Derek Webb: Stockholm Syndrome

The title says it all.

Derek Webb’s newest album bears the title Stockholm Syndrome; the term coined for when a hostage forms a bond with their captor, becoming loyal and defensive on behalf of the ones that abuse them. In this one title Webb has succinctly and clearly summed up the theme of not only his present album, but his last two albums and five years of work.

Many people are lauding the new album, which comes in and edited and “explicit” version because of the song “What Matters More”.  That’s right, Caedmon’s Call’s good ol’ Derek Webb, whose CD’s almost exclusively sell to a Christian audience has an explicit version of his album. Webb’s label, knowing that they were sending the album to Christian bookstores, balked at including a song that features two curses, including a certain unpleasantry that begins with “sh”.  The entire album can be listened to for free at his website.

I don’t think much needs to be made of Webb’s decision to curse on his album; or of his label’s reasonable decision to suppress the song. (Derek is giving away the song for free at his website anyway.) Webb has been almost unilaterally been praised for pushing the envelope in a way that gets his message across, but there is some reason to be suspicious.  As one of the founders of noisetrade.com, Derek has proved to be an adept, and bold marketer who targets niches.  If you think I’m taking this too far, just check out the crazy morse code videos he released in anticipation of Stockholm Syndrome.

Despite the kudos that keep rolling in, I can’t really find anyone who is lambasting Derek’s locker-room vocabulary.  Truth is, rather than cutting against the grain, Webb is just being hip. And being a cussing rebel is very Christian chic.

“What Matters More” asks the listener — in a rather, um, agitated manner — if they care more about the issue of homosexuality or… other things, like lots of people dying.  The philosopher in me cringes at this argument.   “Dear reader, what matters more to you: AIDS or husbands cheating on their wives? Genocide or child prostitution?”  Considering the fact that we naturally care about the problems in backyard first (as well we should), perhaps a better comparison would be something like, “What matters more to you: unemployment in Detroit or your child stealing from Walmart?”  All of them are bad questions.

Bad question or not, the song suffers from something even worse: it’s belittling.  Webb sounds, not like a strong truth-trumpeting prophet, but like a cowardly and sarcastic hatemonger.  Consider:

You say you always treat people like you like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
‘Bout what you believe, make you sound like a freak
‘Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
You wouldn’t be so damn reckless with the words you speak…

Anyone who hears the song from the perspective of the audience can’t help but be offended, while those who listen and are not offended are joining Derek in casting the first stone.

And again…

If I can tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin’ the wind while the pendulum swings
‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save
Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today
Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

Apparently Derek is so upset about homosexuality that he is just fine presenting a false dilemma to his audience and insulting them for good measure.  I’m not sure what good he thinks that is going to do, but it looks like “what matters more” to Mr. Webb is keeping things punchy and stirred up; more than serious and thoughtful lyrics about important and immediate problems.  If it wasn’t for Webbs’  CCM reputation this song would be a considered just a poor man’s version of Third Eye Blind’s “About to Break”.

My disappointment with Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t end with “What Matters More”, but is also highlighted by the swing-fused “Freddie, Please” — a seriously toned take-down of spite filled nut-job pastor Fred Phelps.  Yes Derek, we know that “God Hates Fags” signs are a horrible, horrible thing that has caused pain and harm to many people.  Phelps is shameful.  We all know he’s shameful. You really don’t have to waste your wind in him; there are far more important issues.  Oh, and please spare us from a scathing attack on Kim Jung Il and Jeffery Dahmer.

The in-your-face bluntness that made the confessional “I Repent” one of your most convicting and sober songs has gone off the rails.  Now you’re just spitefully preaching to us about tolerance, which you like to call Love.

Don’t worry, conservatively minded Christians aren’t the only ones Webb takes aim at.  He follows up “What Matters More” by stringing together a strident medley that accuses America of all kinds of injustices.  From what might be the most poetic song on the album, “The Proverbial Gun”.

