Songs of Contentment

Cultivating a Culture of Joy through Music

It’s common knowledge that artists are unhappy. What is more, it’s widely accepted—not least among the artists themselves—that they should be. Artists are supposed to be tortured souls, forging creations in the fires of their agony.


I know an excellent songwriter who, when I asked him why he hadn’t written a song about his wife, replied to the effect that she was lucky he hadn’t because he only wrote songs about tragedies in his life. The English singer-songwriter Roo Panes recalls hearing that another well-known songwriter had said, “Oh no, I mustn’t be content, ‘cause then I won’t be able to write.”

It isn’t always clear what exactly is supposed to be gained from maintaining a state of misery in order to create passionately miserable art. But there you have it. Even the idea that art should be beautiful, much less joyful or uplifting, seems old-fashioned and trite under the gaze of spirit of the age. Art exists, not for the sake of the audience, nor even for art’s sake, but rather as an expression of the artist. The artist, furthermore, is identified with his or her feelings. No artist is invalid, and therefore no expression of an artist’s inmost feelings can be invalid, no matter how counterproductive or even destructive those feelings might be. Many artists would be offended if you suggested that they should abstain from expressing some portion of their feelings; to do so would be to both devalue their feelings and to compromise their art.

This is really just the broader worldview of our era as applied to art: Because there is no objective Good or Evil, the Will of each Self defines the good for that Self. And without a standard of Good to direct it, Will flows solely from Desire. A person’s emotional state then becomes God.

Contentment as Rebellion

This idea has so inundated our culture that it is now like water to a fish. However, there are a few heterodox artists working in public or secular spheres who are pushing back. The aforementioned Roo Panes, for one, chooses to write music of hope and contentment. He says:

I think it’s one of those things where, if you’re feeling sad and you’re writing a song about how sad you are, you just end up making everybody feel sad … What’s the good in that? I feel that writing music like this is one way to turn negative things into a positive.

That could end up being genuinely trite if the music were merely happy-clappy or “positive thinking” fluff. But it’s much more than that. Panes doesn’t deny that a lot of art comes out of a place of suffering in one way or another. But he chooses to write peaceful music when he is anxious, or hopeful music when he is in a dark place, in order to push back against the darkness instead of embracing it.

And it works. His music is filled with a peace and joy that I have rarely heard anywhere else. You can find something in his songs that is hard to find anywhere in life—contentment. Not “satisfaction,” necessarily, a word which implies you don’t want anything more, but contentment—an emotion that might be summed up by God’s verdict for Creation: “It is very good.” Contentment comes from Joy—which is not (despite how the word is typically used) a bubbling fountain of happiness, that might sputter and trickle away, but a deep river that flows on even when covered in ice.

There’s a big difference between merely “happy” music, and truly joyful music. Happy music just doesn’t ring true when life is hard. Joyful music always rings true. Happy music has to deny the sorrow of life or else only pop up when it happens to give you a break for a while. Joy, in contrast, isn’t even affected by whether you are happy or sad. Joy brings contentment; mere happiness leaves room for anxiety because you are afraid something might take your happiness away, and it always fades into discontentment in the end.

The modern world is an anxious and discontented place, and most art conforms to its environment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If art refuses to conform to its environment, it can transform it. The thing is, art is not merely a description of the world—it is also a thing in the world that the artist is putting there. You can either put good things in the world or bad things. That means that if you want to live in a world of joy and peace and love, you should create art of joy and peace and love.

Likewise, the art you consume is not merely a reflection of your life or your mood; it is something that enters you, something that can change you. So if you want to be joyful, peaceful, and loving, you have to seek out art that cultivates joy and peace—and then develop a taste for it.

That second part is important. I’m not writing this post because I’m a naturally cheery person who just doesn’t get what all the angsty music is about. The opposite is true; I most naturally gravitate towards dark, melancholy, even borderline “emo” music. But the fact is, almost all tastes are acquired tastes. If you’re accustomed to art that wallows in blackness or despair, or that titillates, or agitates, or disturbs you, then you’re probably going to be bored by art of peace and joy. But once you spend enough time with music of peace, you will find it hard to listen to the other kind. This has been my experience. Whatever I listen to long enough, I eventually grow to enjoy. But not all enjoyment brings joy.

