Ash Wednesday

We are in this world, but not to be of it.

The Underground

Forty days. No Chainsmokers, Luke Bryan, Fall Out Boy, Beyoncé, Rhett Walker, or even Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. No Broadway musicals, no Disney sing-a-longs, no La La Land. Et cetera.

The rule: no secular music with lyrics. I certainly wasn’t going to ask the varsity strength and conditioning coaches to turn on Gregorian chants during our rugby workouts, but any music that I chose to listen to had to follow that rule.

I undertook this endeavor last year in observance of the Christian holiday of Lent, and will be doing the same thing starting today. Forty days of self-denial and self-discipline are an exercise in repentance and spiritual growth, and culminate in the celebration of Easter. Giving up pervasive pop culture earworms seemed more meaningful and spiritual than, say, giving up Chipotle, even given my undying love for burrito bowls.

A local Christian radio station I grew up listening to regularly challenged its listeners to listen to nothing but Christian music for a month, promising it would change your life. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about this claim. The music snob in me chafed at the prospect of listening to only slightly different four-chord songs on repeat, and decided that jazz and classical tunes would be permissible.

Listening to music is a cultural liturgy in the same way that reading the Bible is a Christian liturgy, and the liturgies we practice invariably shape and permeate our deepest selves. We put on the headphones when we walk to class, focus before the big game, break out the textbooks, or turn up the speakers at the party. It is precisely because rhythm and harmony and groove are so powerful that the messages they accompany resonate so deeply.

Our listening habits do more than release dopamine or produce adrenaline in our bodies; they shape our very essence at a level deeper than our beliefs and values. The effect of musical liturgy doesn’t lie in musical merit, or how music makes us “feel,” it lies in the messages that we don’t always perceive.

It is easy to see toxicity in the lyrics of gyrating pop anthems that celebrate sex, drugs, alcohol-saturated escapades, or unhealthy relationships. The problem is not that we mimic or endorse this behavior because we listen to lyrics about it.

Instead, our brains and our souls are battered with an endless barrage of language whose messages of temporal pleasures or relationship despair offer no lasting hope or peace, no purpose. Seemingly upbeat, “catchy” dance numbers can make us “feel” optimistic and fun, while also serving as destructive liturgies that breed subtle hopelessness and apathy. These songs aren’t only to be found in this decade. From disco anthems to 90’s one-hit wonders to diner crooners, the messages haven’t changed much in recent memory.

Even the best-intentioned and best-performed love songs can ingrain profound loneliness. Somewhere, somehow, we learn to pine for a lover we don’t know or don’t have, because our minds necessarily turn to thoughts of someone else when we hear about love and heartbreak. The liturgy of that kind of song, which seems omnipresent in the Western musical canon, tells you that you aren’t enough. You, as an individual, are not enough, you are incomplete. You need someone else.

There are a few of those self-validating “Fight Song” I’m-fine-on-my-own type numbers, but for every one of those there are many more crying for or lamenting our imagined other halves. We are drowning in liturgies that remind us of our loneliness. Furthermore, for those of us lucky enough to have landed a relationship, the same liturgies tell us that our worth and happiness are understood only with respect to the relationship.

In the end, the radio station was right. A 40-day respite from pop culture worked wonders for me. I had never felt more free, more hopeful, or more at peace on an Easter Sunday than I did last year. That some of my most difficult days at Harvard transpired within that Lenten period only made the result more uplifting.

Spending more time than usual listening to jazz and classical standards reminded me of what I loved most about music. During Lent, music became intentional instead of habitual, and the tonal colors and auditory delights of my favorite standards became even more vibrant. In a void created by absent lyrics, all that remains is the actual music.

Most importantly, listening to nothing but Christian lyrics forced me to get up close and personal with myself and with my faith. From hymns, chants, and spirituals, to modern pop, rap, and electronic worship, Christian lyricism is obviously quite intentional in its efforts to bring its listeners closer to Christ. Listening to these lyrics exclusively did more than just encourage me; it renewed my faith.

I eagerly undertake this again this Lenten period. It seems strange in this world that self-imposed restrictions and self-denial could be fruitful grounds for freedom and fulfillment. Yet the intention of Lent is to reject the things of this world in order to experience another.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator living in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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