Since the early 2000s pop artists who began their career in the music industry as children and desire to be taken seriously as artist into adulthood, will often make a move away from what are considered childish lyrical themes to more adult ones. What this typically entails are lyrics that are sexually-saturated, which put on display the artist’s new sexually “mature” nature. This also plays itself out in the visual presentation of these lyrics through music videos which are filled with sexually suggestive imagery. While this lyrical/image shift is often portrayed by those who report on the pop music world as surprising, this phenomenon is something that is often expected of younger artists so that they can still be viable in the music scene as adults.
This transformation can be seen in several pop artists from the past decade. In 2002 Christina Aguilera, at that time a 21-year-old, came out with an album titled Stripped, which not only implied a musical move away from the overproduced pop of the era but was a deliberate move on her part towards expressing her sexuality through her music. Not to be outdone by Christina, Britney Spears came out with her own album in 2003 titled In the Zone, which featured tracks such as Toxic and Me Against the Music both of which display a “new” Britney, now 21-years-old, who is no longer portraying herself as a virgin saint but one who is sexually-driven. In 2009, the then 16-year-old pop/country star Miley Cyrus gave a performance of Party in the U.S.A at the Teen Choice Awards, which included her dressing provocatively and dancing on a stripper pole. Her sexualized image continued in the lyrics and music videos of the songs on her 2010 album Can’t Be Tamed, with the music video to the title track being the most racy.
Only a few weeks ago, Justin Bieber, the pop singer and Youtube sensation, who recently turned 18, made this sexualized shift in his music with the release of the song and music video “Boyfriend”. Bieber no longer wants to be viewed as the boy of silly, childish love songs (such as Baby or Somebody to Love) but as a man who has sexual wants and desires, giving new meaning to the phrase “Bieber Fever”. As typical of pop music trying to express sexuality, Bieber sings the verse in hushed, velvety tones with a slight bit of cracking in his voice to indicate his sexual passion for his girlfriend. In the lyrics he hints at a sexual relationship between the two of them with lines such as “I can take you places you ain’t never been before,” “I can be a gentleman, anything you want,” “Tell me what you like, yeah tell me what you don’t,” and “I just want to love and treat you right.” While at face value these lines might seem innocent enough, the musical underpinnings behind the lyrics indicate to the listener that these phrases are meant to be taken with sexual overtones.
With all of these artists there is a musical progression that seems to flows logically from the simple love songs of their youth to the sexualized music of their adult years. So it is rather unsurprising as an artist grows in adulthood, in a culture where sex is treated as a “god”, that their image and lyrical content would follow this path. In a culture obsessed with sex is the only way to musical maturity through expressions of sexuality?
The Example of David
Take the example of King David second ruler of ancient Israel and a musician. As a young boy he played the harp for King Saul, creating music for Saul to “refresh” his spirit and send away an “evil spirit” that tormented Saul. (1 Sam. 16:23) But in adulthood, David’s musical creativity shifted towards creating music that glorified God, writing 73 of the 150 songs in the book of Psalms. Interestingly, David grew up in a culture that was also obsessed with sex, yet in his cultural context, sexual relations with many partners was supposedly legitimized through marriage to multiple wives or the kingly privilege of the concubine (an institutionalized form of adultery). David in growing up in Saul’s household saw this cultural sexual obsession through the relationships that Saul was involved in. Saul was only married to one wife (1 Sam. 14:50), however, he had an ongoing affair with Rizpah, the concubine, whom he fathered two children with. (2 Sam. 3:7, 21:8) David as king of Israel would marry seven wives (1 Chron. 3:1-5) and his son Solomon married 700 women and had 300 concubines. (1 Kings 11:1-3) God commanded in Deuteronomy 17:16-17 that if Israel was to appoint a king, that the king was not to “have too many wives.” But to understand what “too many wives” means we have to look elsewhere in the bible. The biblical principal of marriage can be found in Genesis 2:24 where it states that one man and one woman become one flesh. This marriage principal was also later confirmed by Jesus in Mark 10:6-9 and Matthew 19:4-6. So what Deuteronomy 17:16-17 is telling us is that the king should be a one woman man, however, none of the three kings kept this command.
In an ever increasing environment of sexualization in the Israeli royal household from one generation to the next, it might seem only logical and even a royal imperative that David would choose to write songs that explore his sexuality as the ruler of Israel with seven wives. However, a single event in David’s life can be instructive as to why David chose to write music that glorified God instead of glorifying himself and his sexual conquests.
In 2 Samuel 11-12 it recounts an affair that David had with a woman named Bathsheba, impregnating her and then sending her husband Uriah to the front lines of a battle so that Uriah would be killed. After Uriah’s death David took Bathsheba as his wife. Let’s stop right there. Do we understand that David is one messed up guy? He had an affair with a married woman, had her husband killed and then took the dead man’s wife as his own. When was the last time you heard a story like this in a pop song? The story does not end there though.
After these events, Nathan the prophet approached David about his affair with Bathsheba and then God rebuked David through Nathan. David was immediately repentant of what he had done and God took away David’s sin. When David goes to write a song about the events surrounding the affair, he does not glorify the sexual relationship he had with Bathsheba but he instead turns his focus towards repentance, hoping for salvation and glorifying God.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
In this Psalm we can see a musically mature David who looks not towards a glorification of sex but rather a glorification of God “my Savior” and wants to be restored to the” joy of God’s salvation”. Even in the midst of a sexually charged culture and his own sexual misdeeds, where a sexually-inclined song would have been expected and not surprising to the culture of ancient Israel, David chose instead to mature musically by moving closer to God. Here he looks forward and yearns for the day when the sacrifical system is no longer needed to cover sins but that the savior Jesus will cover them for those who accept him. Therein lies real musical maturity, music that points toward Jesus.