Essay The Divine Spark of "Firework"

Pop Stars and Celtic Poets

Wisdom often appears in the oddest places, that is, if one is paying attention. Katy Perry, sex symbol and pop star, was quickly elevated to the status of popular sensation after her hit single, "I kissed a girl," was released in 2008. Obviously, the song's sensual character shocked many listeners, enticed others, but demanded the intrigue and attention of everyone. With Perry's reputation preceding her, she then released her chart topping album, Teenage Dream in 2010, which included the hit singles "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream," and "Firework." In the eyes of the public and critics alike, the last of these has seemed to stand out. "Firework" sold more than half a million digital copies in the U.S. alone, and has been described as a powerful self esteem anthem on more than one occasion. In addition to the positive reviews, Perry says that the song is her favorite on the record and ultimately what she wants to communicate to her fans. As she says, "It's a bit like my, um... opus, I guess you could say."  [1] , 2010. Although there are a lot of singles each year that are praised by both the masses and their artists, there does seem to be something special about "Firework."

Aside from the catchy melody and rhythm, this chart-topper's lyrical message raises issues concerning subtle and deep types of human experience, experiences many people would relate to if they actually sat down for a moment and gave their own emotions, thoughts, and feelings some attention. In a curious, but slightly rhetorical tone, Perry opens her song with a series of three questions:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel so paper thin,
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing

Perry's questions correspond to three negative life experiences, and her use of visual imagery and metaphor is anything but subtle. The first question invites the listener to reflect on whether or not he feels like life is moving in a particular, purposeful direction. The image of a drifting plastic bag is actually a profound and appropriately contemporary analogy to the tumbleweed, often depicted rolling through ghost towns and deserts in the Old Western milieu. Tumbleweeds are simply dead plants, and once they are sufficiently dried out they break off their stalks and roll around aimlessly, blowing wherever the wind takes them. This meaningless movement is, unfortunately, a characteristic experience for a person who feels like he is simply drifting through life. At some point such a person would even lose interest in even an attempt at self control, simply allowing the circumstances of life to push him from place to place.

The visual imagery of the second question presents Perry's listener with a paper thin person. His central experience is lack of depth or complexity. The imagery is arguably similar to Lewis Carroll's famous characters from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen's Court members, who are literally depicted as playing cards. For the Queen, of course, these paper-thin subjects are highly disposable. Who can forget the famous line, "Off with their heads!" As Perry suggests, they do easily collapse, or "cave in" when the wind of the plot blows them over. These characters hardly exhibit any internal complexity - a dissatisfaction for sympathetic audiences, but there is something infinitely more tragic about real individuals who perceive their own lives to only be similar, paper-thin predicaments.

Finally, the previous two questions culminate in a slightly morbid burial metaphor, which implies that living individuals ought to feel alive, not "already buried deep." The subject in this case, however, is not death, but solitude or loneliness. The tragic element of the question is that the listener is screaming for help, but his attempt to attract attention is futile. It is this unheeded cry for help that creates the experience of being buried alive, separated from everyone else. Perry seems to imply that meaningful life experiences are accompanied by relationships and clear communication with others. Of course, individuals who suffer from an affirmative response to Perry's initial questions will also probably find meaningful relationships difficult, and from "six feet under," experience intense solitude.

Although "Firework's" three questions correspond to different experiences in life, they are united by one dominant theme, emptiness. A person feels like a drifter when he is emptied of direction, and paper-thin when he is emptied of complexity. He feels "buried deep" when life seems to be emptied of meaningful relationships.  [2] Taken in isolation, Perry's negative theme seems rather bleak. Luckily, Perry does not abandon her hurting audience to these dark, existential questions. Instead, the music builds through the bridge, and creates vital anticipation as the song quickly moves away from the pessimism of the verse, and toward a powerful optimism in the chorus:

Do you know that there's still a chance for you,
Cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Cause baby you're a firework.
Come on show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
As you shoot across the sky

At this point, the song's actual message becomes clear. It is indeed a self-esteem anthem, but not the heroic type that encourages individuals to simply trudge through their problems. The opening question of the chorus quickly overcomes all the negative rhetoric of the verse. The question, "Do you know that there's still a chance for you, cause there's a spark in you?" implies that the listener has only been deceived by his experiences of emptiness. Perry does not seem to be suggesting that the negative experiences themselves are fake, false, or insignificant; what is false is the negative worldview and unnecessarily harsh self-evaluation they create.

According to "Firework," a human being cannot be emptied of meaning. Each person contains at least a "spark" that is present whether he is aware of it or not, and the ignition of this spark begins a highly transformative process. The speed with which the music builds in this portion of the song artistically suggests that this process may occur rapidly, with a significant amount of power. According to the lyrics, it is accompanied by a strong sense of intrinsic value and entitlement, just as the Fourth of July, a powerful national symbol, is entitled to "own the night." It is also a highly visible process. People cannot help but notice an enlightened individual who "shoots across the sky"; they become astonished. Their only response is to go "Oh, Oh, Oh!" the lyrical equivalent to utter confusion and amazement. How could a person's peers avoid marveling at such a change in their friend, coworker, or family member?

