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Dr. Chris McDonald, of Cape Breton University, has written an insightful article titled “Open Secrets: Individualism and Middle-Class Identity in the Songs of Rush,” that was published in the July 2008 issue (vol. 31, no. 3) of the journal Popular Music and Society (pp. 313-328), and I wanted to briefly appreciate a few things it offers the R&T conversation here.

McDonald’s basic argument is that as evidenced in lyrics, video, musical performance, interviews, and biographical background, the music of Rush provided a generation of adolescent boys and young men with the ideology of North American middle-class individualism as an important (though very problematic) piece of identity-construction.

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He references Louis Althusser’s notion of “interpellation,” especially as brokered in popular culture studies, as a way to make sense of how Rush was able to accomplish this, especially in the late 1970s through early 1980s, when they were as close to mainstream popularity as they would ever become (with the possible exception of the last eighteen months, what with a highly successful tour, the accumulated receipts of 35 years of record sales, a Colbert Report appearance, a Rolling Stone feature, a place of idolization in a recent movie, and their seemingly secure ensconcement in the rock video game industry). By interpellation, McDonald (via Althusser) means the ideological “hailing” (a vivid image) of fans through a cultural production (like pop music) that cements the fans’ own (ideological) sense of how their lives relate to their socioeconomic circumstances. (In rock culture, one might imaginatively substitute “throwing the horns” for “hailing,” as a symbolic way of saying about a band: “You are telling our own truth to us!”)

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R&T Update: 10,000 Visits

Posted in: General,Rock and Theology Project by Tom Beaudoin on May 29, 2009

Back in the early days of the web, there used to be things called “web counters” that would publicly tally how many visits a site had gotten. For whatever reason, those counters have been disappearing from websites, but behind the scenes we still look at them. In fact, it is a little unnerving how much data is aggregated through hosting-sites like WordPress (whose platform is used here to manage Rock and Theology). “Backstage” of the blog, we can see not only the number of visitors from day to day, but which links are clicked, which blog posts are clicked, and which specific Google searches have led to a visit. None of this is associated with any usernames, IP addresses, or other identifying information. (Still, the contents of some of those Google searches that lead to R&T have been … illuminating.) In other words, lots of website interaction is collected, but none of it is traceable to any particular visitor.

This banal disclosure is simply an attempt at an open-handed gesture of gratitude to you who are our R&T readers, because today we reached 10,000 visits to the site. We went live (with the help of Kiss) on 5 January 2009.  The traffic makes me happy for a boutique blog such as this, which a rock-vocalist friend recently called, gently, “a little niche, if I may say so.” (With “niche” used as a substantive adjective.)

Happy to say that the number of visits is steadily increasing, too, as the months go on. The high point for visits so far has been the coverage of U2 playing right outside my office here at Fordham. And a great many readers are still clicking on Brian Robinette’s discussion of “Album Warts and Other Blessed Imperfections.”

I promise not to mention visits and numbers again. Until we hit 100,000. Many thanks to our contributors (Brian, Mike, Loye, Adrian, Andy), to our readers, and to our sponsor, Liturgical Press. Here’s to more theology, more rock, more life.

Tom Beaudoin
New York City

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As I’ve delved into the rock and theology conversations over the last many years, I have found myself continually going back to challenges raised in a remarkably innovative book by theologian Kathryn Tanner from 1997, called Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (published by Fortress).

In part, my frequent return to Tanner has to do with the pressure her work places on Catholic (and other) theological investigations into popular culture, for reasons I will try to explain. I would like to take a little time to write about Tanner’s argument to size up the challenges it puts to theological work on and with cultural practices.

Tanner argues for the virtues of a postmodern understanding of theological work. For her, this means taking postmodern developments in anthropological theories of culture seriously as aids to theological inquiry, not only letting them constructively inform theology but also using them to criticize the inadequacies of modern theories of culture that unthematically inform much contemporary theology.

