“All The Time” has the vibe of a New Wave interpretation a spaghetti western background track. The soaring synths and the persistent four on the floor drumbeat are classic New Wave. We find the western influence in the slide guitar and all that reverb that is as wide as the desert that the cowboy crosses on his horse on his way to find whatever it is that motivates him – whether it be vengeance, a home or a long lost girl. The music battles between weariness, loneliness, longing and hope. Which of these should we feel? How about all of them at once, all the time?
The lyrics remind me of the concept of locus of control. Your own understanding of yourself is shaped by what you think you can control. You may act upon the world; you can, through your own agency and will, change the world. The world can also act upon you and change you, sometimes against your will. Your sanity rests on finding the balance between these two realities.
“Locus of control” is the concept of where you find that balance. The balance will fall somewhere on the continuum between the opposing poles of “external” and “internal”. If you fall on the extreme ends of the external pole, you will believe that you are always at the mercy of what is outside of you. The world does as it will to you and you are powerless to stop any of it. You are a puppet on a string, destined to move only as you are directed by the puppet master. It is a bleak existence. The learned helplessness of this way of understanding your place in the world leaves you paralyzed and shattered.
Of course, having an extreme internal locus of control isn’t much better. If you believe that you can control the trajectory of all that happens around you, you have a completely different set of problems. You can be blind to your own motivations if you do not recognize the external forces that shape them from birth. You push ahead, asserting your own way in everything because if you stop long enough to ponder the source of your motivation, your self-contained, self-made image of who you are might fall apart. You may even begin to take responsibility for the actions of others, to take their burdens onto yourself, because doing so is preferable to contemplating a world that you cannot control. Interestingly, an extreme internal locus of control will leave you paralyzed as much as its opposite pole. I read once that catatonics suffer from a sense of too much responsibility. The burden is too heavy to carry and the consequences too great if they fail, so they just stop moving all together.
We don’t make the world go round
We don’t know much about
Life and little things
We don’t make it happen
We don’t make it happen
All the time
We will focus on the external locus of control today because this is where the lyrics lead us (and that was not intended as a pun, really). This first verse is an outright denial of personal agency. We don’t make the world turn. We don’t know about this stuff. We don’t make anything happen. It is an abdication of responsibility and of making decisions. Hey, it ain’t my fault the world is the way it is. It ain’t me.
Love a world that’s not your own
And pretty soon we’ll go home
The second verse takes an unexpected turn. I assume the world that he loves, that is not his own, is heaven. Here’s what is strange about that line – he tacitly takes ownership of the very world he abdicated in the first verse. If heaven is the home that we love and will go to at some point in the future, then the earth must be the world we own now. This may not be a sound interpretation of this. I haven’t exactly plotted this out using deductive reasoning or anything. But it strikes me as strange. The only world that is his right now is the world that he denies any responsibility for.
Find some real love
That’ll make us happy
That’ll make us happy
All the time
In some future state, we will go home and we’ll find real love. This are the only direct verbs in the entire song. The rest of the song talks about what he doesn’t do or doesn’t know. This is the only expression of actually doing something (even though it is in future tense, it’s not happening right now). So what is he actually doing right now? Denying responsibility for the world and dreaming of a future heaven state where a real love will make him happy all the time. Notice how this real love that will “make [him] happy all the time” is another external force that will act upon him?
These lyrics pretty much describe the criticisms that non-Christians have about Christianity. Christians will turn our backs on the suffering of the world with a “I’m not my brother’s keeper” shrug. When it comes to being accountable for our own actions and self-improvement, we expect some Jesus atonement magic to do all the work for us. This is why evangelical Christianity is such a punchline in the world right now.
Now, I know that the truth of atonement is much more than this. But I’m also frustrated that we Christians make it so easy for the world to paint us with such broad strokes. We were not put here to abdicate our place in the world while dreaming of a future heaven where all our problems will be solved for us. God has no hands in the world except our own. We are here in this world now, all the time. We should act like it.
Wow, this post did not go in the direction I thought it was. I should do something to bring it full circle. In the beginning, I wrote about how this song sounded like weariness, loneliness, longing and hope. This external locus of control business can explain why there is weariness and loneliness here. It doesn’t explain the longing and hope. Maybe the music tells us more than the lyrics do.
Let’s go back to that image of the lone cowboy crossing the desert that the music evokes. The myth of the cowboy is an American creation – the rugged individual who cares for his herd and does his duty no matter the weather conditions. The cowboy is the mythical figure that Americans wish we could be. He is undoubtedly the symbol of an internal locus of control. And there is the hope.
The longing is in the space between the lyrics and the music. It is the distance between who we say we are now and who we wish to become… all the time.