The PHiL 14
An Ontological Pep-Talk
Billboard.com's Hot 100 offers an insightful arrangement of cultural icons. Unsurprisingly, many of these songs—and the music videos they generate—are preoccupied with money, and what money can buy.
One of the recent songs to climb the Billboard Top 100 and receive considerable acclaim at MTV's Video Music Awards was Nikki Minaj's "Super Bass." Originally born in Trinidad and Tobago and named Onika Tanya Miraj, Minaj opens her song by asserting "This one is for the boys with the booming system. Top Down, AC with the cooling system. When he come up in the club he be blazin' up. Got stacks on the deck like he be savin' up." The accompanying video affords a dizzying array of just what those "stacks" can afford the one fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have them.
But not all songs climbing the Billboard 100 resort to material excess in order to capture the attention of an audience with a rapidly declining attention span. Reversing the gaze from the outward to the inward, Swithfoot's Vice Verses draws together a group of songs that are profoundly countercultural.
From the beginning, Switchfoot has sought to express evangelical Christian faith in a manner appealing to audiences beyond the contemporary Christian music scene. This new album by the San Diego-based band proves to be no different. Prior to the release of Vice Verses, ABC incorporated songs from the album in transitions to and from commercials during the college football games airing during Saturday evening primetime slots—and, at the end of the season, they were featured in prominent bowl games. Songs such as "Rise Above It," "Dark Horses," and "The Original" all indicate to football viewers that something larger than the almighty dollar is at stake, yet give only hints about the source of the alternative values that animate the songs.
Taken together, though, these hints add up to nothing less than an ontological pep-talk. In this respect, there's both a close connection with and a contrast to Switchfoot's previous album, Hello Hurricane. In that album, much of what plagues humanity is deemed external to human agents. Various challenges in life are embodied in the hurricanes that pass over us and sometimes swoop down to wreak havoc. In the title track, Switchfoot opens by offering an ominous warning. "I've been watching the skies. They've been turning blood red. Not a doubt in my mind anymore. There's a storm up ahead." Echoing the Apostle Paul, the song offers assurance that the ravages of the storm, no matter how fierce, cannot match the resilience we can muster when our priorities are correct: "Everything I have I count as loss. Everything I have is stripped away. Before I started building I counted up these costs. There's nothing left for you to take away."
In Vice Verses, the challenges are within us. Taking a cue from Saint Augustine and the opening to his Confessions, the third track, "Restless," offers a repetitively haunting chorus: "I am restless, I am restless. I am restless, looking for you. I am restless, I run like the ocean to find your shore. I'm looking for you." The formal details of an Augustinian anthropology are not present, nor do they prove necessary. Anyone who pauses long enough gets the message. Money may relieve our restlessness for the time being, but ultimately our longings will remain unsatisfied.
This theme is woven into the majority of the tracks comprising Vice Verses. The opening song, "Afterlife," asks why so many of us wait until we die to appreciate what it means to be fully human: "Everyday a choice is made. Every day I choose my fate. And I wonder why would I wait until I die to come alive? I'm ready now. I'm not waiting for the afterlife." Instead of simply participating in endless cycles of accumulation, the choice to be fully human is immediately available within each of us.
Songs such as "The Original," "The War Inside," "Thrive," and "Rise Above It" all contribute in their own way to this ontological pep-talk. Perhaps the most aggressive of all of these songs, "The War Inside," confronts us with the chorus of "I am the war inside. I am the battle line. I am the rising tide. I am the war I fight." Wars—or, as in the case of the previous album, storms—may rage all around us. But the most important challenge is within.
Even songs at the center of the album, such as "Blinding Light" and "Selling the News," which caution us about the cycle of information parading past us as truth, eventually turn us back to the truth within ourselves. In "Blinding Light," Switchfoot argues "Hey boy, don't believe 'em. The old lies could never come true. Hey boy, don't believe 'em. Everything they told you to." (In "Selling the News," these disorienting forces are more clearly labeled as the media and their propensity to sell truth at the lowest common price point.) But truth is not inaccessible: "Deep down there is a hope inside. Brighter than the fears in my mind."