Music plays an important role in lifting our hearts and minds to God, something we are especially reminded of during these seasons of Advent and Christmas.
But while there is no substitute for seasonal hymns and carols like “Silent Night” or “O Come, Come Emmanuel,” I want to reflect on another and very different musical source of Christian contemplation: pop songs.
I’m not talking about modern praise and worship songs sung in the style of pop music. Nor am I talking about Christmas carols performed by otherwise mainstream pop musicians. I’m talking about the typical tunes you hear on the Top 40 list.
This may seem like an odd thing to focus on during Advent. After all, the abundance of pop music does the exact opposite of contributing to the kind of pure and holy thoughts we need to cultivate during these weeks. And I’m definitely not advocating replacing straightforward Christian worship and praise songs with mainstream mainstream, the musical equivalent of not going to church because you think you can commune with God just as well in the woods.
But I think some pop songs can help us connect with God in a powerful way—whether that’s their intention or even if they’re sung by a Christian believer. And it all has to do with the mystery we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas: the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
On that first Christmas, God took on human flesh, becoming like us in everything but sin. Christ approaches us and reveals Himself and the saving union with God that He offers as the desire of every human heart. Because of this, we can find this longing for God—albeit in an embryonic and unfinished form—even in pop music.
Kid Cudi’s 2010 hit “Pursuit of Happiness” is a good illustration of this.
With its neo-psychedelic style and its lyrics about drinking and drug use, it would be easy to dismiss the song superficially as some uncompromising, hedonistic “party anthem” – about as far from Christian thought food as you can get.
In fact, one popular remix of the song interprets it as just that, basically reducing the entire song to a heavy repetition of a line that Cudi utters in the first verse in response to people telling him to “slow the roll”: “I scream (forget) that. “
“I do what I want, I look forward, there’s no going back,” the singer continues.
But the song goes much deeper than this battle cry of irresponsibility and indulgence. As the track progresses, Cudi’s facade of carefree drinking gives way to revealing lines about the emptiness of this kind of pursuit of earthly pleasures. In fact, the song ends with a haunting outro as the music distorts and the consequences of the singer’s partying lifestyle begin to catch up with him in the form of nausea and disgust.
This experience of the futility of earthly comforts in providing true satisfaction is the key to understanding the entire song and its powerful refrain:
“I’m in pursuit of happiness and I know it
all that glitters will not always be gold
Hey, I’ll be fine when I get it.
I’ll be fine.”
What is the “it” that Cudi is talking about, that unknown that will bring him ultimate satisfaction? He doesn’t necessarily seem to know, but he knows he has to keep looking and looking for it.
For those of us who have already met Christ, we know that he is the answer. But we can also easily forget or take this for granted. To hear about this longing for ultimate satisfaction from a secular, or at least not too Christian, point of view can be a reminder that by God’s grace we have received the only thing that will truly satisfy, and the love that all mankind is looking for.
Not only can this be a help to our own spiritual lives, but it can also give us some insight into how to evangelize a broken culture that is still searching for answers. A lot of pop music is downright bad, but when it comes across something good and real, it can be the start of a conversation that leads on. As Paul tells the Thessalonians, “prove all things and hold fast what is good.”
In conclusion, I am not claiming that Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” is a true Christmas song. I just want to suggest that the mystery of the Incarnation, which we celebrate in a few short weeks, helps to shed light on the fact that helpful reminders of our need for Christ are all around us—even in pop music.
Liddle, a resident of the Twin Cities, is a senior editor for the National Catholic Register and a graduate student in theology at The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.