Irony And Detachment Are Not Virtues In Art

Now this is to read images into the lyrics that may not be there (always a pleasure of pop), but the underlying, troubled feelings are there – in the sighing quality of the Pet (Shop Boys) pop voice, in the brittle elegance of their arrangements. It’s as if the Pet Shop Boys are both quite detached from their music – one is aware of the sheer craftiness of their songs – and completely implicated by it: they suggest less that they have been touched by the banality of love than by the banality of love songs; they seem to understand the fear as well as the joy of sex (fear and joy which always lie in the anticipation of the physical moment); they capture the anxiety of fun. Their gayness is less significant here (at least for a heterosexual fan) than their emotional fluency . . . Simon Frith, Performing Rites, pp. 8-9

The Black Metal band Abbath in concert. I'm listening to a concert of theirs while I write this.

The Black Metal band Abbath in concert. I’m listening to a concert of theirs while I write this.

While this past year sucked for so many reasons, it also offered the solace of three excellent yet musically very different concert experiences. In late April, I saw the Black Metal bands Myrkur and Behemoth. In October, it was Marillion followed by Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman playing two hours of Yes music. Other than people making music, these concerts would seem to share little in common. The styles of music, the approach to stagecraft, how they “handle” an audience – whether of metal heads out of their minds or middle aged or older men and women, at least some of whom thought it a good idea to wear tweed to a rock concert – and their accumulated goodwill with their fans are all very different.

One thing, however, that unites them is this: They seem to take themselves not very seriously at all, while they take their craft and art very seriously, indeed. One does not stand and sweat through a live performance of an album entitled The Satanist, or a 17-minute long song about the peculiarities of parental love without understanding the performers are fully invested both in the performance itself as well as the specifics of the songs they are playing. Atmosphere, stagecraft, the precision (or lack thereof) of their playing, the physical reaction to playing particular musical passages, the emotion on their faces – these are signs of people who not only love what they’re doing, but are fully and completely invested in it. Whatever else the performers may be, at these moments the only thing that matters is the music. It is the music that brings the audience in, keeps it there, and leaves them sweaty, exhausted, and high (metaphorically or otherwise) when all is said and done.

It has been an article of faith among rock critics, at least since the early 1970’s, that the best rock and pop music performances are those in which the artist seems to distance him or herself from the music itself, inhabiting some space outside the musical performance. Even in live performance, critics insist that when artist and audience share the joke that, for all its seriousness, the music is just pop music and doesn’t matter all that much, we are in the presence of the best rock has to offer. At the same time, some of rock critics’ favorite performers – Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, The Beatles and Van Morrison, The Sex Pistols and Barry White – are perhaps among the m, post serious musical performers ever in pop music. They also seem to love David Bowie precisely for the reasons there are many who find him an also-ran, someone far more interested in stealing and borrowing from other artists (like not including Rick Wakeman or Stevie Ray Vaughan in musical credits, denying them royalties) in order to present less a pop-culture collage than a random set of images unconnected to anything other than his own rather inflated ego. Bowie’s ironic distance, at turns born of the hauteur of youth combined with a serious drug addiction, later flowing from his own sense of himself as a musical icon. The others, many critics insist, only seem to inject any serious intent into their music or its performance. At heart, the Beatles are cheeky Liverpudlians having a laugh on a gullible world; Bruce Springsteen is just a superannuated teen, with the audience his bedroom mirror as he plays air guitar and sings into his brush. Barry White may have seemed to be playing at being sexual, but in fact he was toying with lyrical and musical conventions offering listeners a sonic backdrop for their own sexual escapades; Barry himself wasn’t interested in performing music so much as he was interested in creating a particular sound pallet to accompany the sexual experience. The Sex Pistols? How can anyone take their music seriously particularly since they were supposed to be the antidote to all those artists who seemed to take themselves far too seriously.

This is just canonical music criticism anymore. It seems almost impossible to challenge. Yet, in what sense can it ever be said that the best art is produced by those who don’t care whether it’s good or not as long as people think it’s good? What if, rather than offering a nod and a wink to the audience as both they and the artist share the in-joke that their mutual engagement isn’t anything serious at all, at its best pop and rock music is a shared sense of the importance and seriousness of the musical performance itself, with the artist not taking him or herself seriously precisely because it is the musical performance, rather than his or her ego or personality, that matters? What if The Pet Shop Boys’ being gay wasn’t beside the point, whether any particular fan is straight or not, but rather essential fully to understand and appreciate their work? The Indigo Girls, a duo who seem not to take themselves very seriously at all, nevertheless inject their hearts into love songs, their rage and sense of justice into protest songs, and over it all their identities as gay women. Even when Amy and Emily do covers, it’s impossible to appreciate the cover as their interpretation without holding fast their sexual identity.

