Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
Three mornings a week I watch my youngest hop out of the car and skip up to the door of her preschool. I wave a thank you to her teacher, pull out of the parking lot, and then do what I always do when I’m in the car alone, crank up the volume. Driving alone is one of the few times in my day when I can listen to my music the way I want to — loud. I try to keep in mind the drivers around me, I really do, but the truth is, I really want the dashboard to rattle. I want the song, whatever it might be, to fill the car. I want it to swirl like a tornado or fall like the softest snow. I want to sink into it or be carried away. And good music does both. I am the sort of person who doesn’t just want to listen to the music; I want to experience it.
God doesn’t call us to be his public relations media personnel, to do damage control and put spins on things. He call us to bear his image, to be his ambassadors in this world.More than longing to feel the song, though, I want a song that helps me feel… everything else. Yes, I want to experience the music, but I also really want music to help me experience life. I love listening to songs that force me to think outside of my comfortable bubble or encourage me to explore emotions I don’t normally let too close. Music has a way of opening my eyes and my mind: it helps me to see things differently, and I need that.
I think that’s why I’ve been so stuck on Pink’s “What about Us.” It was released as the lead single on her album Beautiful Trauma back in August of 2017. Since then, it’s topped various music charts around the world and earned her a nomination at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. In music years, it’s bordering on ancient, yet it’s still playing wildly on radio stations. Part of its appeal has to do with Pink’s powerhouse vocals; the woman can sing. But what’s more, it’s the message of the song that tangled itself in our thoughts without any indication it will let go any time soon.
It’s been called a club ballad, a protest song, even an anthem, but at its heart I think it’s a call for action. Specifically, it’s a call for honesty. Pink has a reputation for saying the hard things in her lyrics. She doesn’t hesitate to get down into the gritty, real aspects of life. In “What about Us,” she does it again, this time drawing our attention to the overwhelming prevalence of lies that fill much of our world today. It’s a cultural cry, a desperate demand, really, for honesty.
The song opens with an almost whimsical section where Pink introduces the listener to the “us” mentioned in the title and throughout the rest of the ballad. The “us” is the general public, the “billions of beautiful hearts,” the common person who is not in power but has suffered the effects of the lies of those who are. The “us” is all the people everywhere who have been “sold up the river too far,” who feel lied to, abandoned, and written off.
The use of “us” and “we” is striking because in a few, simple poetic lines, Pink claims to be speaking for the masses. This is not a love song or a motivational dance mix. It’s not a song about an isolated event. It’s a poignant, far-reaching claim that dishonesty defines our cultural moment; it’s a claim that is absolutely worth considering.
One of the things I find so interesting about this piece is the shifting audience. First, she’s speaking directly to those people in power who have been ignoring their responsibility to care for the people under them and have instead been seeking their own gain. They are the “you” she is talking about time and time again, the liars. She says, “you fooled us,” “sold us down the river,” and “said you had all the answers.” Though lyrical and poetic, these are dramatic accusations. Pink has clearly, and rightly, had enough.
But the audience isn’t just “you” it’s also “us.” She speaks to the rest of us and encourages us to join with her in her demand for honesty. In that sense, it really is a protest song. It opens as Pink paints a disheartening image of a people longing to be led, but a people who have instead been abused, tricked, and forgotten. By the end, however, the tone has shifted from one of despair to one of purpose. Pink herself takes up the position of leader and invites others to join her. “It’s the start of us waking up, come on, are you ready? I’ll be ready… ‘Cause now it’s time to let them know we are ready…” The song ends after this rally cry with the repeating, almost haunting, “What about us?”
Every time this song comes on the radio I am left shaken. I’m a words person, and the words of this song get to me. I cannot hear it without thinking deeply about what she’s saying. I cannot listen without asking myself two questions: which audience member am I, and what am I going to do about it? To be honest, I’m pretty sure those are the questions she wants us to ask, the questions we really need to be asking.
On the surface her questions are easy to answer. I’m not in politics, I have virtually no power, how could I possibly be lying to anyone? It’s quite possible Pink was speaking purely politically, and if that’s the case, then the answer is simple. But the reality is lies are overwhelming our world in far more than just political areas. Every day I turn on my computer and am confronted with more accusations, more lies, more situations where people in authority have abused power. And, if I can be brutally honest, the church is at the center of much of it.
More and more cases of abuse within the church are coming to light, and the fact that these situations are being brought out is extraordinary. We need abuse to be dealt with both within the church and with law enforcement. Some would say that these cases should be hidden away, dealt with privately, to keep the church unblemished before the world. But the reality is the world knows we’re lying when we do that, and they are rightly sick of the lies. We should be too. For the sake of the gospel, for the sake of unity within the body of Christ, and absolutely for the sake of the hearts and lives of the victims we need to deal with these lies. Leaders who have abused their power need to be confronted, and sin must be addressed. Every time I hear “What about Us,” I am reminded that there is a world of people watching. We should be asking ourselves how we are participating in the narrative. Are we perpetuating the lies? Or are were championing the truth?
Lies in the church aren’t limited to abuse, though. Pink calls the people searchlights who can see in the dark. They are watching, searching out ways in which they are being lied to. And who can blame them? People who have been lied to in one area tend to search out lies in all areas, and that’s right. But the question remains, are we lying to the world? Are we making things seem better off than they are? Are we presenting the honest truth of the gospel or sugar-coating it to sell something or to fill our pews? Even well-intended attempts to make the Bible relevant can quickly turn into dishonest works-based, feel-good religion if we’re not careful. They know when they are being conned, and in today’s world we have an even greater responsibility to tell the truth.
What strikes me every time I hear Pink’s song is that this is not a new problem. The Apostle Paul dealt with this need for honesty as well. In his letter to the Corinthians he says, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word… We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word.” I love this passage so much. It’s a dramatic claim, and, in light of the prevalence of lies in the world today, it’s a claim we ought to be shouting from the rooftops. We will not lie! When it comes to our faith, we are not salesmen or recruiters; we are people saved by grace. Paul knew the tendency we all would face would be to sell out the word of God, to be peddlers putting whatever spin on it we can to make the sale. Whether it’s to see full churches, full bank accounts, or even because we really do want people to be saved… the temptation to be less than honest, to pander, to become peddlers of God’s word is real. But it must be stopped.
God doesn’t call us to be his public relations media personnel, to do damage control and put spins on things. He call us to bear his image, to be his ambassadors in this world. I want to believe I am one of the masses standing up with Pink in favor of honesty. I think we all want to. But we must ask ourselves if we are part of the problem too. Music has a way of helping us to think differently, to hear other people’s stories, and to see the world in a new way. It has the ability to confront us with our own hearts and push us to evaluate where we stand within the narrative. Pink’s “What about Us” does that in a profound way. It encourages us to think critically about the lies and the truth that fill the world around us. It reminds us that the world is watching, rejecting lies, longing for truth, hoping for love.
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