Now I can buy the proverbial gun
And shoot the proverbial child
When my uncle looks me in the eye
And speaks of freedom
My conscience goes up on trial
In the courtrooms of the mind
Where the judges all have sons
And all the lawyers are wounded
And the backs are all broke
And the bailiff is my brother
And the witness is my sister
And I’m guilty as hell
And by the afternoon I’m out
On the pavement walking
Reeking of salt and blood
No hat upon my head
No shoes upon my feet
Picking your body from my teeth
No stars above me
No stripes upon me

Free

While I think that Stockholm Syndrome’s comparisons to Kid A are undue, it is by far the best thing he has done musically since She Must And Shall Go Free, and maybe even as far back as Long Line of Leavers.  The insightful and  complex and “I Love /Hate You” captures some of the confusion and paradoxes of a romantic relationship. (Read in the context of the rest of the album’s Stockholm Syndrome theme, the song can be seen simply as perverse false love, and loses all its profundity.  But I’ll give Webb the benefit of the doubt here: he’s earned it when it comes to songs about women.) Webb’s synth sound fits somewhere between Radiohead and The Notwist, yet the chill hypnotic feel from the other bands is not to be had.  Sure it’s ear candy, but the lyrics grab and blister with their thinly veiled accusations.  Perhaps this is what Limp Bizkit would have sounded like it they had stuck around.

The title says it all: and what Derek is saying with Stockholm Syndrome is that we have mistakenly fallen in love with our abusers, who are America (“God bless these bombs/Baptize this rope/Lie with us in the bed we’ve made”) and the Conservative Christian Establishment.  Webb alone is — as a friend described it — is above the fray.  Nowhere does he empathize with those in dilemma; just judges when it can’t all be roses. He really seems to think that we are two blinded by the Syndrome to realize that Fred Phelps is not a good role model, and that we should “want the Father and not a vending machine”.  I want to commend honest and gutsy artists, but I don’t see Webb’s voice being much of  a minority.  As Chesterton is wont to remind us, in order to criticize something you first have to love it.  Webb sees himself removed himself from the situation entirely– or at least that how he sounds– and sits more in the position of a judge than a encouraging coach or stern father.

I have taken a good hard at all his albums since I See Things Upside Down, and I cannot claim to know what Derek asks from his listeners.  Surely we can’t “fix” Fred Phelps, and many of us are working very hard to combat what is wrong with America.  His exhortation has turned to berating.  And berating someone for something they are not responsible for and cannot do anything about is abuse.  And in this case at least, I am not a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome.

St. Maximus on Philosophy

I’ve been working on a review of Derek Webb’s new album, Stockholm Syndrome, and an article on the recent OCA/ ACNA conference at Nashota House, but I wanted to briefly share a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor on the good of philosophy.  I ran into it while reading through Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus.

The passage is from Difficulty 10, which tries to dissolve the tension between philosophy and ascetic struggle, and the knowledge gained by both.  In a move characteristic of Orthodoxy, he refuses to allow the physical and the immaterial to be divorced from each other, calling to mind the reasonable movements of our bodies.

For the movement of the body is ordered by reason, which by correct thinking restrains, as by a bridle, any turning aside towards what is out of place, and the rational and sensible choice of what is thought and judged is reckoned to contemplation, like a most radiant light manifesting truth itself through knowledge.  By these two especially every philosophical virtue is created and protected and by them is manifest through the body, though not wholly.

Frankly, I was expecting  a move towards union in the opposite way; because philosophical investigation– like any other artistic act– is an act of ascetic striving.  The truth of this St. Maximus does not deny, and the union of reasoning in our daily bodily movements informs my more mundane observation.  Discipline in one’s physical actions reveals health in one’s rational and contemplative mind.  Rational movement is part of the prudent life. Prudence and profound thoughts are not just relatives, but close kin.

St. Maximus continues by talking of “the grace of philosophy” and how it wonderfully subtracts from our unfortunate state of disrepair.  Once rid of these entanglements we primed for the ascetical struggle that is so much of the righteous life.

