Sunday, November 30, 2008

Switchfoot's American Dream

Like a puppet on a monetary string, maybe we’ve been caught singing red, white, blue – and green.  But that ain’t my American Dream.

  For a few years now, the music of the Christian rock band Switchfoot has frequented the audio queue of my car.  I was initially hooked by their edgy, punk sound and the unabashed morality propounded in their lyrics.  Since then, their sound has matured, taking – in my opinion – a few beneficial cues from the masterminds of U2.  The theological and philosophical insight of their lyrics has intensified as well.  One notable hallmark of this growth is their theology of suffering, which is very much in line with the Catholic Tradition – it can be observed in songs such as “The Beautiful Letdown” (The Beautiful Letdown, 2003), “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine,” “The Fatal Wound,” and especially “Daisy” (all from Nothing is Sound, 2005).

One facet of Switchfoot’s work which can be seen throughout all their albums is an anti-consumerist philosophy.  This particular point, often overlooked, has become particularly striking in their latest two albums, Nothing is Sound and Oh! Gravity.  The young rockers show a dissatisfaction with the materialist and consumerist trends of modern society.  More cynical observers might see this concern as exceptional amongst the denizens of Generation “Y,” but I personally think that the angst to which Switchfoot gives voice is more typical.  Whatever we think of the outcome of the recent election, no one can reasonably deny that the months of debate leading up to that event struck a nerve with the young adults of our nation.  The catchy verve of Switchfoot’s music might be a way of striking this chink in our youth’s armor of apathy.  I would also argue that it is a good means of encouraging an open-minded approach to issues of economic justice, and perhaps awakening people to the possibility of a “third way” embodying the changes which we all seem increasingly to be seeking.

A good starting point for the discussion is the bouncy and playful “Gone” from The Beautiful Letdown.  Painting the character of a superficial and frivolous young woman, the song advises: “Don’t spend today away / because today will soon be gone.”  Later, the lyrics call attention to the realm of “infinity” to which we are all destined, and challenges listeners with the question, “Where’s your treasure, where’s your hope / if you get the world and lose your soul” – once more lamenting the state of the female character on whom the song focuses: “she pretends like she’s immortal.”  In the closing section of the song, the singer advises that God be a center of our attention since “life is more than money.”  It is clear from this song that Switchfoot has their finger on the pulse driving America, as well as a good analysis of the malady plaguing us and compromising our happiness.

A second exhibit of Switchfoot’s philosophical perspicacity is the sardonic “Happy is a Yuppie Word” (Nothing is Sound).  This, one of my personal favorites, offers a summary form of several of Christ’s Beatitudes in the simple formula, “Blessed is the man who’s lost it all.”  Reflecting on the ephemeral ideal of worldly happiness, which war and the simple course of nature continue to prove transient, the singer resolves himself to the fact that “Nothing in the world can fail me now.”  The reason for this is that he has placed his hope beyond the world – having not relied upon the world, he cannot suffer its failure.  Instead, he accepts earthly failure with the hopes of a future (Resurrection) event, wondering “when will all the failures rise?”

The socio-economic criticism of Switchfoot becomes most explicit on their most recent album, Oh! Gravity.  From start to finish, the album calls attention to the various manifestations of the culture of death within American society – from corruption in government, to sexual depravity, to individualism, to plutocratic materialism.  I encourage everyone to listen to the album from beginning to end and confront its challenging messages.

I will call attention only to a couple of songs.  A look at the lyrics to the second song, “American Dream,” show evident distaste for the economic individualism that has become identifiable with “the American way.”

When success is equated with excess,
When we’re fighting for the beamer, the lexus;
Yes, the heart and soul breathing the company goals
Where success is equated with excess... 

I want out of this machine
It doesn’t feel like freedom... 

This ain’t my American dream.
I want to live and die for bigger things
I’m tired of fighting for just me
This ain’t my American dream...

  Later on the same album, the haunting ballad “Faust, Midas, and Myself” recasts the story of the mythical king in a modern retelling which highlights the timeless message of that ancient story: wealth is not the highest value, and sometimes we can become monsters in its pursuit.  Of course, the traditional story of Midas does not identify the sinister root of the love of money.  But Switchfoot makes the clear connection in the title by allusion to the story of Faust...

As Saint Paul tells us: “The love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).  The love of money is a deal with the devil.  The worship of Mammon is among the greatest threats to our souls and to society’s common good.  Saint Paul knew this.  And Switchfoot knows it, too.

It is common for musical artist to exploit the weaknesses of culture as a means to their own success.  Switchfoot strives against this trend, even explicitly.  In a song from The Beautiful Letdown, they rail against the business and noisiness of modern culture, ending with the ironic suggestion: “If we’re adding to the noise, turn off this song.”  With all due respect to Switchfoot, I’ll contradict them on this one point.  Take a time out from the world’s noise, and turn them on for a bit.  Give them a listen.  More importantly, give them a hearing.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed; and you may gain an ally in the culture war and in the work of proposing a new American dream.


Please contribute generously and charitably to the discussion!