Emeli Sandé and romantic transcendence

Emeli Sandé’s Our Version of Events is, so far, the biggest-selling debut album of 2012 in the UK. Unusually for the holder of such a title, it is also actually rather good. Sandé is a young Scottish musician who already has an impressive list of songwriting credits (she’s written for Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Cheryl Cole, The Saturdays, …); anyone who heard her sing ‘Abide with me’ unaccompanied during the Olympic opening ceremony will have spotted that she has a fine voice also.

The album would not be difficult to mine for Christian themes: the opening song, ‘Heaven’ is a lament over personal weakness and failure – ‘O heaven, I wake with good intentions, but the day it always lasts too long…’; ‘My Kind of Love’, which I’ll discuss in a moment, could be heard in very theological ways; and ‘Read all About it (Pt III)’ is such a great tune, with such obviously applicable lyrics, that it seems destined to be the play-out song of every other Christian conference for the next five years (I’ve done it already…):

(Yes, you heard the chorus when she duetted with Professor Green on a single a while back…)

That said, I know nothing of Ms Sandé’s faith or lack thereof; her songs witness to a strong but curious cultural phenomenon: the search for some lasting account of ultimate meaning in romantic love. One of the lighter songs on the album, ‘Lifetime’, confesses this in very simple terms: ‘Dreaming only lasts until you wake up and find you’re not asleep. / Silence only sticks around till someone in the room decides to speak. / And luck runs out and hearts grow cold. / We’re only young until we’re old … But you – you last a lifetime.’ The lasting nature of romance is contrasted with the passing nature of every other human experience. A more substantial composition, one of the singles from the album called ‘My Kind of Love’, expresses the same thought in reverse, so to speak, promising extravagantly that her love will last through everything: ‘When you’ve given up / When no matter what you do, it’s not good enough / When you never thought that it could get this tough / That’s when you’ll feel my kind of love.’ (Did I mention the possibility of a theological reading?) The video locates the love expressed in terms of supporting a sick friend, but the album as a whole seems sufficiently constructed around a particular romantic relationship that it seems appropriate to read the song as belonging there.

Lasting meaning in life, an experience of transcendental purpose, comes from romance, on this telling. Ms Sandé is of course not alone in looking to romance to provide lasting meaning and purpose for life; it might even be the single most prevalent theme of contemporary popular music. This is therefore not an idiosyncrasy, a strange idea found in one artist; it is a general cultural longing.

The curious thing about this is the focus on permanence. ‘You last a lifetime’ is, in boringly statistical terms, a very odd thing to say of a lover in contemporary Britain – most just don’t. (Marriage tips the odds, but not to anything like a certainty; civil partnership is still too new for the data to be available.) It is the general experience of contemporary Britain that love affairs are generally relatively brief and passing, that even those relationships that are sufficiently long-lived to proceed to cohabitation and marriage (or civil partnership) can often fall apart. So why locate an account of lasting meaning here?

The intensity of a romantic relationship (in our present cultural understanding) is remarkable; it changes in character, from initial infatuation through to a very mature symbiosis, but at every stage – even when marked by conflict – the relationship is peculiarly intense. This is also a peculiarly accepting relationship: the faults of the beloved are known intimately and, if not forgiven, at least discounted. Is it a surprise that there is a widespread cultural desire for a relationship of such an intensity, and including such acceptance, should be firm and lasting, a cultural desire that will persist even in the face of extensive empirical evidence that suggests that it is misplaced?

You can make your own gospel application…

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