The Personal Universal

The Personal Universal

Last week I got to ask Rob Bell a question on the Midrash NYC podcast about the personal universal.  We were talking to him about his brand new book “How to be Here” when Rob started riffing about the universal and the particular and it reminded me of this thought that I blogged a while back on the Guild Creatives site.  I thought I would reblog it here for sake of posterity.  But first here’s that Midrash NYC podcast with Rob:

Bjork is one of my favourite artists.

If you haven’t heard her latest album got leaked & she responded by making her album available digitally months ahead of schedule.What I’ve always liked about her as an artist is her vulnerability & the way she tell pieces of her story at a time, exposing aspects of herself as a woman, mother, lover & even warrior.

These are her words about this latest album:

“i guess i found in my lap one year into writing it a complete heartbreak album . kinda surprised how thoroughly i had documented this in pretty much accurate emotional chronology …. like 3 songs before a break up and three after . so the anthropologist in me sneaked in and i decided to share them as such . first i was worried it would be too self indulgent but then i felt it might make it even more universal . and hopefully the songs could be a help , a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is : the wound and the healing of the wound . psychologically and physically.”

These words stopped me:

first i was worried it would be too self indulgent but then i felt it might make it even more universal

This tension between the personal & the universal.

I’ve spoken about this to a number of creatives over the last few years & often complained that in university songwriting class I was encouraged to write “universally” & not let specific or personal details lock others out of a song. But as I’ve walked through life I’ve found lines that stay with me are not the generic & universal pop lyrics about being so in love that you’re on fire or some other crappy metaphor. I’ve found lyrics that rattle around my head years later are words like “carparts & bottles & cutlery” (from Bjork’s “Hyper Ballad”) or that hauntingly romantic story from verse 3 of Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”:

Next door, there’s an old man who lived to his 90’s
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away

There’s something about the specific &/or the intensely, intimately personal that gets me every time.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

In 2011 Aussie artist Gotye’s track “Somebody That I Used to Know” blew up and reached number one in more than 23 national charts and charted inside the top ten in more than 30 countries around the world. By the end of 2012, the song became the best-selling song of that year with 11.8 million copies sold (source: Wikipedia). Today it has 595 million views. My wife and I went to his sold out show at Webster Hall. When he sang that song the crowd bellowed like a football stadium but there was one particular line that they sang with a peculiar ferocity. That moment felt like a collective mourning.

No you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
This is a very specific breakup that I’ve never heard anyone recount to me and yet 11.8 million people seem to resonate with this song & many sing along with this line & own a part in its intensely personal story.

So I’m going to ask a big question.

Is it possible that the more personal we are, the more universal we are?

Think about the Psalms for a second. These private thoughts, sufferings, struggles of mostly Jewish men penned thousands of years ago are still claimed by people of faith today & sung, prayed, chanted with the same intensity. Psalm 139 with its imagery of flight and its ache of trying to escape from God’s presence remains a favourite with Christians all over the world.

There is one thing I’m sure of. The world does not need more general, kitschy lyrics about walking on water & just how great God’s love is. They need art that bleeds it, stories that scream it and pictures that tell millions of specific, memorable, unforgettable words.

So lets be better artists, humans & Christians. Its not business. Its not universal. Its highly personal.

Still haven’t had a chance to listen?  Don’t miss this episode:

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