So here’s a piece about multidimensional optimization algorithms, a genre of music named after and including a lot of primal screaming, and my mission. Several examples of said musical genre, screamo, are included so I hope you have a broad audial palette. I’ll start with a short story from my Mormon youth.
On one particular day I remember being in the backseat of a minivan full of my fellow teenage Mormons as we drove to or from some weekday church activity. We were listening to the radio when Bullet with Buttefly Wings by The Smashing Pumpkins came on and I started to sing along. This song is sonically tame compared to what we’ll be sampling shortly, but my enthusiasm was met by unanimous horror from the rest of the van. This, it seemed, was not what good Mormons listened to. While someone gave me a mini-lecture on musical standards, the radio dial was hastily changed from alternative rock to top-40. My own misgivings–was I bringing the devil into this vehicle?–were laid to rest as Christina Aguilera instructed us all on how to rub her the right way in order to convince her to “give it away”. I was pretty sure that, next to that, Billy Corgan singing “And I still believe that I cannot be saved,” wasn’t any worse.
As my mission approached, I partook of a great deal of the kind of folklore we have built around them. First there was the idea that I shouldn’t be afraid to get started in my major before I left for my mission because I’d be blessed to not forget what I learned. This turned out to be a dirty, dirty lie. (Then again perhaps it was my fault for not attending the Lord’s University.) There were also plenty of stories about how the missions would sober me up. I assumed that was meant metaphorically, but then I was disconcerted by my Stake President’s apparently dissatisfaction when I told him–repeatedly–that I had never broken the Word of Wisdom. Either there were some strange rumors about me going around or I didn’t know my fellow young men as well as I thought I did.
The thing is, I was a relatively timid guy. Following the standards of the Church was no great feat of righteous living in my case. It just fit my quiet, risk-averse disposition. So no, I really hadn’t tried alcohol or tobacco, and when return missionaries told me about how I would clean up my entertainment selection after my mission I was slightly alarmed. If it got any tamer, there wouldn’t be much left. Prog rock and some mainstream alternative were the last line of defense before we got to easy listening, classical, and of course MoTab. I had nothing against that music, but it seemed sort of… .limited.
But truth be told, I bought into that narrow mythos all on my own. I remember a conversation I had with my father about the kind of music we’d listen to in heaven. Pachelbel’s Canon in D was, and still is, just about the most celestial music I can imagine, but I was a little worried that it would get boring listening to that song on repeat for, you know, ever. The hidden assumption I had embraced was that all moral decisions could be broken down into a single, commensurate value of “goodness” . My father tried to gently dissuade me from this myopic vision, but I was having none of it. Optimization was the name of the game, and the response variable was univariate.
It was only on my mission, when I got into a gentle debate with my first companion about how there was always a right answer to every question, that someone was able to talk me out of it. My argument was that even in a relatively trivial instance like beverage selection for the sacrament there was an unambiguously superior choice and–assuming we had cognitive resources to perform the analysis–we were responsible to do so. Water, in this case, was not merely a convenience but a necessary adoption of the symbolism of purity and life. My wise companion responded with this: What if I was trapped on a desert island with only pineapple juice and coconut milk to drink? I honestly started to conduct the analysis (coconut milk was the initial front runner because I had a vague idea that it might be white) before I realized how absurd the exercise was.
Sometimes, there just isn’t one right answer.
Years after my mission I sat in a lecture about optimization algorithms and realized how ubiquitous the problem is. It’s a matter of routine for us to trade off dollars vs. human lives in engineering projects, but of course we shy away from the fact. If you run the analysis you can easily back into the decision we make–trading dollars for lives when it comes to building a highway divider or setting asbestos removal policy–and the values don’t make any sense. In some cases we won’t trade ten or twenty-thousand dollars per life, and in other cases we spend millions. We’re uncomfortable with this kind of thinking, and the numbers will never really make sense, because fundamentally our ethical obligations are not commensurate with dollars. We don’t merely lack the ability to find the answer, it well and truly is not there.
This, in the end, is a lesson my dad had been trying to teach me all along. If there isn’t always a right answer, then we should understand that possessing the right answers isn’t the point. Struggling to find it in the weightier decisions of our lives (e.g. not in the case of pineapple juice vs. coconut milk), is what truly matters. How can we, as Christians and with an awareness of our absolute dependence on grace, not realize that process trumps outcome?
Which brings us back to music. If there are non-commensurate goods, then there’s no reason to have to just pick one Platonic form of music. And if having the answer isn’t as important as striving to find it, then a process laden with struggle and tension and discord becomes imbued with nobility rather than some kind of harbinger of spiritual ruin. Now, this isn’t to say that beauty and harmony don’t have a place (I love The Tallis Scholars ferociously), nor is it to say that classical music is bereft of tumultuous struggle. I’m no expert, but I have a human heart and I’ve heard Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor. So my new insights didn’t replace my musical tastes, but they augmented them into a kind of ecclectic overdrive that has continued unabated since my return from my mission. I listen to a lot of music these days that I can’t get anyone else to listen to (my family finds The Shanghai Restoration Project all but unlistenable and no one seems to like the Yoshida Brothers as much as I do), but irrespective of the tastes of others, the music that has come to be the most precious to me is screamo, and “Walls” by Emery was one of the first songs I fell in love with.
