The Spirit in the Charts

The Spirit in the Charts

Brendan Boughen

 Has God Gone Mainstream?

I remember going to a youth group meeting in my early teens where we were shown a video called Rock and Roll: A Search for God. Most of it was about big-hair 80′s metal bands, back-masking, Satanism, ‘horned hand’ symbols and how Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was so much better than rock because the singers smiled on the covers of their albums.

Thinking back to it, it was not a bad title. (Indeed, searching for God in rock’n'roll is what I will try to do in this article!) However, the narrator seemed to think that good music about God could only be found in the CCM genre and that’s all a young person should be listening to.

Was that true then? Is it true now? What messages are young people hearing in pop music these days? Is the search for God in modern rock a fruitless one?

Hardly. In fact, it seems that more and more mainstream (or “secular”) artists and bands are openly exploring spiritual themes and affirming the reality of God in their lyrics than ever before. Where religion (and especially Christianity) was once seen as a barrier to success in the mainstream music business, it is now apparent that musicians who sing about their faith or spirituality with integrity – and also excel at playing their instruments – are the ones topping the charts and winning the legions of fans.

God goes mainstream

Most obvious examples of artists who are Christians (as opposed to “Christian artists” – an important distinction) in mainstream music include POD, Creed, U2, Ben Harper, Lifehouse, Lenny Kravitz, Midnight Oil, Mary Mary, MxPx, Sixpence None the Richer and Moby. In various contexts, these artists clearly express Christian concepts of grace, salvation and faith amidst their lyrics without losing radio or MTV airplay.

At another level are artists who do not profess any overt faith, yet spiritual themes and references to religion, God, Jesus and the Bible are peppered throughout their songs. I think here of bands like Coldplay, Live, REM, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, Blink 182 and the hard house music of Fatboy Slim.

Even the genre once touted as the prime mover of “devil’s music” – heavy metal – seems to have found a deeper soul. The evolution of “nu-metal” has produced bands like System of a Down, Disturbed, Blindside, Tool, Rage Against the Machine and Pacifier (formerly Shihad) who are clearly well informed on religious matters and often confront themes that are spiritual as well as political.

Even Ozzy Osbourne, (who copped much flak on the aforementioned youth group video for his “evil” image) has now won a Father of the Year award(!) and admitted to praying for his cancer-stricken wife.

Then there’s Marilyn Manson – the much vaunted, self-proclaimed “anti-Christ superstar”, with a stage presence that is more performance art than genuine persona – who pens lyrics about God and religion with an almost obsessive regularity. While it is not often pretty, one is still hard pressed to find a Marilyn Manson song that doesn’t seriously address a spiritual theme. Intriguingly, on his most recent album, the “satanic” Manson admits, “I never really hated a one true God / But the God of the people I hated.” (Disposable Teens)

At the zenith of American hip-hop we see potty-mouthed rapper Eminem praying in church in his latest video for ‘Cleaning out my Closet’. This song (yes, the white-boy can sing!) explores his troubled life with an honesty and seriousness (amidst the usual vitriol) that is unusual in pop music, articulating his feelings about his experience of fatherhood compared to his own childhood.

I could go on, but obviously, finding God on mainstream radio – or at least intimations of a search for God – isn’t that difficult. Music is art, and art is amoral, as Oscar Wilde famously contended. But does that mean youth workers have no cause for concern about what youth are listening to? Should they still be showing those anti-rock documentary videos and directing young people to CCM instead?

CCM

CCM is big business. In the USA last year, an estimated $920M worth of CCM was purchased. Every year in New Zealand, the largest Christian music event in the Southern Hemisphere, Parachute Festival, draws around 20,000 people to its site. Yet, in both countries, CCM musicians remain predominantly on the sidelines of mainstream culture, more of an oddity than something taken seriously. (One memorable Seinfeld episode had George Costanza describing Christian rock artists as “very positive” but “not like those real musicians”.)

Writing about this “subculture” nature of the CCM business, Mark Joseph, author of The Rock & Roll Rebellion states, “The [Christian] faith community must acknowledge that the present system simply hasn’t worked very well for taking their message out of the church and into the mainstream of popular culture.” He is acknowledging something crucial: that CCM is, on the whole, preaching to the choir.

