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Today’s New York Times features a story about Achinoam “Noa” Nini and Mira Awad, who will be representing Israel at the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest in May. The partnering of a Jewish Israeli who grew up in New York City and is of Yemeni ancestry (Nini), and a Christian Arab who resides in Tel Aviv and whose heritage is also Bulgarian (Awad), is apparently causing some debate within Israel regarding whether this duo is presenting too rosy a picture of “love, peace, and harmony” (to quote The Smiths) on behalf of Israel. Several years ago, they covered “We Can Work it Out” by the Beatles, pressing one of the canonical songs from the founding British-becoming-international era of rock into a much more pointed tune despite the call, or perhaps existential and political question, of reconciliation.
One way to make sense of the controversy about their representation of Israel has to do with whether one thinks that secular music (and in this case, a tune that in most “Western” terms would be classified more pop than rock, although these categories cannot be simply overlaid on music scenes outside the USA and UK) can truly embody protest and stand for an alternative reality and a revolutionary hope, or whether such secular pop songs are not only events in a finally commercial exchange, but indeed tokens of state’s media circulatory system in its militaristic and colonial pursuits. (The same questions have been and may still be raised about pop music in the United States.) In other words, to put it no doubt too simplistically but nonetheless symbolically, are “Noa and Mira” more John Lennon or Celine Dion?
I have embedded two videos in this post. The first has them discussing their Beatles cover and includes some graphic images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gives a sense for the “Lennon” interpretation;
What is happening when Tori Amos, recalling Bernini’s Teresa straddling a piano bench, throws her head backward in ecstatic abandon while singing—singing anything?; when Alanis Morrisette, like some modern-day hesychast, hunches over while breathing in pace with rapid-fire words, then stands straight up, her whole affect inward-turned and threatened to be swallowed by her huge mouth, yawning a tense tangle of vocal cords teasing the limits of orality, her arched eyebrows stretching tight over closed eyelids while her head gently swivels on her neck as if on a spring, her fingers spontaneously making odd shapes in some primitive digital rendering of the spirit of her voice; when even now on 35-year old videotapes we see Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, two hours into a concert, inhaling deeply with his whole body while his sweat-soaked hair swings back and forth and he turns, in real time, in slow motion, in silent cue to guitarist Jimmy Page, music having momentarily incarnated itself in his body; when Lauryn Hill can be heard as modulating the cosmic christological language of the New Testament (hello, Ephesians 1:23 and Colossians 1:17) by leading a chorus of “Everything is everything…”? Whatever is happening in (the artistic performance or fannish imaginative entry into) each of these cases, they are not reducible to narcissism, delusion, or manipulation. Whatever else, they frequently mark the surrender of self-consciousness in the drama of performance under the form and power of secular music. Have they not also in each case helped collate, for artist and fan, mystical-political identities?
And yet we have the stinging observation of Steven Connor, in Postmodernist Culture (p. 217), that rock music participates in a wider system of consumer culture that makes all of popular culture “simultaneously…subversive and…[an] official mode of postmodern capitalism.” The impulse to contest the above list of secular spiritual symbols, which many readers will doubtless have, may be both religious motivation and defense of consumer identity, as if to confirm that our musics are expressions of who we are.
Perhaps that is a peculiar dyad of benefit-and-curse in attempting to register rock theologically, if not theology rockishly, in late capitalist America: a knowledge, however inchoate, that this—song, video, concert experience, liner note—is my way in.
On the one hand, with reference to Kierkegaard: I bought this truth. On the other hand, with reference to Connor: I bought this truth.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on February 23, 2009
Part of popular music fandom is the “finding” and “creating” of a specialized vocabulary with which to communicate the revelatory character of the pleasures of musical practice. And since I am on a minor Rush jag with my posts, let me take Rush again as my example. For many years, a regular occurrence on one Rush Internet group, a consortium of hundreds or more Rush fans around the world, was the discussion of so-called “tingle moments” in Rush songs. The meaning of “tingle moments” is usually left undefined, though they seem to be moments in Rush songs when a feeling of numinousness, a breath-stopping redirection of attention inward or outward, or a sudden clearing away of the fog of conscious life announces itself.
