Due to a particularly persistent earworm, I’ve been thinking about 80’s tunes a lot lately and switched the playlist on the iPod to better succumb to this feeling of nostalgia. In one of the strange tricks of the ‘shuffle deity’ these two tracks came up back-to-back:
Two songs, two years apart, one title. Great tunes, both of them, and the epistolary form is in keeping with the concept of prayers/supplicant pleas to a deity and with the literary tradition of world mythologies, and therefore of academic as well as aural interest to me.
XTC’s song, from the 1986 album Skylarking, is pretty directly critical and suggests, despite its title, an atheistic worldview:
“Dear god, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look…”
“I won’t believe in heaven and hell, no saints, no sinners, no devil as well. No pearly gates, no thorny crown, you’re always letting us humans down.
The wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and never found
And it’s the same the whole world ’round
The hurt I see helps to compound that father, son and holy ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax
And if you’re up there you’d perceive that my heart’s here upon my sleeve
If there’s one thing I don’t believe in it’s you, dear god.”
While there is a continual assertion throughout the song that Andy Partridge et al acknowledge that god is a human construct that is constantly failing humanity, there remains the underlying reality that SOOOOOOO many people still look to such a deity to guide and help them. And despite the fact that the help is not in the offing, continue to believe the stories written in its name. The anger and sense of moral outrage are striking- and heightened by the use of the child’s voice to begin and end the song.
Interestingly, XTC’s Dear God was a B-side, not originally included on the album. American airplay of the song boosted its popularity to the extent that the album was reissued in the United States with the song replacing another. There is a message in that- cultural mores (and the influence of the Bible Belt) are subject to change based on specificity of societal focus and concern.
For all its upbeat catchiness, XTC’s Dear God is a very angry song, directed at those whose complacent beliefs, or political machinations, perpetuate injustices while looking for quick fixes to unimportant things (“a big reduction in the price of beer”) that serve to keep the masses placated (although I would hardly disdain a small reduction in the price of beer, what with a long weekend coming up- not to mention an impending strike at the LCBO… but I digress).
Midge’s song, from his 1988 album Answers to Nothing (the title song may well turn up in another blog post someday- forewarning) is more questioning than accusatory, and leaves the possibility open that there may be some kind of ruling being up there, while wondering whether or not said deity might be listening. The tempo and overall feel of the song suggests hope for change, with or without the intercession of a supernatural power. His listing of the things he would like to see happen to make the world a better place can be summed up in the line “Give me peace in a restless world.”
Answers to Nothing is his second solo offering, coming four years after he co-wrote a little ditty (Do They Know it’s Christmas) that initiated a social movement in music that is still reverberating through our collective cultural awareness and the ways in which we attempt to bring about social change.
Although he claims to be a “simple man with simple words to say”, Midge uses the imperative when listing his ‘requests’, suggesting an active concern rather than one which is simply plaintive and passive. He also cautions humanity about making such requests of a deity in the lyric “asking for more only got us where we are today“, which evokes various mythological and ideological concepts of ordained rights to things- whether land, power over other people or any other of dozens of perceived entitlements that are supposed to come along with adherence to a particular deity or belief.
During Much Music’s 80’s heyday (when it actually showed music rather than reality shows) Midge’s Dear God saw heavy rotation as part of the progamming on Christmas Day (along with that other tune of his) and, as a result, hearing it tends to evoke that time of year. One line in particular always stood out to me: “Give me a worldwide religion”. What with the directions that my pondering mind have always been wont to travel, I wondered about that particular phraseology and often rewrote it in my head to be ‘world without religion’ (which, admittedly, doesn’t scan as well in the metre of the song. Not claiming to be a songwriter here). Setting aside a discussion of the somewhat colonial idea that would have everyone in the world believe exactly the same thing (for perhaps another time), ‘worldwide’ religion is not something that is possible. Religions are contextual and answer the needs of people in specific times and places as a response to societal conditions and realities. These specific realities are never going to be ‘worldwide’ and we are unlikely to ever all agree on our human interpretations of our varied environments. The best we could, and should, be able to do, is to understand and accept those varieties, which isn’t something that will be easily achieved. Not in the world that we currently have.
But we HAVE to try.
Both songs cry out to a mythological deity for help, but both are really just calls for us, as the ones who actually live on this planet, to DO something about our own freakin’ issues. XTC and Midge are asking people to take responsibility for themselves rather than looking for supernatural aid to get us out of this “mess that we’ve made.” We have to stop viewing tragedies and diseases and hardships as god-given punishments for nebulous sins and look to actual causes while using our learning and resources to find solutions.
Ultimately, our problems are our problems. They need to be solved through working together and using the tools we have created- science, diplomacy, economics and etc.- since history has proven that issues affecting one part of this world eventually affect US ALL. The only other option is to continue alternately railing against and then begging aid from an imaginary creature who has not been anything like helpful up until now. Can any kind of intelligent rationale truly justify sitting on our collective asses in anticipation of divine intervention? Really?!?!