Culture > Music

Music: 'I believe in love'

Music | What kind of love does Paula Cole proclaim?

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

Is seven-time Grammy nominee Paula Cole changing her tune? Her fourth album, Amen, has received mixed reactions from fans who applauded the stridently feminist songs of this regular member of the Lilith Fair troupe. Her 1996 breakthrough single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," dripped with ironic disgust at the chauvinistic patterns of traditional relationships. But Amen turns to matters of the spirit. Even though recent pop music offerings from Lauryn Hill to Madonna have displayed only a vague spirituality, this mustard-seed longing in contemporary society should not be dismissed. It's a good sign that pop musicians, like many others, are pushing beyond the scorched-earth rationalism of modern education. Hear Paula Cole's explanation this month in USA Today: "As a child, I felt what we call God, that spirit, that energy. Then you get schooled by society, and I rationalized that it didn't exist. It made me profoundly unhappy that there was no meaning, no logic, no unity of all life." In her song "Rhythm of Life," Ms. Cole raps a religious apologetic to her skeptical fans: "To the critics and the cynics who don't understand the lyrics To the atheists and the pessimists Wanting company in their darkness You may see me as a fool, yes, a charlatan, an egoist, But I'd rather be this in your eyes, Than a coward in His." Don't be misled by the capital letter in His, though. Ms. Cole, 31, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a professionally trained jazz singer and pianist with sensitivity to black gospel, but she has also adopted Buddhist religious sensibilities. Contemporary forms of pop spirituality from A.A.'s Higher Power to Jewel's Spirit are religiously eclectic. Instead of recognizing good and evil, Ms. Cole proclaims that fuzziness is next to godliness: "I believe in love To be the center of all things And I believe in love to be the way To find our inner light." What's right about this is the longing for love. Augustine, reflecting on his youth, admitted in his Confessions that "The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved." What's insufficient about this is the idea that the heart itself can satisfy the heart's longings. Words like god, spirituality, gospel, grace, and love are empty apart from biblical content. Take, for example, Judy Collins's explanation of John Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace." "'Amazing Grace' is a song about letting go, bottoming out, seeing the light, turning it over, trusting the universe, breathing in, breathing out, going with the flow; timing is everything, trust your instincts, don't push the river, ease on down the road, get on your knees, let your guard down, drop your defenses, lighten up ..." Oh, really? One cheer for Paula Cole. But God-words do not necessarily point God-ward. -Mr. Seel is a writer in North Carolina

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