Given Perry's reputation in pop culture, there is a temptation to overlook the significance and relevance of her "opus." A very similar message, however, runs throughout the work of the late contemplative, John O'Donahue. The world lost this Celtic poet in 2008, but he spent many years of his life intentionally pointing people toward meaning, friendship, beauty, and value in religious, artistic, and even business-corporate settings. O'Donahue's life was characterized by prayer, meditation, reflection, and genuine interest in service to others, goals which culminated in one of his most well known works, Anam Cara.  [3] Throughout the book, O'Donahue claims that people tend to experience cynicism and emptiness because they often overlook a great, internal significance that is always available:

"If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us... If you attend to yourself, and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life... If you focus your longing on a faraway divinity, you put an unfair strain on your longing. Thus it often happens that your longing reaches out toward the distant divine, but because it overstrains itself, it bends back to become cynicism, emptiness, or negativity. This can destroy your sensibility. Yet we do not need to put any strain whatever on our longing."  [4]

Although O'Donohue's poetic, spiritual language differs from Perry's popular, lyrical expression, the thematic parallels are undeniable.  [5] The reader longs for meaning and fullness, but typically he seeks meaning in faraway places or external goals that are too difficult to obtain in daily life, and so, his longing remains dissatisfied. Slowly, a negative, cynical worldview begins to cloud his mind, not because it is necessary or true, but because his perspective has become distorted. For O'Donohue, humans long for divinity, but divinity is incredibly close, its expression is internal and foundational, part of what it means to be human in the first place. He illustrates his point beautifully in a poem that certainly deserves a full reading:

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life. [6]

Beannacht means "blessing" - something everyone needs when life feels like "dead weight," " frozen eyes behind gray windows," or "black stains in the ocean." The hope of O'Donohue's blessing is twofold. The first portion of the poem suggests that hope has an internal source. He frequently uses clay as a visual image to emphasize the earthy, but majestic identity of human beings. "We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss."  [7] In the first stanza of Beannacht, it is this lost inner voice that is capable of bringing balance back to a distorted experience, and in the second stanza the vibrancy of awakened internal colors and light allow the blessed to experience a life of peace and joy.

The second portion of the poem suggests that hope has external sources as well, but these are all still intimately related to the internal clay voice. For instance, they are all natural sources: moonlight, earth, ocean, and ancestors.  [8] In addition, O'Donohue implies that external hope processes to the location of the blessed, as opposed to the blessed setting off on a strenuous journey in search for it. The reader is not told exactly what propels this external hope, whether it moves naturally or is sent by a higher power, but the moonlight approaches horizontally, bringing direction and purpose from "across the waters," the earth approaches from beneath and "nourishes" hope, and the light is an encompassing, clarifying power that makes experiences sensible.

Although it is probably the case that human beings have always struggled with the sort of self-attentiveness prescribed in Anam Cara and the negative experiences expressed in Beannacht, O'Donohue is certainly correct to point out that the modern world makes it increasingly difficult to attend to these deep problems. The speed with which modern technologically driven days move makes it nearly impossible to sit and be attentive, and most folks today are indeed so alienated from the depth of the natural world that they hardly even consider that there might be intimate blessings to be found there. No one, therefore, should be surprised when messages such as Perry's are met with great enthusiasm in American pop-culture. They touch a deep yearning. A significant portion of the American population struggles with emptiness, ill-communication, darkness, meaninglessness, and fear. Everyone from philosophers to biologists seem to be searching for the value and meaning of life. Anxiety and depression, clinical versions of these issues, are on the rise. Hurting individuals want answers, and will even settle for suggestions. Artists such as Katy Perry and John O'Donohue provide just that. Generally speaking, they encourage their audience to adopt a method of turning inward for hope. From this perspective, meaning, value, and hope are not circumstantial; they are intrinsically present at all times. They are intricately woven into the tapestry of the human person.

A lot of folks, especially many religious folks, tend to disapprove of the suggestion that hurting individuals ought to turn inward in search of hope. In particular, Christians often seem as if they might even fear the concept. To these offended ears, discussion of an internal spark is at best fruitless or theologically confused. At worst, such discussion is perceived as idolatrous and heretical.  [9] Pop stars and Celtic poets may speak their minds, but in the end, their romantic ideals are too often trumped by the determination of the closed-minded. So, the prescription for a hurting individual is not to attend to himself, but to attend to religious services and volunteer ministries, to spend more time simply asking God about direction and guidance, and to more consistently participate in financial giving - all quantitative remedies driven by external circumstances. If this truly is the modern Christian approach, then Christians have lost sight of a historically subtle, but deep and long standing tradition of introspection that is probably more in line with the pop artists and the hopeless romantics.

