There’s been a lot of talk on the Interwebs lately about the “controversial” new album from Christian musician Derek Webb, Stockholm Syndrome. The controversy seems to be primarily over one particular song on the album, “What Matters More”, due to the song’s use of the word “shit”.

I don’t really do music reviews, but after listening to the album for several days, I did want to weigh in with a few thoughts on it.

First, lyrics aside, let me make a comment about the music. I would describe the style as experimental, synth-heavy electronica with moments of dissonance and incongruity. (See, this is why I don’t do music reviews.) Some have compared it to Wilco and Radiohead, which is probably a fair comparison. Sometimes the music works (“Black Eye”, “What You Give Up To Get It”) and sometimes it severely gets in the way (“The State”, “American Flag Umbrella”).

But the music is a key component to understanding the deeper message of the album. Dissonance in music is meant to create tension, to make the listener intentionally uncomfortable, and it frequently does so here. This isn’t a feel-good album that you would likely queue up on your iPod while cruising around town on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Instead, it’s an often heavy, sometimes depressing manifesto with serious themes and a specific purpose.

The tension created by the music serves as a natural backdrop for those themes. Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which a hostage develops an emotional attachment to his captor. In such a situation, you would expect to find conflict and resistance, but instead you find loyalty. In the same way, Webb argues, we as Christians have “married our conscience to the State”.

Typical for Webb (a Libertarian), most of the songs on Stockholm Syndrome have political undertones (or overtones) and/or address controversial social issues in the Church such as homosexuality. And “What Matters More”, while getting most of the attention, isn’t the only song to push the envelope lyrically. “Freddie, Please”, a song about a deceased homosexual watching his own funeral, uses the word “queer”, and a few other songs mention sex and drinking. Suffice it to say, while some of that has to be taken its proper context, this isn’t an album I would listen to in the car with my two young daughters.

But of course this album isn’t really targeted at kids, it’s aimed at adult Christian believers. Just as the music invokes tension and discord, the lyrics are deliberately designed to be raw, uncomfortable, and controversial. They’re meant to provoke a response — even if it’s a negative one — and to an extent, that strategy appears to be working. Webb’s record label, INO Records, will only release an edited version of the album (minus the “s” word), and their stance has naturally generated a lot of buzz and curiosity, driving sales of the original version on Webb’s website.

As for “What Matters More”, the song is pretty much a musical adaptation of the quote from Tony Campolo: “50,000 people around the world died of hunger today. That’s bad, but what’s worse is that most of us don’t give a damn. But what’s even worse is that for many of us, it is more bothersome that I just said the word ‘damn’ than that I said 50,000 children of God died of hunger.” If you agree with Campolo’s argument, you’ll probably agree with Webb’s song. But personally, I’ve always thought such an argument was extremely arrogant, as if to say Christians don’t have the ability to condemn sinful behavior as long as there are starving people in the world.

In “What Matters More”, Webb slams Christians who disagree with homosexuality for the same reason:

Say you always treat people like you’d like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
‘Bout what you believe, make you sound like a freak

‘Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
You wouldn’t be so damn reckless with the words you speak
Wouldn’t silently consent when the liars speak
Denyin’ all the dyin’ of the remedy

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you? Huh?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you? Huh?

If I can tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about
Yeah it looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin’ the wind while the pendulum swings

‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that He’s comin’ to save
Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you? Huh?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

Brother, what matters more to you? Huh?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?
Tell me, what matters more to you? Huh?
Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?

This isn’t the first time Webb has caused controversy with his music (see here and here), and he knows exactly what he’s doing. There was no way the label was ever going to release the album as-is, which is exactly his point. (For the record, I think the controversy over a couple of cuss words is way overblown.) That said, if his goal is to offend and alienate a portion of his audience so that he can appear to take the moral high ground, then that’s not constructive, it’s conceited.

After listening to the album multiple times, I can certainly appreciate the artistic vision of it. Not all art is happy and pretty, and neither is Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a difficult album to digest, and if nothing else, it’s at least prompted a number of discussions about issues that need to be discussed within the Church. Nevertheless, while I understand the message Webb is sending with his latest effort, I can’t say that I fully agree with it.

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