In my last post, I wrote about the Christian singer-songwriter Bob Bennett, particularly his 1991 album, Songs from Bright Avenue, that dealt with the pain of divorce. In this post, I want to turn my attention to another Christian singer-songwriter, Randy Stonehill, who had a considerable influence on me as a teenager in the 80s. If you grew up in an Evangelical church in the 80s, chances are you heard the song “Shut-De-Do” by Randy Stonehill. If you were like me, and were attuned to the emerging “Christian rock” scene in the early eighties, I’m sure you’ll remember Randy Stonehill.
“Shut-De-Do” was on Stonehill’s 1982 album, Equator. As catchy as that song was, though, it wasn’t my favorite—oh I liked it for sure, but there were other songs that caught my attention even more…the funny, satirical songs that, in their own comic way, were a pretty astute assessment of the absurdities of our modern American society. That’s the thing I loved about Stonehill: he could write extremely thoughtful songs like “Turning Thirty,” or “Even the Best of Friends,” and beautiful praise songs like “Light of the World,” and then turn around like a court jester and slap you in the face with “Big Ideas (In a Shrinking World),” “American Fast Food,” and “Cosmetic Fixation.”
Given my sense of humor and overall sensibilities, these songs made a profound impact on me. I’ve never really gotten into the standard Evangelical church “worship music” for basically two reasons: (A) it often involved a choir singing music my grandparents might enjoy, but teenage me just found irritating and rather boring, and (B) much of the worship songs just seemed tepid and vanilla to me—I mean, really: “Yes Lord, Yes Lord, YES YES Lord”? That means nothing!
That is why I consider myself so fortunate to have grown up when the contemporary Christian music scene was filled with so much creativity, from the likes of Keith Green, Phil Keaggy, Daniel Amos, Petra, Sweet Comfort Band, Bob Bennett, Amy Grant, and a host of others…and of course Randy Stonehill. They wrote about real things, and not every song had to be a “full worship experience.” Here were Christian artists writing not only praise songs, but also songs about divorce, losing a friend, getting older…you know, everyday stuff, but from a very creative and reflective place through which their Christian faith just shown through their music. It’s not enough to say I “appreciated” that—those artists and those songs shaped my life and my entire outlook on the world.
And when it came to Randy Stonehill, I realized that a Christian could be satirical and funny, and speak subversive, Kingdom of God humor to a backward world, and do it in such a creative, lyrical, and poetic way. I can still sing those songs from memory, a good thirty years later. With that, I want to share a few of Stonehill’s songs that provide a rather humorous but biting social commentary.
Big Ideas (In a Shrinking World)
Are you, like me, fed up with the empty promises that come from Washington? Are you sickened by the madness and stupidity that is our current political system? Well, “Big Ideas (In a Shrinking World)” might be for you. Simply put, “Big Ideas” chastises all those politicians who trot out their “big ideas” you hear at every party convention and every political campaign, but then who turn around and just continue to let things go to hell. Politicians try to paint themselves to be the saviors of our society, but they are actually the ones most responsible for our society’s demise. If this song isn’t directly applicable to the fiasco that is the presidential campaign of 2016, I don’t know what is.
Consider the very first lines of the song. If they don’t get your attention, nothing will:
The economy is shrinking; our money is a joke
We should go back to trading seashells and just admit that we’re broke
And our food supply is shrinking; but we continue happily
Building condos on farm land, and dumping sewage in the sea
Stonehill doesn’t just address a crumbling economy and food shortages, though. He also mentions dirty water and air:
Our water is shrinking, all the pipes are in decay
But don’t think of it as water; it’s more like “soup of the day”
And our air supply is shrinking; the sky is turning brown
We’re getting cancer of the cancer, just from walking around
And then, at the end of the song, after talking about the saber-rattling some politicians often engage in, and the threat of nuclear war, Stonehill drops these lines:
And our compassion is shrinking; it’s the ultimate crime
’cause we could save the starving millions, but we can’t seem to find the time
Ouch…after a number of funny and clever lines that actually address serious problems, Stonehill then just hits us between the eyes: people are starving in the world, and we’re too busy with the incessant banalities that make up so much of American pop culture. Incidentally, Stonehill practices what he preaches. He’s worked with and for Compassion International for decades, working hard to “save the starving millions.”
In any case, interspersed throughout these stanzas are recurring refrains that talk about how people are always speaking about a “higher vision,” pointing to another “savior of the ages,” or a supposed “light in the darkness.” I take this to mean how we often virtually deify our political leaders and candidates—at least the ones we like (we obviously then demonize the opposing candidate!). Just consider the recent conventions: pep rally, political theater, and secular worship service for possibly the two worst candidates in history, both spouting off their “big ideas,” while nothing ever really changes.
