When Sirius XM’s hard rock channel, Octane, released their countdown for the top songs of 2020, I was struck by the messages that resonated the most with listeners this past year: longing for communion with others, desire for positive change in the world, perseverance in the face of difficulty... and expressions of anxiety and dread that seems to stem as much from within as from without.
The lyrics to these songs pose plenty of questions, often without clear answers. But the hungers and pains of the artists come across loud and clear. I was inspired to pray with the cries of humanity expressed in each of these songs and to take it a step further, asking myself: what are the answers to the questions they ask? What are the deeper truths that can fulfill the longings expressed in this music? With that in mind, here’s a prayerful look at the hard rock songs that made the top ten for 2020 according to Sirius XM’s Octane.*
*songs marked with (E) contain some explicit language not quoted in the article
10. “Every Time You Leave” by I Prevail ft. Delaney Jane
This rock-ballad duet is about the pain of being separated from a loved one due to circumstances beyond our control. “Lost in the moment, I can’t believe / you gotta go away again.” It hits particularly hard during this time of quarantine, but ultimately speaks to a reality that goes deeper than the pandemic.
“No one said life gets in the way / that our plans may change but our hearts remain.” We’re made for communion with God and with others, but on this side of heaven, we so often find ourselves away from those we love. This song speaks to how that longing in our hearts to be with each other is never fully satisfied in this life but we keep giving ourselves to others in love anyway.
“Every time you leave / I lose a little piece of me.” That giving of ourselves can be painful, but it is also beautiful. It foreshadows heaven, where we will be with God and our loved ones forever.
9. “Trials” by STARSET
Featuring techno-vibes and orchestral themes, this is an upbeat fight song about perseverance in the face of insurmountable challenges. “These trials make us who we are” is the main message of the song, pointing to the way obstacles in our path can help shape our identities in positive ways. It can serve as a potent reminder, especially in these times, that God brings good out of even the most difficult or tragic situations.
“We take our places in the dark / and turn our hearts to the stars.” This heavenward shift in focus reminds us that even if we’re still living in a time of darkness, there is hope for the future. As Christians, we know that no matter what trial we’re facing, God will bring new life out of our death.
“We’ll rise from the dark like Lazarus.” How did Lazarus rise? Only through hearing and responding to the voice of his Lord Jesus, calling him back to life. In the darkest nights, we still live in the hope of the resurrection.
8. “Right Now” by Fire From the Gods
This is a powerful song about the change that needs to happen in our world today and the way we have the ability to make it happen. With the uncomfortable but necessary reminder, “We won’t be here forever,” the lyrics serve as an examination of conscience, challenging the listener to “drop your pride, get the point that we’re missing.”
The question is posed: “How can I speak life / when all I see is death?” We all have the vocation to speak life into the world around us, to build up a culture of life. God calls us to be a force of life and goodness, living authentically and wholeheartedly. But how do we do this?
“Tear down / these walls.” We must break down the barriers that separate us from one another. What are the walls that we build up in our lives, blocking us off from others and making us live selfishly? Even more important, are we attentive to those most in need? Do we “look into their eyes / listen to their cries”? It is only when we live with this sincere awareness of those around us that we can be instruments of God’s grace in this broken world.
7. “Resentment” by A Day to Remember
Upbeat, electronic influences combine with metalcore in this honest account of struggle to break out of sin. Comparing habitual resentment to a wildfire that consumes the person holding the grudge as well as those around them, the lyrics speak of being “trapped in memories,” “circling the drain.” This feeling of hopelessness in the face of a seemingly endless battle against vice is driven home by the haunting question, “Can I learn to love these chains?”
Whether it is resentment or some other struggle, we all face discouragement when trying to improve the worst parts of ourselves. Progress seems just out of reach, and yet we know that giving up isn’t the answer, either. “I lost my voice when I let the rot in.” This isn’t the way we want things to be. Yet sometimes our sin feels stronger than us, burning out of our control: “It’s a wildfire.”
