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Decelerating for August

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 31, 2009

Dear Readers: Rock and Theology will be taking it easy during August, as I will be away on holiday. There may be occasional posts from our other bloggers, but in general things will be pretty quiet.

We will plug in the amps, search again the scriptures, and be fully back in black (and white) in September. How about we ask U2 to hold my rock-and-theology place until I come back?

Tom Beaudoin

Chicago, Illinois

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Practical Theologians in Chicago

Posted in: General,Teaching,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on July 30, 2009

The biennial conference for the International Academy of Practical Theology (IAPT) began today in Chicago, Illinois, hosted at the Catholic Theological Union. The IAPT is a collection of scholars from around the world who specialize in the theological study of practice, whether social/cultural or ecclesial. There are about 120 Academy members.

Those of us who study and teach practical theology tend to see practice as a central organizing category for theology in general, for Christian life and for the work of the church more specifically, and for social life. Some of us specialize in ecclesial practices that have become constitutive of church mission: homiletics/preaching, religious/Christian education, pastoral care/counseling, congregational studies, liturgy/worship, and other areas. Others specialize in methods for (theological) analysis of (theological) practice. Some focus on making theological sense of social and cultural practices that make up life in particular contexts. Still others work on philosophies of religious practice, or philosophical theologies of practice, so as to better denominate precisely what and how we ought to be studying as theologians.

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Hard Rock, Unsigned

Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on July 29, 2009

Here is a picture I took a couple days ago while walking through Times Square in Manhattan. The marquee for the Hard Rock Cafe was under construction, and the image struck me as the kind of found apocalypse (that is, jerrybuilt revelation) in urban life that is celebrated and interrogated in many theories of the everyday. (For an excellent introduction, see Ben Highmore’s excellent Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction, which I used several years ago in a course I gave at Boston College on a theology of everyday life.)

hardrock

Under this sign, here, for a brief time, was a concatenation of meanings: The “hard rock” lighting up without any “cafe” beneath it evoked a dream of rock music without a restaurant chain, without a clothing line, without domestication; the sign’s exposed latticework undercarriage showed out the very glamorization of rock music: putting it into neon in Times Square, exposing its dependence on a constant force of construction underneath: labor, rhetoric, capital, which are meant to finally sit in the dark and silent; and in the ostentation of the sign itself, a kind of Catholic recognition: here is a quite unusually catholic (in the sense of “all people”) space, the space rock has made for itself and also been made to make, through corporate sponsorship, for many: the Hard Rock Cafe, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with new NYC Annex), the propounding of “rock stars” by Disney

What a strange complex of temples we traffic in rock’s becoming so grooved into U.S. and Western life. As if seeing only the words “Hard Rock” on the defaced marquee let us know that, apart from the Cafe, here is something of the essence of what rock has become: its own postmodern complex of temples for its commerce.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Last Friday, I saw Billy Squier in concert on Long Island at the Capital One Bank Theatre. For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Squier was a rock icon in the 1980s. His breakthrough 1981 album, “Don’t Say No,” was one of those rare rock records in which every single song was both a hit and a thoroughly pleasurable tune. It still stands up today on its own terms and as a symbol for Squier’s distinctive sound, one that registers lots of “ups”: an up-front guitar sounding memorable riffs, upper-register vocals with just enough roughness (more than Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, less than Bon Scott or Brian Johnson of AC/DC) to signal for our culture a kind of masculine bravado, an up-energy stage presence and urgent vocal throes that get people up to move. I had remembered Squier as a rock musician with lots of “brightness,” in the sense of that knob on amplifiers that renders the sound crisp, direct, gathered, and wound-up, forbidding all dull droning and floor-exploring bottom end by zinging them up into neon-sign like crackles. And definitely no loose noodling, no meandering solos, no spare parts. His songs are built to register a rockish plea in a way that makes sure you will not lose focus, even on some of the “slower” tunes. These are all ways of saying that he innovated a distinctive sound, and did I mention he was huge, huge in the 1980s?

(See “In the Dark” and “The Stroke” on YouTube — I am not able to embed the videos here.)

