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.

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3 thoughts on “Derek Webb: Stockholm Syndrome

  1. I have yet to listen to most of the new album, but I’ve been reading about the “controversy” surrounding his “raw and unfiltered take on sin” and such. Not much more to say than what you’ve addressed already, but it does seem unfortunate that he’s, purposely or not, pandering somewhat to those that see themselves in the enlightened minority of Christendom. If his message is that we need the harsh (at best) message of SS to awaken us from our faith in Fred Phelps, then he’s giving us way too much credit.

    And the real shame is that most of the people who follow the teachings of Phelps and others will probably be immediately alienated by the very nature of the record. I hope that’s not what he wants.

    1. I don’t get the impression that Webb is considering Phelps-followers at all. (I too think they’re not likely to take his criticism beneficially.)

      This is what I mean from “being above the fray”– you stop caring about people and so you add your criticism as one completely removed and unaffected from the situation.

      Being removed like that doesn’t give discernment and dispassionate reasoning… it just makes you callused and out of touch.

  2. So out of touch that you are cool — thereby making you in touch with those who view themselves as likewise cool and above the fray.

    Keith Green, where have you gone?

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