Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gadflies and Mosquitoes

Anger motivates me. It makes me pick up my pen. More than beauty or pride of craft or (I'm ashamed to admit) truth and justice, anger sets me in my seat and moves my hand across the page. A jolt of it causes the ideas snap to attention unlike anything else. It's a blessing for a writer, but also a curse. Because for every potent and enduring work that owes its existence to anger, there are dozens of small-minded screeds that claim the same father.

A metaphor might help here. Let's compare rage's children to two insects -- the gadfly and the mosquito. One of the more common kinds of gadfly is the horsefly, a big, black, buzzing thing that likes to circle you all day long with seemingly unending stamina. Yes, it's unpleasant, but while the bug may bite any equine you happen to be riding, its primary danger to humans is annoyance. Not so the mosquito. Sure, sometimes it'll announce its presence with the whining hum of its tiny wings. But your attention really isn't what it wants. No, it's after your blood.

Now an accompanying illustration. There's a folk musician I used to like, an iconoclastic singer-songwriter whose canon touches on everything from religion to race to politics. On his first album, he unfolded a shocking metaphor to describe his relationship to the divine and, by proxy, ours, namely that of an unfaithful wife to her husband. ("I am a whore I do confess, / But I put You on just like a wedding dress / And I run down the aisle.") While it certainly wouldn't have gotten played on mainstream radio, the song surprises more than it offends, because its author implicates us through artistry and subtlety, through telling it slant. But on his latest album, all respect for his audience has disappeared, as has the figurative language and consistent rhyme structure. Addressing the problem of world hunger, he blurts, "We sit just like we don't give a shit / About fifty-thousand people who are dying today."

Respect for the audience -- perhaps that's what separates the gadfly from the mosquito. It's easier to take your lumps when you believe the artist has your good as his goal. Thinking he primarily wants to make you hurt, wants to claim his pound of flesh makes it well-nigh impossible. Of course, respect runs both ways. Gadflies get listened to; mosquitoes get slapped.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


B. Nagel said...

I really, deeply liked his first album for his words but haven't heard any of his other stuff. Even before he went solo I could only take so much of his vocals. He sings too much in his nose.

I did not know the word screeds. :(

Loren Eaton said...

Screed is such a wonderful word. So evocative!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I almost wrote a post on that song.

Basically, and I'm all for cussing and raging in Christian art, I'm not a fan. I wanted to be, but I'm not.

Partially, it is because that line comes out of nowhere. Very few people make a choice between hating homosexuals and giving money to the starving. Many Christians are destructively reckless with their words about homosexuality, but probably are far more generous than I am when it comes to giving money to the poor.

I think it is this patently false dichotomy that makes the song noisier and less powerful than it should be. The only point of the line seems to be, as you pointed out, to alienate the reader.

It'd probably be a far stronger song if the profanity came from an obvious attempt to include another viewpoint. I am no Derek Webb, but I'll give a line that seems to respect the audience much more:

"Cause we can talk and debate until we're blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he's comin' to save / And all those lost Jesus Christs who are lyin' in the street / Hear just how fucked up they are, and how we think that they're shit / Tell me, brother, what matters more..."

More crude? Yes. Possibly more irritating. But it works better because it doesn't establish the singer-audience relationship as one of mocker-idiot.

ollwen said...

Am I the only one who gets bit by horseflies?

Seems like social-justice mainly/only folks tend to run afoul of those false dichotomies.

Loren Eaton said...

I don't want to talk too much about the artist or the song's content for a few reasons. First, the song is pretty inflammatory no matter your religious beliefs or moral convictions. Second, ISLF is primarily a writing blog, although I probably do dabble a little in other areas here. That being said ...

Loren Eaton said...


I agree: Your version does remove the condescention, which I think you cannot have toward an audience. (It also reminds me a little of U2's "If God Will Send His Angels" and a certain song from the artist's original band. People aren't idiots or masochists; creative types cannot treat them that way.

Regarding the profanity, I'm more comfortable -- if that's the right word -- with it in a narrative than in lyric verse. There's something about saying it yourself instead of saying it through a character that doesn't quite click with me.

