[Repost] The Best of 2011-12: What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

Just over a year ago I began blogging.  This is the fourth of five posts that will be re-posts of the top five blog posts this past year.  Thanks for making this year great by reading what I have written and commenting.  I appreciate it!

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass
Fa-la-la-la-la

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.

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staying current

If you lead a modern worship ministry, you are probably concerned about staying “up” on current musical and cultural trends.  Churches particularly focused on reaching people through modern culture have the unique challenge of keeping a finger on the pulse of society, and the worship pastor or creative arts pastor carries a large amount of that load.

Incidentally, if you are not concerned about being aware of pop culture and music, I would guess (I could be wrong, of course) that either you are at a church which does not engage culture or you have yet to realize the value of being relevant.  For more on the differences in how churches treat culture, read one of my more popular blogs, “two kinds of churches.”

Over the past 10 years working at both Browncroft Community Church and Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester I faced the challenge of somehow staying current while managing all of my tasks.  I do not have it figured out completely, but here are some things that have worked for me.

1.  If you haven’t already, clarify the top style(s) of music that fit your church.  For some churches this choice is easier than others.  The senior pastor, worship pastor, creative arts pastor, and elders, if necessary, must agree on where you are headed.  When I worked at Browncroft this choice was much harder because we had both classic and modern services, and both were in transition.  Isolating where we needed to focus musically was hard.  When I worked at Lakeshore, a seeker focused church that unashamedly said it was a rock ‘n’ roll church, we still had some clarifying work to do.  Here is a chart I used to help me.  You may want to create your own.  In the end having clarity will save you a lot of time.

Worship Genre Worksheet

2.  Visit the Billboard website.  Today, Sunday, when I am writing this blog, Kelly Clarkson’s tunes Stronger is at the top of the Hot 100.

3.  Cruise iTunes.

4.  Start a suggestions group made up of people from your target demographic.  At Lakeshore I needed to get in touch with where the teens and early twenties were at, so I created a private Facebook group where I could interact with them.  Then I asked them about their favorite albums and songs to get a start.  After that I would occasionally post a topic I was researching and see if they had a suggestion.  Usually they had very good ideas.  Two things are important with groups like this. 1) Make certain you choose the right people.  2) If they make a suggestion, do everything you can to use it.  Only say no if the idea is completely off base.  If you choose the right people, you will be able to have a high rate of success.  If you say no often, you will burn them out and they will pay no attention to you.

4.  Check out Relevant Magazine.  Relevant is very good at staying on top of what is happening musically and spiritually in the younger generations.  Here is a recent article on Cultural IQ.

5.  Watch new movies.  Lots of them. In a brainstorming meeting a year ago we were discussing the upcoming series on EGR’s, or “extra-grace-required people,” which is Lakeshore’s kind way of describing difficult people.  The first message was going to be a on people who are just mean, and I immediately thought of Despicable Me.  Lakeshore was nuts enough to begin the first service with the opening clip to this movie.  If you have seen the movie, you know that it is a spectacular and hilarious portrayal of someone thrilled with being mean.

6.  Pay attention to news topics.  ‘Nough said.

What do you do to stay on top of current musical and cultural trends?

What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass
Fa-la-la-la-la

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.