“With a one-track mind, I don’t think I can change.” No, we can’t change on our own. Left to ourselves, we’re trapped in this endless cycle, the victim of our vices. Yet, this isn’t what God desires for us. And it is only when we reach this point of honestly admitting our helplessness and our need for a Savior that we can truly be open to God’s grace. It is His grace that will save us, strengthening us in our battle against sin and giving us the perseverance to truly change for the better.
6. “Antisocialist” (E) by Asking Alexandria
A mix of hard rock and pop rock, this is a song for someone who just wants to be left alone. Tired of communicating with ingenuine people who have ulterior motives and being “surrounded by these strangers / standing close and starin’ in,” the lyrics repeatedly beg, “please, stay away from me.”
Often in the midst of our noisy culture, it is hard to find space for solitude. Our busy lives can be filled with mindless chatter, those who “keep on talking with nothing to say.” Yet, it is necessary to carve out space for quiet and reflection if we want to listen for God’s voice and honestly face who we are and where we are going. This solitude results not in a harsh rejection of others (as this song might suggest) but in being better able to embrace the circumstances of our lives and those we meet.
“All by myself with no one else / I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Solitude is restorative to our souls. It helps us rediscover the importance of authentic, meaningful communication with others. When we are attuned to silence, we are better able to recognize the truth of our own situations and hear the small whispers the Lord may be speaking to our hearts.
5. “Atlas Falls” by Shinedown
This uplifting power ballad was specifically released to raise money for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The title is a nod to Atlas, who holds the world on his shoulders according to Greek mythology. “If Atlas falls, I’ll rise up and carry us.” The world as we know it may be falling apart, the foundations we relied upon in the past crumbling to dust. That isn’t cause for despair, though, because we have each other and we can rebuild: “I’m right with you / I will lift you / just hold on.”
“Don’t give up now / there’s already so much at stake.” This song doesn’t ignore the pain of the present moment, “the weight of impossible days.” But it does encourage perseverance and an honest embracing of reality. “For too long we’ve taken placebos,” it laments. Yet there is still time to make things right.
Our God is not a god of illusions. He meets us in reality, in the nitty-gritty of our life situations and brokenness today. When we are honest with ourselves, we encounter God in our present and have the courage to “keep moving forward now,” into the unknown future where God is waiting for us.
4. “Panic” (E) by From Ashes to New
Rap rock in the vein of Linkin Park, this song explores the struggles and emotions of someone suffering from anxiety. “Getting chased by the feeling that’s taking over me / I’m in a panic, and I’m lost inside the static.” Although written before the pandemic, the band retroactively applied the song to the feelings of hopelessness and fear that many people experienced during the initial lockdown.
“You see a smile on my face / but it’s so different from what it is.” How often do we put on a show for those around us, when inside we are feeling something very different? As Christians, we’re called to live lives of integrity and authenticity, but it is easy to fall into the trap of acting like everything is okay and ignoring the deeper problem, especially in times of heightened stress. But we can only pretend for so long before the cracks start to show and the truth comes out: “I pretend that I’m fine, but I’m buried alive / and I’m losing my ****ing mind.”
What is the way out? How do we let go of our facades and get to the roots of our fears? By owning up to our weaknesses and admitting our need for a Savior: “I’m lost and I’m damaged / can’t find my way / all I want is someone to save me.” Acknowledging our own insufficiency and turning to a power greater to ourselves is the first step to finding deliverance from our anxieties and fears. We need God. We can’t do it without Him. Ultimately, this song is a cry for help. And God never leaves any such pleas unanswered.
3. “Another Life” by Motionless in White
This metalcore love song is about a painful relationship that isn’t working out despite the couple’s best efforts. The lyrics voice many regrets, at the same time emphasizing how much they really did try to work through their problems together, “We were broken and bleeding but never gave up.”
