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Secular Music, Bound and Unbound

Posted in: General,Islam,News Items,Politics by Tom Beaudoin on June 7, 2010

The theme of the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America this weekend in Cleveland is “Theology’s Prophetic Commitments,” and it speaks to what contemporary theology frequently understands to be one of the most important motivations for and outcomes of theological work: freedom. In what freedom consists, whence it comes, and how theological life becomes a free life — these are all contested matters. Even freedom itself is not accepted by many theologians as holding such a central place in theology. Those who defend freedom’s centrality, as I would, often argue that freedom is an “integral” phenomenon, and this is the language often used in Catholic thought. Freedom as “integral” means that spiritual freedom is bound up with material freedom, and social with individual. The human being uniquely (so far as we know, anyway), and “all creation” as well (with many conversations about differentiating and defining what counts as created, sentient, dignified), has a “right” to live in a world wherein we can both be ourselves and invent ourselves, where we can live sane lives, subjects in and subject to the world in non-exploitative ways.

This comes to mind as I was reading two articles about rock culture recently, both in the New York Times. One, reported by Ben Sisario, describes how rock concert ticket pricing has changed dramatically over the last decade, with expensive “packages” increasingly the norm, wherein fans can pay high prices for great seats, “meet-and-greets,” swag (band-related paraphernalia), and general VIP treatment.  A good number of North American rock fans can pay these high prices, and they don’t want anything less than a “premium” concert experience, turning a rock show into a mini-vacation or kind of spa event. I have rued and lamented this development ever since I saw it first introduced about fifteen years ago, with “golden circle” seating, backstage access packages, and dollar signs attached to proximity to the band. The decline in album sales in an age of illicit downloading, and the monopolization of the concert scene by Ticketmaster/Live Nation, has only encouraged more bands to go this route. It is slightly uncouth to say this, but rock shows are different now that so many wealthy middle-aged men can buy up the good seats.

However, there are still plenty of places in the cultures of live rock where the social class system of fandom is not so pronounced, including many rock festivals. But there is no mistaking the ways that this turn in rock culture makes rock more politically reactionary and less creative. This is not to say that no freedoms emerge from rock culture when concerts become rock hotels for the privileged,  but rather that a laziness and comfort with a public acknowledgment and even celebration of social class means that rock is less able to do its own spiritual and musical work. In that sense, even those who pay huge amounts are both getting and not getting what they pay for.

But then there is a story reported today by Nazila Fathi about how important secular music, especially rap and rock, is to the protest movement in Iran. “Street vendors in Tehran sell bootleg CDs and MP3s at traffic lights for $2 or $3. Protest music plays on stereos at parties and from cars on the streets, Tehran residents say. Music blasting from car speakers at a stoplight has become one of the more public ways still available to signal to others that the spirit of struggle still lives,” Fathi writes.


Too much is at stake in secular music here to imagine “golden circle” tickets for concerts. This takes us back to CTSA’s convention theme, “Theology’s Prophetic Commitments,” and to the notion of “integral freedom.” And it shows us how music still bears potential for the creative social and individual experimentation that religions do also confect and appreciate. For North American rock to become more Iranian, making sense of secular music’s spiritual-as-integral stakes will have to become more widespread and intentional.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States


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