Tanner shows how in its classically modern formulations, anthropology has a consistent interpretation of the meaning of culture. This interpretation stresses the unity and autonomy of cultures. Cultures are seen as more or less self-contained, well-bounded wholes. On this model, cultures enforce relatively strong and uniform determinants on human behavior, doing so through their organic structure and intrinsically rationalized mechanisms. Modern anthropology interprets culture as grounded in a geographic context, a specific space. This allows anthropologists to get a sense of cultures through anthropological snapshots, focusing on one moment in time as a gateway to a whole culture. Any changes to a culture originate outside the boundaries of the “organism.”

This interpretation of culture was very productive in helping make sense of cultures. It allowed theorization of the social construction of cultures, encouraged the beginnings of a “nonevaluative alternative to ethnocentrism” (p. 36) and provided a critical lever by which one culture’s practices could relativize those of another—usually a matter of the (Western) anthropologist invoking another culture’s meanings to undermine the naturalness of his or her own.

What “culture” means, on this interpretation, is the “meaning” of social practices. That is to say, a culture is comprised of a “characteristic set of norms, values, beliefs, concepts, dispositions, or preoccupations” (p. 30). The primary metaphors guiding inquiry are culture as text, organism, or work of art.

But in the last few decades, Tanner notes, a different interpretation is emerging. Postmodern anthropological perspectives interpret culture with a heightened historical sensitivity, with more attention to the workings of culture “on the ground.” In other words, postmodern interpretations foreground historicity and everydayness. Both have the effect of dynamizing culture, the former by looking for ways cultures change and adapt through historical contexts, and the latter by examining how cultures are constructed and contested in local, highly particular practices in everyday life.

More to come in future posts….

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

On 13 May 2004, I attended a concert at Madison Square Garden by the English progressive rock group Yes, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary. That show included the longest standing ovation I have ever witnessed, following their performance of the song “And You and I.” That ovation, tens of thousands strong, was at least five minutes, and by some accounts, seven or eight minutes. It was probably the most intense and unequivocal act of gratitude for rock (and, I would immediately add in the case of Yes, for rock’s spiritual power) that I have ever experienced. The lead singer, Jon Anderson, simply could not continue the show, he could not talk over the clapping, stomping, yelling, a sweetness all the more delicate because it was an exuberance that seemed to lack menacing or violent undertones, in contrast to a good portion of contemporary rock (even and also as spiritual art). The band simply stopped the whole show and conferred with each other before resuming several minutes later. I thought for a long time afterward about what it meant for so many thousands to say thank you, in that way, in that place, for 35 years of rock and roll.

The following afternoon, I was at Penn Station getting on the train back to Boston, where I was living while teaching at Boston College. To my great surprise, several members of Yes got into the same car of the train. As my friends from that time know, this trip became the occasion for several memorable stories. One of them is the following:

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Next week, there will be three papers presented on rock and theology at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The convention will be held from 4-7 June in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is an annual gathering of Catholic theologians (primarily but not exclusively from the USA, as the Canadian location of this year’s convention symbolizes). General convention information is here, and the conference program is here.

The papers will be presented by Prof. Brian Robinette (of St. Louis University, and in the band here at Rock and Theology), Prof. Christopher Ruddy (of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota), and myself. The session is titled, “Secular Rock and Sacred Theology? Listening Past the Stalemate.” Prof. Cara Anthony, of the University of St. Thomas, will moderate.

The session description runs as follows: “In light of the influence of popular media culture on younger generations, how might we move theologically beyond the prevailing stalemate between theology and popular culture, an impasse characterized either by theological indifference, or recourse to established models from liberal, postliberal, and liberationist perspectives? These papers will attempt to move beyond this impasse, specifically focusing on rock music and a theological analysis of rock’s subject-making, its carnivalities, and its ecstasies.”

I’ll post here a summary of the papers and discussion afterward. This brief session represents another step forward for R&T, and we shall see what further avenues for thought and experience are suggested within and beyond the brief space of a conference conversation.

Also, any recommendations for rock shows in Halifax that weekend are welcome…

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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The Revelatory Bassist

Posted in: Basswork,General by Tom Beaudoin on May 22, 2009

All praise to John Entwistle (The Who), Chris Squire (Yes), and Geddy Lee (Rush) as guys who have been the Olympian figures for me on the bass.

