What Counts in "Counting Stars"?
"Counting Stars" by OneRepublic, from their third album Native (2013) offers an odd kaleidoscope of thoughts, emotions, decisions, and non-decisions concerning a wide array of issues: consumerism, religion, morality, and the paralysis of youth. I find it interesting that the music video depicts the band playing beneath some sort of Christian revival meeting in which those attending are being revitalized, artistically "slain in the Spirit", and are in some sense rediscovering themselves through the passionate "preaching" of a spiritual leader. Whether this is meant to be a parody of Christian revival practices or not, I think it provides a key to understanding some of what is going on in this song. "Counting Stars" exhibits a common mantra among the young people of this generation who are tired of living a meaningless life and are looking for something deeper and more real to fulfill them.
The chorus begins the questioning of consumerism with the words: "Said no more counting dollars, / We'll be counting stars". The chorus sets the tone for the entire song in its desire for a more real existence beyond a certain level of economic fulfillment. The poet spends his life earning money so that he can participate in the meaningless collection of goods, but this ultimately leaves him feeling lifeless and empty. The consumerist lifestyle has become the new religion of the 21st century, which the poet expresses in this first stanza: "In my face is flashing signs: / Seek it out and ye shall find". The consumerist mentality has appropriated the words of Christ from Matthew's Gospel to serve its own purposes; rather than searching for God, people are encouraged to search for the answers to their problems in the flashing signs of advertisements for new articles of clothing, new technologies, new foods, new entertainments, and new trinkets. This is the new gospel of the 21st century modern lifestyle: all problems can be solved by earning money and buying things with it. You can fill all voids in your life with "things". Later in the stanza, the poet insists that he doesn't "think the world is sold, / I'm just doing what we're told". There is a sense that people, the youth particularly, don't fully recognize the problems inherent in self-indulgent consumerism. This is the world they have been born and brought up into, and so it seems normal to them. They receive instructions from the media, the television and the radio, billboards and celebrities, on how best to live their lives and how to make the most of this world. They follow along because they are not told any differently. People continue to seek after material possessions as if they held the key to happiness because they haven't been told anything else. No other options have been offered.
Although all people can find themselves trapped in this consumerist rut, the poet fixes principally on the youth, and I think for a very important reason: youth symbolizes hope and vitality. Unfortunately, hopeful and vital are exactly what modern 21st century youth are not. The poet speaks of being "old" even though he is not old in years; there is a feeling of tiredness and hopelessness that settles upon young people at an earlier and earlier stage in their lives as they come face to face with personal emptiness. They are "young, but not that bold": they lack the vital exuberance owed to youth that is willing to challenge the status quo and seek after true meaning and happiness. Instead, the youth are anxious to please, looking to their peers and celebrities for cues on how to be as happy, popular, and successful as they are, despite the fact that it is obvious they are far from any of those things in any meaningful way. The youth of the modern world are too afraid of missing out on something that might be happiness to take a chance on a road less traveled. The poet refers to life as a "swinging vine", which he desires to grab a hold of and "swing my heart across the line". Whatever line he might be crossing, whether this is a spiritual or physical line, is less important than the fact that the youth of today are too scared to do it. They are too cowed by public opinion to do something as risky as swing on a vine to the other side. There is too much risk involved. How do I know the vine is safe? What if it breaks while I'm swinging across? Are my friends doing it too? Has some celebrity already done it before me and guaranteed that it is a good experience? What if I don't like what's on the other side? What if I can't get back? Youth are paralyzed by self-doubt and an earnest fear of "missing out" in some way, especially when it comes to the big decisions of life. Rather than taking hold of the vine and swinging out into the unknown, full of hope and vitality, the youth of today live in a paralyzed state of permanent indecision. The only choice they can safely make is the economic one: earn money, spend money, repeat.
The poet encourages young people to make the big decisions with confidence: "Hope is our four-letter word". He encourages the youth to dream about the possibilities of life and all of the potential they possess. There is an incredible world around us, calling out to us to put our unique talents to work within it, asking us to impress our unique personalities onto the lives of others. We are called to a life of love and we know it: "I feel the love / And I feel it burn". We are called to love all those we meet in a truly meaningful and life-giving way; we are built for relationships of love, not economic convenience. The poet admits that he has been "praying hard" to make the choice to leave the chase for economic "freedom" behind in order to count stars, to truly see the beauty in the world around us and passionately chase after it instead. The courage to live life to its fullest comes from prayer, from communication with Being itself, the One who creates all things and sustains them in existence. The source of all Being will give us the courage to seek out true being in our own lives; He will give us courage to truly seek with hope and vitality, and truly find. In this sense, we can understand the repeated words of the song: "I feel something so right by doing the wrong thing / And I feel something so wrong by doing the right thing/ ... Everything that kills me makes me feel alive". We can now hear these words in their proper context: going against the world, doing what is foolish or useless in the eyes of the world, resonates within our souls as doing what is right, while following along with what the world says is wise or useful creates within us a sense of vital wrongness. All those things that seem to be acting against our own self-interest -- giving money to the poor, visiting the infirm or elderly, devoting ourselves to the care of others to our financial detriment, quitting lucrative jobs when they are unjust towards others, giving our lives to love others in marriage, in parenthood, in religious service, in charitable work -- all those things that are instances of self-sacrifice, of little "deaths", are the very things that give us the greatest vitality and bring the deepest meaning to our lives.
"Counting Stars" asks us to "Take that money / Watch it burn". It asks us to have the courage to grab the swinging vine and cross over to a new way of living in the world. It asks us to enact our being by dying to self. It asks us to dream about all that we could be, and then move to bring that dream into reality with courage and hope, without counting the cost. Instead, we can count the stars.
The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!