Oneness and the Embracing of Opposites in Some Songs of Grace Vanderwaal

[All song lyrics are from http://gracevanderwaal.com/lyrics/]

Grace Vanderwaal is a 13-year old singer, musician, and songwriter who won America’s Got Talent (AGT) in 2016 at age 12 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sgjgPSdADE. I want to look at lyrics which, in my opinion, contain themes of oneness and of authentic living in the midst of ordinary, everyday life.

These are only my interpretations of some of her songs, set forth for the reader’s consideration. I accept that there are multiple valid interpretations.

I have no idea what Grace was actually trying to say in any of these songs. She has said she believes in Jesus and is a Methodist https://www.gnjumc.org/news/grace-vanderwaal-sings-a-story-of-talent/,
https://twitter.com/gracevanderwaal/status/742860886164013056?lang=en. Thus I have quoted the Bible. However, I have also quoted from other spiritual and religious traditions.

Unifying opposites

From an assessment of her lyrics and interview comments, it appears that Grace’s world view is unifying and transcendent.  When asked how it feels, looking back at winning AGT: “It feels like it was twenty minutes and it also feels like it’s fifteen years ago at the same time” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEvkz2je304&t=9s (1:56 – 2:29). She easily and comfortably embraces opposites.

On being happy

The point of transcendent religious and spiritual teachings is to be happy. Grace was asked about her vision for her future. She said, “To just be happy and enjoy what I’m doing, no matter what it is. Too many people in the [show biz] industry lose sight of that and I think that’s why a lot of people have a tough time in this type of business and I never want to get caught up in that” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEvkz2je304&t=9s (17:50 – 18:16).

Perhaps she aligns with this passage from Psalms:  “So my heart rejoices and I am happy; My life is safe” http://biblehub.com/net/psalms/16.htm. Grace has spoken of writing songs that come from her heart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F5D6vIG7ng (1:35 – 1:39). One might imagine that she knows the connection between the heart and happiness and is unlikely to compromise it.

An old soul

I’ve heard people talk about Grace being “an old soul.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/timmaurer/2016/09/14/amazing-grace-prevails-unlikely-star-breaks-reality-tv-mold-to-win-americas-got-talent/#45850e1c6e7f https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEvkz2je304&t=9s (18:52 – 18:58). The Bible says, “Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never get into it at all” http://biblehub.com/niv/luke/18.htm I wish to offer that she is more of a “young soul,” in the spirit of the Bible.

Grace radiates a universal appeal. Her world view and values resonate with teachings of other religious traditions. I am not saying she believes in other religions or in anyone other than Jesus. I am only suggesting that her world view, her attitude and beliefs, are not dissimilar from those expressed by other religions and traditions.

For example, Zen Buddhism speaks of “beginner’s mind,” which, seems to me, is freshly born every moment, the opposite of old. In the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the opening sentence is, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” Suzuki, S. (1995). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York, NY: Weatherhill. My sense is that the freshness of artistry and spirit that Grace brings is based in beginner’s mind, or upon the spirit of the little child of which the Bible speaks.

A relationship with darkness and light

Yet Grace does not write from superficial happiness. She is contemplative and richly authentic. In Darkness Keeps Chasing Me, she writes

God ​I ​want ​to ​be ​different ​but ​I’m ​not ​sure ​if ​i ​can ​do ​it ​on ​my ​own
‘Cause Every ​now ​and ​then ​the ​darkness ​tries ​to ​chase ​me
And ​my ​legs ​are ​getting ​tired ​of ​running
No no no no
Please ​don’t Please ​don’t Let ​it ​get ​to ​me, oohh
I ​don’t ​want ​to ​give ​up ​that ​easily
But ​the ​darkness ​keeps ​chasing ​me, ​me, ​me, ​me

The resolution to this song lies in the way she sings, “Me, me, me, me,” in a way that is somewhat light and fanciful as though graciously surrendering to God’s way, thus balancing the dominant tone of darkness, and as though saying, “Oh well, this ‘me’ runs from the darkness and knows the pain of it, yet I also see a profound playfulness in this darkness.”

Darkness as light

And why not? In Psalms we read, “He made darkness His secret place, His tent round about Him” http://biblehub.com/dbt/psalms/18.htm. The higher darkness chases Grace and she runs perhaps because the power of God is too awesome to totally surrender to, but part of her already sees light within the darkness, and maybe even she would acknowledge that the darkness is light. The following passage is from the Christian mystical tradition:

At first the Supreme Reality appears to the inner eye as darkness. This apparent darkness is, however in itself light, dazzling and blinding in its splendour, and it gradually becomes visible as such, when the spiritual vision is purged and strengthened and renewed by the stripping off of all love for the relative, the dependent, the phenomenal, and by the assiduous practice of all moral virtues. – W.S. Lilly, The Great Enigma, p. 267 Quoted in Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myths., p. 200. G.A. Gaskell, editor. The Julian Press, New York, 1977. 

The song reveals a mature insight into the human condition and in its way delivers a spiritual/religious teaching.