For philosophy is not limited by a body, since it has the character of divine power, but it has shadowy reflections, in those who have been stripped through the grace of philosophy to become imitators of the godlike conduct of God-loving men.  Through participation in the Good they too have put off the shamefulness of evil to become worthy of being portions of God, through assitance they needed from those empowered, and having received it they make manifest in the body through ascetic struggle the virtuous disposition that is hidden in the depths of the soul.  So they become all things to all men and in all things make present to all the providence of God, and thus are a credit to God-loving men.

For Plato, Wittgenstein, and now St. Maximus, the role of philosophy is not to add something missing to the human being, but to keep us where we need to be: in humility, wonder, and holiness.

The Devolution of Derek Webb

Few songwriters have had more impact on my life than Derek Webb.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard “Center Isle”.  I didn’t know that songs could do that to you: give you all the slow sweetness of the personal nostalgia to a place you’ve never been with people you don’t know, and hit you like a Mac Truck.  I remember sharing his “Standing up for Nothing” with some of my fellow high school Freshmen, and they all just sat there like all the air had been sucked out of the room.

And it just got better. 40 Acres ushered in “Faith My Eyes”, which is probably my favorite of Derek’s songs, and a song that never far from my favorite playlists. I remember seeing Caedmon’s Call in concert right before Long Line of Leavers, showing up early to see Derek play guitar by himself for about an hour and half before the show started.  During that show the band would turn over the stage entirely to Derek for a couple of songs; and I distinctly remember him unveiling “Can’t Lose You” there.  Judging by all the times I’ve played “What You Want” and “Somewhere North” I didn’t think he could ever lose me either.

Derek’s career would reach a watershed in 2003 when he released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free.  The album, recorded during his engagement, is an intense reflection on the idea of marriage as it relates to the Christ and His Bride, the Church.  Musically reminiscent of a backwoods Sunday service, and lyrically commanding Webb left us with several passionate and profound songs. Chiefly mentioned of these is “Wedding Dress“, the chorus of which is “I am a whore I do confess, but I put you on just like a wedding dress, and run down the isle to you.”  I’m more personally fond of “Lover”and “Beloved” (yeah, I know it sounds redundant, but hey its theme album!) and “The Church”.  One of the most resonant ideas on the album is that the Church communal is His Bride, and not individual Christians.  “You cannot care for me, with no regard for her, if you love me you will love the Church.”

She Must and Shall Go Free was followed up by I See Things Upside Down and the EP The House Show, which contains more preaching than singing.  When I heard “I Repent“, which appears on both albums, I immediately ditched the other song I had been planning on playing for church for it.  The song was received as it was intended; as a “thank you” for a needed slap across the face.

There’s only so much loving that can be delivered in the form of a punch in the face though, and Derek began to make a habit of it.  One of the throw-a-way songs from I See Things Upside Down is “T-shirts“; a cheap criticism on the easy target of Christian sloganeering.  More disappointing is Derek’s 2005 Mockingbird, a rather unthoughtful apolgetic for disliking America and George Bush.  Also, with the exception of the  title track, the album is musically uninspired and has disappeared into the recesses of my coat closet.

For the first time Webb seemed angry, and self righteous.  His usually provocative lyrics culminated this time in the entirely unhelpful anthem “Love is Not Against the Law“.  Sure I couldn’t disagree with Webb, but I couldn’t agree with him either, mostly because he wasn’t saying anything very coherent or meaningful.  The album didn’t strike me as controversial, thoughtful, or even interesting, just basically vapid. Other than the title track, the album gets pretty much no play time from me.

2007’s The Ringing Bell is perhaps only a little better of a sample from the same vein. Webb, in usual outcast tone, sings of the inability of children to learn when you “stack them like lumber” and don’t feed them.  I can indulge these sort of heavy-handed obvious statements if they build to a legitimate payoff, but when the album was over, no payoff came.  I was officially unenthusiastic, and I didn’t think much about Derek Webb and his career.

That is, till Stockholm Syndrome hit the airwaves: or rather, when it didn’t.  But that story will have to wait for another day.