Poor John Lennon. Turns out, long after suffering much criticism for his “Beatles are more popular than Jesus” comment, he might be right.
Or is he?
In a strange twist involving department politics and funding, I have been assigned our program’s Music, Religion, and Spirituality course for the second time in a row. I am one of the least religious people around, something that probably works in my favour for teaching a course like this from an objective stance, but I don’t know how many people would have thought of me as the optimal instructor, given my usual courses.
After running it last year, I realized that students almost exclusively wanted to listen to, research, write about, and talk about popular music, no matter how many traditional pieces and chants I played. So this time around, I decided to focus more on how popular music is interacting with religion, or in some cases, replacing a traditional spiritual experience for people who live in a mostly secular world. I’m not the first, and especially not the best, to say this.
Check out Springsteen at 18:00 and again at 29:00
Then look at this clip:
Which one is more religious? You might say the second one, and yes, it is more explicitly religious in intent and content. But which one produces the kind of response you’d expect from a spiritual encounter? Depends on your own beliefs, but...
I think most of the visitors to this site can report on at least one musical experience that generated a heightened awareness, or altered state of consciousness, or impression of being touched by something not of this world, and I wonder how much experiences like that have taken over the role that religion used to play in people’s lives. Followers are often drawn to a faith because they lack the emotional and intellectual tools to deal with whatever form of adversity they are facing. Why did poor southern whites get on the Baptist bandwagon in the 1800s? Why did ecstatic services appeal to people with little economic hope and a strict set of social rules governing their lives? In shape-note singing, the folk tunes used as a basis for hymns, the bodily engagement with performing, and the beliefs that singing can be fun and anyone can do it, meant that religious services could actually be enjoyable for the congregation. Not only that, there’s something compelling about the wide intervals and the refusal on the part of singers to absorb their distinct timbres into a well-blended sound.
Further along in the spectrum, there’s the kid who seemingly goes into a trance in this folkstreams documentary on Pentecostal music (it starts around 8:30). I often wonder what became of him.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was no popular music to throw yourself into, no reason to dance rapturously, throw your head around, and shout back at a lead singer collectively, how else would you express yourself?
Then along comes pop music, with the corresponding sociological factors of more people living in big cities, expanding diversity across the western world, higher education for many more people than ever before, and suddenly the old man upstairs was losing his firm grip on scared mortals. Turns out there are other ways to explain the world.
I’m not sure what made me non-religious, or even when it happened. Probably sometime in my late teens I drifted away from our relatively innocuous Presbyterian church because I had to work Sunday morning shifts at the grocery store. By the time I thought to question it, maybe in my late 20s, I didn’t buy into the structured set of beliefs anymore. At that point, I’d been through some morally questionable situations, some initiated by me, and I couldn’t reconcile what I saw in those real world moments with what I was supposed to believe.
At what time, though, does that realization turn into a full-blown shift in character? That question is at the centre of Will Ferguson’s book Spanish Fly; he rests his protagonist’s (Jack) gradual transformation into a con man on Pascal’s set of wagers as to a) whether God exists and b) what your belief or non-belief will bring upon you at the moment of judgement. Then Jack relocates those odds to explain how he starts trying to deceive people less astute than him, ascribing his actions to an amoral (rather than immoral) operating system. If his victims aren’t smart enough to see it coming, then who is to blame?
Such might be the foundation for contemporary ruminations on religion in popular music. Those songwriters who avoid explicit critique or questioning à la Jack might head in the direction of sarcasm. You know, ha ha, religion, get it? Like, people who love Jesus?
But that’s still a relatively underground thing. Try to criticize Mr. J. in mainstream country, and, well, goodbye career. Luckily, there’s a lot of room in roots music for people to be subversive and still have fans, which makes no sense to me when most young people claim to not be religious. Why, then, do they still care that singers thank god in their Grammy speeches?
Note the careful capitalization in the previous sentence. Pretty soon, the Grammys will be a replacement annual Christian youth conference, if they aren’t already. I’m just sayin’.