In a cultural landscape strewn with increasingly strange combinations of the sacred, secular, and profane, we as scholars need to develop theoretical and methodological tools that allow us to see traces of the spirit in these hybrid forms and bring them into sharp relief and focus. – Robin Sylvan: Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music, p.220.
One of my favorite songs from any genre is Metallica’s “Creeping Death”. My single favorite performance is the one captured in Seattle, 1989, as part of their Live Shit: Binge And Purge collection. At about two minutes and forty-seven seconds in to the song, one camera catches a fan near the front. He can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen years old. He holds up his tour t-shirt and suddenly, his eyes roll back in his head and a maniacal grin spreads across his otherwise handsome young face (the video is here, keep an eye on the time-stamp, or just watch and you’ll see). It is the archetype of what people think when they hear the word “possessed”. It would be more disconcerting if it happened in a different context, say he was talking to his parents when all of a sudden that look on his face appeared. As context is everything, however, it makes a whole lot more sense, particularly if you’re someone at least a bit familiar with the band Metallica, their music, and their fans.
In her published dissertation, Traces of the Spirit, Religious Studies scholar Robin Sylvan seeks to trace the continuities between particular elements of traditional West African musicoreligious practice and what seems to be the emergence of spiritual if not religious elements in particular musical subcultures. She examines four: Deadheads (low-hanging fruit!); ravers; metal fans; and hip-hop culture. She begins with a theoretical discussion, rooted in the history-of-religions school of scholarship, grounding her contention that our post-modern culture is peculiarly stationed to offer opportunities for spiritual and even religious growth in the context of secular, capitalist-commercial popular musics.
She also describes the results of fieldwork in Senegal, Mali, and Ghana where she observed traditional “possession” dances in which spirits or gods would take possession of people in order to perform what is, more or less, community service – answer questions, offer advice or help, reassure the anxious. What is of interest to Sylvan isn’t so much the practical effects of possession so much as the way the men and women open themselves to be so possessed, through a combination of rhythm, particular musical mottoes that invoke particular spirits or gods (it depends upon which society one refers if the people have to do with a god or merely a spirit). She then traces the histories of African people brought to the New World during the slave trade. She notes that the vast majority arrived either in South America or the Caribbean, with only 5% of the total coming to North America. She also notes that in particular those Africans arriving in South America among the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese colonists found fertile soil for a kind of synthesis that has resulted in Vodun (Haiti), Santeria (Cuba), and Candomble (Brazil). In the predominantly Protestant North American context, however, both the strictures on traditional religious practice and the difference between Protestant religious practice and traditional African religious practice led, first, to the subtle changes to African music going underground (something that continues to this day, although for commercial and ideological reasons). While minstrelsy saw both the theft and humiliation of slave songs as well as a kind of respect that couldn’t be acknowledged fully – race is our original sin; how would it be possible for whites to admit they liked the music of their African and African-American slaves? – it also saw the nationalization of these same musical styles that, even before the Civil War, began to merge with traditional folk musics from other immigrant subcultures.
After getting to the rise of rock and roll, the emergence of rock as distinct from rock and roll and the growth of musically-rooted subcultures – sometimes limited by race or class; usually tied in to the commercial desires of the recording industry – she makes the point that long-lasting musically-rooted subcultures are good testing ground for seeing if there remain traces of African and early African-American musical and religious themes. She stresses the physical, the psychological, the philosophical, and the ritual aspects are all areas to explore.
Of the four subcultures with which she works, she seems the least sure of herself when it comes to heavy metal. Her rather cursory – and erroneous – recounting of the history of the music, rooted in Robert Walser’s Running With The Devil: Gender, Power, And Madness In Heavy Metal and Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal miss the depth, variety, and profundity both in the music as well as fans. One would have thought the mosh-pit, which not only features people slamming in to one another, but mostly has people walking in a continuous circle – like the possession dances she observed in Ghana, or the ring-shouts of African-American Pentecostal Churches – would have been an obvious place to discuss how the power of rhythm can move people to become possessed. While spending a bit too much time of the superficial darkness of the music, she doesn’t seem to grasp that darkness – like the lyrics of hip-hop, to which she several times refers through the lens of Chuck D’s famous quote that it’s the CNN of African-American youth – and even flirtations with Satanic and Pagan imagery doesn’t exist either for its own sake or even, by and large, as a serious reflection of the bands or the fans. Rather, these are vehicles for expressing frustration, for the working out of rage, alienation, that sense of being Other both by youth and adult followers of the music. There is a great deal more she could have said but chose not to say about the spiritual aspects of heavy metal.
This, however, doesn’t detract either from the surprises her study offers. At a time when the mainline churches scramble to make sense of the changes in society and culture that push their numbers ever lower, it is refreshing to see there are real resources – spiritual, God-soaked resources – that, should they so choose, are available for these same churches. For far too long, all we have wanted to do is anathematize popular musics with a mindlessness that borders on the humorous. Wouldn’t it be far better to acknowledge that Spirit blows where it will? That maybe, just maybe, people as disparate as ravers and those in hip-hop culture have seeds that could bear fruit for all of us?