Softer Than a Sigh
Popular Music as Theology
For People who Aren’t Necessarily Religious
By Yang Dou
Like many Chinese, I did not grow up with religion. Nor did I ever hear the
word “theology” until I came to the United States. But if “theology” has
something to do with how a person finds meaning in life, then I got a lot of
my theology through popular music. And if poetics is the activity of seeking
“wisdom” for daily life, then a central feature of my poetics is listening to
music. Some people have their bibles. I have my songs.
In turning to popular music I am like many Chinese today. Perhaps like
many Americans and Canadians, too. For me it began when I was very
young, and part of my musical education began with western music. My
mother tells me that I started learning English ever since I was in
kindergarten. She says the teachers taught us alphabet, simple dialogs, and s
ome easy words. Interestingly, the only thing I can recall right now is
nothing but a song about “ten little Indians.” Although I cannot remember
exactly how the lyrics went, I have these ten vivid little Indians carved in
my heart forever as I counting numbers in English.
The “little Indians” was just a lovely appetizer. The officially first English
song I learnt to sing was -- I just found out the name of it -- Petula Clark’s
My Love. I clearly remember it was in an English class taught by an
American lady when I was in 7th grade. She seemed in her 40’s, slim and
tall, always wearing a grey sweater and different colors long skirts. I could
tell she was a very organized person with good manners by her starched,
stiff collar and well-combed hair. Amazingly enough, when she started
singing this song, I heard the warmest voice in the world:
My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine, softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean, wider than the sky
My love is brighter than the brightest star that shines every night above
And there is nothing in this world can ever change my love.
She used this song to show us the structure of adjectives/adverbs
comparative and superlative forms. With no doubt, she did an excellent job
converting tedious grammar usage into something more appealing to us.
Moreover, it made me find the beauty of English. Before that, I’d never
heard anyone in any Chinese art works compare love as a soft sigh. A sigh,
as to love, is so gentle and unpredictable. I knew in that moment that I had
fallen into this language.
High school in China has nothing that could be called fun. At that age and
during that period of time busy preparing for the entrance exam of college, I
felt myself indeed living a life as it in Billy Joel’s River of Dreams. Every
day, I trekked through “the valley of fear” and the “jungle of doubt”, hoping
to find out my “life after this.” The remote yet clear drumbeats spin around
in my head as if a call from the future, and my heart trembled and calmed
down and trembled again with the flowing notes tapped from the piano. The
river of my life run to the wonderland of truth when I entered college, but
my love towards this song has never been ended.
Like many other college kids, I was hopelessly in love and desperately out
of a relationship. Not to mention those sweet songs I listened when the love
was still fresh and passionate, I will never forget how sad and pathetic
Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time made me. I do not feel ashamed though,
for people need to listen to sad songs to release their pain. After overcoming
the heartbroken time, I decided to live a life like Bon Jovi. I want “my heart
like an open highway” hugging a broader world. I made my every effort to
learn more because I know “it’s now or never.” Luckily, I became a college
English teacher after graduating and later was admitted by graduate school.
On the plane taking me to the Unites States, I watched Mel Gibson’s old
movie, Bird on the Wire. It is just another action comedy except for the
chasing scenes in the zoo which has some new ideas; however, my heart
was tightly grasped when Aaron Neville sings “Like a bird, free” with his
enchanting voice. Looking out of the porthole, I felt like flying without
wings above the clouds, to a free and promising new world. I don’t care if
it is a journey full of challenges. I am facing to it no matter what as if a bird
soaring up in the sky seeking for the farther horizon. I am going to a land of
freedom, and I am going to make it worthy.
Although I’ve been an adult for years, being away from parents still would
make me very sentimental. The bank of emotion was busted one night when
Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally knocked on my heart.
Now looking back over the years
And whatever else has occurred
I remember I cried when my father died
Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old
My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn’t understand why the only man
She had been ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start with a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken
And when she passed away
I cried and cried all day
Alone again, naturally
The song made me feel so sad and scared all of a sudden. I realized how
much I love and miss my parents, and if things in the song happen to me
one day, how would I handle the biggest change ever in my life. Then, I
started to recollect the memories about me and my parents—all those
happy time as well as time when I did things bad or wrong making them
sad. Finally, I understood that I need to love them more before it’s too late.
Although they love me for no condition, I should quit being arrogant and self-centered but more humble and respectful. Beyond those tedious lectures, an
old song has given me an unforgettable lesson about being with parents.
As time goes by, music is still playing an irreplaceable role in my life. I
cannot live without music, for it’s not just a hobby to me. It is like a friend
who tells, talks, and teaches me a lot of wisdom of life. I believe in the
power of music just like I will always believe in love.
A Whiteheadian Appreciation from the Editor:
In China and in the United States, “constructive postmodernists” are
interested in recognizing wisdom wherever found. And those of us who
believe in the free winds of the Spirit certainly think that the spirit can speak
through the lyrics of popular songs as those lyrics speak to the hearts and
minds of sincere seekers, especially when, as is the case with you, they
speak of love and wisdom, of caring for others and being honest about life.
The lyrics can give voice to experiences we have had in the past and also
experiences we can have in the future.
Perhaps you know that in Whitehead’s philosophy the very idea of
“experience” is essential. He believes that our experience includes, but is
more than, our intellect and that its “objects” includes other people and the
natural world, but also potentials which we discover in our imaginations.
These potentials include the lures for feeling that are contained in the
melodies and rhythms of songs, and also the lyrics.
Your account it a very good example of how for many people “theology”
occurs through song lyrics. There is a long biblical tradition of this, as
found in the Psalms of David. Some are hope giving and some are simply
honest laments. For you, Alone Again, Naturally was a psalm of lament.
And My Love was a psalm of hope. That’s the nature of all good psalms.
They help us discover who we are and who we can be. They establish a
dialogue between the head and heart. This is how the Spirit works in a
person’s life. It works with sighs deeper for words, but nevertheless
evoked by rich phrases, such as “softer than a sigh.” Keep listening. I will,