For something like three generations now, rock music has been dividing generations. Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and almost every other band of importance has tended to produce both ecstatic young fans and outraged parents. This has long been a very large part of, if not the entirety of, the attraction. Rock was the music of emancipation from all authority–especially parental–and since it was mostly indecipherable to parents, it functioned as a sort of secret code shared by the young–along with winks, nods, and understanding glances. Rock concerts became the meeting grounds for secret societies of youth where they were dropped off by moms in station wagons who promised to pick them up at the end of the show and prayed nothing too bad would happen during the two-hour concert..
But now the tables have turned on the old paradigm. The world of rock has seen the emergence of something remarkably countercultural, centered on a popular rock band called Switchfoot, led by its singer Jon Foreman. I first noticed that something was amiss in rock when I attended a show at the House of Blues and noticed two generations of a family clapping, smiling, singing and enjoying a rock concert. I should have been watching the band on stage performing, but my eyes kept being averted upward to the balcony. There, Foreman’s father and mother were flanked by both sets of 70-something grandparents, who were having the kind of good time they probably hadn’t enjoyed since the Big Band concerts of the 1950s.
Could rock music, birthed in rebellion and habitually driving a wedge between the generations, actually be reborn as a great unifier? Could it actually allow generations to come together, explore the important issues–life, death, existence, and God–and come away from the experience with a song to whistle? If Switchfoot’s body of work–notably its newest effort “Nothing Is Sound“–is any indication, such a transformative shift is indeed taking place. And people are taking notice. Released with little hype and minimal publicity of the kind that has surrounded records from Kanye West or Ashlee Simpson, Switchfoot’s latest opened at #3 on the Billboard album chart. Its first single, “Stars,” appears poised to become a smash-hit single.
More often than not, what has kept rock from reaching its full potential for meaningful cross-generational discussion has been its obsession with matters of the flesh, along with a singular inability to sing convincingly about anything else. Switchfoot albums, however, have no such inhibitions. In fact, a cursory listen to Sound turns up at least two references to “entropy,” a term I once studied in high school but of whose meaning I had to be reminded (it is a measure of disorder, toward which the Universe is inexorably tending). Entropy is a big theme that runs throughout the album, and indeed much of Switchfoot’s work.
Rock has undergone an extreme makeover transformed the genre from a bastion of hedonism into a place where important issues are discussed. This is in no small part due to the presence of dozens of artists who are devout Christians and have chosen to explore their faith in the mainstream music industry. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that Switchfoot’s “Stars” isn’t about astronomy or astrology, but rather a reference to a passage in the Bible (Romans I), which talks about the knowledge of God being within all and confirmable by all through a single look into the heavens. Not since Van Halen’s Gary Cherone thanked the theologian R. C. Sproul in the liner notes and sang “Fire In The Hole” (a song based on James Chapter 3), has theology so effectively been smuggled into a rock song. By the time Switchfoot delivers the hook, “When I look at the stars I see someone else,” the urge to sing along is practically irresistible.
Although Switchfoot has roots in the world of Christian rock, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole the band because of that association. Foreman not only paints on a larger canvas, but is obviously paying attention to the likes of Bob Dylan, who once told a questioner who had asked him if he was happy that “happy is a yuppie word.” Foreman was listening, and a decade later responds with the song, “Happy Is A Yuppie Word,” in which, after running through a number of metaphors to describe the meaningless of life, he allows “I don’t believe the emptiness, I’m looking for the kingdom come.”
“The Shadow Proves The Sunshine,” a tender ballad that deals with depression, shows the Switchfoot’s range, while “Easier Than Love” is a smart commentary on American pop-porn culture and the damage that cupid suffers when sex is more readily available than love.
But even though Nothing Is Sound is a masterpiece, it is not without its flaws. “The Blues” finds Foreman sounding vocally too close to Bono for comfort, while “Golden” noticeably lags behind the album’s eleven other songs.. As for “Politicians,” while the line “I pledge allegiance to a country without borders, without politicians,” may be a populist-sounding declaration, it’s also awfully simplistic; right up there with declarations like “cafeteria food sucks!” (Which my friends used to shout in fourth grade.) Which politicians is Foreman talking about? Foreman doesn’t give his listeners a clue, and his fans can be forgiven for hoping for more thoughtful commentary on contemporary politics.
The CD ends with the band in top form, though, with the mesmerizing “Daisy,” in which Foreman again drops some theology when he compares God’s gifts to humanity to rain: “Look up at the rain, the beautiful display of power and surrender, giving us today when she gives herself away . . .who will take the blame for all redemptive motion and every rainy day, He gives himself away.”
“Daisy” also summarizes in one line the theme that runs throughout the whole CD: “This fallen world doesn’t hold your soul, Daisy let it go.”
All twelve songs acknowledge the pain and meaninglessness that can seem to overwhelm even the sturdiest of souls–but they still manage to find hope. Much like the world Switchfoot describes, this CD has both moments of sheer brilliance and some average ones. But the really big story that this remarkable band reveals is that rock has been using only a small fraction of its brain. With Switchfoot’s success, the genre’s potential to unite the generations and engage in meaningful dialogue about the truly important issues of life is only now starting to be realized.
–Mark Joseph is the author of Faith, God, and Rock + Roll: From Bono to Jars of Clay: How People of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music.