Even as a teenager, what I took from this song was simple: don’t deify your political leaders. Hold them accountable if they’re not actually addressing the needs of society and the world.
American Fast Food
I’ll be honest, one of the reasons I loved this song so much as a kid was that there is a giant belch in the middle of it. But hey, it’s about American Fast Food—what do you expect? Do you want to guess what Stonehill’s opinion of American fast food is? If you guessed, “It’s crap!” you’d be right! The first line says it all: American fast food, what a stupid way to die…and it gets even better as the song goes on:
American fast food, what a stupid way to die
American fast food, order me the jumbo fries
It’s so easy and it’s trouble free
It’s quick and disposable, just like me
If I don’t stop eating this greasy American fast food
Well we’re undernourished, but we’re overfed
And we’re munching on the burger with the white bread
And we’re sucking up the sugar in a milkshake
Till we slip into depression with a big headache
And our arteries are crying out, “Give us a break!”
When Morgan Spurlock came out with his movie, Supersize Me, I thought this song would have been perfect for it. In any case, as you listen to the entire song, you have to laugh at how spot on truthful the song is: we Americans shove crap down our throats, even though we know full well that eventually what’s waiting for us is corroded arteries, heart attacks, and diabetes! Who cares? It’s a Happy Meal!
Now, I’m guilty as anybody in this regard. One of the things that got me to seriously cut down on my fast food intake was back in my late twenties, when I realized that numerous and painful canker sores I would continually get were due to whatever chemical is in MacDonald’s french fries. And the pounding headaches? Maybe having two venti mochas a day had something to do with it. In short, I eventually realized it wasn’t worth it. I still have the occasional Wendy’s cheeseburger, and I’ve traded my specialty coffees for just one cup of regular coffee per day.
In any case, I have to say it was Stonehill’s American Fast Food that planted that thought in my brain, “Joel, eventually you’re going to get to the point where you cut out all of that junk! Yes, it will happen…just you wait. It really is a stupid way to die…and since you’re going to die someday, at least be smart about it!” If nothing else, it’s a funny song…remember it next time you pull into the drive-thru.
And finally, there’s “Cosmetic Fixation”: a veritable prophecy of the sex-saturated, image-obsessed, Hollywood/Entertainment Tonight culture we’re living in today—and I thought it was bad back in the eighties!
Each stanza in the song paints another aspect of the “cosmetic fixation” of our society: the objectification of women, and seeing them as nothing more than conquests and trophies; how we put our entire sense of value into things like our cars and vanity plates; and the whole “lifestyles of the rich and famous” mentality—Stonehill reminds us quite bluntly: in the end, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But in the midst of this song (as you listen, you realize Stonehill is couching the entire song in an aura of silliness), there is this cutting lyric that gets to the real problem of each one of us and society as a whole:
We’re so concerned about keeping up appearances
And all the while we ravage our humanity
We’re so annoyed with the Truth’s interferences
And real values get sacrificed to vanity
Did you catch that? The more we try to maintain a certain “image,” and “keep up appearances,” the more we allow our very humanity to be ravaged and raped by the worldly idols of Mammon and Babylon. We don’t want the truth—it’s annoying; and in the end, real values are sacrificed for some form of “health and wealth gospel”—it doesn’t really matter if it is served by the likes of Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland, or in yet another show of “Entertainment Tonight.”
In the Middle Ages, the court jester wasn’t some buffoon. He often was highly insightful and smart. His “job description,” if you will, was to play the fool, and revel in absurdity—and by doing so, actually make cutting critiques and potent political and social commentary that served as a challenge to his audience.
I’ve always seen Randy Stonehill as sort of a court jester in that regard. He put out seemingly silly and absurd songs like these to get you to laugh, but then at some point, you’d actually listen to some of the lyrics, and end up going, “Oh…ouch…point taken!”
Randy Stonehill’s early music still has a place in my heart. It was simply phenomenal. And yes, he has plenty of heart-felt serious songs about life and about following Christ. But for me, these satirical songs loom large. As funny as they are, they also hit on a number of social concerns and issues that I just assumed all Christians shared. Given our current political climate, it wouldn’t surprise me if some people’s reaction to a song like “Big Ideas,” is, “That Stonehill sounds too liberal!”
Now, I don’t know his political views, but I find it sad that caring about things like clean air and water, concern for growing violence, and caring for the poor is somehow deemed “liberal.” All Christians should be concerned about these things and should want to address those needs and concerns. How one thinks they should be addressed might determine if you are a “conservative” or “liberal,” but if you’re a Christian, I think it goes without saying that you should want to see such social concerns addressed and resolved.
But that’s the extent of political discussion I’ll engage in here. Just listen to and enjoy Stonehill’s songs…and maybe let yourself be convicted along the way.