Sade, Sex, God and Gregorian Chant

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If you were mine
If you were mine
I wouldn't want to go
To heaven

A few nights ago, I was in an audience of 20,000 people in Washington, D.C., who all sang the words above as one voice. It was a concert by the superstar Sade, a 52 year-old woman who is part British and part Nigerian. Watching her perform, I was reminded of how the secular hostility to Christianity has made so many journalists not bad people -- although many of them are -- but bad writers. It has made it difficult to understand the most basic things about an artist like Sade. It has made it possible to miss that the best music, especially the best pop music, is about God.

When I reverted to Catholicism several years ago, I was pleased but also a little surprised to discover that the teachings of my Church actually made sense of the popular music I had grown up with and love. As I explained a couple years ago in the Washington Post, I found powerful parallels between the theology and philosophy of the Church and rock and roll.

Catholicism believes that, as the great theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand explored in his masterpiece Transformation in Christ, we can see things in the world that "herald God." A sunrise over the Atlantic ocean, a magnificent song, a child's laughter -- in these things we catch glimpses of heaven.

One of the most powerful forms of God's expression is, of course, music. Music speaks directly to and from the soul. Yet popular music is most often written about by secular humanists (at best). To me, this makes them not terrible people, but incomplete writers.

Take the Sade concert. Leading up to the show, the Washington Post ran a lengthy profile of the singer. The reporter touched on all the basic facts about her life -- that she grew up in England, was influenced by jazz as well as pop, and is a very private person who rarely tours.

But then something interesting happened. In a web-only blog extra, Post writer Chris Richards added some outtakes from his Sade profile. He asks her what kind of music she likes, and Sade replies, "I like really heavy music. I like heavy bass. Quite tough music. And I also love beautiful, light, spacious [music] like Arvo Part, Bach, Dolly Parton. Delicate music."

I found this answer, tucked away in a throwaway blog entry of cutting-room extras from the interview proper in the main paper, to be the key to understanding Sade's music. She refers to the music of Arvo Part. Part is an Estonian composer of classical and sacred music. Part utilizes a very minimalistic approach to his work; a simple note will repeat over and over again and not change tempo. He was inspired by Gregorian chant, and has written pieces based on the Beatitudes, St. John's Passion and the Te Deum.

In the Post, one of Sade's backing musicians noted how the singer "is really good at striping away" excesses in her music. The song "Cherish the Day," which Sade ended her concert with -- and which is quoted above -- is a powerful example of this. Sonically, the song is not much more than a simple "delicate" series of two or three chords layered with a light backing drum and cool synthesizer. But the effect is absolutely hypnotic.

Critics have ridiculed lyrics like "You show me how deep love can be/This is my prayer" for decades, but they actually represent one of the most powerful episodes in a person's life -- the time when one commits to love, with all the fear and anxiety that it entails.

And contrary to its reputation, popular music often expresses, in fact actually demands, a form of love that is in line with the Catholic understanding of love. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"), Pope Benedict defends the Church against the charge leveled by Nietzsche (and in modern times by people like Maureen Dowd) that the Catholic Church has stripped eros of its joy.

The pope notes that the old Greek idea of eros was a devine form of love that was often administered by prostitutes in the temple. The Church, Benedict writes, "in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing 'divine madness.' Far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited."

And in a line that should be read by every liberal in the world, the pope concludes, "An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in 'ecstasy' towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns."

Disciplined and purified. It's like the "stripping away" of excess that makes the music of Sade (and Arvo Part) so compelling. One of the many things I loved about Sade's brilliant performance the other night was how, although the atmosphere was electrifying and Sade's charisma is off the chart, people only rose to their feet at emotional high points -- her devastating rendition of "Is it a Crime?" comes to mind.

There was none of that dumb, fascistic demand for constant, never-ending adoration and ecstasy ("Everyone get up and put your hands together!") that you get from artists like Beyonce and Britney Spears. Sade is secure in her own skin. Her peace was won, I suspect, through many of life's difficult struggles. As she sang in the opener, "Soldier of Love":

I'm at the borderline of my faith,
I'm at the hinterland of my devotion
In the frontline of this battle of mine
But I'm still alive

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