There was also his live persona, which – as academic studies of rock show – helped “validate” as well as “complicate” the music heard on record. He had a sexy 1970s mane of hair, but coiffed enough to make it qualify for the 80s. And then there were the white tennis shoes (an inventive choice) that seemed to signify a suburban mood, then again there were the tight jeans that also connected him to 70s rock and urban masculinity. These things too were a part of the rock culture which he helped create and in which he operated, and gave a sexual patina that was becoming familiar but was still new, compelling, and a little confusing to his suburban (male, anyway) fans like me: he could work the spectrums of androgyny as a rock artist that — certainly by the close of the 1980s — was almost expected in harder rock, but also there were the feints that back then we would have called (or even maligned as) “gay,” but now (in academic terms) we might examine as “queer,” by which I mean lyrics and gestures that were culturally coded “gay” (or better, outside what is taken to be typical heterosexual display) being performed by an artist framed culturally as “straight.” (I am talking here about cultural codes for how sex/gender are understood, and not about Squier’s “personal life”). In hindsight, this is one of the things that made me interested in Squier: the palette of masculinities on offer in the register of rock. He sang about women and seemed to fit in performance-wise with the erotic rock god. Lots of women screamed for him at his shows. But he also sang lyrics that could be interpreted homoerotically, and used gestures on stage that were outside the “straight” cultural scripts.

This fertile palette of masculinities, which are more common in rock than is often recognized, are frequently misunderstood as somehow telling something “directly” about Squier’s personal life, and it is easy enough to find lots of speculation about that on the internet. (An infamous music video for the song “Rock Me Tonight” has made such speculation a permanent part of Squier lore.)

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Recently, journalist David Browne wrote a feature for the New York Times on the possible emergence of (in the words of a concert promoter) a new “classic rock for the next generation.” This rock, Browne’s article suggests, consists in the popular musics that constituted the media soundtrack for the adolescence of “Generation Y,” those born in the 1980s and 1990s. That would explain the constellation of music suddenly generating concert and album sales: Eminem, Creed, Blink-182, Limp Bizkit, and Britney Spears.

These artists, it should be noted, were among the last to play in a mediascape in which the shaping of a cultural soundtrack was possible before the rapid “fragmentation” of popular music introduced by the Internet on the scale on which we have it today. Will it be possible, in twenty years, for a cohort to have its own “soundtrack”? No doubt not in the ways in which such generational soundtracks existed in the past. But this reminds us that we should always take care with such concepts as a musical or cultural “generation” and, likewise, “classic rock.”

It is worth noting how much such concepts function to sustain specific ways of talking about musical influence (measured, as in Browne’s article, essentially by market share). I do think that there remain useful ways of talking about generational soundtracks, but the concept needs to be given more careful handling than ever, especially if one would like to – as I once did and might now hesitate much more to do – take the spiritual temperature of a cohort by what music becomes popular within it. So, yes, let’s have a new generation of classic rock, and let’s also rock these classic conceptions of generations and classic rock itself.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City

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Journey and Theological Elitism

Posted in: Fandom,General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on July 24, 2009

Today, Rock and Theology happily posts this guest blog entry from David E. Orberson, who teaches theology part-time at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville:

My wife, 12-year-old daughter, and I are excitedly making plans to see Journey in August when they swing into town as part of the musical lineup for the Kentucky State Fair. Journey is one of a host of 70’s and 80’s bands that continue to make a living on the Festival/State Fair/casino circuit. Many of these bands manage to maintain at least a modicum of cultural relevance through their inclusion in television commercials, movie soundtracks, and other 21st-century media such as ring tones, musical greeting cards, etc.

While Journey certainly falls into this category of “nostalgic acts,” they have managed to distinguish themselves in a few unique ways. First, their 1981 hit Don’t Stop Believin’ was used in the now iconic and controversial last scene of the 2007 Sopranos series finale. Shortly after this episode aired, Don’t Stop Believin’ became one of the most downloaded songs on iTunes. In addition, Journey also made international news when singer Arnel Pineda was plucked from obscurity to front the band in order to capitalize on the buzz created from the Sopranos episode. Longtime guitarist Neal Schon stumbled upon YouTube videos of the 41-year-old Pineda singing with his band, The Zoo, in the Philippines. Within a week, Pineda was rehearsing with the band and making plans for a tour. What made the story even more noteworthy was Pineda’s uncanny vocal similarity to longtime Journey front man Steve Perry. While Perry was not the band’s original lead singer, he was at the helm during the bands peak in the 1980s and left an indelible mark on their music and sound. Finally the band distinguished itself in 2008 when, with Pineda, they recorded an album of new material and released it exclusively at Wal-Mart stores. The album sold very well, especially for a nostalgia act without a record label, and was certified platinum, selling over 1 million copies.

