Music is popular for a variety of reasons. It is popular because it can have a harmony of beats, melodies, and singing that really grabs as and creates a temporary experience of ecstasy. Sometimes music is popular for the sake of it’s own beauty, a beauty so vibrant that it is difficult to turn one’s back to it. Then there is popular music in which the song speaks deeply to our human condition, to our emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs, that we embrace it and say “yes, that song speaks to me. It captures something essential about my human experience.”
Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is song of the third category, one that speaks to the heart of our human condition, our need to feel and know love and a willingness to do anything to even have a semblance of that experience. The song is a beautiful depiction of the human desire for love and the desire to placate this pain with temporary comfort of simply ‘being with someone’. The song speaks of one night stands, of how he knows that what they have is not true love, but that it, in the end, gives him the sense of love and that is enough to placate the pain of loneliness.
Smith states that the entire album in which we find ‘Stay With Me’ is about unrequited love, about the hurt and pain that happens when you love someone and they do not love you back. While the rhythmic structure of the lyrics is at times rather simplistic – it appears that the words ‘just a man’ are there in order to create a rhyme with the opening line when it is perhaps best to remove the word ‘just’ so as to express more deeply man’s desire for love – the words speak deeply to the condition of most people, at least in the Western world.
The loneliness of the song is perhaps it’s most tragic characteristic. I use the word ‘tragic’ deliberately. Here I mean that the song expresses a sorrow that comes from an event, an experience that creates such a desire and yearning for love that they are willing to have even it’s semblance in order to dispel the anguished feeling of loneliness.
At it’s heart, the song expresses a longing that we all desire. A longing to be loved, to be cared for, to be cherished simply because we are worthy of love. Often we may find ourselves not experiencing that, and we too will seek even the semblance of love just to know that, for one small moment, perhaps we are worthy of the care and devotion of an other.
The song expresses that deep tension between our desire for the permanence of love and our willingness to embrace the idols of love because we see in the idol what we want in reality. In a way, these distractions and band aid solutions are a sort of anti-sacrament of love. They point to the reality of love but they do not convey love. The song expresses how he is not good at one night stands because he wants something more, or how the ‘darling’ staying with him doesn’t work because it is not real love. These are anti-sacraments, because a sacrament conveys the reality it signifies.
Yet the song is also tragic because the protagonist is willing to embrace these anti-sacraments so as to not deal with the deep and abiding loneliness that seems to be at the heart of the song. No matter what he does, even if the ‘darling’ stays, the loneliness stays, and the staying of the ‘darling’ is itself a constant reminder to his deeper and abiding loneliness. The one night stand is an anti-sacrament because not only does it not convey love, but even more deeply it conveys the antithesis of love, namely isolation and loneliness.
We exist in a world where loneliness and isolation are the norm of our existence. This is not a bad thing per se, but songs such as ‘Stay With Me’ are offspring of the culture from which they come. The deep loneliness, the existential angst that we all go through when we encounter it are all aspects of our culture. And the song expresses the tragedy and the philosophical incompleteness of our search to placate loneliness with band-aid solutions. It tears down the idol of the seeking of pleasure for it’s own sake, seeing deep within it that the attempt to numb the pain actually exacerbates the pain that comes with isolation and loneliness.
The song in the end does not give an answer. It has the philosophical honesty that occurs when we examine our conscience that what he is doing is not the solution to his loneliness, but he continues at it regardless. He wants to avoid pain at all cost – another common attribute of our culture.
As Christians we know that God is the answer to our human desires. Even human relationships, expressed in the great sacrament of marriage, do not speak to the deep desire to belong, to not be alone in this world. Loneliness occurs in the lives of married couples just as it occurs in those seeking relationships. Yet where Christianity breaks into this song, where we can see a ‘seed of Christ’ at the heart of the song is in the very isolation that is at the heart of the song. Christ Himself becomes alone, abandoned on the Cross by His Father, entering into God-forsakenness in Sheol. He is a man who does not avoid pain and suffering, but embraces it. He struggles with the isolation from His Father, but He instead commends His Spirit to the Father. It is in that very isolation and loneliness, the ‘space’ we think is most unlike God, becomes the deepest place to encounter God because it is the place that Christ chooses to be. He identifies Himself with our humanity in all its pain and suffering, in all its sense of abandonment. In that painful realization of loneliness that we all experience in life, we need to all the more give it over to Christ Who is there in that loneliness, abandonment, and isolation. Even there love is found. The darkest realms of human existence are no longer without love. It is now brimming over with love. We need not run from it with the idols of addiction, of the anti-sacraments of one night stands, etc. Instead, the loneliness we all experience becomes not only an opportunity to unite ourselves more deeply with those who are also alone, but an opportunity to encounter Christ in the moment He is most identified with us so that, in that darkness, He may lift us up to into the Light of His Father.