Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On Macklemore, Webb, and Being Safe for the Whole Family

Ryan Hawk, hat, Jackson Waters
Ryan. In a hat.

by Ryan Hawk

As a recovering recording artist, I often find myself longing for a fix. The truth is, as any artist will tell you, it never leaves. You can choose to do something else, but like any addiction, the problem lies just under the surface, waiting to break through and wreak havoc on your senses. Instead of channeling this desire into creating more songs, a fear creeps in about self worth, artistic integrity, and whether or not doing it again is worth trying.

When I walked away from my addiction, I walked away from my idolatry: my identity being attached to my being a musician. There are days that I still struggle with this and know that deep inside of my being exists a man who is creative, imaginative, and exploding with ideas, ideas that will most likely remain buried, because I cannot bear the irresponsibility of my ego.

Leaving the life of a musician to study theology has opened up something different in the way I see art and music. I could never go back to the music I once knew because it was not authentic. I also know that, paradoxically, as I become more removed from it, the closer to it I become. In the past month, I have had two encounters that have re-established my faith in authentic music and reiterated why I can never go back to being a “CCM artist”.

Let me explain. As a former Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) artist, I was a part of a problem far deeper than copy-cat bands and simplistic songs. The problem wasn’t so much that we, as artists, wanted to be this way, but we got caught in a sub-culture of mediocrity. People can tell if you are being honest and authentic, and I feel that a large part of my career was inauthentic. Many of my songs were dishonest, but far worse is that these were songs about God, grace, hope, and truth.

I wrote as if I took these things for granted, as if I had a corner on the greatness of God, and could enlighten masses to join the journey. I wrote as if all was cheery, all was well, and all would be well. While I firmly believe that in the end all will be well, I was restrained; I censored myself in writing about pain, suffering, addiction, and experience - because we were told that we were always supposed to write about these things from the other side, to write as if we have it all figured out. But now, two artist encounters have reshaped everything.
Derek Webb, guitar, Ctrl
Derek Webb

Derek Webb put out an album recently titled CTRL. The song A City With No Name describes a dream world where everyone is beautiful, where lights are boldly bright. Inside, we re-create ourselves in an altered state of perfection, we craft our deepest desires, and yet we cannot bring any of it back to reality. As a result, we cling to this false world; we cease to be present to reality – it ultimately kills us.

This leads to Reanimate. Life is short; we miss it as we spend our time in the alternate reality, the fake world. And when it is gone, after we have fallen to our death, somehow we find ourselves alive, given new life, new sight. We can remember stepping out onto the ledge, but we are at a loss as to how we reached the other side, how we got here.   

The second encounter caused me to weep. “This boat is sinking, the sky gets heavy when you are underneath it.” Otherside by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis portrays addiction in stark and vivid terms. So many songs dealing with violence, drugs, and sex present them as the ultimate goal of life, as glorious commodities to be pursued. But for Macklemore, these become the gatekeepers of addiction; he battles against being taken into slavery by violence, sex, and drugs, and must conquer their stranglehold in order to become sober.

There is pressure for a songwriter to create a world that most often they don’t live in – one that glamorizes these dark forces in song and in music videos. Eventually, it becomes their reality, and they discover they’ve become enslaved to something that, originally, they only fictionalized in their songs.

A few years later, in another song called Starting Over, the three years of sobriety that Otherside dealt with has been shattered, and the failure is honestly confessed. Art is not static; it is dynamic. The words of sobriety are written and sung, and then repeated as they are lived out, but each day brings the chance of failure. Macklemore sings through the pain of trying to explain to his parents, his fans, and to those who had found inspiration in his story that he had failed. His response? Gratefulness that his words led to something positive. His reality? If he can be an example of getting sober, then he can be an example of starting over after a fall.

Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Same Love, Otherside
Ryan Lewis and Macklemore
The final dagger was another Macklemore song called Same Love. While the core of this song deals with an evangelical taboo over homosexuality, I found myself shamed over why it is such a taboo. We de-humanize the person and see only the problem. The lyric “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to,” stings. Have I ever really understood it that way, as inextricably linked to a person’s being?  We see people as less than people, as something else, something that inspires social disgust.

In his book Unclean, Richard Beck explains this theory through an analogy using a Dixie cup and spit. We have no problems swallowing our own spit; we do it all the time. But when asked to spit into the cup and then drink it, we are disgusted. We accept that which is a part of us, but once it has become separate from us, even if it is ours, we view with an element of disgust. Is the spit the same?  Yes, we just see it differently. Humans are still human, regardless of what struggles, sins, battles and identities define them. The song ends with the beginning of 1 Cor. 13:4 – “Love is patient, love is kind…”

I don’t share many of the views of Macklemore or Webb, but I deeply admire the honesty and integrity in the songs they make. I am inspired, and if ever I did un-retire, I only hope that I would examine the things I hold sacred the way that these songwriters do. The ideas they wrestle with and the life they talk about may be unorthodox, but frankly how much of life is orthodox?  We should open our eyes and learn something from being honest and authentic rather than aspiring to be safe for the whole family…

Ryan David Hawk is a recovering cynic, M.Div Student, and Ministerial Intern at a Nashville church. He looks good in a hat. His writings cannot be found anywhere because he struggles to deal with the pressures of blogging after trying and failing too many times. He sometimes uses Twitter and can be followed @ryandavidhawk.

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  1. "Excuse me bro, have you even READ the Bible? It is NOT safe for the whole family."

    That's what I want to say to people who think Christian = family friendly.

  2. I like Ryan David Hawk. He's a most outstanding sort of guy.

    Well said, Senor.