If the 1980's was the decade of excess, then the 1990's was the "toned down with cautious introspection decade". Sure, the music of the 90's was riddled with party anthems and obnoxious dance songs (thanks Macarena and Mambo No. 5). In the snippets of thought-provoking lyrics, however, many secular artists found curious ways to intermingle God into their songs.
At the time, you could place said lyrics into two different categories: genuine philosophical pondering or convenient invocations made in mocking (or perhaps not) reverence towards a higher power. It was easy to discard the lyrics in some songs or roll your eyes in others, noting any inclusion of God was directly hypocritical to the lifestyle of the singer.
Looking back at those songs now, maybe their words need to be given more creedence. The songwriters with guitars and drum beats may have had deep theological thoughts and penned them into hit songs. What can we learn from music in the 90's and what it said about God? Let's take a look at 11 different songs from the decade...
"Counting Blue Cars" by Dishwalla
We said, "Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I would really like to meet her
And ask her why we're who we are.
Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I am on my way to see her
So tell me am I very far, am I very far now?"
What sticks out first and foremost in this song is that the band refers to God as her which invokes discussion in and of itself. But what this song really does is give us justification for asking questions. "Blue Cars" goes on to talk about asking "many questions as children often do." Any parent will tell you kids ask "why" about everything under the sun (and above it and around it). The lyrics are a bit puzzling, because if I'm on my way to meet God, I don't really need to know your thoughts. But I bet God would wonder why we're only counting the blue cars, and not the red or yellow ones.
"Only God Can Judge Me" by Tupac
"Oh my Lord, tell me what I'm livin' for
Everybody's droppin' got me knockin' on heaven's door
And all my memories, of seein' brothers bleed
And everybody grieves, but still nobody sees
Recollect your thoughts don't get caught up in the mix
Cause the media is full of dirty tricks
Only God can judge me"
The curious consistency of the use of God in rap music can't really be explained. Tupac uses more curse words than a Quentin Tarantino flick, but unlike any of those bizarre movies, Pac actually has a point to much of his music. He details life as a gang member growing up, speaking to the violence and poverty he experienced. We can get caught up in the hypocritical hyperbole that many "sex, guns, drugs, and God" hip-hop lyrics have, but we need to zoom out and appreciate the entire picture Tupac is painting here: the ultimate judge of one's life is God. No one else. And even when it's mixed up among vulgar four letter words, music that cries out to God for hope or just some understanding shows, if nothing else, authenticity.
"What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes
"And I pray, oh my God do I pray
I pray every single day
For a revolution
And so I cry sometimes
When I'm lying in bed
Just to get it all out
What's in my head
And I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream at the top of my lungs
What's going on? "
In a decade rife with one-hit wonders, this random sing-along from 4 Non Blondes sticks out as not only a unique name, but a song that blurs the line between confusion and drug abuse. It's difficult to know if the singer is really praying to God, or if this is just a cry to whomever will listen that, for pete's sake, we need a revolution (or whatever that means). This song was proof that even those who are deep into drugs are looking for God in their own peculiar ways.
"God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You" by N'Sync
"Your love is like a river
Peaceful and deep
Your soul is like a secret
That I never could keep
When I look into your eyes
I know that it's true
God must have spent...
A little more time
The bubble gum pop of the 90's is a lot like ordering a Big Box from the Taco Bell drive-thru at 11:00 p.m. At the time it's great, and you can't get enough of it, and oh my gosh can you believe how good this fiery nacho Doritos taco is? But then later on you look back and can't believe you were naive enough to think that was a wise food decision. Such is the case with much 90's pop, but none more so than perhaps the worst love song of all time. As if the shifting world views on God weren't puzzling enough, this song paints the neurotic picture that God spent more time on (insert random girl's name here) than He did on anyone else in the world. But could that also lead us to assume that much time was needed to work out various flaws and imperfections?
"Round Here" by Counting Crows
"Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand
she said she'd like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis
she walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land
just like she's walking on a wire in the circus
she parks her car outside of my house
takes her clothes off
says she's close to understanding Jesus
she knows she's just a little misunderstood
she has trouble acting normal when she's nervous"
If you really wanted to, you could spend time on Google searching out the meaning of song lyrics. I've done that some, and while it can be fascinating to read responses and theories, it can also take away from your own interpretation of the song. In "Round Here", Maria is someone on the brink of chasing a dream and/or mental collapse. Perhaps being attacked by a mental illness she can't possibly control on her own. And certainly stripping naked and talking about spirituality is strange, but so are many things in life we see that we don't understand. Jesus, from our view as Christians is a Savior who loves us. To many, however, He is ripe for pop culture references as a man who is a complete enigma. A man who couldn't possibly love like the Bible says He did: unconditionally. Perhaps Maria is looking for perfect love from a perfect Savior; something she's never known before.
"Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs 'N Harmony
"God bless you workin' on a plan to Heaven
Follow the Lord all 24/7 days, God is who we praise
even though the devil's all up in my face
But he keeping me safe and in my place, say grace
to the gates we race without a chance to face the judge
And I guess my soul won't budge"
As we've discussed, the first judgement about rap music in it's seemingly consistent references to God is...hypocrisy. Bone Thugs traditionally spends many of their raps talking about selling drugs and/or running from cops and/or resorting to gang violence. To hear any song from them talking about following the Lord is odd. I've had trouble with this myself over the years, but it's not hard to see that likewise I too speak vile things sometimes with the same mouth I praise God. This isn't easily tied to Bone's reference to God, however, as they don't seem terribly upset over lyrics that prompt that warning label on the bottom corner of CD covers. If anything, it does show us that even in dark twisted lyrics, many rappers still realize the sovereignty of God and His Lordship.
"What If God Was One Of Us?" by Joan Osborne
"If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?
And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home?"
Of all the songs from the 90's that talk about God, this might be the one that sticks out the most. Largely because the entire song is about God. What is He like? What would you ask Him? What if He was just like us? Perhaps Osborne wrote this in a mocking tone with the "yeah, yeah God is great" lyrics, but if we were to look at a potential deeper meaning, she may have just been fed up with the blind praise given, and wants to truly understand God.
"Unanswered Prayers" by Garth Brooks
" Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers"
I used to hate this song. When it first came on the radio, I thought it was a careless shot at God for being unconcerned with our prayers. I was also 10 years old focused on mastering Super Mario Bros. 3. As I grew up and experienced prayers that seemingly get no further than the ceiling of the bedroom, I gained a lot of respect for this song. It isn't a statement on God not caring about our desires, but rather one teaching us patience to wait for what God has in store for us. Whether it's a high school flame, a career move, or other decisions life brings us, God always answers our prayers. It's just a matter of whether it's in the manner we anticipate.
"Waterfalls" by TLC
"I'd seen a rainbow yesterday but too many storms have come and gone
Leaving a trace of not one God giving ray
Is it because my life is ten shades of gray?
I pray, all ten fade away, seldom praise him for the sunny days"
If you heard TLC's hit song "Waterfalls" only on the radio, then you probably got cheated out of the version where Left Eye drops a phenomenal rap. I was always curious as to why radio stations edited out the rap because there are no real questionable lyrics in the song. The song does go after serious issues such as gang violence, drugs, and promiscuity. And in the rap, Left Eye spits positive vibes overall, acknowledging the relevance of God and the hard-to-face reality that we seek God for validity in our worst times, wondering why He allows storms to come our way. The line "seldom praise Him for the sunny days" applies to many of us.
"My Own Prison" by Creed
"I cry out to God
Seeking only his decision
Gabriel stands and confirms
I've created my own prison"
I consider myself somewhat of a Creed apologist (don't judge me). I love the fact a band can exist clearly in the secular music scene while tackling the issue of spirituality. "My Own Prison" is dark, grungy, and self-convicting in the realm of sin and its tremendous consequences. Rather than being a song that makes a small reference to God off the cuff, the lyrics in its entirety discuss the pain of sin, what can happen when we live in it, and in a hidden reprieve, acknowledgement of the fact that we should be dead. The grace of God gives us life.
"Everything Falls Apart" by Dog's Eye View
"I met God this afternoon
Riding on an uptown train
I said, "Don't you have
Better things to do?"
He said, "If I do my job
What would you complain about?"
Secular songs that refer to God are interesting. Secular songs that refer to having one-on-one dialogue with God on a train are really interesting. This whole song is about life falling apart, or, to be less dramatic, life not going the way we want it to go. So we ask God why aren't you helping out my situation? It reverts back to Garth Brook's song "Unanswered Prayers". We don't think that God is doing His job when things aren't going our way. Our vain attempts to put God in our own box are so narcissistic, aren't they?
That's how 90's music was. Self-deprecating at times, but more so filled with questions and why life is against us. These 11 songs show us more than callous views towards a God many of us love. They show questions. They show sincere doubts and at times, sincere reverence. If nothing else, they opened doors to conversations about God. Your thoughts on Him, your questions on Him, your frustrations with Him. Things we all experience. Much like children often do.