This song speaks to truth that real love doesn’t come easily or automatically. It requires sacrifice, which can often be painful. “We were playing for keeps, but we both knew the cost.” There is always risk involved when we give our heart to another, whether it is a significant other, a family member, or a trusted friend. But true love proves itself in its willingness to sacrifice for the good of the loved one. Jesus showed this love in dying to save us. He also calls us to love God and neighbor just as wholeheartedly. “We’re broken and bleeding in the name of love.” As we follow the crucified Lord, we’ll necessarily take on his image, bearing wounds as marks of love the way he did.
“I don’t hate that I need you.” When we let ourselves love others, we give the loved one a certain power over us as they hold our hearts. This is the way Jesus surrenders to us in love, humbling himself to become man, die for us, and remain with us forever in the Eucharist. It is also the surrender that this song reaches by the final line. It isn’t a bad thing to need others, to let ourselves love fully. In fact, this ability to love completely with hearts of flesh is a great good that God desires for us--one that will outlast this present life and continue forever in heaven.
2. “Parasite Eve” (E) by Bring Me the Horizon
This epic nu metal song speaks directly to the pandemic, but points out underlying problems in our society that existed even before the current crisis. “Really, we just need to fear something / only pretending to feel something.” In our broken human condition, we’ve always experienced this tendency toward inauthenticity and fear-mongering, but it becomes impossible to hide in an emergency situation: “You can board up your windows / you can lock up your doors / but you can’t keep washing your hands / of this **** anymore.” Our own shortcomings are made woefully obvious.
“We cannot save you.” This line appears throughout the song and is eerily repeated by a robotic voice at the end. The message is clear: humanity is not all-powerful. Nor can we rely solely on our technology to get us out of every mess. So where are we searching for our salvation? Who do we look to to save us? Sometimes, it’s only when we hit rock bottom that we recall God’s presence and can turn to Him as our true Savior.
“When we forget the infection / will we remember the lesson?” Once the immediate threat is over, we’re faced with this challenge: what are we learning from this experience and how can we hold on to that? Are we dropping our illusions of self-sufficiency and searching for a deeper meaning in our lives? Upon realizing we cannot save ourselves, are we led to a deeper trust in the Lord? How can we carry this positive growth forward into the future?
1. “Popular Monster” (E) by Falling in Reverse
A mix of emo, rap-metal, and post-hardcore, this song is a brutally honest confessional about someone whose life is falling apart as he struggles with depression, self-destructive behavior, and the misunderstanding of others. “Everybody tries to tell me that I’m going through a phase / I don’t know if it’s a phase, I just wanna feel okay.”
The helpless desperation comes through in every line, the constant battle against himself exhausting: “It obliterates me, disintegrates me, annihilates me.” This breakdown of the self is the exact opposite of what God, the creator and giver of life, desires for us. Yet even though he makes the claim, “I’m searching for a way out,” he also admits his self-defeating tendencies: “Every wall that I knock down is just a wall that I replace.”
“Every second that I waste / is another second sooner to a blessing I won’t take.” This cuts to the heart of the matter. Many times, we do feel like our lives are spinning out of control and we are our own worst enemy. But even then, God won’t override our free will. God always respects the freedom He gave to us, allowing us to choose Him or not. The question is, will we accept the blessings being offered to us, the graces God is trying to give us? Will we let Him save us? Or will we continue our downward spiral, clinging to the identity we’ve built for ourselves as a “non-believer” and “popular monster?” The choice is ours, but even when we reject God, He doesn’t abandon us. He’s always there, waiting for us to change our minds and hearts and return to Him.
A Prayer to Discern the Cries of Humanity in Popular Music
You incarnated yourself in our world,
taking on our flesh and expressing yourself through our culture and language.
Help us to be discerning listeners of music today.
May we take notice of the deeper longings expressed there
for love, hope, peace, and meaning.
Make our hearts compassionate to the pains and struggles of others,
especially those who are different from us.
Teach us how to find the seeds of the Gospel you have planted in the popular culture,
and to nurture these seeds lovingly,
separating out the good from the bad
and holding fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thess 5:21).
May your grace abound in the hearts of all who hear this music,
and in the hearts of those who make it.
We ask this, Jesus, in your name.