But Journey makes terrible pop confection, and lacks anything resembling true artistic integrity or substance, don’t they? To put it more pointedly: they suck, right? That’s what the majority of my musician friends take great pleasure in telling me. Journey’s music is almost always panned by critics and looked down upon by those with discriminating musical tastes, among whom I count myself. Most critics acknowledge that their music offers a universal message of hope and serves as a sentimental soundtrack for high school romance, but fails to offer anything that approaches transcendence or true art. Despite all of that, I like Journey. Heck, I love them, and not as a guilty pleasure or in an ironic way.

While reflecting upon the opinions of Journey by “those in the know” I was reminded of the chasm that often exists between the theology found within the academy and the faith and practices of the “people in the pews.” I doubt that I am the only one who has heard graduate students and professors alike speak in condescending ways about the “unsophisticated,” “simple” or “childlike” theology of many at the congregational level.

Perhaps the fact that millions of people have been and continue to be fans of Journey can serve as a reminder about the subjective limitations that constrain any truth claims or judgments made about taste, art, culture, and even theology. As theologians, as those who are considered to be “in the know,” we should be vigilant that we do not become so accustomed to the rarified air of the academy that we lose touch with the beliefs and practices of the “regular” members of the congregation. Let us heed the call of those poets Cain, Schon and Perry, when they implored that we simply Don’t Stop Believin’.

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A few years ago, I was happy to learn about “Sabbatum,” an album released in 2003 by an Estonian ensemble called Rondellus who specialize in medieval musics. “Sabbatum” is — hold tight — a “medieval tribute to Black Sabbath.”

This is a high-concept album rendered delicately and with brio. The musicians (who have also recorded medieval songs about the Rosary and the saints), achieve something splendid: a simultaneous extraction and invention of an early-music quality (indeed, more than quality, almost “inspiration”) in a dozen Black Sabbath tunes. Did I mention that they are also sung in Latin?

What I particularly enjoy about this project is the rhetorical/cultural “elevation” of rock effected by such a transposition; the respect for the “premodern” in rock (which reminded me of a very interesting book on Romanticism in rock by Robert Pattison from twenty years ago, titled The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (Oxford University Press, 1987)); and the soundish evocation of a Catholic atmosphere for myself and no doubt many other listeners, who with “Sabbatum” gain the imaginative space of a nest of symbolic/emotional associations for hearing rock anew (one can easily imagine “Post Aeternitatum / After Forever” being chanted in a monastery).

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Nirvana Just Got Rick-Rolled

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on July 20, 2009

Eucharist and Giving Rockish Thanks

Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on July 20, 2009

Thinking more about the Sinead O’Connor posts below made me think about how, like O’Connor, other women in rock have crafted songs with litanies of “Thank You.”

It is a commonplace in sacramental or liturgical theology to be “reminded” that “eucharist” means — “literally,” it is always said — “giving thanks.” Sacramental and liturgical theologies have in the main not yet taken the anthropological turn that would allow them to wonder what “eucharist” means — even “literally” — for the people who experience actual eucharists, which are typically far from unalloyed gratitude; or the genealogical turn that would allow them to wonder what kind of people can be expected to experience what kind of gratitude during the Eucharist. And as a result, I am interested in new takes on gratitude, to get new lessons on what might be involved.

And it is here that O’Connor’s “Thank You” can be paired with at least two others: Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U,” and Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous.”

Among much else, note the litanies:

Morissette: “Thank you India / thank you terror / thank you disillusionment / thank you frailty / thank you consequence / thank you, thank you silence”

Merchant: “I want to thank you, thank you…”

O’Connor: “Thank you for breaking my heart, thank you for tearing it apart, now I’ve a strong, strong heart / Thank you for breaking my heart”

So — many teachers on eucharist.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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