The strange lyrical overlap between modern worship music and pop love songs has always been a subject of fascination for me. The themes of devotion, idealization, and euphoria are equally suited to religious and romantic ecstasy: when I was a young teenager, it was exciting! Lots of classic rock songs could be enjoyed, after all, if you framed them as long songs about God!
As popular Christian bands went mainstream, it was also pretty common for crossover worship/love songs to be treated as "stealth" evangelism. That let us ignore unsettling contemplation of unrealistic idealization, unhealthy obsession, and emotional addiction, fortunately. What's fascinating to me is that that few artists seem to explore the flip side of these deus entendres: the sting and burn of betrayal, loss, and separation. In short, breakup songs.
A breakout Brooklyn area band by the name of Cults hit the indie scene about a year ago. Noisy, echoey pop songs with deeply melancholy are nothing particularly new, but their songs touched on darker themes than the usual stuff. Abducted took a breakup song and transformed it into a creepy story about emotional abuse and the strange, complicit relationship that exists when someone takes advantage of another's infatuation. Their second video caused some controversy, though: Go Outside used Weezer-like video tricks to weave the members of Cults into footage of the Jonestown cult.
Intimate scenes of ecstatic worship, laughter, and daily work ease into more ominous images of group gatherings and cult leader Jim Jones, the man who eventually orders his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. While some have argued that the video is disrespectful, seeing it was a lightbulb moment for me. The connection was made between the yearning desperation of Cults' lyrics, the profound horror of unhealthy or abusive religious practice, and the squicky synergy of worship and romantic love.
Tell me all the things that you thought weren't right about me and my life
Tell me there's a way that i can shake this cloud
and stand near to your light
I never wanted anyone to say that i have hidden myself in disguise
Please don't leave me lonely tell me all the ways
to make myself right in your eyes
But i can never heal myself enough for
Never heal myself enough for you
-Cults, Heal Myself
As someone who went through his own "breakup" with the faith that once filled his heart, it's impossible not to hear a similar story in their lyrics. It captures the desperate longing for love and completion, the need for connection, that can drive people to bend themselves to another's desires. It touches on the undercurrent of resignation that comes with knowing nothing will ever be good enough, and the hollowed-out disorientation that goes with it. Is it something they intended? Is Cults the first post-Christian indie worship band? It's hard to say, but it will definitely be in my rotation for a while.