If you commissioned an actuary to chart the popularity of certain themes in popular music, you'd see huge spikes for obvious topics like sex, love, breakups and various rebellious behaviors. Rock music, especially, has always been an incubator for artists who challenge the prevailing social norms and mores, sometimes angrily so.
One subject that wouldn't have nearly as big a blip on that graph, however, is divorce. There are a few songs about it here and there. Gwen Stefani's recent album This Is What the Truth Feels Like explores the sundering of her union with Gavin Rossdale, for instance. But such songs tend to be sung from the perspective of those adults whose marriages didn't go the distance.
But what about how divorce damages children? Enter X Ambassadors and the singular "Unsteady." It's a mournful, haunting ballad that finds frontman Sam Harris pouring out the agonizing, conflicting emotions he felt as a 15-year-old boy begging his feuding parents to stay together.
At first, all we know for sure is that Harris feels, as the song's title tells us, "unsteady." "Hold, hold on, hold onto me," he begins, "'Cause I'm a little unsteady/A little unsteady." Then this heartrending plea: "Mama, come here/Approach, appear/Daddy, I'm all alone."
Listening to the song for first time, we don't quite know yet where the young narrator's anxiety is coming from. And then that dragon divorce breathes its scorching fire: "'Cause this house don't feel like a home/If you love me, don't let go/Mother, I know/That you're tired of being alone/Dad, I know you're trying to fight when you feel like flying/But if you love me, don't let go."
In an interview with metro.us, Harris said of the song's genesis, "I was in my apartment and came up with chord changes with my brother [keyboardist Casey Harris]. They were sad and vulnerable, like someone crying out for help. Alex, our producer, and I talked about family and what family means to us and my own relationship with my parents and their divorce and how uncomfortable it makes me to even think about it."
So uncomfortable, in fact, that Harris says he still has mixed feelings about his fans connecting personally with such a hard story. "It can be an uncomfortable feeling knowing that your music has had such a hard effect on someone," Harris said. "It's a good comfort because it means something, but there's a weight to it that shouldn't be ignored. It's such a hard thing to fathom because there's no way you can fully empathize with people when they tell you stories and it's hard to do anything other than be graceful and grateful and thankful that this is happening. It's incredible and hard to hear those stories, because at the same time you wish you could do more."
Sam Harris clearly understands that music is powerful precisely because it offers an invitation for listeners to process their own emotions and experiences. And he gets my personal thanks here for using it in this case to push people toward thinking more carefully about the rippling brokenness that always emerges from divorce.
Adding Another Layer of Pain
The video for this melancholy musing takes an already painful story and adds another sad layer: alcoholism. We're invited into a couple's relationship at two different points: We see one of their first dates, and we see a conflict that they have at the dinner table years later as their young son tries to get Dad's attention.
In both vignettes, the man pours alcohol from a flask into a cup of something he's drinking. The first time, the woman who will become his wife nervously laughs it off. But when he's still chained to that destructive habit years later, it leads to a shouting match that hints at the devastating divorce to come.
Listening to this cautionary song and watching its warning-laden video, we're pushed into feeling just how "unsteady" Sam Harris felt when his parents' marriage ended. And we see how addictions and relational rifts inflict devastating emotional wounds upon the children caught in their wake—wounds that go deeper than parents may know as kids desperately pine and pray for a more steady—and also, godly—outcome.