Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

Jen likes Coldplay. And she’s not ashamed to say so.

“People make fun of them so much,” she said in a post to my Facebook page, “but I really love Coldplay. Especially post-X&Y. I gave up on being a cool-music snob when I learned that cool people hate Coldplay.”

Thanks, Jen. I appreciate that. (If it makes you feel any better, I own and enjoy Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head.) Your courage gives me more confidence to admit what I’m going to admit before this article is over: my abiding love for a recording that has been much maligned for almost thirty years.

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Jen’s response is the kind of brave answer I was hoping for when, several days ago, I asked my friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter to confess the unpopular music that they love. Granted, it’s not that hard to find other Coldplay fans, but most Internet-savvy people are aware that Coldplay has militant nay-sayers, so I admire her defiance.

Jen wasn’t alone in responding to my invitation and revealing unpopular favorites. (You can read the confessionals on Facebook here, and on Twitter here.) Boze confessed his love for “How You Remind Me,” by Nickelback. Aaron let his freak flag fly and revealed love for Mariah Carey’s “Daydream.” Steve singled out “Just a Gigolo” by David Lee Roth. (“Anything involving DLR, come to think of it,” he said.)

Joel Heng Hartse, author of the music-lover’s memoir Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, mentioned Sixpence None the Richer: “I’ll never turn my back on ‘Kiss Me.’” (Me either, Joel!)

High school music teacher and band leader Matt Lenhard wrote from Ketchikan to say, “I am constantly defending the Grateful Dead!” Despite the drug-haze that clouds the band’s reputation, Lenhard argued that their music stands strong. “There are no [Grateful Dead] songs about drugs or being a hippie—it’s Americana and it’s often enigmatic.”

My favorite response? Someone with the initials S. N. even admitted to self-Rickrolling! On purpose!

Such confessions may well cost these bold truth-tellers some Cool Points with a lot of the Cool Kids.

But the Cool Kids need to shape up. Here’s the thing: Those who choose or reject music based on anything related to “cool” are not really listening to music. They’re accessorizing. They’re following trends for the sake of fitting in. If we open ourselves up to all kinds of art, we will find treasure in the most unexpected—and sometimes unpopular—places.

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What is it that makes a piece of music meaningful to you? For me, it could be anything: subject matter, wordplay, a guitar tone, a rhythm track, something unexpected, or the circumstances in which I first heard it. This is why, as a critic, I make a distinction between the albums I would rate as “excellent” and the albums I would rate as “favorites.” Any honest music lover knows that we love or hate songs for more than just their measures of artistic excellence. Most music critics enjoy confessing “guilty pleasures.”

That’s because the value of a work of art is never just about the work of art. In Chaim Potok’s extraordinary The Gift of Asher Lev, the narrator says, “Art happens when what is seen is mixed with what is on the inside of the artist.” Elaborating on that in a 1997 interview by Michael J. Cusick in Mars Hill Review, Potok said,

Art happens somewhere along a relational arc, between what you are and the object of creation. And that’s why art is very often a different experience for each and every person. I am convinced that the readers who come to my books experience them differently because they are not sitting back as passive individuals with this thing called a book being pumped into them, filling their empty reservoir. That’s not the way it works. They’re coming to a book with a whole life. And it’s the relationship between their life and the life inside the book that forms the experience of reading—the arc.

Podcast host Nick Rynerson, who graciously invited me to be a guest on the first episode of his music show Burn After Listening, asked me about the music that influenced my life in high school. I ended up rambling on about Amy Grant’s Unguarded: You can hear it for yourself. I confessed to loving that record. I confessed that I’d been changed by it.

When I play that CD or that dusty old LP now—and yes, I do put them on from time to time—I still feel some of the exhilaration that I felt then. Even though I know it’s a commercial, simplistic pop record that was fashioned to make Amy Grant a star on mainstream radio. Even though I take issue with the way the lyrics oversimplify complicated ethical and spiritual matters. Even though the music I listen to most of the time reveals those contemporary Christian hits as the formulaic productions that they were. My passion for the record had less to do with Amy’s leopard skin jacket and more to do with sentiments and ideas in the lyrics that spoke meaningfully to who I was: an insecure, peer-pressured, 15-year-old Christian trying to live right. (I explain this in more detail to Nick.)