Unlike the variety of theological persuasions abounding in Christian denominations world wide, there is also an astonishing sameness with CCM. While musically there is as much variety in CCM as mainstream pop music, the genre reflects almost an exclusively Pentecostal, fundamentalist approach to Christianity. The suggestion of a band being ignored by Christian record labels or radio stations because they didn’t have enough JPM’s (Jesus’ per minute) in their lyrics is no joke.

The popularity of CCM with many young people is undeniable. And George Costanza was right; there is nothing wrong with music being positive. CCM is clearly encouraging and affirming for Christian teenagers growing in their faith. However, the question remains as to whether CCM is innocuous to the point of irrelevance in the wider pop culture. Youth workers should be aware of the especially black-and-white worldview espoused by 99.9% of CCM songs, and its capacity to be alienating to non-Christian young people at a stage in life where group ‘membership’ is a crucial factor in peer relationships.

Music as Membership

In a fascinating article titled ‘From Presley to Tarantino: Has Film Become the New Rock’n'Roll?’*, John Allan tackles the assumption that says, “Popular music is now played out as a major force in the teenage world. It is no longer the prime carrier of meanings, the most important bridge of membership.” (p.151)

Relating his personal experience, Allan says, “Now teenage music has splintered into a confusion of sub-cults; within my youth group, music is no longer a shared interest that binds teenagers together, but a badge of difference that keeps them apart.” (p.152) It is this potentially divisive element of music (rather than lyrical content) that should perhaps be of most concern to youth workers in regard to its effect on youth group dynamics.

My own experience as a youth group leader is that adherence to a particular style of music can affect group dynamics to greatly varying degrees. In one experience, it wasn’t particularly relevant. This particular group of young people could talk about their favourite pieces of classical music while driving to a punk rock gig and not be thought weird by their peers. (In fact, bizarre individual music tastes could be seen to be badges of ‘cool’!) However, another experience of seeing a group split into competing cliques – of those who listened to Christian music and those who didn’t – was greatly concerning.

While unconvinced about the suggestion film taking over music as the ‘prime carrier of meaning’ for youth, John Allan notes that “There is a cynical awareness among young people that the music doesn’t belong to them any more – despite the best attempts of independent labels and entrepreneurial club managers, rock has fallen into the hands of big business interests � What was once a wild, radical, new teenage musical form is now over 40 years old.” (p.153)

This brings us to a concern for the youth worker seeking to bring young people to an experience of God. The problem with music may not be what young people are hearing, but what they are seeing.

Music as Image

TV shows like the Popstars franchise simply glory in the throwaway inanity of the music business. Who now remembers the bubble-gum pop of True Bliss, Bardot and Hearsay? This programme sucks its existence from the dreams of teens obsessed with celebrity and uses them as voyeuristic grist for the pop music business mill.

I would contend that image cultivation in the music industry is more dangerous to the spiritual life of teenagers than lyrics. When music becomes a by-product of the image-marketing machine, represented by multimillion-dollar media interests like MTV, its soul is at stake, as are those of teenagers.

As anti-globalisation journalist, Naomi Klein wrote in her best selling No Logo, “MTV International has become the most compelling global catalogue for the modern branded life.” She quotes sources which define MTV as “an all-news bulletin for creating brand images” and a “public address system for a generation.” She continues, “The more viewers there are to absorb MTV’s vision of a tribe of culture swapping, global teen nomads, the more homogeneous a market its advertisers have in which to sell their products.” (p.121)

Conclusion

When it comes to pop music, I believe the worst thing you can do as a youth worker is believe that modern pop / rock music is leading young people astray and encourage them not to listen to it. Guide the young people in your care in questioning the concepts of image and celebrity so prevalent in pop culture. By all means, get them along to Parachute, but also be aware of the limitations of CCM. You will do more towards inspiring a thinking, intelligent faith in young people if you begin discussions with examples, analogies and lyrics in the mainstream music they hear on radio, than if you simply knock rock.

Brendan Boughen until recently was Marketing Communications Manager at St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church Auckland and editor of the ‘SMACA’ e-Zine

*Publshed in Agenda for Youth Ministry: Cultural Themes in Faith and Church, Edited by Dean Borgman & Christine Cook, SPCK, London, 1998.