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.

Daniel White Hodge, “Baptized In Dirty Water: Locating The Gospel Of Tupac Amaru Shakur In The Post-Soul Context” (Warning: Explicit Language)

Tupac was more than just a fad or an “estranged artist.”  Quincy Jones had it right: Tupac was touched by God; God had a special message and mission for Tupac.  It was a mission and message that few are able to embrace.  The cost is high – your life.  Tupac saw life and culture beyond the routine and ordinary; he approached life full of passion, rage, anger, love, thoughtfulness, and even carelessness; he was the product of a post-soul society which had been groomed on the ambiguous consumer culture of the 1980s.  In this consumer culture, Tupac became a type of popular critical pundit for the hip-hop community – which was established early on in hip-hop culture in its critique of US social structures – particularly religion and economic. – Daniel White Hodge, “Baptized In Dirty Water: Locating The Gospel Of Tupac Amaru Shakur In The Post-Soul Context,” in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, pp,127-128.

Having read White-Hodge’s longer work on Hip-Hop Theology, I was pleasantly surprised by this essay.  First, he more clearly defines “post-soul” as similar to “post-modern” yet reflective more of the concerns of the marginalized, African-Americans, and other minorities rather than “post-modern” which too often reflects white upper-middle class issues and concerns.  He also is very clear that that sacred-profane divide is less clear in post-soul culture, even as he defines each:

[T]his chapter looks at the intersection between the sacred and the profane, a place where Tupac resided daily and where he found a lot of meaning in God.  It was a space outside the traditional environment of “church” and a space for the “thugs,” the “niggas,” and the “‘hood rats.”  I define the term sacred as social reality in religious structure, set apart and made “holy” (e.g. Eucharist, communion).  In contrast, I use the term profane as a social reality in societal living not set apart, which is commonplace and irreverent toward the religious structure set forth by established orthodoxies.  This chapter will illuminate the neo-sacred theology of Tupac toward a contextualized theology of and for the ‘hood.  It will demonstrate that there is much to engage with and learn from, theologically speaking, in the “dark matter” of life, with what seems apparently blasphemous.(p.129)

Two terms in particular, neo-secular and neo-sacred, play an important role in White Hodge’s description of Tupac’s approach to speaking of God, humanity, and life in the context of what White Hodge consistently calls “the ‘hood”.  First is the neo-secular:

Many renowned evangelical theologians have argued that we live in a “secular” culture.  However,  within the post-soul context, spirituality makes its reemergence and seeks to discover God in the ordinary.  This pathway is foreign to traditional methodologies of salvation.  The neo-secular is a mixture of sacred and profane spiritual journeys pursuing God in a space outside traditional forms of worship. (p. 131)

This is similar, in most respects, to my own view that the sacred/profane dichotomy is largely artificial, and one that prevents us from seeing and hearing the Divine at work in ways and spaces and places where we least expect God to be.

As for the neo-sacred:

This is the new sacred,rooted in the post-soul theological context.  This sacred space embodies city corners, alleyways, club rooms, cocktail lounges, and spaces/places which are extraneous to many who call themselves “Christian.”  The neo-sacred is Tupac’s message to the pumps, the hookers, the thugs, the niggas, those overlooked by society, missionaries, and many church-goers.  The neo-sacred is concerned with finding God in the post-soul socio-ecological landscape and making God accessible for all. (p.131)

White Hodge explains the “how” of Tupac’s approach to theology:

Pain, injustice, and racism force the post-soulist to look beyond the “standard” and ask God for more.  Simplistic answers are rejected and despised: it gets God off the hook too easily to say “just pray about it,” and in times of pain and injustice, everything needs to be on the hook., including God.  The procedure is quite simple: have a conversation with God, be real, and do not be afraid to use strong language to describe your pain. (p.136)

As for the actual content of Tupac’s vision, White Hodge enlists Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics.

Tupac’s “good news” about life in the ‘hood is a type of the “indecent theology” that Marcella Althaus-Reid discusses . . . , as grand narratives of God have collapsed in the ‘hood, creating parallel narratives that offend the dominant ones.  Tupac’s gospel, at its core, seeks to give marginalized urban dwellers (and poor whites as well) a voice to God and a place for meaning in unbearable conditions. (p.139)

Again, this resonates with my own sense that the churches have gone a bit too far in refusing to listen to anyone or anything that is not “cleaned up”, that the language of the everyday world – in all its vulgarity, profanity, even blasphemy – is precisely the language to which the church needs to listen, and through which we need to engage one another and, as White Hodge points out, God.  We have to cease fearing that our actions offend God, particularly if we understand our Trinitarian God as Incarnate, relating to us through the Holy Spirit, keeping alive the resurrected Christ in and through the Body of Christ.

