Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Adele, Fulton Sheen, and the "Hookup Culture"

The artists of our world, Fulton J. Sheen once said, have a special role; they often are the first to perceive—and point out—the real problems in a society. Artists don’t necessarily offer solutions to modern problems—but the best of them invariably identify and put before the public exactly what those problems are. This is possible because through art man can be brought to understand that what is evil is ugly (and, by contrast, that what is good is beautiful), even if he intellectually is having difficulty agreeing that what is evil is wrong. 

Lately, I’ve encountered a recent illustration of Sheen’s point; and I may begin by recalling the name popularly attributed to our society: “the hook-up culture.” Our world has seen no less than four decades of skewed moral vision when it comes to romance, since the sexual revolution of the 60s. And now, two or three generations later, the artists of our day are beginning to point out the nasty afterbirth of the free love, hookup mentality in a very provocative way. Modern musicians especially, often themselves deeply imbued with popular notions of sexuality and love, are unmistakably starting to outline the current generation’s desolate frustration and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the hookup lifestyle--in fact, it is arguably the dominant theme of pop-music from artists who write their own songs. Years of rushing into sexual relationships, inevitable and bitter breakups, have left their scars on them, and it’s coming through in their music, perfectly detailing how painful “free love” is in reality.

One such case is probably a British pop-star that has hit the top of the music world in the last few years: Adele.  This contralto’s powerful soul-style songs, which successfully rocked the boat of the American music world, have led the charts for a long while now. And they are almost all depressing. With the exception of some hopeful, committed-to-love kind of songs (like “Make You Feel My Love”), Adele’s pieces are almost exclusively—and all of her top hits are definitely—tortured, frustrated breakup songs. Her music plumbs human heartbreak, exploring the whole wild and wicked scale of tangled emotions and passions: from burning emotional desolation, to sorrowful unwillingness to let go of the past in spite of the pain, to furious, bitter vengefulness.  Invariably at the root of the anguish in these songs is a background story of having let another soul come close in love, of having given away oneself to another, only to have that gift and that sort of “love” necessarily destroyed in a culture that treats relationships as “hookups.” “Rolling in the Deep” is probably Adele’s most famous, and some fans might balk at the idea of it’s being a mark of the hookup culture. Musically, the piece is enjoyable, almost Diana Ross or Mo-Town style, but the lyrics betray that the sentiment of vengeance expressed is neither a normal nor healthy way to end any relationship:

See how I'll leave, with every piece of you
Don't underestimate the things that I will do           
 . . .
Baby, I have no story to be told
But I’ve heard one of you and I’m gonna make your head burn,
. . . .
Think of me in the depths of your despair
Making a home down there, as mine sure won't be shared.

The message beneath the music plainly conveys a firestorm of fury; although the source is somewhat vague in “Rolling in the Deep,” another Adele song about heartbreak, “Set Fire To the Rain,” sheds a little light on the situation. “Set Fire to the Rain” comes from the same album, 21, which Adele supposedly wrote about her breakup with her lover of two years, and tells her story of passionate “falling in love,” consequent breakup, and ends with some disturbing imagery describing the singer’s sense of betrayal:  

When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing is better 
 . . . there's a side to you
That I never knew, never knew,
All the things you'd say,
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win. 
 . . . . . .
I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
And I felt something die
'Cause I knew that that was the last time!

Although less famous than Adele, another striking artist rapidly rising in popularity is Ingrid Michaelson, whose music betrays at the same time a desperate longing for fulfillment and a painful realization that a hookup lifestyle leaves one unfulfilled. “The Way I Am,” certainly her most popular song, describes a desire for committed, faithful love:

If you were falling, I would catch you;
You need a light, I’ll find a match . . .
If you are chilly, here, take my sweater;
Your head is aching, I’ll make it better
Because . . . you take me the way I am.

While she sings of fidelity and commitment, however, Michaelson also recounts how scarred living a free love lifestyle can leave a person, in her less-well-known, post-breakup song, “Starting Now”: 

I want to crawl back inside my bed of sin
I want to burn the sheets that smell like your skin
Instead I'll wash them just like kitchen rags with stains
Spinning away every piece that remains of you
But before you finally go there's one thing you should know: that I promise
Starting now I'll never know your name
Starting now I'll never feel the same
Starting now I wish you never came into my world
It's my world, it's not ours anymore.

There is a tangible pain and bitterness in these shocking lines, which simultaneously describe both the hookup world and exactly what it does to a soul: brings it to the apex of commitment, the utmost physical indication that a total self-gift has been made, only to destroy that sense of love and leave the heart shattered and aching in the end.

If Bishop Sheen was right, and the artists of a time are the first to speak about the problems with a society, then modern music is a signpost pointing unmistakably to the modern notions of love.  There are others; Ingrid Michaelson and Adele are just two of many whose work runs along similar themes. These musician’s voices are singing some poignant truths about our world’s problems, and, while not prophetic or profound, and whether or not they realize it, as artists they are at least unanimously pointing to the same truth: the hookup culture hurts. It leaves souls desperate, thirsty for fulfillment, broken, feeling betrayed and angry. Hopefully, as the world listens to their music, it will start to listen to their words and what they have to say about our society’s stance on love.  


  1. Wonderful post! Thank you and God bless!

  2. Kelly Clarkson is a great example of bitterness in music (which is why I don't like most of her songs; who wants to make themselves bitter and riled?). What is insane is that these people who know how painful it is to be this promiscuous continue to be so, acting as if it'll be different the next time. Honestly, deep down, some of them must know that they're just kidding themselves.


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