A New Voice and a Pop Music Canon

This latest post is from Steve Sudeth, the newest Pop Theology contributor and a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture. Here, he talks about his Pop Music Canon and the importance of such music for our theological and spiritual development. Please feel free to share the pop music hymns that make up your own, and if you live in the Redondo Beach area, you’ll likely run into Steve at 2 Guns Espresso if you want to chat.

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Music helps us to be free; it moves the soul; it may also be the only art that is capable of clearly expressing what we feel about God… Music is an absolute reflection of the world we live in.

- Madonna

I had an embarrassing moment in class this summer. We were on a three week intensive journey through Religion and American Pop Culture and it was the day we were exploring the roots of soul and R&B music. I had the class watch part of an amazing documentary about the Funk Brothers called Standing in the Shadows of Motown to shed some light on how Detroit became the epicenter of pop music for that period of time. During one of the concert scenes, they perform the classic Four Tops song “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” and it absolutely broke me. I was a bucket of anxiety and emotion because my wife and I are anticipating the arrival of our first kid and this song was able to express all my hopes and fears for the new life we were bringing into the world in 3 glorious minutes of uncontrolled love.

“Now if you feel that you can’t go on,
Because all of your hope is gone,
And your life is filled with much confusion,
Until happiness is just an illusion,
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’,
(Reach out) Come on girl reach on out for me,
(Reach out) Reach out for me,
I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you,
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through.”

 

I was overcome and before I could control myself I let out a wholehearted “PREACH”!

This is what pop music does for me. It gives a voice to the emotions, desires, fears, hopes and contradictions that I find myself unable to fully express. The soundtrack of my life is so much more than a summer Starbucks playlist, it provides a framework that helps me make sense of the world and what my place in that world may be. So why is it that we too often dismiss the importance of pop music in our spiritual life? Neil Young has taught me about love and loss, why can’t he teach me about God or the struggles of spirituality? If you haven’t heard his song “When God Made Me” please take the next 4 minutes and do so.

Or to put it another way, my friend Barry says:

If we understand pop music as a key component in the development of identity, a fertile ground for the matrix of meanings that characterize postmodern life, we should not be surprised that pop music has much to say about the shaping of contemporary notions of God and religion.

–Barry Taylor, Matrix of Meanings

We have been using music to express ourselves spiritually for thousands of years. Whether it is Psalmody, The Mass in plainsong accompanied by Gregorian Chant, the hymns of the reformers or the progression from spirituals to the blues; music holds an incredibly important place in the organization of our spiritual lives. I believe that all of us should have a pop music canon.  A set of songs that help inform our understandings of the Divine. One of the ways you can go about determining a pop canon (both personally and more general) is to organize them around the themes of Genesis, Exodus and Revelation… or to put it another way Foundations, Liberations and Revelations.

Enough jargon, here are the first steps of my personal pop canon…

Foundations: Songs that helped give me the language and context for understanding the conversation between theology and pop music. These are the songs that introduced me to the possibility of pop music having something important to say about spirituality and made me look past traditional structures for religious thought. 

“Jesus is Waiting” by Al Green: Both a confession of faith and a call to those who feel broken. This song relies on Al’s soulful voice showing the constant struggle between appreciation and crying out. Throughout the song he meditates on the phrases “Help me,” “I’m Sorry,” and “Thank you”.

“God is Love” and “Mercy Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye: The album What’s Going On is possibly the greatest example of spirituality and pop music. These two songs together present what the world should be (“He made this world for us to live in and gave us everything and all he asks of us is we give each other love.”) and a realization of what the world actually is (“Mercy mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be.  Where did all the blue skies go?”).

“Until the End of the World” by U2: (Token U2 song) Yes this song is a retelling of the relationship of Judas and Jesus, but it’s Edge’s guitar that defines this song. The echo/delay/reverb that produces his tone carries the sentiments of hope and confusion that Bono sings about in the third verse. The story is a Biblical interpretation but don’t get caught up in the words, listen to what the instruments are saying.

Liberations: Songs that broke through barriers of obvious theological parallels, that challenged my faith paradigm and helped focus the connection between pop music and spirituality. These songs moved past affirming what I already believed and made me reconsider some of the teachings I had built my faith on.

“The Maker” by Daniel Lanois: The plodding bass line that opens the song sets the pace for a slow and seemingly endless journey. There is an affirmation of divine confusion and confession of how life can beat us down with the hope of being known by our creator. (“My body is bent and broken by long and dangerous leaps. I can’t work the fields of Abraham and turn my head away. I’m not a stranger in the eyes of the maker.)

“Tell Him” by Lauryn Hill: This is Lauryn’s prayer to be the love that is described in 1 Corinthians 13. It contextualizes and centralizes the idea of love for our world. It gave me a new perspective on what had become a spiritual cliché.

“Bodies” by Sex Pistols: Life is precious and life has worth. Wrapped in the angst and fire that define the Sex Pistols is an amazing sentiment on how delicate life can be and how we can emerge from the filth and oppression of our lives.

Revelations: Songs that have had such a radical impact on how I understand music and/or theology that they completely shifted my faith paradigm.

“Georgia Lee” by Tom Waits: “Why wasn’t God watching? Why wasn’t God listening? Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?” Tom Waits wrestles with the big issues of theodicy and asks the timeless question, “Why do bad things happen?” This song forces you to ask the same questions and challenges traditional ideas of the interaction of God and the world.

“When God Made Me” by Neil Young: (Yes, I’m an unapologetic Neil fan…or as I call him, St. Neil) This song came into my life when I was pretty sure of myself spiritually. It’s a hymn of nothing but questions. Tonally we are in a familiar spiritual place with a choir and piano but we are in uncharted theological territory for traditional hymns. It’s a painful and yet inspiring challenge to a deeper understanding of ourselves as a created being and the implications for our interactions with all things.

“Into My Arms” by Nick Cave: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do.” This is the great commission of my pop canon; to go and be the love of God to the world. I am called to manifest the teachings and words of love because sometimes the hope of divine intervention falls short.

If you are interested in listening to these and many other songs in my pop music canon (and are on spotify) you can check them out on my canon playlist. What songs are in your canon? What are the sounds that have helped you connect with the transcendent? I think Joe Strummer said it best:

“On the Road to rock n roll
The lonely sing a soulful song
And leave a little light in the wilderness
For somebody to come upon”

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