This year’s original songs nominated for an Oscar have an unsurprising theme: loss and longing. If they are not downright sad, they are about sad situations, sad lives and a deep longing we can all relate to.
Sad songs are more popular than happy ones and have greater staying power. I wish Pharrell’s Happy would last longer than Adele’s Hello, but I would not count on it.
In a sad world, sad songs can be addictive. So be careful; it is sad out there. Research suggests that sad music can play a role in emotional regulation — I think everyone knows the word “cathartic” by now; and everyone talks about “venting.” Music-evoked sadness helps us release emotional distress in a safe, beautiful way and provides some distance for reappraisal, and insight. Sometimes it gives us the chills, which feel good and soothe anxiety. Sad music teases out hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are also associated with mom’s cuddles and falling in love. So the aftermath of a sad song can be a period of feeling not so sad. Of course we’ll need a another dose very soon – at least most of us seem to. But we like going back for more.
Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy
Jesus followers, contrary to what some of their teachers taught in the last century [like this], are encouraged to be sad in a hopeful way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We have a safe place in Christ to grieve fearlessly, knowing that we are not in danger of the deadly despair we dread. When we are wearing our true selves, we can sorrow without defeat and experience sadness without hopelessness. We can aspire to true sorrow and true hope.
One reason Paul gives for this wonderful capacity is our knowledge that we grieve temporarily. We know our grief will come to an end. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Paul highlights that hope by pointing back in time and then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
This year’s songs are also acquainted with grief and longing for something else
The songs nominated for Best Original Song of 2018 are all longing for the hope Jesus instills in us (at least unconsciously). Take a look and see what you think.
All the Stars
Black Panther is a hopeful movie about a culture in hiding, its treasure masked by its contradictory camouflage of poverty.
Kendrick Lamar and SZA sing a duet of the nominated song, All the Stars, during the credits. Here’s part of it:
Love, let’s talk about love.
Is it anything and everything you hoped for?
Or do the feeling haunt you?
I know the feeling haunt you
This may be the night that my dreams might let me know:
All the stars are closer, all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer…
How did it all go to feel good?
You could live it all.
If you feel bad better live your life
We were runnin’ out of time.
I do not know everything Kendrick Lamar is getting at. But I can tell he is longing, like the movie, for respect. Even deeper, he is trying not to let love slip away, even though he would like to stop feeling the pain of missing it. Maybe even deeper than that, he would like the moment when he feels the stars are closer to be a regular occurrence — he misses God, too.
RBG is a bit of hagiography about the lawyer-turned-SCOTUS-member who worked valiantly to put women’s rights into law.
The song is called I’ll Fight. And RBG can pack a wallop for someone as notoriously diminutive as she is. Here is a bit:
When you feel you’re taking all that you can take
And you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break
And the tears are rivers running down your face, yeah
When your faith is low and you’ve got no strength left
When you think you’ve gone as far as you can get
And you’re too run down to take another step
Oh I will take up the struggle
Oh I know it’s a fight
So I’ll fight, fight that war for you
I’ll fight, stand and defend you
Saints have often been stand-ins for the Savior. So it is appropriate that Jennifer Hudson, the church woman, steps up to sing a testimony: “I was low but you rescued me, I was defenseless and you were my strength.” It sounds like a psalm!
The song longs for that person who meets us when the tears are streaming down our face. Ultimately, I met that person in Jesus. But Jesus has a lot of friends. Every Jesus follower keeps growing in Jesus-like empathy and conviction; so sing it, Jennifer! And plenty of humans who don’t follow Jesus have goodness and courage built right in as the beloved creatures they are; so stay alive, Ruth!
The Place Where Lost Things Go
Above is the songwriter singing his version. If you want Emily Blunt, here she is.
Mary Poppins Returns is a great remake of the original. It should be given an award for daring! Emily Blunt should win prizes for letting herself be compared to the icon, Julie Andrews. Like so many Disney movies, the drama centers around the death of a parent. In this case, it is mom who is lost — thus, this stanza of The Place Where the Lost Things Go:
So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she’s always there
Watching as you grow
Hiding in the place
Where the lost things go
The theology of many movies teaches children that dead people are like stars that shine down on us from heaven. And if you don’t forget people they are still alive, at least in your heart. I have, indeed, imagined that loved ones I miss are still looking over me, and my memories of them comfort me, since I still miss them. So this is a sweet, if somewhat untrustworthy song.
God has been generally banished from the movies, but we still need a Savior (Black Panther, RBG, and Mary Poppins) and we still need and still long for a touch of love and mystery in our sadness (strength in blackness, strength in weak old age, and strength returning to Dad in his deep, deep sadness). I hope Jesus appreciates how religious these movies are! He is still needed!
I wasn’t much of a Gaga fan until this movie. As soon as I saw it, I forgave her for following Janet, JUDY and Barbra, she was just so talented! Plus, she writes evocative songs, like Shallow. Here’s a lot of it.
Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now
In just a few brief lines, this duet hits us where sadness meets fear: “Will I ever get to be who I feel I am? Is my longing doomed to go unmet?” I appreciate the clever image of crashing through the surface. It is on the other side of what seems to be the impenetrable surface that we find out we can’t be hurt like we feared quite so much.
For Lady Gaga, personally, the wall between men and women is broken down as the partners listen and empathize in this song. What’s more, the walls the misfits, like her, need to crash through is demonstrated for everyone needing to find courage.
I went back and listened to the words above as if Jesus were singing them, wherever that seemed right. It fit for me. I am blessed with people who crash through surfaces with me and for me. But when it comes to finding the place where they can’t hurt me, that comes with Jesus crashing into humanity and then crashing through death. My courage is too shallow to get where the song promises. Lady Gaga is worth about $300 million dollars — I know it does not buy her the great courage she has, but it surely helps. The rest of us probably need more.
When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a set of stories in which someone is going to die. It is a movie about death. The crack shooter, Buster Scruggs, sings the nominated song, When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, as he is ascending to heaven. Here’s much of it:
When they wrap my body
In the thin linen sheet
And they take my six ounce
Pull the boots from my feet
Unsaddle my pony
She’ll be itching to roam
I’ll be halfway to heaven
Under horsepower of my own
When the roundup ends
And the campfire dims
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades
His spurs for wings
The final one of the film shorts that make up the movie: “Mortal Remains,” is the only one in which the characters are already dead. They are only marginally aware of this reality. They remind me of the spirits in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (MUCH recommended, if you haven’t read it yet). This final parable pulls the rest of the stories together. It is the story of how three people who would normally not be in the same stagecoach together find their souls being harvested.
As dead people they try to put things together. Each is very sure of their own point of view as to what is happening. With a nod to why sad songs and stories about death move us so much, one of the harvesters notes that “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” Each person’s confirmation bias can’t save them; though different, each is just as dead as the other. It is a Coen Brothers parable. They seem to see a world full of swift repercussions, but one that is also random, in which the only certainty is death.
The humor that laces the Coen Brothers’ debate with the narcissism and nihilism of the postmodern era leaves room for love and hope, which their wacky characters often demonstrate. The whole, three-hour Oscar ceremony, complete with the often less-than-classic nominated songs it elevates, is a similar celebration. Beautiful, talented people celebrate, show honor, cry, praise people (and sometimes God), and showcase the best of humanity.
I feel for the attenders, all all gussied up for their stagecoach ride in the Dolby Theater, all with their longings, 80% of the nominees soon to experience loss. In many ways, as the nominated songs are performed, they will reveal their sadness and longing. Those beautiful people might experience that tingle we feel when something has broken through our surface and the Holy Spirit gets an opportunity to beckon us into eternity and our true selves.