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This is because, along with other modern masters like Billy Sheehan, they seem to have the bass as promise of an entire existence for themselves — and those who have ears to hear.

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The way they hold and relate to it is as revelatory as the notes that they choose, if choice is even the right word in seismographing such immanent communion they each manifest.

These are all guys who play out front but without dominating in a “bad way,” who are constantly inventive and orthogonal in (more…)

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Somatica Divina 15: Mother’s Finest, Live

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on May 22, 2009

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On a Spiritual Struggle of Performing

Posted in: General,Musical Performance by ahartley on May 20, 2009

This post was revised from some September ’08 scribblings, around noon, in a Hamilton, Ontario hotel room a few hours before sound check:

I am a scientist.  I am female.  I am logically emotional.  Every morning in the shower I sing a few easy scales to set my breathing (this calms me) and engage the appropriate muscles so that when I speak I am somewhat supported, and thus begins the daily routine of making my vocal chords as supple as possible.  There are countless additional obstructions with which to contend (having a cold, being hung over, arguing with a band member); however, if the obstacles in my path are (idealistically) fully avoided, or tackled, I can (idealistically) sing my best.  Most importantly, I can sing my best without thinking about things like pitch, or presence.  This is my theory.  This is my ultimate experiment, and my emotional roller coaster.  Not thinking about singing, extracting the conscious element, “letting go,” would (idealistically) allow me to transcend; to communicate something meaningful that extends outward, is received by one or more members of the audience, and is in turn transmitted back to me.  I can feel it when it happens.   There’s a unifying force the audience encounters with the performer(s) that is deeply gratifying and inspiring (Whether that force answers to a third party and what that third party may be is of no consequence to me at this point.  I just answer to the force:)

Here is “the force” at work:

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The shower is a controlled environment.  Numerous distractions, factors, can be removed from the stage equation: lighting, a missed note, a guitar player chucking a pic at me, a forgotten lyric, that guy in the front row snoring (don’t look at him! He’s depressing you! You have to work harder to wake him up!), my dress creeping up, that hand gesture I do that I hate when I watch myself on screen but keeps happening UNCONSCIOUSLY.. Wait a minute.. the unconscious element… This is what I am trying to attain!  TO HELL WITH IT.  It’s a lot easier in the shower.  Just relax, and breathe.  The scales slow down automatically and fall into a rhythm, and it feels RIGHT.  Meditative.

A performer owes it to their audience to let go because that’s what allows them to do the same; it’s what they’re there for; a unifying experience that says, “everybody else is doing it, so I can too” without feeling foolish.  On stage I slip in and out of this ideal.  It’s a constant struggle but I’m getting better at it, and as long as I continue to get closer, the closer I am.

Adrian Hartley, Birmingham (Sabbath town!), UK

Benedict XVI on Rock

Posted in: General by Andy Edwards on May 20, 2009

First, I am happy to be a contributor to the R&T blog; my thanks to Tom Beaudoin & Co. for including me in this exciting project.

Among the comments to the post announcing my participation, there is a lengthy quote from Pope Benedict XVI, which appears to condemn rock music as an “expression of elemental passions…in opposition to Christian worship.” Having followed the same commenter’s posts on a Catholic bulletin board for liturgical music, I am fully aware that the commenter intends this as a critique of the R&T project in general. Allow me to riposte.

The Spirit of the LiturgyIn the quote from this section of The Spirit of the Liturgy (which originally appeared as “Musica e liturgia” in the Italian edition of Communio), Benedict is discussing music in its particular relation to the liturgy. R&T, however, is NOT an exercise in liturgical design. Rather, this project (in the words of Liturgical Press’ press release) “explores the relationship between rock music and academic theology.” These are different projects. Examining rock music from a theological perspective does NOT imply incorporating rock music into the liturgy.

To deal with the matter of Benedict’s criticism itself, I would like to make a couple of points. First, when Benedict writes about rock & pop music, I find it (more…)

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