Part of this notion of “irony” and “detachment” comes from the best of the earliest rock critics – Robert Christgau, Frith, Lester Bangs – guiding assumption that the music they loved as youth, with its raw intensity matched by raw (often indiscernible) production values, was not taken very seriously precisely because those who performed such music were very often far more amateurish than they were artists. The Kingsmen were a bunch of party boys from the Pacific Northwest who’s “Louie Louie”, with its muddled mix and indifferent vocal performance is often cited as a kind of proto-punk anthem in terms both of musical style and artistic presentation (to take an example from Lester Bangs). The combination of big business and artistic pretension in the mid- to late-1970’s ruined rock music precisely because pop musicians usually only barely able to play their instruments suddenly became serious artists in their own eyes and through the eyes of their management and promoters. A junkie like Jimmy Page casts himself as distant, cold, mysteriously enveloped in the trappings of British occultism while in fact nothing but a common heroin addict who had a nasty habit of stealing riffs and even whole songs from other artists without credit. When Sid Vicious gets his nose bloodied when an audience member breaks his nose with a thrown beer bottle, rather than a sign of dangerous nihilism it becomes a kind of epic Punk moment (even though most critics recognize that Vicious really was a truly awful bass player, barely coherent at the best of times). In words Tom Petty said with which rock critics would agree whole-heartedly, the music isn’t supposed to be really good.

All this plays into the nonsensical cultural bifurcation that sees a real qualitative distinction between a Beethoven string quartet and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”. Since the emergence of class split between the bourgeoisie and working class in the late 18th century, a lot of effort has gone into creating a distinction between “high” culture and “low” culture, with what seems to be the obvious “truth” that “high” culture is inherently more valuable aesthetically and ethically than “low” culture. Even as composers in the 19th century began to incorporate folk musics into their compositions, or were little more than pop composers themselves (think of a Strauss waltz; it’s nothing more than “Electric Boogie” for a bunch of drunk Viennese nouveau riches), the spread of affordable pianos for middle class homes drove a thriving and expanding market for popular tunes that could be played at home. Musical theater in its various forms, whether the operetta  or minstrelsy, created mass markets for popular songs that many still perform today, forgetting that both were considered vulgar at the time they were created. The creation of the masses also created a kind of mass anti-art that just is not to be taken very seriously.

We live in the legacy of these attitudes. It’s still nearly impossible to get any but the most dedicated fans to hear more in the best pop, hip-hop, and rap than entertainment. As if entertainment in and of itself were not a cultural good, even necessity. We continue to harbor an essential distinction between, say, Richard Strauss’s operas and the concept albums by The Moody Blues, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and DMX. When pop music critics refuse to take popular art seriously, how are their judgments valid? If one is like Frith and insists the dialectic of distance and conviction leads to a sidelining of the Pet Shop Boys’ sexual identity, what becomes of possible alternate readings of their songs?

As long as we continue to believe the indefensible – that there is something inherently “better” about orchestral music (of whatever form, which itself demonstrates a certain cultural ignorance) compared to popular musics of any kind – our critical appreciation of both categories is impoverished precisely because we are afraid to hear the obvious similarities between a Mozart symphony and “A Day In The Life”.

A final word about Abbath, whose image appears above. In interviews, they’re as self-effacing and humorous as most rock musicians, able to laugh at themselves while insisting their music and stage presentation is very serious indeed, intended as it is as an attack upon the Christianization of the Nordic countries. There is no distancing the performers from the performance in their case. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why heavy metal is considered only with disdain among many rock critics. How are we supposed to take them seriously, we are told, precisely because they take themselves so seriously? Don’t they realize it’s just music?

Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits By Michelle Phillpot – A Review

The listening pleasures of death metal are multiple and complex, and are not well accounted for by an approach which sees pleasure as a diversion from music’s “real work” of political engagement. In assuming that clear lines can be drawn between the “politically god” and “politically bad” text (see Hills 2007, 39), popular music studies has tended to subordinate pleasure to political concerns in ways that evaluate, rather than explain, the meaning and significance of popular music forms. The political implications of music are obviously important, but what else music might be about is equally important. A productive way forward, then, may be one that acknowledges and explores the specificities of musical genres and their listening pleasures, rather than one that evaluates musical genres according to “how political” they are. – Michelle Phillipov, Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, p. 133


Oral eruption, rectal extroversion
Your vagus implodes as nausea strikes
Savaging your body in terminal retch
Violent spasms and decaying enzymes

Engulf your throat as you belch
Intestinal disturbance, your ileum turns inside-out
Your duodenum is thrust up towards your mouth
Your pancreas excretes stale septic pus

Your whole digestive system is now a sticky mush
Rectal vomit in your thorax wretch your anal tract
Liquidized esophagus mixes with bloodied excretion
As you pathetically gasp for breath

The stench of hot feces scorch your nose
As you violently vomit to death
Your intestines are rising up towards your throat
Stale bile escaping through your bloodied nose – Carcass, “Vomited Anal Tract”


Cannibal Corpse in concert

Cannibal Corpse in concert

All art offers itself to the world on its own terms. Once free of its creator’s grasp, however, we are free to interrogate it on any number of levels: the aesthetic question is usually, although not necessarily primary; in the west, very often matters of a religious nature rush to the foreground; in recent decades, the “political” – never clearly defined, yet ever-present – has become the favorite entry-point for understanding American pop culture, popular music in particular. It is therefore, perhaps, understandable that a genre of music that seems at odds with traditional notions of beauty; antithetical to the western Christian religious tradition; and in a phrase oft-repeated in Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal and Music Criticism, “reflexively anti-reflexive” when it comes to political and social questions would therefore be looked at askance by music analysts. Reveling in moral iconoclasm, death metal might well seem the perfect locus for a radical political hermeneutic of pop culture. Precisely because it eschews any of our traditional categories for analyzing and interrogating art, however, most critics dismiss it as either banally or perhaps dangerously apolitical.

Spending the first half of her book on the political hermeneutics of punk, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, Phillipov both correctly questions the primacy of these questions  by critics as well as leave unasked the question that becomes the centerpiece of her analysis of death metal: why are these musics not taken on their own terms, but rather become vehicles for one or another political agenda? Which is not to say that political interrogations of art are irrelevant; on the contrary, they are part of and parcel of how we understand art. Doesn’t a political analysis, say, of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony enhance our listening pleasure? What about the detailed political exegesis done to many of Shastakovich’s works composed under Stalinism? Quite apart from the allegedly simple pleasures of listening to music, political criticism keeps us from being complacent in our listening habits. We become engaged listeners.

All the same, why prioritize a political analysis? Certainly punk and hip-hop invite both listeners and critics to bring up questions of power, race relations, and capitalist and racist exploitation without too much effort. In regards electronic dance music (EDM), it is the communities created by the shared experiences of rave culture and house music and their alternative politics that become the focal point of (largely positive) analysis. Questions of the aesthetics of these musical styles, however, often sit unanswered, however. Why is The Clash far more satisfying to listen to than Green Day? What are the differences and similarities between A Tribe Called Quest and NWA? Are the London underground and Goa beach scene socially effective because the DJs offer socially affective compositions (often enhanced by psychedelics)?

There seems to be a breath of fresh air released when, without ever saying so explicitly, Phillipov places the aesthetic question as the forefront of any analysis of death metal:

[T]he focus on the political implications and effects of metal music and culture has circumscribed opportunities for a more nuanced understanding of the music’s pleasures. What might these pleasures look like, when they are considered outside of the currently dominant frameworks of political criticism? What might metal look like when political questions are no longer foregrounded? . . .

Death metal offers a productive starting point for such analysis, because an approach better attuned to the specificity of death metal will help to expand the critical vocabulary through which musical pleasure is talked about and understood. (p. 73)

The very nature of the style forces matters of aesthetics to the foreground, because before any other questions can be asked, the music calls to be interrogated on its own terms. Loud, abrasive, often disharmonic or using alternate harmonic structures, with a vocal style that denies the normal pleasures of listening to the human voice, and a rhythmic structure that is usually described as “brutal”, death metal invites analysts to come to terms with the musical sounds on their own terms qua possibly pleasurable musical sounds before any other matters can be addressed. It is here that Phillipov answers the challenge by using two among the most extreme bands as the loci of her analysis. Both bands revel in gore, violence, and – in the case of Cannibal Corpse – a complete rejection of the recognizable human voice. Both bands also feature complex musical structures, structures that Phillipov analyzes in detail (including a few transcriptions as aides) toward the end of offering the possibility of a technical enjoyment as part of the pleasure of listening to Death Metal.

Phillipov is cognizant this is an oft-cited element for the style’s popularity among particular groups; critics also note this is also a target of specifically political questions, precisely because reveling in technical mastery foregrounds particular forms of masculine hegemony. That Cannibal Corpse in particular revels in scenes of misogynistic violence (“Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt” is an oft-cited song title of theirs), is another important question that is and should be front and center of any analysis of death metal’s extremes. While it certainly helps to consider the human enjoyment of horror and grotesquerie as part of the appeal of Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, I think setting the political questions aside to focus solely on the aesthetic matters of playfulness, the dissolution of the self, and technical proficiency does her larger thesis an injustice, especially since Cannibal Corpse in particular is both relentless in its scenes of misogynist violence and unapologetic about it as well.

Which does not mean her overall thesis, i.e., the need to move beyond political analyses of popular musical styles in order to understand them, is wrong. On the contrary; by offering detailed looks at two extreme examples from death metal and showing how their appeal to particular audiences might be understood apart from political questions, Phillipov offers a much-needed corrective to the now far-too-facile political hermeneutics that too often leaves questions of aesthetic enjoyment secondary, or even tertiary. All the same, while she notes in an addendum at the end of the conclusion of her book the politically volatile nature of support for Cannibal Corpse by female fans during a 2004 tour of Australia, I think it is long past time for fans of various forms of extreme metal, including death metal and black metal, to admit the politically questionable nature of the music itself; the prevalence of rightist and even fascist elements in black metal; the reactionary nature of a music whose primary attraction is its use as a protest among disaffected white youth in the US and in northern Europe; despite the spread of metal beyond the bounds of North America and northern Europe to non-white populations in Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, the nature of the attraction of the music, i.e., as a protest among disaffected youth; all these lend credence to critics who hear in metal (and in death metal in particular) a dangerous form of apolitical reflexive anti-reflection that can lend itself to manipulation by non-progressive political forces.

This is an excellent study overall, and Phillipov is to be commended for forcing critics, again, to face music on its own terms rather than a set of terms that render little if anything of value in understanding the attraction of death metal. It might well perhaps offer new ways to understand punk, hip-hop, and EDM, as well, by asking critics to take the music on its own terms first, i.e., as forms of art prior to any question of the music being a vehicle for political organization or agitation.

David Bowie

Tour promotional photo for David Bowie.

Tour promotional photo for David Bowie.

He pretended to invent a character, then lied about a nervous breakdown to hide his dependence on cocaine. He disappeared for a time, finally found by his friend Brian Eno nodding in a Berlin shooting gallery surrounded by other heroin addicts; the resulting Berlin sessions were anything other than brilliant as Bowie spent much of the time detoxing from heroin. He screwed over session musicians from Rick Wakeman to Stevie Ray Vaughan, refusing to credit their work either on album sleeves or in interviews. In a cocaine-fueled interview with Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe, he expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, calling him the first rock star.

A dilettante both musically and personally, he played with androgyny, was coquettish about his sexuality, and was constantly changing public personas, expressing boredom with affectation. His music, much like his personas, was constantly in flux, usually following on one trend or another, whether borrowing heavily from the theatrical British tradition in rock (Crazy World Of Arthur Brown; The Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper phase), Roxy Music’s early blending of synthesizer-minimalism (his work with Brian Eno) or bringing a heavier guitar sound (using Stevie Ray Vaughan and Peter Frampton as session and sidemen), each came after others had all ready made these moves.  In his early years, he would roll around on stage, mime oral sex with his guitarist Mick Ronson, and refuse to allow himself to be seen or photographed in public in order to increase his mystique. None of it was serious, one was never quite sure how calculated it all was or whether, like Oscar Wilde, Bowie really was a superficial man offering the world a variety of  faces for no other reason than to keep others interested in his person and his artistic output.

He could also be a kind and generous friend. In the mid-1970’s, he promoted the career of former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, even landing both of them an appearance on the Dinah Shore daytime talk show, during which Iggy and Dinah bonded over a shared enjoyment of the rhythm of industrial machinery. Later, Bowie would take Iggy’s song “China Girl” and turn it in to a pop hit. When he hired Peter Frampton both to record and tour with him in the late-1980’s, he was offering a down-on-his-luck friend an opportunity, and would praise Frampton’s ability in every interview.

It’s usually considered bad form to speak ill of the recently departed. I don’t know if I’ve spoken ill of David Bowie. I have, however, tried to be honest, both about his life and music, as well as my feelings about them. I was never a big fan, finding much of his public persona an affected pose. There were some things he did that were brilliant, especially his duet with Freddie Mercury on Queen’s “Under Pressure” is perhaps his best single performance. I know he was an icon for many, and that his music will be played for decades to come. Perhaps that, more than his personal limitations and foibles, is what is most important. Regardless of how you feel about him or the various music he helped create, David Bowie’s art will live long after we are all gone. What better legacy could anyone have?

White Soul: Country Music, The Church, And Working Americans by Tex Sample

It is important to see in country music a struggle, often covered with humor, to address this issue of basic trust Where the world is so often unresponsive to your efforts, but demeans you and your life in basic everyday encounters, then this issue of trust cannot be approached apart from the activity of life itself. Trust is not merely a psychological characteristic; it is the grounding base of one’s life and practice. It is not so much articulated as done. It is not so much the conscious makeup of one’s subjectivity as the very case of one’s bearing. It is what gets you up in the morning, what keeps you on the job, what enables you to hunker down, what keeps you finally in love with you family or leads you to leave it, it is what gets you through the night. It is a trust formed in some story of how the world is, sometimes a very latent and implicit narrative. Sometimes with working people it is a story of desperation and despair about a world where the best you can do is get by. Sometimes it is a story of going through the motions and living numb. An attempt to address the faith that does not come to terms with this struggle and the often unarticulated trust activated in it will not engage the lived live of working people. Such efforts will be abstract, irrelevant, and, worst of all, not seriously attempt to discern the redemptive work of the Spirit in their everyday activity. My deepest confidence in a country music as the embodiment of working-class life, with all of its limitations, is that it, indeed, addresses this dimension of the working world. – Tex Sample, White Soul: Country Music, The Church, And Working Americans, pp. 170-171


Two of America's greatest songwriters and performers, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Two of America’s greatest songwriters and performers, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

At Lisa’s first appointment in Jarratt, VA was a man named Billy Gordon. Billy was the poster-boy for good old boys. His neck was so red it glowed. He smoked, he drank, he hunted, he fished, and he cussed. He was also living with a cancer that was killing him so slowly I’m surprised he managed to get out of bed some days. Lisa would visit with Billy and his wife Mary Ellen and they’d talk about God. Billy wasn’t church-going at all. Still, he told Lisa, “Me and God, we got things worked out.”

I was there the last time Billy came home from the hospital. Always a big, burly man, I pushed a wasted frame, his face twisted by pain, in wheelchair. I lifted him in to bed and where once had been a hearty, friendly, laughing man was now nothing but skin and bones. Lisa, Mary Ellen, and me, we got Billy situated and as comfortable as we could. Leaving after that was hard. I’d never been through an experience like that before (I was 29 years old; what the hell did I know about anything?), and seeing what cancer had done to Billy, I hated it. I won’t say I loved Billy, because I didn’t know him well enough. I liked him an awful lot. He was all the things I would have thought I never could have liked – he was free with the “n” word when talking about African-Americans; his demeanor and person were rough, if I didn’t know him and saw him walking toward me, sure enough I’d be afraid – but knowing Billy you couldn’t help but like him. And now this is what was left after years of fighting and fighting and refusing to allow the cancer to define him, it seemed to snatch him all at once.

That was on a Friday. It was early on Sunday when Mary Ellen called Lisa and told her Billy was gone. Lisa did his funeral, a gathering of fellow working country folk for whom a funeral was probably one of only two reasons to cross the threshold of a church (the other being a wedding). There, surrounded by by people who probably were wondering why a lady was doing the preaching, Lisa told them a story about a God who loves us so much, that God will reach down to someone like Billy Gordon and work out an understanding. Lisa told them that Billy’s joy for living, his enjoyment of all the things that seemed to make his life worth living showed the Spirit was with him. That Spirit would carry Billy over and through, and Billy would rest with God. She also made the point they, too, all those folks there who were wondering what a preacher might say about Billy Gordon, had the opportunity to realize that God loved them, too. Not if they did better in life. God loved them, full stop.

A couple weeks later, I happened to be back at my Seminary alma mater and one of my former professors, James Logan, said to me, “So I hear Lisa did a redneck funeral a while back.” I looked at him. I knew Jim was deep inside Virginia Conference politics, but I honestly had no idea how he’d heard about this. It was just a funeral, after all. My curiosity got the better of me. “Where’d you hear that?” He smiled and said, “Oh, good news travels fast.”

In White Soul, United Methodist scholar Tex Sample traces the twin realities of working-class life and its depiction in and through the medium of country-western music. Refusing to ignore a source of rich theological potential, Sample mines the music that tells the story of a people who are, as he repeatedly notes, are living life so close to the edge they’re not sure if there’s anything but an edge. By showing how the music reflects the lives of those who love it – and let’s not kid ourselves, millions of people love this music – he also shows how it can be a useful tool both for ministry as well as theological reflection.

His is not an uncritical “baptism” of the music. It is also not a naive presentation of the lives of working people. On the contrary, Sample spends much of the book showing the inherent deficiencies and contradictions both within the music as well as the lives of working people. At the same time, he notes the equivocal nature of any statement one way or another about either. One theme that runs through the work is the place of “Saturday night versus Sunday morning” (something jazz and blues and soul performers also contended with), what he calls “being rowdy and loud at the twist and shout”, the name of the first chapter. On the one hand, sure, sometimes the “rowdy” business gets a bit out of control. At the same time, celebration is also something inherent in us as human beings, this need to let off steam, let our hair down, and kick up a ruckus. And, yes, that includes things like drinking and sex and saying naughty words. Sample also repeats that the church alienates itself from working-class folks when it spends more time whining about all that “immoral” activity than it does protesting the structural conditions of work and life that lead too many people to kick up a dickens on Saturday because that’s the only chance they get in the midst of a round of days filled with meaningless work that feels like no one appreciates.

That this last echoes so much of the thing I’ve been saying over the years is just one of the many reasons I love this book.

The whole presentation, which takes both the music and its taste-public seriously, offers opportunities for theological reflection on everything from the nature of the faith as opposed to the institutional Church to matters the spiritual nature of our structural evils:

One needs neither an angelology nor a demonology to account for the pervasive and systemic destruction wrought by distorted comitments, rapacious imbalances of power, the violative practices of dominant institutions, and dehumanizing impact of social inequalities in the common life. Indeed, we do no contend with flesh and blood alone but with elemental powers of the universe, powers so systemically embedded in the full rage of our lives that they take on an emergent reality larger than more pervasive than, their manifestation in individual acts alone.

That a music too often derided as less than meaningless actually carries within it a range of emotional meanings as well as semiotic clues to unpacking the relationships between it it and those who love it should be obvious enough. That it also offers a view of the American working class not so much as “conservative” but what Sample calls “traditionalist populist anarchist” also seems to make clear the too-often repeated dismissal of the working class as irretrievably antiquated, illiterate, racist, and stupid. Both the political and religious depth of country music, a depth to which its fans respond with enthusiasm, is cause for celebration, not mockery.

For the Church, this book offers both hope and a warning. The hope it offers is there are still opportunities for our churches to reach the working class – a group that is both too often denied access as well as self-segregates because, as one person I worked with at WalMart would say, “I know where I’m not wanted” – as long as the institutions of the church work from the ground up rather than impose something from the top down. Or worse, seem to pander without making any substantive changes that would make the working class feel more welcome. The warning, however, is even more clear: We need to be in ministry to the working class, and do so with love and openness and honesty and without any expectations. When Lisa preached at Billy Gordon’s funeral, she didn’t think any of those folks were suddenly going to flood Centenary UMC. All she hoped was they heard some Good News at a moment they might well have heard something else entirely. Rather than set conditions and judge the working class and the soundtrack of their lives, it might do our churches well to sit and listen both to the people and their music in order to hear their stories. Rather than worry about doctrinal niceties, perhaps giving pride of place to the semiotic links between the music and working class life as a gateway to hearing and seeing the Spirit move in and through places the Church just doesn’t want to go offers opportunities for ministry that might not exist otherwise.

Sample’s is a beautifully written, engaging, thoughtful, and prophetic book that should be studied by clergy and lay people alike. The word of judgement should be heard, and atonement for our class bias made. The opportunities for redemptive activity, for ministry with – not to or for but with – working class Americans are there. It only takes courage, thoughtfulness, and an openness to a Spirit that not only swoons to Bach but sings with Patsy Cline’s twang and plays banjo like Grandpa Jones.

Traces Of The Spirit: The Religious Dimensions Of Popular Music by Robin Sylvan

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.

A hip-hop show. A communion of souls

A hip-hop show. A communion of souls

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.

A rave. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, holy, apostolic, universal.

A rave. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, holy, apostolic, universal.

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.

Testament fans at Copenhell. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.

Testament fans at Copenhell. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.

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.

Spinners dancing and twirling in the hallway. Giants Stadium at the Grateful Dead Concert, 9 July 1989. Praise the LORD with tambourine and dance

Spinners dancing and twirling in the hallway. Giants Stadium at the Grateful Dead Concert, 9 July 1989. Praise the LORD with tambourine and dance

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?

Jim Curtis – Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984

Jim Curtis’s Rock Eras: Interpretations Of Music And Society, 1954-1984 is a unique study which I think deserves more attention than it has received. Strongly influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s “Laws of the Media” and its postulations of a continuous cycle of enhancement/ obsolescence/retrieval, Curtis examines popular music’s role in mirroring and influencing American cultural history between 1954 and 1984. While Curtis shows an intuitive grasp of cultural theory (he eschews most of its jargon), he avoids the common assumption of many cultural theorists that artists are merely passive conduits of social tensions. Rather he examines the confluence of social context and individual temperament in evaluating a slew of artists ranging from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, all the while examining the music against the backdrop of quintessentially American concepts such as the covenant and the frontier. . . . The sheer breadth of musical styles addressed is impressive, and in many ways I find Curtis’s study a more thoughtful and penetrating history of rock than the accepted standard, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll. – Edward Macan, Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, pp. 5-6


And who advises the young lover to shop around? Well, Mama does, that’s who. She is the cost-conscious head of a black household, and her prominence, an innovative feature of Motown lyrics, expresses the situation of many black households where there is an absent father. It’s also Mama who says, “You Can’t Hurry Love,” which seems like an adaptation of advice abut frying chicken. – Jim Curtis, Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984, p.99


One of the most overlooked guitarists in rock/funk history, Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel.

One of the most overlooked guitarists in rock/funk history, Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel.

The gold standard for book reviews, at least in my humble opinion, is Matt Taibbi’s vicious, pitiless, beautiful review of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (since I’ve linked to it, read the whole thing even though I’ll be quoting it a bit here at the beginning). What makes Taibbi’s work so powerful is his grasp of Friedman’s mediocrity in all the parts that make up the horrible whole, The World Is Flat. Taibbi begins with the low-hanging fruit of Friedman’s constant poorly mixed metaphors, then goes on to write:

In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick’s potential, and it’s absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he’s choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese. And that’s basically what he’s doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of The World Is Flat. It’s brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it.

This is all by way of introduction. The most relevant part for this review is Taibbi’s discussion of what he calls “the genesis of the title”.

The book’s genesis is conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrasethe level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.” What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.

I bought and read Macan’s Rocking the Classics when it first came out, back in 1997. From the literature review, I eventually purchased Allan F. Moore’s Rock: The Primary Text, a book that encouraged me to learn a bit more about music theory and analysis if I was going to try and say something intelligent about the interrelationships of music, theology, and Christian worship. While I was wary about the whole “Marshall McLuhan” business in Macan’s recommendation, I thought his description of the contents interesting enough. Having received an gift card last week fo my birthday, I ordered a copy.

I’m so glad I ordered a used copy that cost me only $0.98.

Like Taibbi’s note that Friedman somehow manages always to screw up his metaphors (sharks are spouting, herd animals are hunting, a level playing field morphs to a flat world, that kind of thing) as an indication of just how awful reading Friedman’s book turned out to be, so, too I offered above the last sentence of Curtis’s book that I read. It was the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back. While Curtis’s book is nearly thirty years old (published originally in 1987), there is still no excuse – other than crass bigotry or thoughtlessness – to refer to various people as “a Jew” (Al Jolson),  “a black” (name your poison, from Chuck Berry to various Motown artists), or to write about the rise of teen heart-throb fake singers like Fabian or Bobby Darin in terms limited only to their ethnicity, rather than note the ongoing place of mob influence in show business. I suppose Bowling Green State University Popular Press has some responsibility for the steady drip of mindless insults and racial slurs; there are supposed to bee editors, after all, somewhere in the process.

While it might seem banal to say we need to set these to one side – after all, again, it was 1987, and perhaps my sensitivity to these kinds of things has increased over 28 years – we do need to do so to get to the mediocre heart of this book. As I said, the whole Marshall McLuhan business had me wary. McLuhan was a Canadian social commentator who, apparently, discovered that television had changed the patterns of social and cultural life in the West. He thought the best way to talk about these changes was through the arbitrary and nonsensical introduction of “binaries” because it’s once always easier either to have two things oppose one another or work together to create something else rather than to look at social and cultural phenomena and absorb and describe it before venturing toward the dangerous space of theory.

Curtis follows McLuhan right down to the arbitrariness of the “binaries”, all the while believing he has offered a unique interpretation of social, cultural, and musical events when he notes that Elvis Presley’s singing style owed as much to Dean Martin and his Pentecostal upbringing as it did Arthur Cruddup. McLuhan writes several pages on Chuck Berry without once mentioning that Berry’s first hit record for Chess Records, “Maybelline”, was nothing more than the reworking of a country-western song. Curtis mentions that many of Berry’s original listeners thought Berry had musical roots in country music. He doesn’t go any further with it, though. That this might be an important piece of social and cultural information doesn’t warrant discussion. Curtis has already decided to talk about Chuck Berry as an innovative guitar player and song writer without once noting that even Berry’s guitar playing was little more than the extension of things country western guitarists were doing. Certainly as a performer Berry was exciting to watch, although his performance owed as much to T-Bone Walker as it did the sexual innuendo involved with playing a guitar (not a word about this little bit of social and cultural information).

While excited by technology, whether it’s the invention of the electric microphone in the 1920’s or the electric guitar in that same decade, Curtis doesn’t have much at all to say about the socioeconomic conditions that forced, say, the small independent record labels to operate as little more than shoe-string pirate operations. While Curtis mentions Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (the song many scholars say is the first true rock and roll song), he doesn’t talk at all about Ike Turner traveling the South both as an A&R man as well as doing quick recording gigs, pressing maybe a couple thousand copies of the records, and selling them out of the trunk as he went. These are all important parts of the story of the rise of rock and roll, yet Curtis doesn’t talk about them. Why? Because, like McLuhan, Curtis is already wedded to all those binaries, to those weird cycles of the music that all sorts of people, including Geoffrey Ward, in Rock Of Ages. Ward and his co-writers do a far better job linking the complexities of race, the complexities of the record business, and the complexities of social, religious, and cultural pressure both on the larger audience for the new music as well as the performers than Curtis does with his binaries.

I pushed myself as far as page 99 in Curtis’s book because . . . well, I usually don’t like to give up reading something even if it’s poorly written, passes off banalities as insights, and declares a theoretical model describes a phenomenon that no one had discovered, all the while not noticing that others have not only noticed it, but written about it far more coherently and comprehensively; I could wade through the bramble and muck of mediocrity for one payoff: I would know how not to go about doing something.

It was that steady drip of racialized and stereotyped comments, however, that did me in. Rock Eras is not a bad book. It’s just a bit of a nothingburger with thoughtless insulting comments interspersed to keep reminding the reader just how bad it is.

Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond

I remember a particular concert in Marseille. People ran amok there. I threw pages of the Bible at them and they ate them, burned them, or tore them apart. That was crazy. I felt that we had hit the spot. We had focused their anger. If people come to a show and explode with such madness, that happens for a reason. They saw religion and its influence on society as a form o repression, and you could say that our concert purified them. . . .

We have a very specific audience, remember. They like blasphemy. We once played  show at Stodola in Warsaw. After a few songs, the lights went out. When they came back on, I made a joke that apparently God was responsible for Warsaw’s electricity supply. All the people in the room started shouting ‘Fuck God! Fuck God!’ A few thousand throats were yelling. I just smiled. – Adam Nergal Darski, with Kryzysztof Azarewicz, Piotr Weltrowski, translated by Mark Eglinton, Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond, pp.43-44

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

In the early 1990’s, a small group of musicians living in Norway took elements of heavy metal, specifically the more progressive forms of death metal, stripped them bare of their glossy, often over-produced heaviness, stealing only the speed and underlying rage to provide the “heavy” in the metal. Bands like Slayer, Morbid Angel, Possessed, and Venom had already played around with Satanic lyrics, sometimes as symbol, sometimes with a modicum of seriousness, and sometimes without caring one whit about the lyrics themselves. These young Norwegian bands – Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor – were deadly earnest when writing lyrics that abounded with Satanic imagery. So earnest in fact that over the space of a few years, members of these bands and their fans burned about 50 churches, some close to a thousand years old, across the country. Two musicians were imprisoned for murder. Black metal, as the music called itself (after the title of a Venom album), was many things, but one thing it was not was “just music”.

To young Polish teen Adam Darski, Black Metal offered the final piece in the puzzle he was putting together, the puzzle that was both his identity and his desire to express the things he thought and believed as well as how to express them. Not only the power of the music – often missing on those early recordings from studio creations like Bathory, and Mayhem’s first album due to poor studio conditions – but the social and religious protest involved in adopting an overtly Satanic persona provided the vocabulary that Darski still uses to do more than just “play music”. On stage, Behemoth is an intimidating presence, still wearing corpse paint long after it’s gone out of style; the music is fast, complex, yet also raw. Listening to a piece like “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” feels like having thorns dragged over your skin. There’s also this horrid, dark beauty about this song; it’s anthemic with its sing-along “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”. All the same, their stage presence is just a little overwhelming. I’m quite sure there’s always an air of danger at their shows, as if anything could happen. In this sense, Nergal is a true artist. He is provocative, a threat to the most basic, comforting notions we use to offer ourselves security. Far from a necessary evil, Darski and his band are a necessary social good, not just in their native Poland, but anywhere social and religious authorities tend to be just a bit too smug about their power.

Nergal interviewed

Nergal interviewed

This memoir, however – the result of a series of interviews conducted by Nergal’s friends, originally appearing in Poland in 2012 as Spowiedz Heretyka – shows that as seriously as everyone should take both Nergal and the band Behemoth as artists and musicians, he is no simple-minded stereotypical heavy metal musician. Coming away from the book, I feel a real desire to go to Gdansk, look him up, and offer to buy him some beers so we could sit and talk. Not about religion, obviously; about art, though, and what it is to become a national celebrity while never compromising one’s art. He’s intelligent, very well-read, thoughtful, surrounded by good friends – much needed during his battle with leukemia in 2010 and 2011 – and family, and has a wry sense of humor.

More interesting than his long relationship with Polish pop star Dorota was his stint on the Polish version of the TV show The Voice. Having just come out of hospital, he took the offer both for the money as well as, it seems, the thought it would be fun. He admits being intimidated because he isn’t a “singer” and can’t in fact “sing”. All the same, he did a season and it was quite popular despite the producers worries he would . . . who knows? eat a puppy? . . . do something provocative. He did wear a figure of Baphomet around his neck, but it seems few people noticed. Already a figure of national renown both because of repeated attacks from the Catholic Church as well as living with Dorota for a year, the public now saw Nergal as far more than a spouter of blasphemies and extreme artist.

This book does for English-speaking readers what his television appearances did for people in Poland. Nergal is many things, by his own admission. He is always a work in progress. Yet planet Nergal revolves around a sun called “Music” that looks an awful lot like four guys playing extreme music to fans around the world. I won’t pretend that Behemoth’s music, which I hear always balancing this sharp edge between Death Metal and Black Metal, is for everyone. On the contrary, if it were for everybody, it wouldn’t be as provocative or dangerous as it is. It wouldn’t be art. That it is, and that at its best  – “Lucifer”, “Furor Divinus”, and “Amen” along with the aforementioned “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” – becomes something beautiful without losing its threat or danger or provocation, is deafening testimony to Nergal’s efforts to create something both unique and powerful.

Much like the man himself. I won’t pretend to agree with him. I also won’t pretend that this memoir doesn’t present a human being like all of us, yet unlike anyone you’d encounter. Which is what makes the book a more than worthy read. At the end of the day, for all the Satanic fury of his music, I feel like if Nergal and I met, we’d probably get along, as long as we didn’t talk about religion.