December 22, 2016 / Perspective
Zach Czaia examines Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me from the perspective of a Catholic high school English teacher.
April 4, 2005
We pop-culture-engaged Christians love to claim things as our own. From The Matrix to The Simpsons to Radiohead, if there’s something not altogether evil, or spiritual and “vaguely Jesus-y,” to use Ann Lamott’s phrase, we will somehow squeeze and twist a thing until it is almost Christian.
So let me be the first to claim the Canadian pop band Stars as my favorite drug-using, sex-having, love-promoting, totally non-Christian Christian band ever. They may be hedonistic, poppy, a little too 80’s, sentimental, overly caustic about politics, and occasionally just goofy, but I will never write this band off for the simple reason that a sincere, exhausting, and exhilarating Love (yes, I’m capitalizing it, they deserve that) exudes from everything Stars puts out. And it’s all kinds of love, from sexual to spiritual to platonic to something approaching that elusive agape.
This love is apparent in Stars’ carefully crafted melodies, beautiful instrumental arrangements, gentle vocals, and fragilely hopeful lyrics, and also in the epigraphs that begin the band’s albums. Their first LP, Nightsongs, begins with a spoken quote from Baudelaire, part of which is roughly translated, “All is only order and beauty, Luxurious, calm and sensual.” 2002’s Heart starts with each band member earnestly stating his or her intentions: “I am (name) and this is my Heart.”
The very name the band chose for itself is telling of just what’s up with Stars. The Anglican priest and scientist John Polkinghorne reminds us that “every atom of carbon inside our bodies was once inside a star. We are all made from the ashes of dead stars.” There’s more to this oneness of humanity than just our physical makeup, though, and Stars sings about it all, from the Big Stuff like sex and death to smaller details like high-school reunions and shared taxi rides.
Nightsongs was all 80’s synth-glam and nightclub trysts, and The Comeback EP was more of the same, projecting a slicker sort of love than Stars do on their later records. Heart burst through the electro-pop sheen, the first track “What the Snowball Learned about Love” being a tender song about a cat curiously watching two people make love. Heart is wonderfully alive to the possibilities of romantic love. The soaring sounds of the single “Elevator Love Letter” suggest that there’s something much better—the promise of spending time with one’s beloved— waiting for the downtrodden file clerk at the end of the day. This song, and most of the album, expertly captures the emotional joy of romantic love.
Set Yourself on Fire, which was released in the United States on March 8 of this year, starts with a more dramatic pronouncement: “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” This sets up a grander vision for Stars, and concretizes the manifesto of what the band calls “the Soft Revolution” which, I daresay, is something we Christians might do well to be a part of. “The personal is the political,” goes the old progressive slogan, and indeed in the oeuvre of Stars, it is difficult to separate the personal from the political, or, for that matter, the religious from the political, or the sexual from the religious, or the infinitesimal from the infinite. This is not to say that Stars thrives on contraries; their philosophy is more all-encompassing (remember that carbon) than paradoxical.
The best musical distillation of what Stars is “all about” may be the song “Set Yourself on Fire.” The title is partly a reference to the practice of Buddhist self-immolation, a suicidal gesture “meant as a creative, constructive, and salvific act, an act which intended to remake the world for the better of everyone in it” and partly a call to metaphorically set oneself “on fire” as a way of being fully awake and alive to the possibilities of life – like the way many in Evangelical Christianity describe devotion as being “on fire for the Lord.”
The repeated mantra of the chorus, “there is only one THING” (emphasis is thus in the lyric booklet), over a frenetic, driving bass line, then, can easily be taken as a reference to a sort of mystical monism: the song is a litany of people, places and things; from “a cancer ward where the patients sit/waiting patiently to die” to “inside your lover’s head,” all is one.
But like the film critics who dissect the minutiae of The Matrix in order to compare it to scripture, I must confess I hear something a little less Buddhist in these lines. In my head, the idea expressed in this chorus goes on for much longer: I follow “there is only one thing” with something like “only one thing that matters, anyway, and that one thing is Love, and that Love is embodied in Christ, and Christ’s Love envelopes and sustains us, and we should reflect that same Love to envelop and sustain each other.” The rest of the album, too, is full of love and it spills out everywhere.
Most of the songs on this record feel like small miracles, from the tired sensuality of “Sleep Tonight” to the quietly celebratory “Calendar Girl,” but a few songs on SYSOF stand above the rest. “Ageless Beauty” may be Stars’ tightest pop song yet, and it is characteristically bursting with hope: Milan sings “We will always be a light” (again, my brain continues, “…for truth, for justice, for hope, love, joy, peace, patience, etc. etc.) and asks the listener to “loosen your heart.” Elsewhere, “What I’m Trying to Say” is sweet without being saccharine: what I’m trying to say, as it turns out, is simply “I love you.”
Nobody is gentle and loving all the time, of course, and “He Lied about Death” is a downright vicious attack of George W. Bush (“I hope your drunken daughters are gay,” hiss Milan and Campbell). But why do they hate the president? Certainly because of his war, but also, notably, what Campbell and Milan perceive as his replacement of love with fear. “You scared the love out of here,” they chastise. The best revenge in this case, though, it living more musically. The song closes with a blistering, screeching, two-minute instrumental section that is as utterly danceable as it is angry. Frustrated by the seeming impotence of political protest, Stars opts simply to play their deliciously beautiful music in the face of fascism and oppression.
What is “the Soft Revolution,” then? The lyrics to the song offer clues, and in them again are echoes of the Gospel. “We won’t let the sun go down/we’ll chase the demons out of town.” The thesis statement of the song seems to be this: “We are here to make you feel/it terrifies you but it’s real.” I can’t help but think of John 10:10, in which Jesus says “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Stars is no more a Christian band than, say, the Beatles or Aerosmith, but when I listen to them, my heartstrings vibrate. This is why I will keep recommending their music to people who care about the things I believe God cares about, the things Christ teaches. I will warn them that they’ll be wading through drugs and sex and death and war and hate on these records, but what they’ll find at the end is hope, faith, and always love.
Orzech, Charles D. “’Provoked Suicide’ and the Victim’s Behavior: The Case of the Vietnamese Self-Immolators.” In Curing Violence, ed. Smith, Theophus H. and Wallace, Mark I., 137-160. Forum Fascicles 3. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994.
Polkinghorne, John. Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000.
Joel Heng Hartse
Joel Heng Hartse has written about music, language, religion, and culture for a number of academic and popular publications. He is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll (published by Cascade Books in partnership with The Other Journal) and coauthor of Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China (published by TESOL Press).