I have found it provocative that for Rush fans, no matter how many times this discussion is rehearsed, the list of “tingle moments” continually returns to a few dozen paradigmatic song moments (though the band itself has a catalogue of well over 100 songs). These moments achieve then some sort of pseudo-canonical status, and discussants continue to achieve surprising consensus on what those “tingle moments” are. (Perhaps this is also true for fans of Rage Against the Machine, the Beatles, Metallica, Veruca Salt, Jane’s Addiction, or Janis Joplin.)
To return to the “in” question: there is typically little reflection on how those tingle moments happen (is it the music, the lyricist, the listener, the producer?). (This mimicry and avoidance of the conventions of academic analysis is, as Matthew Hills in Fan Cultures argues, part of the rhetoric of fandom.)
There is even less reflection on the spiritual implications of a lifetime of experiencing music in this way. For me, this suggests two things of theological significance: first, that as Ignatius Loyola and Karl Rahner saw, however differently, the deepest movements of our spiritual lives take place at a level not fully available to conscious awareness. (This is why to me Christian rock is such a bizarre phenomenon. Changing a few words around but keeping a rock aesthetic is merely window dressing—as if what is conscious and intentional, the lyrics, are the most interesting and important parts of the spiritual significance of music.) But second, this lack of reflection on how those tingle moments happen should also remind us that rock music, particularly under the influence of consumer capitalism, has no ready-made system of evaluation, judgment, or self-reflection. There is almost no entity in the rock economy providing avenues for critical musical or theological judgments about their musical praxis and its implications for a wider spiritual-political life. Not that we must have one or we are lost, I hasten to add.
In Christian theology, anyway, I think we are still searching for a mature, secularly-aware, and sufficiently complex sense-making of popular music in general and rock in particular. Such understanding is essential if we are to allow religious traditions to fully appreciate, learn from, and make nuanced judgments about the theological value of rock music today. If for no other reason than the spiritual quest and formation of a great many in the contemporary world depends on it.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
My first conscious hero came from the world of rock music. The Canadian group Rush was a bass-drums-guitar trio that first came to prominence in the 1970s, riding the wave of a musical style that Led Zeppelin had been instrumental in creating. Throughout that decade, a growing coterie of so-called “progressive” bands were experimenting with making rock music more operatic, grandiose-sounding, and simply more complicated. Elaborate songwriting with many “movements” frequently meandered into 20-minute, radio-unfriendly terrain.
Rush, like many of these bands, wrote lyrics drawing heavily from the cultures of fantasy and science fiction writing. It was resolutely not music you could dance to. More often, it was like listening to a report from the creative suffering of an overmaximizedmusicalselfconsciousness.
The potential for transport, ecstasy, a new beyond-fleeting alertness is real here. Indeed, I early on derived (and still feel) intense joy in the experience of losing myself in the superhuman proficiency of what has often disparagingly, and inaccurately, been called “music for eggheads.” In the (comparatively) cerebral lyrics, constantly shifting odd rhythms, bombastic attitudes, and maturity of musicianship, I found some sort of finite salvation, a constant sense of leaving myself behind, of finding myself by losing myself, of wanting to gain that musical maturity and excellence that would allow me to know what can only be known when you climb to the absolute top of the rock ladder, only to be able to kick that ladder away. All of this I sensed that Rush could offer me, and still—with other music from the time—offers me today, nearly 30 years after I first heard them. (more…)
Posted in: Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on February 15, 2009
For Valentine’s Day, my wife got me a card with innocent looking hearts on the front, but when opened, suddenly a tune starts playing, and… hello, REO Speedwagon! Featuring their mozzarella-pile of a song, “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
Now, no one loves a great REO tune more than I do (can you say “Roll With the Changes”?), and lead singer Kevin Cronin has a more winsome place in my heart than you could likely tolerate hearing. (Tangent: part of the pleasure of rock fandom is the pantheon of rock personalities we cathect at crucial times in our lives; you should have seen a whole room of adults swoon the other day in a London flat when someone merely mentioned the name Morrissey.)
But speaking of “Roll with the Changes,” I realize that I have probably quoted that song during class more than any other during my 8 years of teaching college.
Posted in: General by Brian Robinette on February 13, 2009
There are many reasons to dislike the iTunes hegemony in the distribution of music. Now, I must admit to enabling the reach of its virtual tentacles. I’ve largely made nice with the commercial behemoth, as evidenced by my own habitual usage of iTunes at home and in the office. But one thing we (30-something) old timers should lament, in addition to the compressed dynamic range of mp3 files, is the death of the album.