Loren Eaton said...


Argh! There goes my metaphor!

Social justice types fluctuate, I think. Bono's been all over the map. Just compare the above with "Yahweh."

B. Nagel said...

I've been bitten by a horse fly. I think it's because we're half centaur, ollwen.

Just listened to the song in question on youtube. Sounds more like 1996 Newsboys.

Maybe he's attempting to jolt his audience out of complacence a la Fight Club. But, like Palaniuk, his audience knows what to expect. That's why I think this album is going to have a similar lifeline to Rant. Both offer something in the way of technical advancement, but it's all the same stuff, the same lurid/vivid details, the same shocks that no longer land.

Loren Eaton said...

The only Palahniuk I've ever read was the short story "Guts" in the Eighteenth Annual Edition of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. It was so gruesome that it made me feel light headed. I've never had that happen before.

A centaur with a crossbow would definitely beat a minotaur with a crossbow in battle, by the way.

Loren Eaton said...

Eh, that should read "minotaur with a trident." I will go punish myself now.

ollwen said...

My dad once wrote some short stories about some centaurs, and the aliens that land on their planet and embroil them (or at least the main character) into some Star Trekish kinds of adventures.

I'm pretty sure most people get bit by horseflies, and actually (compared to mosquitos) they hurt. I do remember little house-fly like flies in the serengeti that would follow you around for a chance to get some water off your skin/eyes/etc.

While we point out the social justice (over)emphasizers' false dichotomies, they can justly point out our cloistered, inactive intellectualization. It takes all kinds.

ollwen said...

Here's an interesting writing topic: after reading CR's post about this song, I started thinking about the mid lyric subject hopping and how common it is in modern (Americana) song-writing. It creates a lot of subjective mental gymnastics in the thoughtful listener to try and track down what the writers were getting at. It can be great when it's done intentionally and skillfully, but often it seems like a songwriter just can't stay in rhyme and on topic. In comparison to poets and songwriters of years gone by, could we say that they're setting their sights too low, from a lyric writing perspective?

Loren Eaton said...

That sound you hear is the shattering of my carefully planned horsefly metaphor. Smash! Crash! Tinkle!

I definitely think the current crop of songwriters is subpar in the lyrics department. I tried to listen to some of Lady Gaga when she started charting high and couldn't believe such tripe actually got produced.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


The problem is that, once, Derek Webb was nearly a subject-jumper par excellence. (Not Dylan-level, but then who is?) His confusions of prepositions and perspective, especially when talking about God, was pretty crazy-nifty:

"Give me your [my love's] hand to hold / 'cuz I can't stand to love alone / and love alone is not enough to hold us up we've [my love and I?] gotta touch your [God's] robe / so swing your [God's] robe down low"

I can't quote from memory, but he seems to have done some really cool stuff in She Must and Shall Go Free intentionally confusing God, himself (as a Christian), and the Church.

But in my book it's a technique that must be done obsessively, or not at all. Either you should stick to one subject, or you should completely throw the reader for a loop.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Loren: How's that for getting back onto the writing-blog tracks?

Loren Eaton said...

Nicely done, CR! Nicely done.

Ben of BenandJacq said...

With respect,I think you've missed the point of the line. It's not about world hunger, as I read it, but about Jesus. People are dying without Jesus, and the whole of christendom is in an uproar about the word "shit." It's a line that Tony Campolo once used, I believe.

And that doesnt alienate me, it challenges me. Furthermore, he uses first person plural in the line. He's pointing fingers at himself, too.

What is the point? What's the biggest deal? Is it homosexuality, or language, or Jesus? That's the point, as I read it.

Loren Eaton said...


Thanks for stopping by! It's always good to have new folks with new perspectives. I hope you'll stay with us.

Plenty of ink (or, rather, electrons beamed over the InterWebz) has been spilled over the specifics of this particular song, and I think I'll avoid further elucidation. My original point had less to do with a particular interpretation than the author's attitude, his shift from respecting his audience to disrespecting it.

If you're interested in detailed interaction with the song, a post from regular commenter Chestertonian Rambler goes more in depth. I think he was quite equitable in his evaluation.