So let’s talk late 90s’ pop tunes!
Specifically: how one of them came to be played at the Inauguration…and how it reminds me, of the emotional richness from singing Gospel, many years ago. A richness that can help, to push back a bit of the darkness.
Let’s start with the song — “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals, aka Beau Biden’s “theme song” as he fought cancer…:
…and a One-Hit Wonder. Yet, despite it’s seemingly ephemeral nature, so many of us who heard it at that time, kept it close to our hearts. As a struggling dancer myself, it was a massive uplift for me.
And for a Beau Biden who, years later, would struggle with something much more serious in his life? It became a balm, one he passed onto his “old man” — a man who is now our President, and who had the band come back from the dead to play the song at his Inauguration.
But why this song? And what the heck does any of this pop pablum, have to do with the long and treasured history of Gospel Music?
So let’s dive into Joy…and Pain. How “life is more, than mere survival.”
I suspect Beau and Joe came to this song for the same reason a lot of us did — because it made us feel, deep in our gut, emotions we don’t always acknowledge in our words and deeds — that we feel we cannot. And said feeling was of a song that, despite its catchy tune, despite lyrics reaching out for joy, it’s also drenched in — and it’s infamous ending reeks of — pain. Of a loss, of control over our lives, and screaming out for that to change.
And if it can’t change, much like the Serenity Prayer, you learn to accept.
In that, yeah, it reminds me of the Gospel I sang, as a kid.
Gospel Music (and in this, I’m laser-focused on the songs from the African-American tradition) has a lot of emotional power, power that comes from shared burdens and pain. By its very nature, both coming from the long history of Christianity, and the specific “out of bondage” narrative of the African-American traditions, they are oftentimes songs about finding joy in the worst of pain. The old saying of “Making a way out of no way” is richly echoed by “You Get…” without aping or appropriating, and that gives it a ton of power that helps explain it’s near-cultish survival.
When the Florida Mass Choir sings that Jesus “makes my bridge over troubled waters/makes my hope — hope! — for tomorrow,” yeah, it’s a Christian version of “You Only Get…”‘s chorus around “One dance left, this world is gonna pull through/Don’t give up, you’ve got a reason to live”. Both are reminders that there’s power in sharing our burdens, a topic I expect to return to, in my tenure here.
But more critically, Gospel does this not in the style of a hopeless, painful singing style, not in ways that drag down the actual listening experience. You learn to sing Gospel as an act of defiance, of joyous surrender to the moment, and to God/Jesus (yes, that’s a whole-assed topic itself…). Gospel taught me, and “You Get” reinforces, that you can sing about horribly painful subjects, about the ugliness of the world around you, and do so in ways that empower you to step into tomorrow.
That’s…not for everyone, to say the least. Toxic Positivity is a real thing, and so is real no-joke Depression that turns everything dark, with no light from anything. These words, my writing here today, should never be used to mask or force people into some “damned light”.
But, in the aggregate, they do matter. Pushing back fear, always matters. Building connections, especially across the boundaries of artifice and culture, always matters.
And if me building a connection between a lamented son’s favorite song, and a musical style that lifted up millions for decades, helps you, today? I’m glad.
And if it just confused you? Well, welcome to the fun house that is my mind.