No longer do we have to purchase music as entire albums; we can simply download the best tunes from them, with “the best” being conveniently decided for us by the “popularity” bar that accompanies each track. In fact, the very notion of the album is almost without meaning today. No longer do most people listen to entire albums; we listen to playlists, songs, or even fragments of songs. But I shall save my rant on the death of the album for another time. Here it is worth considering the potential benefits of such selectivity. And I have one benefit particularly in mind: removing the wart that blemishes an otherwise great album. Let’s call it an “album wart.”
We all have our own examples album warts. It’s a fairly subjective judgment, to be sure, and any example I provide here will raise all kinds of serious objections. For example, if I say that “Money” is a wart on Dark Side of the Moon, many will find reasons to disagree. Yes, I know it’s got a great hook. (In fact too good – it’s provided me with earworms for years.) And, yes, we should all stand up and cheer when a tune in 7/8 gets significant radio airplay. But none of these reasons – or any others I can think of – will prevent me from hurriedly hitting the “forward” button when the annoying sound of those cash registers fade in after “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Granted, when the album was first produced, it came out on vinyl, with “Money” opening up side B; and thus, if you were already standing up to flip the record over – and, no doubt, you were lying down on your back starring at the gold-flecked ceiling while the first half played – you could just as easily drop the needle on “Us and Them.” Still, “Money” just seems too jarring, too angular and jangly for an album that otherwise floats by like so much mellifluous ooze. I wish it were(n’t) here. “Money” = album wart.
Posted in: General,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on February 13, 2009
Tonight in the Covent Garden neighborhood in London, I joyfully weathered The Tide, a 4-piece rock cover band, at a club called The Roadhouse. The bassist was a welter of animalia in tone, dexterity, and presence. The band offered a night of hit after hit from a (substantially British) rock catalogue spanning the early 80s to the 21st century. The energy level was intense, The Tide not only playing with aggressive loudness but with a delicate tightness, adding lots of notes and new harmonies to familiar tunes from Lenny Kravitz, U2, The Bangles, Pink Floyd, and more. Can I say more about the bass? Holy Mother of God, How often do I hear a bass guitar, and a gorgeous Carvin 5-string at that, so greedily dominating the mix through a halo of almond-studded fuzz-daggers of tone, by a cover band (!), in a place built for raucous tightly-packed club music? Answer: too bloody seldom. It was basically the bass and the vocals all night long. And when the bassist called out into the microphone “How about some Kings of Leon!” and was met not only with a gladsome cry from the hundreds of us packed in front of them, but met further by a lorldly singalong of every mumbled verse and resounding chorus, I realized for the first time the way in which being a cover band is a sort of ministerium, a service–and how this might illuminate the kind of service that ministry is. (When I was in graduate school at Boston College around 1997, one of my peers said that he thought that the painstaking interpretation of major 20th century theologians–a vocation for some of our theological colleagues–was a kind of saintly ministry, because it meant that the interpreters’ own voice and contributions had to be set side; and so as soon as I heard “How about some Kings of Leon!”, I immediately heard echoing the ministerium of those interpreters, saying to us, “How about some Bernard Lonergan!” or “How about some Karl Rahner!” or “How about some Edward Schillebeeckx!” (By the way, Schillebeeckx would have been in the rhythm section, a drummer or bassist, no doubt. Rahner? Bass. Lonergan? Keytar.))
When The Tide concluded their set with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” by U2, it was as if they were marrying the song’s lyrical apophaticism with the bodied overwhelming anonymity of the club moment in an intoxicating and temporary h(e)aven, acknowledging the spiritual potential of the generous sensuality of the club scene, in its manifold quotidian rituals of carnality.
I’ve been in England since yesterday morning for some academic meetings, and am of course combining love of theology with desire for rock. The proud British rock traditions of glam, progressive, punk and more are still to be found here, musically and sartorially. To tide you over until the next theological reflection, here is a two-part clip from The Darkness, a sly and delightful British band who with extraordinary wit and skill walk that fine rock line, in the words of Spinal Tap, “between stupid and clever.” In particular, check out the playing-guitar-while-being-carried-on-the-roadie’s-shoulders-through-the-arena gag, and also the call-and-response tribute to Freddie Mercury—in response to the audience’s equally clever miming of a famous Queen video. These guys remind us that rock is also about, to quote Spinal Tap again, the raucous will to “have a good time, all the time.”
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