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Suffice it to say that there is a difference between conversations about artistic excellence and conversations about personal favorites.

Critical assessments are vitally important. They help us discern the difference between excellence, mediocrity, and trash. They give us opportunities to celebrate great feats of imagination, skill, and innovation. They invite us to draw out remarkable moments from mixed bags. I love few things in the world more than the joy of announcing a discovery of treasure in a marketplace full of disposable and derivative experiences. And I defend my right to rant online about work that exasperates me. Remember—we have a Creator who exhorts us to “dwell on” whatever is admirable, excellent, and worthy of praise.

But that is not to say that people can’t catch life-changing reflections of truth in mediocrity. Nor is it to say that a trivial piece of work—even a nonsense sing-along from a record for children—cannot become tremendously significant to a listener.

And that is why it’s important to highly prioritize critical discernment and humility when we talk about music, movies, books, and other aesthetic experiences. God calls us to excellence, but that doesn’t stop him from using anything available to break open hearts so they are better able to receive him. He’ll use a random image or lyrics full of clichés to ambush someone and bring her to tears. He’ll use a swell of music in a commercial for an iPhone to make somebody think of calling an estranged family member.

I could name several songs right now that I’d rather scrub toilets than hear again, but God forbid that I look down on somebody else for finding reasons to cherish those songs! It’s a listener’s job to exercise critical discernment when listening to Taylor Swift, but if that critic mocks Taylor Swift herself—or fans who love her music—then it is the critic who is pumping pollution into the world.

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Okay. The time has come. I promised those who made their confessions that I would make a new confession of my own.

Last week, a package arrived. And when I opened it, I was as happy as a music fan can be. It was La La Land Records’ new special-edition release of music by Andrew Powell—specifically, the limited-edition 2-CD soundtrack for the 1985 film Ladyhawke.

Some of you are groaning. Some of you are shaking your heads in dismay. Some of you probably agree with film critic Rob Vaux of Flipside Movie Emporium, who called Ladyhawke “a near-perfect action-romance marred only by the worst soundtrack ever composed.” Fimtracks.com calls Powell’s score “an insufferable tragedy [that] unsuccessfully begs to be forgiven as a blatant mistake of its era”—and claims that 98 percent of the public was “horrified” by it. (Their critic’s recommendation? “Buy it only if you still have big hair and can’t get enough of that early-80’s Alan Parsons Project keyboard and guitar sound.”) A writer at The Film Experience praises the movie but says that its music might be enough to persuade us that the film “absolutely should not exist outside of 1985.”

But when I listen to it, my head fills with vivid images from a movie that ignited my 15-year-old imagination. What’s more, it’s an album that I asked my parents to play on the car stereo during road trips through Oregon, and much to my surprise, they came to like it—electric guitars and all. What’s more, I listened to Ladyhawke while I wrote stacks of fantasy novels in my late teens and on through college.

So I cannot give you an objective review—it’s all tangled up in experience.

Interested? At this writing, you can listen to the original soundtrack album in its entirety here. Put on your headphones. Take a trip to back into the heart of the 1980s.

For a more professional perspective, I asked film score scholar Timothy Greiving, who writes about soundtracks for NPR, what he thought of it. He responded:

I never knew this film or its score until I was assigned to write the liner notes for this release, so it was a revelation to me. If I’d encountered it just a few years ago, it probably would have triggered my gag reflex, because I had such a strong distaste for ’80s film scores with heavy synth/rock flavors. But over the last two years or so I’ve completely fallen in love with the work of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, etc. (everything I used to despise!), so Ladyhawke came along at a great time.

Whatever the truth might be—dear sweet Ladyhawke, I’m never gonna give you up. Never gonna desert you. Never gonna say goodbye.


6 Comments

  1. True and very much to the point!: “Those who choose or reject music based on anything related to ‘cool’ are not really listening to music. They’re accessorizing.” Being of a certain age, my uncool likes include John Denver, and even some Celine Deion.

  2. Great points, Jeffrey! I have so many uncool musical loves, it would be hard to list them all. Dire Straits, Sting, I even have a nostalgic fondness for Phil Collins, whose tapes were the soundtrack of my childhood! And, yeah, Coldplay definitely.

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