It could also be said that on another level she’s talking about those times a person feels tired, exhausted, a little depressed, and just wants to give everything up, but of course we don’t. Oh well, I gave the song a more dimensional meaning! When a person can see a lot of meaning in a song it might mean it’s a great song.

“So I heard you are my sister’s friend.”

Grace Vanderwaal excels at artistic abruptness. She brings the listener back and forth between poetical, possibly mystical and transcendent states and feelings, to the most down to earth.

This abruptness was memorably illustrated within the first few seconds of singing her first song on AGT https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNxO9MpQ2vA&t=226s:

I don’t know my name,
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say I’m just trying
Just trying

So I heard you are my sister’s friend you get along quite nicely
You ask me why I cut my hair and changed myself completely.

What an abrupt change from a personal and poetic take on her life to talking about her sister’s friend. In this second verse she steps right into the muck of the small world and in that way appears to be telling her audience something like, “I’m gonna tell you the way I see the big world but I will not dismiss, deny, or disregard the pettiness of the small world. I’ll address them both together. They are inseparable. Love ties them together.” (I may have put words into Grace’s mouth, but they’re good words!)

With those few lines she was at once identified as an artist of originality and power. She takes you for a ride and cuts around corners and thrusts you into the starry sky and then into her house and back to the sky and you love it all.

Knowing the better life

Grace Vanderwaal plays with opposites of feeling and happiness, and she knows which is the lower or temporary happiness, and which is the higher, the more permanent and solid.

You found a lighter
On the street
And suddenly everything just
Seems so happy
mmm
My honey it’s all temporary

Just close your eyes
And create yourself a better life
Let the wind blow through your hair
Let the music take you there
And make a better life

Again we see that abrupt transition between the street and the sky, between the ordinary and the transcendent. It is a most agreeable transition delivered with the ripened innocence of the child within or with what I am guessing Grace calls her “heart.”

My understanding is that Grace is saying to enjoy the pleasure of finding the lighter. She is not denying anyone that pleasure. Just realize, she is saying, that this kind of happiness is temporary and will fade in a short while.

Living from small happiness to small happiness only makes you seem happy. Grace is saying to look beyond to find deeper, more solid, more permanent, more real happiness.

She says to close your eyes (turn away from the everyday world of temporary happiness), feel the beauty of nature and music, and try to live your life from the more solid and real places of true beauty. In this way your life will be better.

I feel that Grace is telling us that life is better when the more solid happiness is far more important to you than all the temporary happinesses that show up like a lighter on the sidewalk.

This shedding of the temporary happiness finds resonance with the earlier quote by Lilly in which he speaks of the “stripping off of all love for the relative, the dependent, the phenomenal,” in order to know the Supreme Reality, or the “better life.”

We’re brighter than fireflies

The same message is delivered in Light The Sky. Grace again admits we are individual, ordinary people, yet each of us shines with a certain light that lights up the world.

The first line tells the point of view of the song: “Stars . . . they got nothing on us.” The message is echoed later on: “The stars are dull when they’re compared to you and I.” She declares, “And yeah, I think we were born to shine.”

“We’re not the same and we don’t have to try / ‘Cause we’re brighter than fireflies we’re gonna light the sky.

You and me we stand out of the crowd / ‘Cause we aren’t afraid to let our light out

In my view, Grace seems to be saying: We don’t have to be the same. We are individuals. We are fireflies. We are stars. Yet we are brighter than stars and fireflies. We contain a light that is brighter than our individual light. That greater light is our birth right: “We were born to shine.” In this way we light the sky and reveal the world beyond the everyday, the nondual world. There’s a transcendent light. We are not the same and at the same time we are this one light that lights up the sky.

Bob Dylan, a Saint, and Taylor Swift? Sure, why not

These qualities — unifying opposites, being happy, coming from the heart or child within, — and the artistic ways she presents them, give her songs an anthem-like quality and a depth, as well as a joy, perhaps unmatched among singers of her generation.

Grace Vanderwaal is like Bob Dylan with regard to her literary capacity and potential to change the music scene and industry; like a Saint for her ability to embrace light and darkness and to see both the flawed individual and the unflawed perfection of a person at the same time; and like — hey why not? — like Taylor Swift for her pop presence.

Of course these comparisons break down once you look closely at them. In reality Grace is only herself.

Or is she?

Is Grace “only herself”? Or is she — are we — something else? Grace pointed to the illusory quality of this life and personhood in a recent video apparently shot on her phone while at Universal Studios in California with her mom. Walking past fake storefronts brightly lit with Christmas decorations, Grace noted, “They only thing that bothers me … it looks like there’s all these great stores … and they’re fake stores … they’re just an illusion. Everything’s an illusion. Am I an illusion? Are you an illusion?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOYnW_0OKGA (4:33 – 4:57).

Though it seems she was talking in an off-handed, fun way, there’s a sense that behind it is a serious consideration. The sense is that Grace questions everything, even the nature of her own existence and that of others. It seems likely that her world view will be further elaborated in future songs and projects and that she will take millions along on her journey.
copyright©2017 by Jerry Katz. All rights reserved. Contact: halifaxjerrykatz at gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Oneness and the Embracing of Opposites in Some Songs of Grace Vanderwaal

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