Music

Pop Psalms: Nick Lowe's "(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding"

Abby Olcese

In an interview with AARP Magazine, Nick Lowe mentioned that the song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” has become such a part of the pop-music songbook that he barely even recognizes it as his own work anymore. “I feel like I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “It really does feel like it’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘Happy Birthday to You.’”

It’s true that, more often than not, Lowe’s best-known song is associated with other artists rather than with the man who wrote and first performed it. Lowe originally recorded the song with his band, Brinsley Schwarz, in 1974, but its most recognizable version is the cover by Elvis Costello & The Attractions on the 1979 album Armed Forces, which Lowe produced. It’s gone on to generate hundreds of versions by other artists across a wide swath of musical genres. There are soul covers, bluegrass covers, and doo-wop covers. Wilco has recorded it. So has blues legend Keb’ Mo’. Early in 2020, rockers Sharon Van Etten and Josh Homme teamed up to perform a duet of the song.

The reason Lowe’s song has such staying power isn’t only that it’s been covered by countless artists (though certainly that keeps it relevant). It’s because the song addresses a timeless desire for justice and agape love in a world that projects selfishness and fear, while still, in some corners, maintaining a sense of hope. The song’s message is so universally applicable that it doesn’t feel like the work of a single person. It feels like it’s always existed. In that sense, “Peace, Love, and Understanding” is its own kind of psalm, addressing the same feelings and crying out with the same desires that are present in these passages of biblical wisdom literature.

Lowe’s song is written from the perspective of a weary traveler who appears to be stuck in a dark, seemingly hopeless state of mind, a witness to the world’s many injustices and unfair treatment of others. Lowe sings:

As I walk through
This wicked world,
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself
Is all hope gone?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?


In the second verse, he continues:

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.
’Cause each time I feel it slippin' away, it just makes me wanna cry.
What's so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh...
What's so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Those lyrics get at a recognizable feeling of frustration that spoke to the time Lowe wrote them, but could also be applied to any number of situations in our world today: systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and confusion regarding the nature of truth in public discourse. The sentiments Lowe’s song expresses may also be familiar to anyone who’s spent time reading the psalms.

The song addresses a timeless desire for justice and agape love in a world that projects selfishness and fear.

Many of the psalms, particularly those of David, address the writer’s spiritual anguish, over injustice, slander by enemies, and the prosperity of the wicked. In Psalm 55, David begins by writing “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying, because of the threats of the wicked; for they bring suffering on me and assail me in their anger.” Psalm 62 addresses comfort found in the Lord, while also asking of David’s enemies, “How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down—this leaning wall, this tottering fence?”

Just as often, however, psalms give us reassurance of God’s overarching narrative of justice. In Psalm 37, David writes, “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.” Psalm 119 addresses both justice and inner turmoil, with the writer asking for God to give him strength to continue living a life of righteousness and faith in the face of worldly wickedness. It also includes this line of testimony: “I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding.”

That reassurance also exists in “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”—not through the song’s lyrics, but in its music. In most versions of the song, including Lowe’s, the instrumental portions aren’t downbeat and dirge-like, as the words might suggest. Rather, they’re energetic and fast-paced. The opening chords feel empowering, not disheartening. Lowe’s song addresses the singer’s pain and disappointment with the world, but it remains a happy pop song throughout.

That’s because, like the psalms, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” isn’t a complaint. It’s a call. Lowe’s lyrics ask, “Where are the strong? Who are the trusted?” His music, with its bright chord progressions, rhythmic piano, and splashy drums, suggests an answer: it’s us. If the righteous people of the world stand together and act with selflessness and integrity, the song’s plea for “peace, love, and understanding” can be heard and met.

Like the psalms, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” tempers lament and yearning with a sense of spiritual optimism. The singer, like the psalmist, is wracked with sorrow at the state of the world, but the song’s arrangement suggests a reassurance that there are larger forces at work than the wickedness of humanity. Lowe’s song empowers the listener to go and be the change we wish to see, even as we remember that our empowerment is divinely directed.

Topics: Music