Did you know there is a metal band named Eyehategod? That’s the least of your problems if you’re a Christian metal fan. What would your mother say?
I don’t have that problem. Instead, I listen to elderly ballads and pop songs that might make your mother squint suspiciously. But I defend them when I can. Here are some examples.
- Heaven by The Talking Heads
When I was much younger, I dated an atheist who gave me a hard time about liking “Heaven” by the Talking Heads, and song that begins:
Everyone is trying
To get to the bar
The name of the bar
The bar is called heaven
The band in heaven
They play my favorite song
Play it one more time
Play it all night long
And the chorus:
Heaven…heaven is a place…a place where nothing….nothing ever happens…
Like most good songs, it’s ambiguous. The first layer of meaning says that heaven is like a super popular bar where all your friends are and the band plays your favorite songs. Cool! The second layer of meaning says—no wait, that would be boring, and that it’s dumb to think the afterlife is like Cheers.
There is at least one more layer, though. A place where “nothing ever happens” is a place of peace. After the violence and injustice of this life, a place of peaceful community would not necessarily be boring. That’s my argument, anyway.
- Plastic Jesus from Cool Hand Luke
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car
Comes in colors pink and pleasant
Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far
In the context of the movie, this song will make you cry along with Paul Newman.
Apparently, the song was written by folk singers who were mocking some religious merchandise. The fact we remember the song from Cool Hand Luke changes the message, though. No spoilers, but Luke sings it as a song of mourning, and in that context, the song’s humor only deepens the pathos—the truth that humanity is vulnerable and in need of help.
- Suzanne by Leonard Cohen
Sure, “Hallelujah” is a great song, too, and it could also ruffle some religious feathers. Shrek was into it, and you can even figure skate to it. But here’s another Cohen song to add to your list.
As advertised, “Suzanne” is mostly a song about a woman named Suzanne…a really intriguing and attractive and “half-crazy” woman. Then out of nowhere, Leonard starts singing about Jesus:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind
This song is a fantastic downer. I’ve listen to it many times, and I still can’t fully parse he means here. Jesus touching our bodies with his mind is contrasted with Suzanne, the lover, touching the singer’s body with her mind. In this sense, the song echoes Song of Solomon…sort of. Ultimately, though, this song is more offensive towards the religious than Jesus himself, since he “sinks beneath [our] wisdom like a stone.” And isn’t that true?
- Like a Prayer by Madonna
“Like a Prayer” is irresistible and a bit risqué. I have no justification for this one. It’s just a catchy song. And after all, life is a mystery.
- Imagine by John Lennon
You know this one by heart:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Whether you hate this song or love it, you probably have strong feelings about it, and most of us have heard this song a million times. Here, Lennon hopes for an end to tribalism and materialism. He rejected the trappings of religion, which hasn’t always endeared him to churchgoers. Yet it’s fair to say that Jesus asks us to attend to people’s needs today instead of making them to wait in line for the afterlife, so the message of the song could rally the religious instead of insulting them. Even though I’ve heard it too many times, I still think it’s a lovely song.
- Graceland by Paul Simon
This song is not obviously offensive, but it expresses the kind of sentiment that might have gotten someone burned back in the day:
I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
You don’t have to read any religious significance here, of course. Perhaps he’s simply saying that forgiveness is possible on earth, particularly after divorce and heartbreak—that lovers and families must forgive each other for mutual failures and breakups.
Even if he is speaking about universal salvation, he’s not necessarily saying everyone will receive it. He’s just saying…he has a reason to believe it’s possible.
- Only the Good Die Young by Billy Joel
It’s sort of popular to pick on Billy Joel. Here’s a good article that picks on him with nuance. I think many of his songs are sappy and irritating, but whenever this song comes on the radio, I turn it up.
Lyrics that might cause offense:
Come out Virginia, don’t let them wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to faith
I might as well be the one…
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
This song is kind of like “My Last Duchess”–a dramatic monologue by an unreliable narrator. Or at least, that’s what you can tell your mom.