I think Burning by Maggie Rogers might be my favorite song of all time.
If you’ve never heard it, it’s a bop; I love the beat, and the verses all have this driving intensity that culminates perfectly in each chorus. Plus the song is about a life and a love so bright it burns in your chest.
The second verse of the song in particular is incredible. And it’s not even as much the lyrics; instrumentally, Maggie gives the guitar it’s own voice and lets it play a duet with her. You hear the two of them almost go back and forth for two brief sixteen counts, and I love it.
I’ve been reading a lot of Ecclesiastes recently.
It’s a part of the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, and the author, who calls himself Qoheleth, spends the book discussing the wisdom he’s learned while trying to pursue happiness.
This guy tried everything; material success, plugging into a religious community, the approval of the masses, pursuing deep friendships, building things worth passing on. and partying with endless booze and gorgeous women,
At the end of it all, he concludes the same thing; “All is vanity.” That word doesn’t just mean vain; it’s translated from a Hebrew word that could also mean “vapour” or “breath” or “chasing after the wind.”
Qoheleth says work, happiness, success, and even wisdom alike are all vanity in light of one simple thing. We all die. No matter how happy we can be in the moment, or how much we can achieve in the span of our lives, we all end up in a grave, to which we can take no material possessions, no achievements, and no other people.
In that Maggie Rogers song,
the second verse is only two sixteen counts long, and each of those start Maggie and the guitar on a home note, and then they swell above it for twelve counts, and then they return to where they started at the very end of the sixteen.
This pattern is pretty common; music theory tells us that any movement away from the home note (or tonic) begs for a return to that same note. Our ears know that as Maggie and the guitar together swell into the upper register, they’re going to have to come home.
But particularly in the second sixteen count of the second verse, the song drags out this return, and we’re held waiting until a final three note sequence that brings us back, satisfyingly, to the tonic.
In addition to all he says about vanity, Qoheleth also says the following;
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the [spouse] whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun….” (Eccl 9:7–10)
“Rejoice, young [one], while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes…Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” (11:9–10)
That seems to blatantly contradict everything else Qoheleth says in the book. Why enjoy a life that’s fundamentally without substance? Qoheleth spent his life doing all the things he recommended, and it clearly didn’t make him totally happy, so why would we do the same?
Writing several thousand years later, Albert Camus, an existentialist philosopher, describes something much like this tension;
We all aspire to happy lives; meaningful work, happy relationships, financial success, and the pleasure of letting loose every once in a while.
However, those desires are met with a world that promises pain, meaningless toil, abandonment, financial hardship, global pandemics and eventually, death.
We don’t often think about the contrast between our aspirations and the world we live in, for good reason, but when we do, “we experience what Camus labels “the absurd”; the mismatch between humanity desiring good, and a world that seems not to care.
I love a song that sounds better slowed down.
Some songs are less about the ideas they convey through their lyrics and more about the feeling they create in the listener, and with those songs, slowing it down is a godsend. As you sit for just slightly longer in the song, the feeling it creates sits with you more deeply.
This morning, I slowed down Burning to 85% of what it usually runs at, and listened to it exclusively to hear that second verse. I was also doing my morning devotional at the time, and considering the love of God for me today. As I came to that favorite part of the song, I wrote the following;
“The Love of God is the second verse of a song, where the guitar sings a duet with the vocalist, and as they strain into their upper register, we beg for a return to the home note. In between these two notes, the music stretches out, and time slows down, and the bass seems to be made of molasses, and you and I can sit for all our lives in the space between the straining and the return. Home.”
Jacques Ellul says the central message of Ecclesiastes is the following:
“In reality, all is vanity. In truth, everything is a gift of God.”
We often live somewhere between the two. It’s like the last three notes of the second sixteen count of the second verse of what may be your favorite song of all time; you’re begging for the tension to resolve, but unlike a song, life doesn’t.
We’re left to sit in the space between the build-up and the resolution. Some days, we feel more of the vanity; pain, loss, abandonment. Others, we catch hints of the tonic note we so long for; joy, good work, communion. But there’s nothing we can do to make the vanity go away and force the gift to come in fullness.
In his memoir Scary Close,
Donald Miller says the essence of love is not finding someone who completes you, but finding someone you can sit in your incompleteness with (as someone who isn’t married, I might add that probably needs to be finding a few someones, but that’s besides the point).
When you read this, you might be in a day of vanity. Or, today might feel like a gift. Or, maybe it’s somewhere between the two, or maybe you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re not feeling much of anything.
Earlier, the sun was just about to set. I put on a nice white shirt, and filled a plastic kiddy-cup with a nice cab, and took a walk around the University campus by my house. When I got home, I gave a friend a call, and then I finished writing this.
Wherever you are, I would urge you to pick up the phone, and just reach out to someone. It might be a significant other, or a family member, or a friend. But whoever it is, give ’em a call, tell ’em your favorite song of all time, and maybe ask them theirs.