The singer's best pop lyrics capture the highs and lows of the spiritual life
There is no trope more present in pop music than the kiss. And in fact my vocational journey to the Jesuits started with a kiss.
It was a sudden, tender kiss. It was a pure kiss, a true kiss. I remember it well because it left me hollow. It was meant to be beautiful, but it didn’t make me feel the way I thought it would make me feel.
At that moment, somehow, I realised that I was made for something more than romance with another person. I wanted love with God alone. Only God’s love was big enough to fill me. Later that night, when Taylor Swift came on the radio asking her lover to “take [her] somewhere we can be alone”, I followed her lead, communicating with God one on one in the sensual silence of prayer.
Theologically, Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est assured me that such an interpretation of love for God is not foreign to the Church’s history. In the letter the pope reclaims eros. Properly understood, it is a “foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns”. The love of eros is the path described by the Carmelite mystics: it moves from purgation of misguided desire, through an illumination of knowledge, and ultimately to a divine-human union, instantiated in Christ.
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” writes St Paul in Galatians 2:20. This sort of language is the language of love, and you’ll find it all over the music of Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande. It is connatural to every human person’s experience of eros, a love which rises from the human to the divine. In the words of Evangelii Nuntiandi by Blessed Paul VI, we should strive to cultivate and evangelise these experiences “without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded”.
For Taylor Swift, Ours comes immediately to mind. The song is a powerful declaration of the endurance of love despite the disintegrating pressure of external forces. The instrumentation is soft and enchanting. Her voice calmly reassures her beloved that nothing will separate them. In the bridge she gently sings: “I’ll fight their doubt and give you faith with this song for you.” As I listen, I close my eyes in prayer. I hear God speaking those words to me, for many have criticised my decision to spend the whole of life in poverty, chastity and obedience. They tell me my faith is pointless. The voice of the evil spirit is real and strong, but God’s voice – like Taylor’s – is unreservedly assuring and stronger. Ours is like a psalm that captures the experience of faithfulness amid the trials of the human-divine relationship.
Ariana Grande is unequivocally more physical than Taylor, and I’ll admit that it’s more difficult to “find God in all things” with her. The beats pulse. The rhythms heighten the senses. Her favourite topic is the dynamism of sexual attraction and repulsion. She tweets that her music is “sexuality in art”, but she cautions that such a presence is not “an invitation for disrespect”. I agree. Our culture needs to allow for the expression of sex without automatically assuming sin or violence.
Granted, I don’t endorse all the messages of Grande’s songs and public personality, but here she has a point. An example is Into You. Her voice is soft and seductive, and the beat is low and enlivening. The verses gradually build to a climax in the chorus. There is a playfulness and a hide-and-seek feel to the song that mirror the tone of Song of Songs. She alluringly sings: “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe/And all I wanna do is to fall in deep.”
Frustrated with superficiality, I think of Jesus inviting St Peter to “put out into deep water” (Luke 5:4). God is saying to us: “If you’re going to be my companion, I demand all of you, total trust.” Only a complete gift of oneself to God will suffice: “Take, Lord, and receive … all I possess.”
Selena Gomez is a midway point between Swift and Grande. She contains some of the pure innocence of the former and some of the raw passion of the latter. Consider her triple platinum hit Come & Get It. It opens with a tantalising drum beat and a yearning, passionate male voice. When Selena enters, the message is simple: “When you’re ready, come and get it.”
Such is the life of grace. I see God in heaven. He waits patiently as a groom for his bride, but he isn’t completely passive. Rather, he woos his beloved with tenderness. Selena sings: “I’m not too shy to show I love you.”
God looks for opportunities to show his affection, almost always with the subtlety of an attentive lover. When the time is right, consummation comes. The singer cries out in a fit of Christic imagination: “This love will be the death of me/But I know I’ll die happily/I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know/Because you love me so.” Love is a wound, a sickness unto death, but it is the only way to real, abiding happiness.
Pop music can be a vehicle to God if we approach it with the mindset of Blessed Paul VI and St Ignatius. Whatever is human can be recapitulated into the divine. Whatever is human can be for the greater glory of God; so sing along loudly, and sing to God.
David Inczauskis SJ is in his second stage of priestly formation with the Midwest Jesuits
This article first appeared in the March 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here