Last year I wrote an article called Songwriting and the Spirit of the Text. In it, I talked about how good songwriters weave together music and lyrics to communicate truth in a powerful way. With our recent Open Mic night, I figured I’d take another shot at a songwriting post. For those of you who aren’t songwriters, stick around! I think you’ll find the core truths of this post have application beyond songwriting.
Recently, I sat down at the piano. As will happen sometimes (increasingly less these days, sadly), I found a catchy chord progression, improvised some lyrics, and emerged with a very rough draft of a song. When I finished for the night, however, the song still didn’t have a happy ending. It ended with a question mark, with the speaker still searching, not in despair, but definitely still unsure.
Here’s the question I’d like to explore today: as a Christian songwriter, can I write a sad song that doesn’t end with a resolution? Can I write a transparent confession of doubt, for instance, without the a-ha moment of enlightenment or a love song that ends with heartbreak instead of a triumphant declaration of contentment? Or is there something self-glorifying and even idolatrous about a sad song that doesn’t acknowledge the power and sufficiency of Jesus?
Sad Songs and the Importance of Honesty
As we think about those questions, let me start first by asking: what is it about sad songs that moves us so deeply? This will sound obvious but I think they move us because they honestly capture and express feelings of sadness. Sadness is one of our strongest and most important emotions. It is also one of our most complex and difficult-to-explain emotions. Because of that, we often struggle to communicate what we feel and to find others who can understand and speak into our experiences. Words often feel inadequate to do justice to the turmoil of our hearts.
But, every once in awhile, we come across a song that expresses exactly what we’re feeling. The music and lyrics work together to powerfully and precisely capture our sadness. Interestingly, I’ve found that many of these profoundly sad songs are written by nonbelievers. There are Christian artists who do this well, but, on the whole, non-Christian songs tend to be more honest about insightful about sadness. They don’t simplify or sugarcoat, but rather show sadness as it truly is, with all its painful warts and sores.
We as Christian songwriters (writers, preachers, artists, etc) can learn an important lesson from our non-Christian counterparts. We must be careful that we are talking about sorrow honestly. Don’t talk about it cheaply or lazily. Don’t skip straight to the solution. The more truthfully we capture sorrow, the wider our audience will open their hearts to listen to what we have to say.
Sad Song and the Danger of Idolatry
Honesty and transparency are good, but they are not ends unto themselves. The problem is that our raw and honest feelings are often contaminated with sinful self-pity. John Piper says this about the dangers of self-pity:
“Crying out to God is one thing. A very good thing too. But self-pity is not that. Self-pity is crying out in the echo chamber of my own little world. It’s issuing a lament just to take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over.”
Writing sad songs can amplify and aggravate these dangers. Why? Because when we write sad songs, we take our laments and craft them into something beautiful and moving to listen to. The better written our songs are, the greater the temptation to ‘take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over’.
Moreover, writing sad songs can become an idol that we trust in to deal with sorrow. Expressing sorrow and finding the solution to that sorrow are two very different things, but if we’re not careful, sad songwriting can trick us into believing that the expression of sorrow over and over again actually is the solution to pain.
What do I mean by that? There is something cathartic and pleasurable about expressing sorrow. When you’re sharing, you don’t have to worry about what comes afterwards–it feels good just to let it all out. Sad songs freeze time right at that pleasurable moment of confession. As long as you keep listening and singing, you can confess forever and never worry about finding an actual solution to your sadness. But it’s a false promise. The solace only exists in the imaginary world of the song, not in reality where you must move on and live courageously in spite of sadness.
Let me try to illustrate through Love’s not a Spaceship. A while back, some friends and I thought it would be fun to make a musical/love story set in space (strange, I know). This song is part of that larger story:
In the song, the speaker is expressing something beautiful and, you could even say, heroic. Loving someone against all odds is commendable. Being willing to do anything or go anywhere for the one you love is something we can all root for. Laying your raw feelings out for the world to see is moving and powerful.