For a Christian, precedence for an internal source of hope appears early in the biblical tradition, but is hardly discussed at all in many Christian congregations. This might be because it appears in conspicuous places in the scripture or because it might sound dangerously individualistic; maybe it is simply too vague and esoteric to be relevant to most readers. In any case, it appears in the book of Deuteronomy following the proclamation of divine law, which is directly related to experiencing a meaningful life. "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live... "(Deut 30:19, NRSV). The life giving law, as it is laid out throughout Deuteronomy, is a daunting list of externally driven regulations, but the Lord is quick to encourage the Israelites that choosing life is possible precisely because there is a powerful internal element to the Lord's life giving words:

"Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, "Who will cross the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deut 30:11-14, Italics Mine).

Several hundred years later the Apostle Paul re-applied the same idea to Christian faith. Writing about the revelation of Christ in the first century CE, he exhorts the church at Rome, "But what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart' (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)...For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved." (Rom 10:8-10). Scholars and systematic theologians may debate the technical, theological implications of both of these passages, but there is simply no denying that these sacred scriptures generally present a pattern of meaning that, in practice, flows from the internal to the external, from the heart to the mouth, from the depths to the shallows of human experience.

As the centuries passed, this biblical tradition may have reached its height of practical application with the ancient Christians who are today referred to as the Desert Fathers. Although many Christian authorities in the second and third centuries were highly occupied with administrative and theological debates, the Desert Fathers were desperate to preserve Christianity as a spiritual, practical experience. "In solitude they made careful observations...they talked about their thoughts and feelings, about their concrete way of life, and about their path to God."  [10] Highly influential ancient Christians such as Antony and Pachomios believed strongly that the first significant step toward a meaningful life was attending to the depth of the self with honesty and humility. As the famous fourth century Christian, Evagrius Ponticus, stated, "If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!" Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh century theologian who spent more time contemplating love, prayer, humility, and faith than rigid church programs and lofty ideals, may have said it best, "Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure... The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is hidden in your soul."  [11]

This ancient focus has become increasingly popular in both scholarly and public circles in recent decades as both religious and non-religious folks continue to struggle with the same contemporary problems. As Anslem Gruen, a Christian monk and scholar from Germany, has pointed out, "Psychologists are taking an interest in the experiences of the early monks, in their methods of observing and dealing with thoughts and feelings. They sense that this isn't mere talk about humans and God, that the monks' words come from sincere self-knowledge and real experience of God."  [12] In addition, this spiritual method, however ambiguous its theological particulars might be, in practice, can be traced to many contemporary Christian authors such as Thomas Merton and George Maloney, whose works also emphasize self-attentiveness, meditation, personal prayer, and devotion, and have, not coincidentally, been widely received by the public. The systematized, externally driven prescription for hurting individuals that is so often prescribed by many modern Christians is simply too often a temporary answer for deeper questions.

Cynics, especially Protestants and Evangelicals, may certainly criticize the theological implications of turning inward for hope, but an honest Christian cannot ignore the fact that his own world is full of hurting individuals and sincere questions about the fullness or emptiness of life. In these moments, a purely intellectual faith may be too shaky.  [13] Experiences of emptiness pervade modern culture and create false realities. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the suggestion that folks begin a journey of self-discovery. The discovery will demonstrate that the most meaningful experiences possible are closer than anyone can intellectually imagine, hidden away from the distortions of all the false realities, deep in the recesses of the soul. As Gruen would claim, "There is something that wants to come alive, to bloom."  [14] It is no coincidence that this wisdom surfaces in all sorts of artistic material, even in the music of best selling pop stars whose work is often saturated with crudely explicit content. It is also no coincidence that when it does surface the public gravitates to it. Perry may or may not have any sort of systematic or logical beliefs to support her ideas,  [15] and she may not have put this much thought into her opus, but the positive message in "Firework" has obviously been exposed to millions of listeners, and for that, credit is due.

[1] Katy Perry, www.katyperry.com/katy-perry-talks-firework/

[2] Emptiness continues to be a characteristic theme in the remainder of the song, "You don't have to feel like a waste of space... " (Verse 2).

[3] Literally, "Soul Friend".

[4] John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, (Harper Collins Publisher, 1998), xvi-59. Italics mine.

[5] In place of "spark," for example, the former uses "divinity," and in place of "ignite" the reader is told to "attend."

[6] O'Donohue, Epigraph.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] The last of these might also be considered an internal source.

[9] It might also be added that in such discussions many Christians would throw around terms such as "mystical" and "New Age" really having no idea what those terms actually mean or represent.

[10] Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers, trans. Peter Heinegg, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1999, 11.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid., 7. Italics Mine.

[13] It is important to keep in mind that what is being suggested here is a type of spiritual method and practice, not particular beliefs. In practice, Christians are often far too occupied with external conditions such as visible, measurable accomplishments to give any authentic attention to their own condition and needs.

[14] Ibid., 25.

[15] For instance, Perry does not seem to make any suggestions about the origin of the spark in "Firework." Is the spark purely a humanistic concept or does it imply something divinely other, as it does with the ancient Christians and other similar religious individuals? The lack of information may or may not be intentional. The song's lyrics are brief, and many influential songs revel in brevity.

Josh Fraley   # August 26, 2013

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