Emery is a band of Christians as opposed to a Christian band. The distinction includes the salient facts that 1 – they aren’t on an explicitly Christian label and 2 – their lyrics aren’t horrible. (Just kidding, I love you Jars of Clay and Relient K.) I actually didn’t know that when I first listened to them, and had to check it on Wikipedia just now to be sure. But Christianity creeps into this song only at the margins, if at all. “Walls” simply drives to my core the resonant sounds of internal combat against the demons of isolation and despair in a cry for help I find sublime in its raw authenticity: “I’ve built these walls come get to me, come get to me.”
The album that really taught me how to scream in righteousness, however, was The Artist in the Ambulance by Thrice, the band that remains my very favorite to this day. Like Emery, Thrice took their personal religious sentiments out into the secular world and thrived, but unlike Emery Thrice–led by vocalist and lyricist Dustin Kensrue–is a lot less shy about it. The title track “Artist in the Ambulance” demonstrates that:
The grit and harsh sound to Thrice’s music–vocally and instrumentally–is not a mere adrenaline affectation. To my mind it’s a sincere reaction to the internal turmoil of one who knows their heart is prone to wander from their savior: “I hope that I will never let you down”. It’s the same sentiment that pierces me to my core in another one of my very favorite songs: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Sublime humility or frustrated sincerity: there is no reason for me to have to choose one or the other. In both songs I find the genuine turmoil we face as spiritual Algernons: possessed at the peak of our spiritual mountaintops of a horribly clear vision of the inevitable descent that comes as memory fades, spiritual fires die, and habits reassert themselves.
This is even more clear in Thrice’s wrenching “Like Moths to Flame”. The song describes in detail Peter’s denial of the Savior before His crucifixion. (I told you Dustin wasn’t subtle about his Christianity.) In this video the song has been set to footage from “The Passion of the Christ.” I love it, but I do not listen with great frequency. I realize that a lot of the power of the song is lost if you can’t understand the lyrics (they are pretty easy for me to make out, but even I have trouble with a few), so I’m including them below the video.
once again these bitter herbs
the perfect compliment to all your cryptic words
I nod but don’t know what to say, but I know you
and I believe you’re who you say you are so I?
I will follow you, lay down my life
I would die for you, this very night
once again the bread and wine
but it seems the meanings may be deeper still this time
and you surprised me when you said I’d fall away, don’t you know me
I could never be ashamed of you, no I?
I’ve never been this cold, the fire’s gravity compels
like planets cling to sol, I feel my orbit start to fail
like moths to flame I come, too close and all my oaths are burned
as stars begin to run, all my accusers take their turn
and calling curses down, from my lips lies like poison spill
and then that awful sound, the sound of prophesy fulfilled
and then I met your eyes, and I remember everything
and something in me dies, the night that I betrayed my king
Underoath is another examples of the Christian screamo scene, and they do brand themselves as Christian. My favorite song from them is “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape”. The song, predominantly sung from the perspective of Christ (“Hey ungraceful, I will teach you to forgive one another”) builds gradually to a piercing crescendo: “Jesus, I’m ready to come home.”
I cannot speak for others, but for myself I could not imagine saying those words in the context of this song in any way that was not screaming them raggedly from a throat that is raw.
In contrast to the pain of the previous examples, in their anthem “Image of the Invisible”, Thrice’s aggressive sound come not from a sense of inner conflict, but as a call to arms “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
It’s fascinating to me that, in this video, metaphor is used not to convey a hidden message, but to downplay a very explicitly theological one for mainstream consumption. After all, the fans of Thrice are not predominantly Christian, and neither are most of the members of the band. As far as I know Dustin Kensrue is the guy who decides that a song about Sodom and Gomorrah is a good idea, and his bandmates are just along for the ride. (Or were. The band shut up shop earlier this year.)
Nor do I think that all these bands get all their theology right. I also really enjoy Christian hiphop (especially Lecrae), which is the most theologically specific music I’ve found, and it’s clear that the Christianity they sing about and the Christianity I follow are, at places, incompatible. What of it? (The lead singer of Underoath also strikes me as obnoxious and self-centered. So? Prophets aren’t perfect and neither are punk rock singers.) I believe in the pursuit of theological correctness as much as the next person, but it is the pursuit which can unite us even when the path cannot.
I’ll wrap up with what is currently my favorite song by Thrice. It’s called “For Miles,” which I believe is a reference to (Matthew 5:41), and it’s a beautiful expression of how faith not only reflects a higher reality, but creates it.
That our scars may serve as the bridge to another’s broken heart is not necessarily true, but if we believe it and enact it, then we make it true.
These, then, are the reasons I listen to screamo. Some of the emotions that come with sincere discipleship are not pleasant or seemly. They are as ragged and and ungainly as human suffering or human striving in the face of futility. They do not replace the beautiful music I enjoy, and I know that others can learn these same lessons in ways that are more suited to their own tastes. The Lord speaks to us all in a language we understand, after all, and it turns out that this just happens to be one of mine. The cords of screamo might not do it for us all, and that’s fine, but they forever a part of my religious lexicon.