What We Can Learn From Musical Giants | The Salvation Army

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What We Can Learn From Musical Giants

Posted June 27, 2018

U2, The Bea­t­les, Bob Dylan. There are names that are for­ever etched into our cul­tural land­scape, and these musi­cal giants are key cor­ner­stones of our cur­rent musi­cal land­scape. These are names that are known for a rea­son — their con­tri­bu­tion to music as a whole, and their last­ing lega­cies have inspired count­less songs, artists and peo­ple. What can we learn from these mas­sive names, and how can we apply the aspects of the world to a far more impor­tant cul­tural cor­ner­stone — the church?

The first thing we can see is that these bands didn’t get to where there are because they kicked their feet up and let some­one else do the work. Every riff, every lyric, every rhythm was a prod­uct of turn­ing inspi­ra­tion into real­ity through hard work.

The Edge’s famous gui­tar riff from “Where The Streets Have No Name” might have been enough to carry the song by itself, but it took the band weeks of refin­ing and prac­tice to actu­ally craft the riff into a cohe­sive song. In a TV doc­u­men­tary about the record­ing of the song, co-​producer Brian Eno esti­mates that “half of the album ses­sions were spent try­ing to record a suit­able ver­sion of “Where the Streets Have No Name… the band worked on a sin­gle take for weeks”. They didn’t set­tle for one killer part, they worked hard to make the whole song into what it is today — iconic.

The church and it’s artists can­not be afraid of self crit­i­cism, refin­ing and hard work. The sim­ple fact is that the more of our­selves we pour into a project, the more we hon­our the skills and tal­ents that God has given us. Jesus illus­trates this in the para­ble of the tal­ents — only the men who put their skills to work received their master’s praise — the man who hid his money in the ground out of fear was scorned by his mas­ter for not increas­ing what he was entrusted with.

The sec­ond thing we can take from these artists is that they sig­nif­i­cantly rede­fined their cul­tural landscape.

...These artists is that they sig­nif­i­cantly rede­fined their cul­tural landscape.

There’s no greater exam­ple of this than Bob Dylan. His impact on the musi­cal and cul­tural land­scape even now is some­thing that’s dif­fi­cult to mea­sure due to its reach. Dylan came to promi­nence dur­ing a time where the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness was in a process of shed­ding its tra­di­tional roots. In the 60’s there was a resur­gence of the foun­da­tional music gen­res — jazz, blues and blue­grass — and the pseudo-​traditionalist move­ment that Dylan was heav­ily steeped in was ulti­mately just a label. Dylan shed his Amer­i­cana roots and turned to elec­tric instru­ments with 1965’s “Bring­ing It All Back Home”.

The irony of Dylan’s choice here was that he was accused of “sell­ing out” because he didn’t con­form to the walls and bounds of a move­ment that he was deeply involved in. Yet, had he not bro­ken out of the con­fines of what every­one thought, his legacy might have been sim­ply rel­e­gated to one cor­ner of a very vast cul­tural land­scape. Dylan sim­ply fol­lowed his own artis­tic integrity, and said what he needed to say.

There’s a fun­da­men­tal appli­ca­tion here for the church. Jesus makes the deci­sive state­ment in John chap­ter 18:36 that says “My king­dom is not of this world — if it were, my ser­vants would fight to pre­vent my arrest by the Jew­ish lead­ers. But now my king­dom is from another place”. The king­dom of God is not fur­nished by things of this world, and as Chris­t­ian artists, nei­ther should we. Our cul­ture, our art, our real­ity here and now should be fluid enough to reflect the King­dom to come. We need to say what we need to say, even if it means going against pop­u­lar rhetoric.

How­ever, this raises a sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion — how much of the world do we reflect in order to reflect back the King­dom of God and it’s val­ues? The third and maybe even the most impor­tant thing we can learn from these sig­nif­i­cant artists is that they not only rede­fined their cul­tural land­scapes, but they also rede­fined them­selves. They are a les­son on how the church can and should con­sis­tently rede­fine what it means to exist in their own rel­e­vant time, place and culture.

The Bea­t­les didn’t spend their entire career singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” — the bub­ble gum pop tune was what the band needed to be at that par­tic­u­lar time. How­ever, as the band matured, found their place and their own style, their music and art nat­u­rally and organ­i­cally shifted. And that didn’t hap­pen just once. There we dis­tinct styl­is­tic phases that The Bea­t­les went through — as per­haps a response to the chang­ing world, or sim­ply because they were dis­con­tent with mak­ing the same type of music.

That too is what the church needs to be. We must retain a cer­tain dis­con­tent for what we cre­ate, know­ing that one day, the means and meth­ods we use to lead oth­ers to sal­va­tion can and will likely change. This can be applied to music, but also to our wider church organ­i­sa­tions and pro­grammes. Our chal­lenge is found by meet­ing those changes head on, rather than sim­ply exist­ing as we did 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

We must retain a cer­tain dis­con­tent for what we cre­ate...

There’s a lot we can learn from musi­cal giants, but the greater chal­lenge is apply­ing those lessons to ourselves.