met a lot of prostitutes lately), but at what cost. We may glean a meaning about Christ, but at the expense of taking in a thought (conscientiously or unconscientiously) that is damaging towards our discourse about women. Please, let's not be haters.

Also, does this dude really feel this way, or is he just pulling some idea out of the box that is vaguely 'Biblical' to sell records? There's not an original thought here, best I can see. And that tells me a brother is trying to make some money by cashing in on what people think they know about the text."

In retrospect, I think I regretted saying that this song was written to sell records because I certainly have no idea why you write or don't write songs. So I apologize for that. As far as my complaint about the content of your lyrics, I suppose if I knew I was going to send this to you, I would have said it differently, but this is all a practice in owning what I say about others so I will have to let it stand.

I think I want to restate my complaint in a little bit more of an intellectual manner and hopefully, if you have the time, interest, or whatever, hear your response. I will drop my complaint about misogyny because that is a larger question I have with the text and isn't, in retrospect, the main problem I had with the song.

You may remember at the end of the 90's and the early '00's a heavy metal band from Iowa called Slipknot. Slipknot appeared right around the time when people were starting to not be afraid of Marilyn Manson anymore. Slipknot wore (and maybe still do wear) masks and were all-around a frightening group of young men. The kind of people you might avoid at the mall.

I found the lyrics to the second song off of their second album to be particularly interesting in understanding the band and the genre of music in general. In "Disasterpiece," the lead singer shouts, "I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound." I remember being initially repulsed by this lyric and wondering how the band could get away with singing this. What had the world come to?

Of course, the members of Slipknot don't actually engage in this sort of activity (as far as I know they are only as bad as your average rock star), but Slipknot understands that by saying this sort of ridiculously violent nonsense, they are able to turn parents against their music which in turn causes teenagers to want their music even more which in turn sells records. None of the members of Slipknot, I imagine, are interested in killing anyone. They are interested in selling records and tailor their music to cause controversy not out of artistic integrity, but market savy. They are excellent marketers.

This is a really round-about way to get to what I want to talk about, but I think the point is that artistic integrity suffers when artists choose to lean on images, phrases, or thoughts that are known to cause the intended reaction as opposed to honestly trying to create art that is true to themselves or their true feelings one way or another.

This is the pervasive problem in Christian music, I think. There are plenty of songs out there, that in the end, spend most of their lyrical energy on words that are meaningless or dead in modern usage, but which appeal to a "Christian" or "Biblical" sensibility. As an example, I might mention any song referring to eagles soaring. roses being trampled, oceans roaring, or hailing a King. Certainly, all these phrases have time and place, but it seems to me that for the most part, our 21st century American culture has no interest in or understanding of these terms. It's not a bad thing—we just use different images these days to convey those thoughts.

The problem is when artists insist on pulling phrases out of the Bible boxes and stringing them together to make any sort of nonsense, that when coupled with a D-A-Bm-G-A-D progression allows singers of the songs to "experience God." Unfortunately, I'm burnt out.

This leads me to your song which, what I think I wanted to say to my friend Tim, appeals to a dead sense of purity. A white dress is a dead symbol. A repentant whore is something different in our discourse (I might point to the incredible drug film "Requiem for a Dream" here. There are many others that don't come to mind at this time). The whore of Jesus' day is something that we vaguely understand, but there has got to be a better image that our culture understands to convey this idea. We have all new signifiers and don't need to rely on what would have made sense in the 50's to make our music compelling.

An artist I respect a great deal, David Bazan from the band "Pedro the Lion," has said, "The message is degraded when it's made into slogans and low-level propaganda. They're attempting to reach a certain audience just like advertisers do -- and that, ultimately, degrades the art."

So in the end, I guess I honestly wanted to ask if you feel like a whore? And if you honestly do, how do you know what a whore feels like? I understand in all of this I could be very, very wrong and you could have written this song from the darkest place in your heart and were entirely true to yourself as an artist in writing it. Certainly, if that is true, I withdraw my complaint and apologize for being so contentious.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter which has become far too long. I wish you the best in your art and look forward to hearing from you.

Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan