Crossovers, Millennials and Stacie Orrico

Stacie OrricoIt’s ten years old, and that’s a pretty lonely age to be for a pop single — way past its moment in the sun, but perhaps still too young for a nostalgic revival. I’m not sure we’ll ever look back at 2003 with much fondness, so now is as good a time as any to bring back Stacie Orrico’s “(There’s Gotta Be) More to Life.” The song was her biggest hit, and really her last hit of any kind. In retrospect, it didn’t have anything like the importance my fifteen-year-old self ascribed to it, but it still stands as a major success for CCM artists hoping for mainstream airplay, being included on two compilation albums: Now That’s What I Call Music! 14 and WOW Hits 2005.

There are two ways of looking at the song’s status as a crossover hit:

  1. The song is well-crafted lyrically to appeal both to evangelical listeners and the culture at large, with an inspiring message of striving for a meaningful life. The lyrics offered a springboard for Orrico to share the gospel whenever her fans might ask what she thought the song was about. More importantly, the song exemplifies CCM artists no longer wanting merely to “preach to the choir,” segregating themselves from “secular” radio, but instead sharing their experience with a broader audience and successfully connecting with that audience.
  2. The song is vague, lacking any message at all beyond the words of the title. It succeeded in both the evangelical world and the mainstream because it has an unchallenging, “positive” feel and doesn’t contain anything that either believers or nonbelievers might find offensive. Listeners are free to read any personal goals, hopes or dreams of any kind into the song. So in at least one sense, the song is purely secular.

The second perspective is valid, and like I said above, I don’t want to overstate this song’s importance (although it did presage TobyMac’s crossover success, for example). But there’s something I appreciate about using music to plant seeds, to get people hungry, to reach them where they are. Certainly there are times when explicitness is warranted, and there are times when vagueness is caused by fear. But as a conversation-starter, hinting can be effective.

And besides that, I really think the yearning Orrico expresses in this song speaks to something generational. It’s all about American Millennials, growing up with more material needs met for them than anyone in history, but often without a sense of purpose (“I’ve got it all, but I feel so deprived”). After their hedonistic teens, they face adulthood without direction. This is the same kind of stuff Zach Braff was getting at with Garden State a year later. Being a year younger than Orrico myself, there were times I felt the same way: incapable of being content with a charmed life. It’s exactly what makes my generation so insufferable sometimes. I understand that better now, but I still often find myself wanting more out of life and not knowing exactly what that “something that’s missing” is.

Garden StateInterestingly, another song, with a very similar message, arrived at about the same time as “More to Life.” This, of course, was Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live,” which didn’t really become a hit until the following year but was also a huge crossover success. The same question mark hangs over that song as to what exactly is meant by the word “more.” Lyrically, “Meant to Live” is a bit more interesting and/or pretentious, but musically I don’t care for it as much. It happens to be possibly the most extreme case I’ve ever experienced of a song being overplayed on the radio to such a ridiculous extent that I’ve never fully recovered. The opening riff still triggers a Pavlovian grimace from me, although if I can get past the first few seconds I like the song well enough. But it remains one of the more “butt rock” songs that band has ever done. I’ll take pop and R&B over that any time.

The magic of pop, something that more sophisticated listeners than myself may roll their eyes at, is that the message doesn’t have to be any deeper than what I’ve described as long as the hooks, melody and voice are all top-notch. If the song is catchy, it will move people. It will make them pay attention. I’ve always loved “More to Life.” I’m particularly a sucker for modulation to a higher key when a song reaches the final chorus — it may be one of the corniest of all pop staples, but when it works, there’s nothing better. In this case, it’s perfectly appropriate as a way to raise the intensity of the message.

“(There’s Gotta Be) More to Life” is a good song that straddles two musical categories with some infamous credibility issues. CCM is still an insulated world, with artists shackled to the “positive and encouraging” doctrine that leads so often to bland music and uninspired lyrics. Mainstream pop has an entirely different problem. It seems to get more decadent all the time, with the same prominence (if not more) granted to physically attractive narcissists as to the truly talented. It’s possible to see some of the worst traits of both categories in Stacie Orrico’s song. However, it’s also possible to see a quiet repudiation and subversion of them. We’re just talking about a pop song here, one that surely a lot of people have forgotten. But the song points to something worth knowing.

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