Saturday, March 31, 2007

God 'n' Rock 'n' Roll

Finally caught up this week with a program we videoed at Christmas on God and pop music. It was presented by Channel 4's resident 'radical theologian', Robert Beckford. Normally I'm arguing with the TV 5 minutes into his programmes, this time it took about an hour.

The first bit looked at the shared roots of gospel, spirituals, blues and rock and roll in the early 20th century, and how an early generation of 'pop stars' grew up out of a Pentecostal background and were just at home singing gospel songs as they were singing rock and roll. There was a great moment listening to a jam session of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and another famous guy singing spirituals for 2 hours, because they were the songs they all knew.

The programme seemed to go off the rails once we reached 1970, and focused on the culture wars between the American Christian right and various occult-inspired or shock value artists like Led Zeppelin and Marilyn Manson. Cliff was wheeled out as the token Christian artist, along with a bit of 'Mistletoe and Wine' just to remind us what 'Christian' music sounds like.

There was just a vast, gaping hole in the middle of all this, which Beckford barely touched on:
  • plenty of artists, mainly black, who sing about God and Jesus just as readily as they do about anything else - Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas, Destiny's Child, Whitney Houston etc., there is a whole section of the music industry which doesn't split into 'God versus youth culture' the way that Beckford presented it.
  • Another group who are using music to process their religious upbringing, e.g. Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, or (more controversially) Madonna, even the Happy Mondays - trying to make sense of where they've come from and where they are. The single 'Irish Son' by former Westlifer Brian McFadden told the story of his rejection of his Catholic schooling and upbringing in Ireland, yet still seems to be struggling with faith.
  • The plethora of (often white) artists who use music to explore spiritual issues, which has been going on for ages: David Bowie ('if you pray all your sins are hooked upon the sky') to Coldplay ('we're part of a system, a plan') to Robbie Williams ('I've given up on praying, so this song will have to do'), Nick Cave, etc.
  • And of course there are still plenty of mainstream artists who have a strong Christian faith which comes through to a greater or lesser degree in their music - Daniel Bedingfield, U2, and so on.

Maybe he'll make a sequel....

On music and God, my frustration, as a Christian and a rock music lover, is that there are so few examples of decent worship bands who are also decent rock bands. I have lost count of the number of limp 'worship songs' I've heard on tape or CD, and to be honest I find listening to Coldplay or Deacon Blue a stack more uplifting than most worship music just because its well crafted and its passionate.

There, a few hares running. feel free to comment with any bands I've missed (of which there'll be plenty), or if you think I'm being unfair on Christian worship CDs.

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