An Interview with the Pop Song Professor

Sean Nolan, GCD Staff Writer: Clifford Stumme, tell us about yourself. I’m an adjunct professor at Liberty University and also direct the undergrad writing center. I met my wife, April, while swing dancing. And when I’m not teaching or juggling, I’m known by some as the “Pop Song Professor,” because I analyze the meanings of pop songs on my website of the same name.

GCD: Do your students know you are an internet celebrity?

Perhaps one of the most surreal moments of my life was when a student recognized my name because of my website.

GCD: What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a pretty conservative home with three siblings. My dad was in the army, so we moved all over the country and even lived in Japan for a while.

Perhaps most interesting is that my family wasn’t interested in music when I was a kid. I thought people who walked around with iPods were strange. Over time I was introduced to various types of music and was interested in finding out what the lyrics meant, but I was unable to find a lot of information to explain the song meanings. My fascination with music sort of cut against the grain of my upbringing.

GCD: Who are your favorite pop artists?

Billy Joel, 21 Pilots, Jason Mraz, Sufjan Stevens, Taylor Swift, and the Chainsmokers. I love Mike Posner and the vulnerability he displayed in his single “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”

GCD: If a tree falls in the woods, will a hipster buy its album?

(Laughing) Yeah, that’s the question. On that note, I do enjoy myself a little Passion Pit, Foster the People, and a little-known band that hipsters will appreciate called Kishi Bashi.

GCD: Do you see an intersection between discipleship and your analysis of pop music?

I see it in both a practical as well as an abstract level. On the practical side, I interact with people who are struggling with something and have latched on to a song’s lyrics to give them hope. That provides a good foundation for developing a relationship and having opportunities to share the gospel or talk about deeper things.

That leads into the more abstract side, in which I think anytime we share truth in love we are discipling people. If, as Augustine said, “all truth is God’s truth,” and I’m telling the truth through the means of a song, then it’s God’s truth that’s being shared. I try not to be too preachy, but to let the words speak for themselves while I get out of the way. People aren’t convinced by argument, but by love. Music speaks to people on that level.

GCD: In what ways do you see music as a discipling influence on children? For good or ill?

Plato once posited that one of the big purposes of literature, music, and art is to teach people things. So in that sense, music serves the purpose of discipling its listeners and influencing a civilization. If music is not made with the intent of expressing either truth or beauty, I am suspicious of it. Then it ends up being preachy. I like exploring the influence that culture has on music and music upon culture. In more recent years, art and music have become such commercial ventures that the product is more important than the art-form which doesn’t always have the best outcome. I wish that music shaped culture more than culture shaped music, but that is not so much the case any more.

To look at a negative relationship between music and culture, we could explore just about any song by Pitbull. While I don’t think he has an agenda to teach people to get drunk and have illicit sex, I think his music is popular because he’s simply bringing attention to what the culture is already focused on. His music holds a mirror up to culture, he sings about what he sees and people like his songs because he sings about what they are already doing.

GCD: What are your thoughts on the current state of Christian music?

There are some really good artists out there. However, my belief is that there is more power in specificity than in a “vague struggle,” which unfortunately tends to make more money. When we create cleaned-up songs that don’t mention specific struggles, I don’t think they present truth or beauty which is what I look for in songs I listen to. If an artist references a lot of external stressors and never mentions internal struggles it’s hard for others to empathize with it as a genuine human experience. I’m looking for music that relates to the human experience. We also need less Christian music about water (laughs), there seems to be a corner on it and I’m not sure it’s a genuinely relatable topic. Some responsibility can be assumed by the audience though for consuming it and not demanding something more authentic.

GCD: Coldplay or Mumford & Sons?

Mumford & Sons, although my wife would say Coldplay. I like that they both share personal struggles though. I recently did a podcast about Mumford & Sons. God is often mentioned in his music which is also a plus for me and it’s powerful in that it deals with doubt and relatable experiences for all humans. There’s speculation over whether he is a Christian or not, but I’m not sure we have to put everyone who sings a song under a microscope and try to identify where they stand with their faith. I think Christians have a tendency to do that because it makes them feel safe, but I’m not sure it matters for the outcome of the music itself and particularly for whether what they say is true or not.

GCD: Who’d win in a fight Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson?

The one who still has a heartbeat, obviously (laughs). If we’re talking about who I think is better, Jackson is probably better although Bieber has his whole career ahead of him still.

GCD: When it comes to interpreting a song’s meaning, what’s more important: the artist’s intended meaning or the subjective meaning assigned by the listener?

From time to time, someone will comment on my site and tell me how they prefer their own meaning to the author’s meaning. It doesn’t really bother me though. While I believe it’s really important that we try to understand the author’s intended meaning when it comes to Scripture, when it comes to human works of art I’m less rigid. If someone finds comfort in a particular interpretation of a pop song—even if it varies from the artist’s meaning—where’s the danger in that? I’m not going to try and spoil their fun.

C.S. Lewis has a short book called An Experiment in Criticism, where he argues that we should always try to understand an original author’s meaning because there’s a strong possibility it could be better than our own. He says, on the other hand, that we might as well also have both so long as they aren’t contradictory. The truth is that bringing our own context to the songs we hear is inevitable as no two people share the same life experiences. 21 Pilots also wrote about this very phenomena in their song “Kitchen Sink.”

GCD: How does the gospel shape how you interact with pop music?

It pushes me to look for something beautiful or something true even in songs that are may not be true or content that may not be beautiful. The gospel is a message of love, and I think that the most important aspect is going into this with love towards the artist and not condemning those who are listening to this music. It’s about servanthood with writing these blog posts. I try remove myself from it as much as possible in order to serve my audience. My hope is that they think deeply about the songs they look up.

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Family Life Pastor.

You can read all of Sean’s articles here.

Clifford Stumme explains pop song lyrics and discuss deeper ideas on his website, podcast, and YouTube channel. He is a university adjunct instructor who likes decoding and understanding pop music lyrics in his free time. He likes to swing dance and juggle. He loves his wife, April, and he's a big fan of new ways to empower people to educate themselves.