Ambiguous Lyrics and Cultural Connotations? A Discussion on Wes King’s “The Robe”
You have probably noticed several posts over the last few months credited to our pseudonymous friend NewSoGoFan. The origin of these is quite simple: NewSoGoFan thinks up an idea and asks if I’d run it. Sometimes I say yes, other times no, but in one recent case I thought the discussion resulting from an idea was more interesting than the post itself would have been.
NSF: Here’s a song that really struck me yesterday as one that could work very well in an SG context. Hopefully it strikes you the same way (though of course it may not). But it was a popular CCM hit back in the 90s by an artist named Wes King. Wes has written some very strong material for other artists but has personally not received much recognition as an artist himself. But for example, he wrote the lyrics to Michael W. Smith’s “This is Your Time.” This song is called “The Robe,” and it actually became very popular when he released it himself.
Daniel: I have heard that song. In fact, I heard it on CCM radio enough that I’m not sure I personally want to hear an SG artist doing it.
NSF: I’d say that’s a lot less applicable here than with something like “The Basics of Life.” Now there I would totally agree with you!
Daniel: Let’s just say that my station must have played it more than yours!
NSF: Here’s something to keep in mind: Honestly, I think the question with these candidates isn’t so much whether you personally would or wouldn’t like to hear a particular song done SG style. The question is whether or not it could work effectively. And if you don’t think so, that’s worth something. But just saying you’re tired of the song… doesn’t seem as relevant. To me anyway. 🙂 And of course another obvious requirement is that the song be a good one.
Daniel: I think it’s a good song, but not a great song.
NSF: Oh, I already knew you didn’t like the song as much as I did. But that’s not what I meant. 🙂 And besides, you might like it better if [group name] did it.
Daniel: Actually, I suspect I still wouldn’t like it . . .
NSF: Here, I’ll bite. Why don’t you like it? I really am curious. To me, it has things like this going for it:
- Solid, biblical lyrics (always a must)
- Thoughtful lyrics, which goes beyond merely being biblical. Plus it uses a colorful bit of imagery (the robe of God clothing our nakedness) which isn’t a concept that occurs to most people when writing “come as you are songs”– maybe just the general idea of our being naked. But this song takes the theme a little further and is consequently more memorable and effective.
- Good melody, with a chorus hook that delivers and sticks in your head.
Obviously you are free to disagree with me on any of those points or add some complaints of your own. 🙂
Daniel: Several issues I have with the song:
- The focus around the line “come as you are.” The line itself is correct theologically—it’s not inherently incorrect—but there is also a major cultural connotation here. The “come as you are” theology of seeker-sensitive churches frequently plays out in such a way that the sentence could be completed “come as you are, stay as you are.” I have no problem with the line itself, but as it’s used in the culture—now that starts me off with a bad taste about the lyric.
- The lyrics don’t rhyme. Now, that doesn’t immediately strike a song out, it’s just a minus for me. Yes, I like some songs with lyrics that don’t rhyme, probably, but I admittedly can’t think of any just now.
- Songs can meander. But great songs can’t. So the main concept of the song is about the robe of God covering our nakedness. Great concept, and could make a great song. The chorus could even be the chorus of a great song. But the verses? Cold hearts, empty hands, tired feet . . . none of those suggest nakedness, the need for a robe. For the chorus to shine in solving a problem, the verses have to set up or at least hint at the problem. Nothing in the verses sets up the chorus.
- Musically, the melody is OK, but I really don’t like the electric guitar solo. I never have liked electric guitar solos, actually. Occasionally, I’ll tolerate them, but they’re just not my thing overall.
- And Wes’s voice – OK, it’s not as bad as Michael W. Smith, but it’s still too Smithian for my taste.
But the musical stuff is a minor sticking point. #4 and #5 can be erased with a translation. But the translation can’t solve a catchphrase that has been misappropriated, dismantled, and subverted by the most popular (or at least most advertised) strain of American Christianity. And it can’t solve a meandering verse lyric that fails to even do a fraction of what a verse setting up the payoff of the title hook should have done.
#2, #4, and #5 are all drawbacks, but #1 and #3 are the big ones for me. There may be a few points I’m not thinking of, so I’m reserving the right to say that the list is potentially incomplete. 🙂
NSF: All the musical complaints you brought up could indeed be erased with a translation. I happen also to like Wes’s voice and the guitar solo, but that’s not even relevant here.
As for the lyrics not rhyming—that’s just funny. Yeah, it’s a pet peeve of mine too, but you know why I got over it? Because I can’t think of a single song I like off the top of my head that doesn’t have at least one non-rhyming pair of lyrics. You yourself like many, many, many songs with lyrics that don’t rhyme. I could give you a copious list if you wanted one, but two off the top of my head are “Death Has Died” and “In Christ Alone.”
Daniel: ICA is a decent case in point. Death Has Died has, at least, some lyrics that rhyme, even if the chorus doesn’t.
The song has a number of good lines – a number of good ingredients, if you will. A number of great lines, even. It’s just that the recipe for combining them together isn’t what it could have been for the quality of the idea.
#1 and #3 are still the big sticking points, the two big ones (meandering lyrics and cultural connotations of the main hook) that make me hesitant to say yes. Everything else I could set aside.
NSF: Okay. One thought right away, more later. About the rhyming lyrics… I had previously assumed that it was a case of sloppy rhyming, but after listening to them again, I realized that they’re not even trying to rhyme. There’s a difference between lyrics that aren’t supposed to rhyme anyway and lyrics that are but don’t.