White Hodge is not dreamy-eyed about Tupac Shakur, understanding his limitations, his failures, and ultimately the way he separated himself from those who could lift him out of his life even as he became what he urged others not to be: yet another young African-American male, in and out of prison, trapped in a cycle both of violence and despair that ultimately ends in a too-early death.  All the same, White Hodge notes that in his brief life, Tupac has an enormous influence on music, on culture, and, he would argue, on theology.  Setting aside one’s preferences and listening with an ear tuned by the Holy Spirit, one indeed hears in the music of Tupac Shakur not only the cry from the depths, but the promise of new life.  His was an all-embracing theological message, couched in terms and images with which his target audience were familiar, yet demanding of them that they hear the Good News: that this is not the life God wants for them; that even the worst of the worst (and Tupac is a bit like St. Paul, insisting that he is the lowliest of sinners) can be vehicles for the message of salvation.

Daniel White Hodge On Hip Hop Jesus And The Neo-Secular Sacred

The neo-secular sacred . . . in its search for deeper meaning to life, embraces the not-so-perfect aspects to life that often seem to come up when we least expect them to.  The neo-secular sacred is the fine line that exists within most people that forms the quirks, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, oddities, “bad sides,” and sinful natures which, as my good friend Ron Hammer would say, make us all lovable by God. – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 181

White Hodge’s book is so well-done, so clear, yet so full, it seems a crime to try and write a single blog post about three chapters.  Yet, there are threads connecting the three chapters, “Jesuz Is Hip Hop”, “Tupac’s Nit Grit ‘Hood Gospel”, and “Finding Jesus in the Shadows”.  The first and most obvious appears above – the near omnipresence of rapper Tupac Shakur.  Along with Tupac showing up, in what I consider a related vein, is what he calls above “neo-secular sacred”, a view of the world in which it is Jesus who blurs the line between sacred and profane; it is Hip Hop that follows Jesus by not following the institutional Church in keeping that line too clear; and that it is precisely in the authenticity of Hip Hop – rapping about life, including its ugliness, the use of vulgarity, not so much the valorization but demonstrating the equivocal nature of life on the streets that bring Hip Hop and Christianity close together.

In Tupac, White Hodge finds what many others have found – a figure whose life, whose questioning, who desire for justice even in the midst of a life tortured by paranoia and violence at the end, mirrors in many respects that of Jesus.  He includes a long passage from a speech Shakur gave at a 1992 Malcolm X dinner banquet in Atlanta:

It ain’t time to cool out, and chill out . . . banquets all that . . . it’s still on!  It’s still on . . . just like it was on when you was young, . . .  So how come now when I’m twenty-one years old and ready to start some shit and do some shit everybody’s tellin’ me to calm down, don’t curse, you know . . . go to college . . .  We had colleges for a while now, OK, and there still Brendas out there and niggas is still trapped . . . it gets me irked. . . . It’s not gonna stop until we stop it and it’s not just White men that’s doing this. . . it’s Black.  We have to find the new African in all of us . . . because if we still running around saying who  got the best dashiki on and best colors on, excuse my language but we all gonna get fucked!  What I want you to take seriously is what we have to do for the youth because we comin up in a totally different world. . . . This is not the 60’s, this is not that. . . . You all came up in BC – before crack; . . . right there that oughta say it all. . . . Its about you taking care of these children. . . .  The piumps and pushers are the ones who’s raising our kids, cuzz you all not foing it!  I’m sorry but you’re not so if you gotta problem with way we was raised it’s because they was doing it. . . .  I’m sorry, but you can’t be more offended of my language than what’s going on out there in the ‘hood. . . .  If you don’t put shit into this, then don’t get made when it all just blows up!(p.146)

Here is the whole thing: a Messianic figure speaking hard truth to religious authorities; a theology from below that demands not only justice, but accountability from an older generation that is failing in its duty to see the signs of the times; a fearless blurring of the sacred and profane in a passionate desire to make clear that the world is not what it should be.  While White Hodge is clear enough that Tupac is not Jesus, he nevertheless makes clear that, theologically speaking, it is Tupac Shakur, for all his faults, who follows the prophetic example of Christ, even calling for a Jesus who smokes his chronic, is tatted up, and down with the rest of the real folk on the corner.

White Hodge is clear enough that this approach to theology and the Christian life is controversial.  More than controversial, the combination of the more dubious aspects of Hip Hop – its misogyny, its hypersexuality, its valorization of a kind of machismo and violence that excludes the possibility of a more full humanity – and the way some devotees of the genre mimic these worst aspects make both it as a musical style and those who love it non grata in many churches, particularly African-American churches.  At the same time, focusing too much on the vulgarity and profanity without listening to what informs it not only alienates the very youth who might be turning to the church for help.  It also does not echo the way God used some of the very same kinds of people to be vehicles of grace within the stories of the Bible.

Hip Hop at its best understands Jesus as part of what White Hodge consistently calls “the ‘hood”, not afraid of the pimps and dealers and hookers, but rather sitting at table with them.  In the songs of rappers as diverse as Tupac, DMX, Lauryn Hill, and others we hear both the stories of the streets and the desire for an authentic experience of God, or better, an affirmation of their experience of God in the midst of the world, a world the Bible says God loves.  Taking up that challenge, Hip Hop dares both the churches and the world to hear the stories without judgment, and recognize the voice of the Spirit calling together authentic communities of faith.  Perhaps not the dogmatic faith of the historic churches; nevertheless, communities united by the Spirit that speaks to them through the rhymes and beats of Hip Hop.