Blessed and Broken: Lady Gaga and Lucinda Williams (Reflections on Grammy Nominees, Part 3)

We asked Christian Scharen, author of Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, to write a few blog entries reflecting on the Grammy nominations.

This is the third of three posts.

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In this last post anticipating this weekend’s 54th Grammy Awards, I am pulling together an unlikely combination. Lady Gaga, the 26-year-old flamboyant pop juggernaut, set side by side with Lucinda Williams, the 59-year-old gritty Americana icon. What do they have in common? I’ve met the Gospel in their work, for starters. Blessed and broken, you might catch, has Eucharistic echoes. A loaf, taken, blessed, broken, given, as the very body of God, for you. Before you write me off by spraining your eyes from rolling them too high in their sockets, give me a chance to say more.

These two women have, of course, received Grammy nominations. Gaga, already a two-time winner with her first album, has received nods for “Album of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Album” (2011‘s Born This Way), as well as “Best Solo Pop Performance” for the song, “Yoü And I”. Williams, also a previous Grammy award winner, has been nominated for “Best Americana Album” for her 10th studio release, Blessed. Neither are, to my knowledge, performing on the Grammy Awards broadcast Sunday evening, but you can see Gaga perform her nominated song, “Yoü and I” with hit country duo Sugarland on the Grammy Award Nomination Concert.

My argument in my book Broken Hallelujahs, in part, is against what I call “checklist Christianity” which holds up a checklist to pop culture with a skeptical eye and rejects anything that contains an offending item (profanity, for example, or references to drugs or sex). I argue, with C.S. Lewis, for a richer Christian imagination informing our engagement with culture. If we begin at the cross of Christ, who was rejected by the religious leaders and crucified “outside the gate” with criminals on his left and right, we know something about the shocking and surprising ways God is at work in the mist of human life for the sake of bringing new life. So I’m not that interested in saying if Gaga or Williams are “Christian” enough or even “safe” enough to be important for Christians or anyone else to pay attention to. I want people to learn and listen so that they can see with a pop song, seeing what can be seen from there.

In a way, “Yoü and I” is song about brokenness and blessing, as is the whole album Born This Way. The song is about love and loss, and the desire for commitment. It is about losing a boy from Nebraska, and then reconnecting with the hope of having it stick. “This time, I’m not leaving without you.” But it is also about deeper claims of allegiance, and how few things really deserve our devotion. Gaga sings, “There’s only three men that I’mma serve my whole life; that’s my daddy, Nebraska, and Jesus Christ.” The song has echoes of Gaga’s namesake band, Queen (It is their song, “Radio Gaga,” that gave her the stage name). The song begins with an echo of the marching drumbeat of Queen’s famous song, “We will Rock You,” and featuring Queen guitarist Brian May. Former Brazos editor, Rodney Clapp, has written a lovely piece arguing something similar to what I’ve said here but in relation to the song, “Born this Way.” One reason for her enormous popularity, I think, is her ability to work the territory between brokenness and blessing, something that drives her huge fan base to find meaning in her performance.

In Lucinda Williams’ new album, Blessed, one finds a remarkably different sonic palate but some resonant themes of blessing in the mist of brokenness. Williams is a Texas country blues singer at heart, and she’s never strayed far from those roots. This album shines in the title song, a poem almost chanted instead of sung. Its gritty couplets echo the paradox at the heart of Christianity, that God should redeem the world by rejection, suffering and death. Some of the incredible lines in the song, starting with the first that steps on my own toes:

“We were blessed by the preacher, who practiced what he preached.”
“We were blessed by the blind man, who could see for miles and miles.”
“We were blessed by the warror, who didn’t need to win.”
“We were blessed by the neglected child, who knew how to forgive.”

The couplets don’t all work for me with the same power, but the overall beauty of the song is that in brokenness, blessing is possible, redemption is possible, life can come from death. Importantly, the refrain is not that the individual receives healing and is personally blessed, but that by living in particular ways within their circumstances, “we were blessed.” The song is a sketch of how we live together, beyond the limits of our pain and sorrow, but without being at all Pollyanna about it. In a moving, but subtle turn, at the heart of the lyric, she turns to the deepest place of this paradoxical logic of blessing:

“We were blessed by the mystic, who turned water into wine.”
“We were blessed by the watchmaker, who gave up his time.”

These, and the following lyrics through the end of the song, seem to be entirely about Jesus. (The famous watchmaker analogy for God, distant and logical, is at play in the second couplet.) The lyric continues with “the wayfaring stranger who knew our names” and “the innocent baby who taught us the truth.” We could have a more powerful pop song about the theology of the cross but I’d be hard pressed to name it. Here’s Williams singing the song in concert.

Another stand-out song on the album, “Seeing Black,” is a lament for Vic Chesnutt, the powerful Athens Georgia singer-songwriter who took his own life in 2009. The song is full of unanswered questions, “was it too much weight riding on your back? When did you start seeing black?” Yet, in keeping with her broken blessing mode, her last verse asks, “When did you start seeing white, tell me what was it like, was it when you received your last rites, when did you start seeing white?” Williams surely knew that Chesnutt was an atheist. And she pronounces her blessing upon him even so. 

Thanks for reading the series, and enjoy the show!

-Christian Scharen

Find out more about Broken Hallelujahs in these videos with Christian Scharen:

http://youtu.be/V25aM_7O3TQ

http://youtu.be/dQfZP8CUYII

http://youtu.be/unZ81EubvRw

http://youtu.be/2Vp60D_zsT8

 

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