Living in Fear of Experiencing Humanity
In the world of popular entertainment, controversy is often what draws attention to something. Everything from hate comments on public media forums such as YouTube and SongFacts to the news stories, the interviews, and the debates about interpretation of lyrics bring an even larger audience to the subject, which in my opinion, is a positive thing because it starts a conversation about the issues at hand that the subject matter is addressing. That is part of the central role of media in our culture. In 2013 a little known Irish recording artist released a song on his first EP and self-titled album called “Take Me To Church”. Purposefully featuring only a drummer named Fiachra Kinder and the singer and songwriter himself, Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the lyrics are immediately nothing short of empathetic and passionate. There has been a lot of widespread debate and controversy about the exact meaning of the lyrics, although as with any song, that final decision is left up to how the listener personally relates to the music because music can mean different things to different people. From this point forward I will be drawing my factual information from credible resources including interviews with Hozier, and some of that will include his personal explanation of what the lyrics meant to him as he was writing them. As with anything, lyrics are always open to interpretation. However, at the same time, thinking back to those English classes in high school where our teachers would spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to get us to analyze every word of Shakespeare into imagined metaphors to find some deeply hidden existential meaning, sometimes “the sky was blue” literally means that the sky was blue when the author was looking at it. Everyone should keep both of those points in mind while experiencing any medium of culture. I have never claimed to be an expert on classical English poetry or modern interpretation of the lyrics of popular music, but chances are you are reading a blog where contributors give their subjective personal analysis of popular media combined with objective facts because you are interested in opinions and viewpoints other than your own. Open-mindedness is the best way to experience media, not to mention life in general. That being said this is my interpretation of Take Me to Church based on the information I have at hand between my own personal experience, researching other reviews of the song, and reading interviews with the artist himself.
I believe that Take Me to Church is a narrative of the artist struggling with the reconciliation of his homosexuality with his dedication to his faith and religious beliefs in a church that condemns the love of two people of the same gender. The “Church” can be seen as a metaphor for making love and also as the basic belief system of his religion, as well as his brick-and-mortar church and congregation. From the narrator’s viewpoint, the church’s anti-homosexuality doctrine damages their representation of “God”. Continuing with the theme of (potential and subjective) metaphors, his use of the pronoun “She” could refer to a manifestation of the concept of love in the form of a theoretical symbolic “goddess” attached to the “Church” in the context of the “Church” representing the act of making love, or even the fundamental love between two people. In this aspect, the song could be viewed as not being specifically about homosexuality, but the idea of love and imperfection between any two people. The narrator continues to delve deeper into the internal duality of his love/hate relationship with the church in the religious sense and his own sexuality. He knows that his love is recognized as a “sin” according to the church but expresses his desire to find a way to continue attending church and practicing his religious belief while having to listen to the lies being preached every Sunday that the love between two consenting adults of the same gender is wrong. He does not plan on giving up his faith because of the church’s stance on his love to another man, since as far as he is concerned, he isn’t doing anything wrong. He knows that the church feels differently and therefore he is completely willing to be judged by them for that, being seen by the church as worshipping like a dog that does not deserve to be there or claim that religion because of his sexuality. Here he recognizes that the church looks at him as less than human because of the way he was born, and according to Christianity, created in the image of their God. “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin”. In the church and overall religion that he is struggling with, homosexuals are treated like criminals and less than human, but there is no form of innocence more human compared to the raw and passionate expression of love. “Give me that deathless death, good god, let me give you my life” is his plea to the God of his understanding that he still be allowed into heaven, attempting to be confident that even though the church rejects him, that the God that they worship sees him as any other faithful person and does not judge him the way people in the church do, since the church supposedly claims their God to be a loving and forgiving God. He accepts that in the eyes of the church that he is a sinner, so he refers to himself slightly sarcastically as “a pagan of the good times” since he “worships” the idea and experience of love as much as he worships his God. In the midst of trying to manage this inner conflict, he knows he does not want to have to abandon his faith to not be judged for the person that he loves. At the same time, the entire battle is draining on his soul. “She demands a sacrifice/Drain the whole sea”. He is worried that in the grand scheme of things, this fighting this internal struggle and choosing to live the way he was born despite what the church thinks about it may be a superficial choice because no matter what he decides or how he handles the situation, it will not change the church’s stance on the issue. This is just a further example of the constant cycle of conflict he is trying to juggle. He can see both sides of the issue but still thinks that the idea of seeing love between two people of the same gender as wrong is ridiculous since the church is supposed to preach loving each other. Hozier has confirmed several times in interviews and other media appearances that the song is not an attack on the church, but as I mentioned before, there are a few lines that seem somewhat sarcastically directed at the church’s constant contradiction. The narrator, most likely addressing this view of the church, basically says that the way he sees it, the church as a whole is holding itself on a metaphorical “high horse “in the aspect that their belief system is the only correct way to live and anyone that deviates from that strict box of existence is wrong. From his point of view he feels like the church’s stance on homosexuality is seemingly completely hypocritical, since there are plenty of people within the church itself that don’t live their lives “by the book” the way they preach to everyone else that they should be living while not conforming to those values themselves, picking and choosing what parts of their doctrine to apply to their lives while pretending that that isn’t the case. He essentially says that the hypocrisy being preached to him is as mentally and emotionally as much work as learning how to deal with his internal contradiction. The repeated references to death in the song could be interpreted quite literally to say that the narrator believes that in the church’s eyes, the only way he will ever be seen an as equal to them and be released from this conflict is in death where there are “no masters and kings when the ritual begins”, referencing an actual funeral. Thinking about it from a different angle, he believes that the love between two people is the most human of all experiences and if the expression of that love is seen as a “sin”, then the church is the one that is wrong in that situation. From what I can tell, the narrator’s stance is that if the church sees everyone as equal in death, it makes no sense for them to say that everyone is not equal in life and love. Death is part of being human, but so is loving another person. Hozier said in an interview that to him, “the song is about what it is to be human; what it is to love someone as a human being”. He goes on to say that he does not understand how organizations like the church can justify undermining that through its doctrine. “An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation – that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love”. There have been several times that Hozier claims the song is not an attack on the church, but has also said that the passion behind the lyrics was partially drawn from his frustration with the church’s hypocrisy when it comes to one of the most human experiences. He does not want to turn his back on the church but knows they have already done that to him, but he refuses to give up a part of what makes him human because of that hypocrisy. This conflict is further demonstrated in the music video for the song, which caused about as much, if not more, debate and controversy since the video directly calls out the disgusting and ignorant reality of Russia’s anti-homosexual legislation. The video features a Russian male couple who have to keep their relationship a secret, because their lives would be in danger if anyone knew. In a way there is a strong comparison to the conflict between the tangible fear of actual physical harm and death for being homosexual in Russia versus the mental and emotional pain of being forced to live your life in fear and having to ignore a part of what makes you an individual. The stress and mental anguish of having to hide a part of your humanity is easily comparable to the threat of being rejected or much worse for having the courage to be who you really are, because in the end, both could cost you your life.