On Sunday 26th January 2020, the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards were held in Los Angeles. The Grammys are always a spectacular celebration of music and artistry. However, this year’s Grammys were unique for recent times, for running through the night was a powerful refrain of sobriety and reflection. From the outset of the ceremony, moving tributes were paid to the US basketball hero Kobe Bryant who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash earlier that day. These included musical commemorations from host Alesha Keys, Lizzo and Lil Nas X.
In addition to the tributes to Bryant, one of the most talked about moments of the ceremony was Demi Levato’s performance of Anyone. This was the first public performance by Levato since her near-fatal drug overdose in 2018. The song was apparently written by her shortly before the overdose, and her Grammy performance was raw with emotion and tears. She had to ask her pianist to restart the song, after she became obviously overwhelmed as she began to sing. But by the end, the whole stadium was upstanding for her.
Even the awards were unique. The night’s biggest winner was Billie Eilish who won five Grammys, and made history as the youngest person and first female to win the four main Grammy categories. I find Billie Eilish’s popularity very interesting. In a pop music industry that is saturated with highly-polished, highly-airbrushed, highly-sexualised artists singing often about superficial enjoyments of modern life, Eilish stands in stark contrast, with her trademark baggy clothes, green hair, and songs often with a deep and dark edge.
The Power of Music
Music is powerful. It is had the ability to unite warring societies (quite literally), to transform people’s moods and outlooks, and to transcend human logic and rationality.
And last Sunday, I think we caught a glimpse of part of what makes music powerful. Performances like those of Keys and Levato at the Grammys showed that music can allow us to both face the realities of pain and darkness in this world, and at the same time to transcend them. Through music, we can reflect, cry out and mourn suffering, but also use it simultaneously to create a moment of peace and harmony that can seem to escape and rise above the darkness. This desire for both facing and transcending the darkness was captured movingly in Levato’s lyrics:
I tried to talk to my piano I tried to talk to my guitar Talk to my imagination Confided into alcohol I tried and tried and tried some more Told secrets 'til my voice was sore Tired of empty conversation 'Cause no one hears me anymore
Music captures our deep human desire for transcendence. And that is part of the reason why I love playing music for others, and listening to it when life’s hardships hit.
The Desire for Transcendence
But it is interesting to dig deeper still, and explore the roots of our desire for transcendence. I am a Christian, and believe the bible is the word of God. And the bible gives a deeply profound answer to the question: where does our desire for transcendence come from?
In the story of the first Christmas night, the gospel-writer Luke describes the appearance of the angels to the shepherds watching their flocks by night:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ (1)
On this first Christmas night, the shepherds catch a glimpse of Heaven, and what is seen is a transcendent reality filled with singing! Or as Charles Wesley put it “Hark! The herald angels sing!”. I would suggest that, as much as we can analyse the effect of music on our cerebral neuronal impulses (which I did for an essay at university) music’s power cuts deeper, to the spiritual reality that our souls long for- a transcendent home in Heaven. According to the bible, the darkness of this world is very real and needs to be faced, but God has “set eternity in the human heart”(2). Our souls know that we were created for something more than this mortal pain-filled existence on Earth.
Therefore, I would suggest that the power of music is perhaps tangible evidence of a higher, spiritual, Heavenly realm, and of our human soul that longs for it. C. S. Lewis summarised this beautifully:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”(3)
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory