Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.


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?

Douglas White Hodge, “Pain, Misery, Hate & Love All At Once/Where Are My Dawgs At?”

What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church.  Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it.  So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand.  Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening.  And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120

The two chapters covered today deal with a complex set of issues, including what is traditionally called theodicy, the question of evil if a world allegedly ruled by a God of Love and Justice; matters of modernity versus post-modernity; and the link that binds these together, as well as human beings together with one another, and with God – the matter of community.  White Hodge handles these matters with a deft, easy hand, demonstrating how the generation raised on Hip Hop lives out certain post-modern qualities, including questioning the reality of any final answers; distrusting authorities, preferring to use their own experiences as the basis for beginning understanding; wishing for recognition and legitimation both of their lives and how they are lived out by authorities they want to respect but feel do not respect them in turn.

Most important, when it comes to matters of dealing with questions of justice, suffering, and death and how the Hip Hop community responds to these realities, White Hodge is quite clear these are not just matters of academic curiosity.  They are, rather, urgent existential questions that demand utterance in clarity, even if no single answer satisfies to respond to the horror and despair too many experience in their daily lives.

Theodicy not only includes evil; it also centers around matters of judgment and forgiveness.  Thus, the DMX song “Look Thru My Eyes” that begins this post.  The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent.  He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding.  He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was.  Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the  knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back.  As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly.  Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives.  The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.

These understandings are not things Hip Hoppers struggle through on their own.  On the contrary, Hip Hop is a community of persons, gathered together to laugh, cry, joke, act stupid, lift one another up, argue, get angry, ask questions, and most of all enjoy the mutual affirmation that comes from being together.  These nontraditional communities are where youth and young people search together and find God, Jesus, and the faith and hope to carry on, even as the world denies their humanity, the legitimacy of their communities as anything other than criminal gangs, and even the church turns its back on them.

Yet, tying together the themes of both questions, White Hodge asks a question, quoted above, that is both pointed and unanswerable as our all-too-familiar sacred-profane dichotomy would insist.  The hostility of the African-American church in particular to Hip Hop and the Hip Hop community too often misses opportunities for each to teach the other; it also refuses to confront the reality that the Gospels all portray Jesus as being with the outcast, the drunkard and prostitute and leper.  In other words, the Hip Hop community of its day.  Focusing so much on the vulgarity and violence in Hip Hop, people in our churches miss the equivocal nature of the language, the plea for understanding, even forgiveness in a world – and even a church – that doesn’t seem too eager to extend it.  Yet, that same forgiveness comes within those extra-church Hip Hop communities who are unafraid to be church for each other.

While not yet at the heart of the theological possibilities within Hip Hop, in these chapters, White Hodge creates a background for understanding how it can substitute for the institutional church in a day and time in history when that is far more questionable.  That those who hear in the words of Hip Hop the questions they’re asking, the prayers they lift to God, and the hope that seems so far away in their daily life represent church in its most basic form – ekklesia, those called out – is as much a judgment upon the institutional churches as it is an opportunity for people to welcome Hip Hoppers in to their churches on their own terms, and listen to what they have to say, affirm their lives in a way they too often desperately need.