I suspect that the root of the idea that says art needs to be toxic lies simply in the fact that toxic emotions are intoxicating. Despite a general impression to the contrary, anger, hate, despondency, bitterness, fear, anxiety, and the like are not necessarily unpleasurable emotions. They can be extremely pleasurable, in a miserable sort of way—like a drug. They also seem irresistible in the way that drugs seem irresistible. It is not a simple thing to break away from, even if you want to. If you make your desire your god, you will find it in the end to be a cruel god.

These kinds of drugs have always existed, but modern systems have made dealing in them exceptionally easy. Music is just one of endless examples of readily accessible products that stir up negative emotions that addict and breed discontentment at the same time. In this cultural context, contentment is true rebellion.

A Counterculture of Contentment

I am convinced that the need for “art of contentment” is not trivial or peripheral to the rise or decline of our culture. Culture is made of people, and people are formed by what we fill our minds and hearts with. And music is a primal part of human nature. A countercultural movement therefore needs to have countercultural music. The revolutionaries of the 60s knew that; we should learn it.

Simply bemoaning the state of modern life or modern art won’t do any good. You have to do something. But to break away from the sirens of discontentment requires intentionality and discipline. Those who seek to destroy contentment do so artfully; resistance has to be artful as well. In other words, the resistance has to be good art, in addition to being Good. Good intentions do not make a piece of art potent or useful.

Fortunately, the resistance already exists. There are truly gifted artists creating art of contentment and joy. The hard thing is to find them, because of course they don’t get as much promotion as the emotional drug-dealers and peddlers of spiritual poisons.

I might be able to help a bit. Since I want to be concrete enough to be practically useful, I’ll share below some of the contemporary “songs of contentment” that I have found over the years. I hope you will do the same, if you know of any.

An Incomplete Introduction to Good Music

Everything by Roo Panes is worth listening to, but some particularly numinous and joyful songs include “Little Giant,” “Quiet Man,” “Land of the Living,” “Home from Home,” “Sketches of Summer,” and “Leave a Light On.” Roo Panes stands squarely against the prevailing winds of our culture like almost no other.

The great thing about truly joyful, contentment-fostering art is that you don’t get tired of it once you’ve developed a taste for it. Popular music comes in and goes out of fashion so quickly because the songs have huge appeal at first, but get annoying and tiresome after a few weeks. In contrast, I’ve been listening to the same songs of Roo Panes basically continuously for the last decade, and they never get old or stale.

Another countercultural band is The Innocence Mission. The core of the band is an older Catholic couple, Don and Karen Peris, who write music from their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the center of Amish country. Karen Peris, the main songwriter, has an eye for the beauty and transcendence in the small, mundane, trivial-seeming details of everyday life. She can take a simple daily interaction and draw out of it a truth you’d never known, or a feeling hadn’t felt before.

I listened to the music of The Innocence Mission for about a year before I really started liking it. I did so because although it wasn’t really my style I could sense that there was something truly good at the root of the songs, if I could just learn to appreciate it. And eventually, I did. Now that I have learned how to listen to it, I never get tired of it. The music is permanently available to me as a soul-cleansing antidote to the dirty chaos of life. It is something acquired, to be used forever.

A few Innocence Mission songs worth giving a chance include “Tom on the Boulevard,” “Spring,” “Brotherhood of Man,” “Since I Still Tell You My Every Day,” “When Mac Was Swimming,” and “Sweep Down Early.”

If you’re looking for a less anemic style, you might like the Hunts, a folk band comprised of seven homeschooled siblings of exceptional songwriting talent. “Lifting the Sea,” “Valentina,” “Life is Good,” “Along the Way” and “Human” are some great ones to start with.

Those are three of my favorite Artists of Contentment, but there are many more – Josh Garrels (songs like “Morning Light,” “Benediction,” and “Farther Along”), Sarah Sparks (“Come Further Up”), The Grayhavens (“Not Home Yet”), to name a few.

Finding and learning to appreciate this kind of music is worth it. The more you fill your heart and mind with the good, true, and beautiful, the more goodness, truth, and beauty you will have to give to the world. And if art of peace, joy, and contentment is cultivated and enjoyed, it will help grow a subculture of peace, joy, and contentment.

That subculture may be what saves our culture in the end.

But even if not… Well, we can still choose to be content.

Further Reading:

lives in Amman, Jordan, and has worked with asylum seekers and migrants from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has a B.S. in Ecology and a B.A. in History and enjoys playing mandolin and foraging.

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