Ideas or Paint

I found this good interview with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot. Here’s the link:

There’s a lot of interesting dialogue in this interview. “The most dangerous place for a band to be is doing something they’re good at. I think it’s much better as a band to do something that you could actually fail at.” This is precisely the reason why I’ll always praise a band more for releasing an album full of risky songs. It takes guts to release something you know you’ll probably catch bad press for. But I don’t think enough bands take chances like that nowadays.

Watching a YouTube video of Switchfoot performing at a radio station made me think how YouTube, Wikipedia and MySpace, heck, even the internet in general, changes and influences a band. Twelve hours after your show you can find dozens of audio and video clips of your band all over the internet. Days after your CD release, hundreds of reviews from all over the world are on the internet (side note: my pet peeve: when people listen to an album once then give it a bad review). Days before your cd release, millions illegally download your songs because some intern at the record label stole a demo of your songs.

Now I’m not saying the internet has had a solely negative influence on the music industry. Nothing gives me more pleasure than opening the Free Press and seeing a record label’s profits drop like the temperature in Winnipeg in January. For too long have huge record labels bullied bands around. Want proof? Look no further than the copious amounts of needless “Greatest Hits” albums clogging record store shelves. Record companies know that these so-called “hits” albums will sell, because history repeats itself, so they write them into the artists’ contract (and, sadly, many bands that are in it for the money gladly oblige).

This is why I’m happy that Switchfoot is now independent. As Jon points out in his interview, it’s not like they hated Columbia, but being independent was just a better fit and made more sense. Also, I’m glad the interviewer asked Jon about the pressures of songwriting. I had never thought of that before. Can you imagine – being afraid to write a song? Interesting. Jon spoke of selling more records than some of his heroes. “What does a band who sells 3 million records do?” It must be a strange place to be at, a kind of ‘where do we go now?’ place. Tragically, Switchfoot suffered from the ‘one big mega-hit cd’ than sells like crazy and catapults you into the mainstream music industry. Then the same music industry turns on you months later and says, “Okay, give us another double-platinum album by March, please,” like a band is supposed to flick on that creativity switch on the wall and get to work.

Switchfoot is my favourite band for a couple of reasons. Most significantly, Switchfoot was the first band I listened to whose lyrics impacted me. Before Switchfoot, I listened to music solely for the music. I knew that the vocals could make or break an album, but I never paid much attention to the lyrics.

But Switchfoot’s lyrics were different. Although not poetically strong in some cases, and downright vague in others, I found the ideas expressed behind the words to be the attraction. It was the themes and issues being sung about that I could really get behind. The lyrics of Nothing Is Sound, in particular, had a big impact on me. Issues like being “happy” (whatever that meant), finding encouragement in a desolate world, the unique problems facing the young generation of today, oneness and unity, hope for tomorrow, what a loving relationship looks like between two “broken” people – these were the issues that were written about, and these were the issues that I found so interesting. Jon Foreman’s honest and self-conscious look at them provided insight for me, while also leaving me to grapple with some of the issues myself.

This past summer I read a book called One Step Closer, about Bono and U2. In it, the writer talked about an ongoing debate about art Bono has with a close friend of his. “Art is about ideas,” Bono argues, while his friend keeps replying, “No, art is about paint.” Essentially, Bono was saying that the best art points to an idea bigger than itself; that it represents something beyond itself. Bono’s friend was arguing that the art was the point, that the painting was the end result, in and of itself.

After listening to Switchfoot (and U2), I’d have to side firmly with Bono. Good art is about the ideas. It’s true of anything, even religion. If Christianity is about doing certain things, without a reason behind it, then it just becomes meaningless action and ritual. If it’s not, think of the implications, especially for Christians: communion becomes a snack, church becomes a club, and marriage just becomes a means to an end, a way to achieve the North American Dream.

I think it’s fundamental for people to want to know why they’re doing something. Ideas are also what made Jesus’ earthly life so fascinating and unique. He brought radical ideas in, most of them not just a little weird but a complete reversal of human thinking: turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, die to live, the list could go on. And when he was asked why, why should people do this, he always answered. He always pointed to God the Father, who is the one behind all ideas. I find that amazing, how Jesus was always giving glory to the Father and praying to Him and acknowledging Him as his source of power to perform miracles. What good would Jesus’ life have been if there was no God up in heaven? Now I know, Jesus was fully human but also fully God, which is a mystery that will fascinate me until the day I die, but for now I’m focusing on the human-ness of Jesus, which I think is often overlooked. Jesus said, “For this reason I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) Jesus was saying that he was here to point to God. He showed us that it is possible to love God with your whole heart and mind, and he even showed us how.

So, next time you’re listening to music, take a minute to pull out the liner notes and peruse the lyrics. Pay special attention to the ideas behind them. What is the song about, and what larger picture does it allude to? It doesn’t have to be a Christian song, but I’d encourage you to really think about the message in it. I guess you could say I Dare You To…Read!

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