Daniel: Either way, they fail at rhyming, and Wes didn’t even try. 🙂 But since I’m a lyrics nut, it probably bothers me more than you. Either way, 2’s not as big as 1 and 3.
NSF: All right. Now let’s move on to the biggies.
1. Cultural connotations of the main theme: I completely understand your concern here and, like you, agree that there is far too prevalent an idea in our culture that “come as you are” is equivalent to “stay as you are.” As you noted, the phrase taken on its own may be biblically correct, but the problem is the interpretation people will put on it. They will over-emphasize the grace and mercy of God to the exclusion of our responsibility to crucify the old man, obey Christ, and walk in the light. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking, “Wait a minute… God loves me just as I am? You mean I get to go to heaven but I still get to keep all my old habits of sin? Wahoo!” As even Martin Luther would have told you, it is no advocacy of “works salvation” to be firm on the idea that we are supposed to change after our conversion.
That said though, I think it’s a bit too far in the other direction then to say that we cannot sing any songs that use the phrase “come as you are” simply because people might read something unbiblical into them. I think of this particular song as much closer to the hymn “Come Ye Sinners,” which goes like this…
Come ye sinners poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you
Full of pity, love and power
…than it is to the chorus from a highly popular CCM song called “Free To Be Me,” which goes a little something like this…
I got a couple dents in my fender
Got a couple rips in my jeans
Try to fit the pieces together
But perfection is my enemy
On my own I’m so clumsy
But on your shoulders I can see
I’m free to be me
Now you could say that even “Come Ye Sinners” could be twisted and massaged around to mean something like what “Free To Be Me” is communicating, but I think we can agree that between those two sets of lyrics, there is a great gulf fixed. Big difference between something correct and biblical which could be twisted around into something wrong if you tried hard enough and a lyric that just is… wrong. Incidentally, “Come Ye Sinners” even has a line about coming as you are, and it goes like this:
If you tarry til you’re better
You will never come at all
I believe that this may be much closer to what Wes had in mind when he wrote “come as you are,” particularly since the other lyrics of his song bear similarities to this hymn.
On to #3!
Verse lyrics that are unconnected to or unsolved by the chorus: Here I actually think your complaint is even less significant than #1. Referring to the lyrics, you said,
So the main concept of the song is about the robe of God covering our nakedness. Great concept, and could make a great song. The chorus could even be the chorus of a great song. But the verses? Cold hearts, empty hands, tired feet . . . none of those suggest nakedness, the need for a robe. For the chorus to shine in solving a problem, the verses have to set up or at least hint at the problem. Nothing in the verses sets up the chorus.
Strictly literally, that is true. If we wanted lyrics that directly suggested literal nakedness, I suppose they would have to be more… specific. But isn’t “nakedness” here being used as a metaphor for guilt, shame? I refer to Genesis 3:9-10:
And the lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
Compare with the reference in “The Robe” to “anyone who’s just afraid.” Or take the description, “Anyone who feels that they’re unworthy” and compare it with the story of the prodigal son, who comes and tells his father that he is not worthy to be called his son. What does the father do?
But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe [emphasis added], and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
Now, was the prodigal son literally naked, as Adam was? No. But he was ashamed. His life and sins were laid bare before the father (God). All was exposed, nothing hidden. So the term “nakedness” is a reference to the helplessness and shame of our fallen state as we come to the father, unworthy, afraid, and empty-handed. It is only when we surrender (as the song invites all sinners to do) that we are clothed in the robe of God’s righteousness, welcomed as sons and daughters once again, our guilty stains washed clean, our souls redeemed, and our reward assured.
Daniel: On #1: I would agree that there is a gulf between “Come Ye Sinners” and “Free to Be Me.” This song’s lyric itself is theologically correct, but I would still contend that the choice of the phrase “come as you are” as the key phrase in each verse was unfortunate due to its cultural connotations.
In American culture today, if you stand outside a church and tell someone “come as you are,” they’ll think one thing. On the other hand, try standing outside and tell them “come, ye sinners, poor and needy”!
On #3: Fascinating. With that explanation, the song does make sense on the metaphorical level.
But I think that great songs are understandable when you first listen to them. It is a plus if they also have a rich metaphorical meaning. But even if it has that, if a literally minded listener could not make sense of the lyrics, it may be good but cannot be great. 🙂
NSF: On #1: “The Robe” actually does have a line saying, “Come sinner, come and receive his mercy.”
On #3: Perhaps. But then, I never claimed that the song was great or a masterpiece, now did I? I merely wished to prove that the song was better, much better, than you appeared to be giving it credit for. Elusion of initial understanding need not always be a mark of greatness, to be sure, and many are intentionally obscure while under the illusion that they are being profound. But on the other hand, I do not think it a necessary mark of greatness for a song lyric to be easily understood.
Daniel: On #1: Point conceded. But my concern about the cultural connotations of the song’s key phrase leads me to not want to feature it here.
On #3: I thought you were making the case earlier that it was a great song. 🙂
Probably other genres can have a great song where the lyrics elude initial understanding. A few genres could even have a great song with intentionally obscure lyrics. So I think I need to modify my thesis: A great Southern Gospel song must have lyrics that are easily understood.
NSF: Actually, the initial goal was simply “good enough to let me write a column on it.” 😀
Daniel: Ah! Well, I think we’re coming out with a column at the end, even if the content will be a little different than originally intended. But I think this exchange (condensed, out of mercy to our readers) will be far more interesting!