But the song is only heroic and beautiful if there is a chance she might turn back. What if the relationship really is over? What if years pass by and he’s still singing this same old song? Then, heroism and beauty changes, doesn’t it? Heroism would be letting go of all the hopes, dreams, and longings he placed in that relationship, even if it hurts to do so. Beauty would be loving her sacrificially from a distance even if she never notices, instead of broadcasting his hurt feelings to anyone who will listen. Over the course of the musical (which we never quite finished, sadly) that was a theme I was interested in exploring. How could this character move on from singing about his sorrow and in doing so, clinging to it as an idol, to acting with quiet courage and sacrificial love?
The Danger of the Lazy Happy Ending
There’s a danger to writing sad songs without happy endings, but I would say there is an equal danger to writing lazy happy endings to our sad songs. I won’t name any names, but I’ve deduced a popular formula for turning sad songs into happy ones.
Step 1: Write a sad song like normal
Step 2: At the very last verse/chorus, tweak a few words to make it happy
I don’t doubt the sincerity of artists who have written songs this way. I think, if done rightly, it can actually be very effective. Speaking personally, however, I’ve always feel a bit uncomfortable when I write songs in this sort of formulaic way. I feel like I”m writing a happy ending out of obligation. I know it’s the right thing do. Or I don’t want to be perceived as a pitiful Christian. It’s the same reason why I lessen the extent of my sin when I share at small group, or why I put on a happy front at church when in reality, I’ve been struggling all week. It is that old sin of the Pharisees which dwells so deep within us: our hypocrisy and fear of man which paralyze us from telling the truth.
The Honest Happy Ending
What are we to do then? Write honest happy endings. Not sad songs without hope, or cheap happy endings. No, show sadness in all its darkness and bigness. Be honest with how you really feel. But then, show with your music and lyrics how Grace overflows into every single nook and cranny of our sorrow. I believe that kind of songwriting makes the biggest impact on people. Why? Because that kind of songwriting comes closest to the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is the true Happy Ending. It is brutally honest about our hopeless condition. And then, at the moment when all hope is lost, God steps in and saves the day through his Son. He changes all that is impossibly wrong with the world and our hearts for good at the cross.
This principle drives my songwriting. Once you understand the honest happy ending, you’ll see that many of my songs are basically reiterations of that same theme–new attempts to try and capture the moment when hopeless sorrow turns to joyous disbelief (If you’d like some examples, see Heart of my own Heart, Made Well, At the Shore)
I’ll end with the story of a song I wrote called ‘O Father Please’. It’s definitely not my most polished song. It has too many choruses and the melody isn’t the most memorable. But I would say, far and away, it’s the most honest and sad song I’ve ever written (and I’m a pretty depressing songwriter!). The song was written in tears. I wrote it at a time in my life, where I didn’t feel like I could honestly write a happy ending. So I didn’t. The song ended like this:
Have mercy God
Lift up this head bowed low
Oh Father please, I know you are good
But I cannot see
You, you do not treat
The lives of the servants you love as cheap
But I feel so lost, so put to shame
So this is my shout, shout in the dark
Lord, if you hear me, please answer me now
So I may know, you do not treat
the lives of the servants you love
The servants you love as cheap
O Father please, O Father please
Have mercy on me
At the same time, though, I didn’t feel like it was finished. So I didn’t perform it or post it. I waited. A year or so later, I came back to the song and felt I could write the happy ending in a way that was honest and not forced.
Your heart is good and your love is kind
You take away that we might find
That your heart is good and your love is kind
So take these dreams and let them die
Your mercy stings but its not cheap
You have given all for me
And I will sing cause I”m not cheap
You have given everything
At last year’s Open Mic, I had the chance to perform this song with a few friends. I taught the last chorus to the audience so we could all sing it together. The musician in me wishes it was less rough-around-the-edges, but singing that last chorus together with fellow brothers and sisters was powerful and made a deep impression on my heart.
Can we write sad songs without resolution? I wouldn’t say it’s wrong or that I’d never do it. But songs like ‘O Father Please’ remind me of the power of the honest happy ending. If you have an unresolved sad song, perhaps you should wait awhile. God might have something to say to you and your song still.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:5)