If you see him in the street
Walking by himself
Talking to himself
“Philip, you would like it uptown
It’s quiet uptown“
He is working through the unimaginable
I saw Hamilton for the first time this weekend and posted about it. So naturally, I have been getting a lot of questions about what I thought. It is fantastic from start to finish, truly one of the great things America has done in the world of entertainment. Especially in the musical realm. But there’s one quite melancholy song I cannot get over and cannot stop listening to.
To say it simply: “It’s Quiet Uptown” wrecked me. No doubt every syllable and every note of the song is immaculately done. And the plot surrounding it is soul-crushing. Yet beyond the excellence of the song and its circumstances, the emotion it produces in me is paradoxical in a way that is hard to explain. Today, I attempt that explanation, even though I am positive there are throngs of people who already understand it.
As I have been listening to this heart-wrenching number on repeat, my wife has asked, “Why do you want to make yourself sad?” And the answer is that it gives me joy. How can that be? Because humans are wonderfully complex. Especially emotionally. J.K. Rowling got a lot of mileage out of this with the conversation in Order of the Phoenix (a melancholy book if there ever was one) where Hermione tries to explain to Harry and Ron what Cho is feeling. But I think she was on to something. We typically ascribe this complexity to women.
But I think it’s a human thing. We live with and produce tensions and contradictions daily.
And nowhere is this more obvious to me than music. As I listen to “It’s Quiet Uptown” I naturally want to bawl. Ugly tears. I want to just fall on my knees and mourn the sin and brokenness of this world. I am fully aware of how much I hate adultery. And violence. And death. Yet it also brings a deep, beautiful, overwhelming fulfillment to my innermost being that is the opposite of sad. I will not call it “happiness”. It’s more profound than that. So I choose the more biblical idea of “Joy”. I feel two opposite emotions at the same time.
I think this is in part because when we mourn the way God created us to as Christians, it is meaningful. Especially when music is involved. As many a Bible teacher has pointed out, you can easily classify over 60 of our Biblical Psalms as “Lament Hymns”. I.e., over 40% of the entire biblical hymnody. God absolutely wants us to feel through music. Particularly melancholy music. Perhaps this is how God intends for us to work through the unimaginable.
Emotions are simple. It’s part of what makes them special. But they are the opposite of simplistic.
To me, this is a reflection of our God and who we are created in his image as a result. In Isaiah God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” In Jeremiah God asks, “Am I only a God nearby, and not a God far away?” This is in addition to the crucial doctrines of the Christian God being three Persons despite being one God and Jesus being both 100% God and man at the same time.
And then we see in Scripture truths like “To save your life is to lose it,” “The first will be last” and “My gains are losses”. And nowhere does this on-the-surface-contradiction theology come through as I describe above more than when Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn”. Come again? If you mourn, you are blessed? What?
But when you are a Christian and you mourn, you likely get it. I listen to songs that are appropriate for funerals quite often. Both Christian and secular. And it’s not just that the melancholy is therapeutic for dealing with the suffering of this life. It’s bigger than that. These types of songs make me weep but also make me feel alive.
Which brings me back to Hamilton. When “It’s Quiet Uptown” ended I could audibly hear the tears of numerous people around me. All of my senses were heightened and my heart was about to beat out of my chest. In that moment I wanted to just stand up and shout out everything I was feeling.
I didn’t, of course. Yet it was quite jarring to get “back to politics” and remember there was a conclusion to the story to tell. That’s how consuming the song was to me. I walked out of the theater like I was both walking on air and walking in a fog. It was magnificently confusing. And I demanded we listen to that song multiple times on the ride home.
So while I enjoyed the entire production, as millions have, I keep going back to the scene that beat me down and built me back up. Music is the language of the soul, often expressing things we clearly cannot. Because there are moments that the words don’t reach. Thank God for melancholy songs that do.