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Twenty-seven years ago, artist Dan Graham produced a short film called “Rock My Religion.” You can view it here:

Michael Iafrate referenced “Rock My Religion” here in December 2009, and I have been meaning to watch it ever since. I recently found the hour to do so, and have a few thoughts to share:

“Rock My Religion” is an under-produced, very early-80s-New York City-type of video, in which the edits are not clean, and the video clips do not sparkle, as if representing the state of home video art some ten years earlier.

(But compare MTV from the early 80s to see just how retro an aesthetic “Rock My Religion” was allowing itself:)

YouTube Preview Image

I was a little confused by the evident technical slumming in “Rock My Religion,” because I was not sure whether it was a “genuine” do-it-yourself artistic invention or a “fake.” (It did resemble home videos my friends and I made in our basements at the time.) This seems relevant to me because part of the truth of the video’s propositions about rock and religion seem to reside on the low-fi aura of the video, which gives it the gritty air of worldly insight and “realness.” (No one who studies religion seriously can afford to be indifferent to the truth-effects that technologies or medias of religion, like printed Bibles, confect.) Not able to make up my mind while watching, I was simply left wondering the whole time about the patina of

rawness in the film and what it had to do with the “message” delivered. This is no small consideration because many discussions of the video report its claims apart from how those claims come to “feel” true in the experiencing of them (as in a sermon, certain claims can “feel” true when one would not experience such conviction reading such claims in an academic paper, say, or on a billboard.)

Speaking of claims, “Rock My Religion” cooks up a provocative but traceable stew of them. Most fundamentally, it suggests that rock and roll is a continuation of the religious fervor found in the 18th and 19th century Shakers, for whom demonstrative chanting of scripture and vigorous dancing would court and defeat the devil. Graham also underscores the Shakers’ theological attempts to transcend gender roles and live as if in a new era of equality, sharing leadership between men and women, eschewing traditional marriage, and propounding the virtues of celibacy. I am no expert on the Shakers, but from what I understand, these practices and beliefs were, for this community, apparently a way to live into the full reign of God and to prepare Christ’s second coming. (According to this article, as of late 2009 the Shaker movement had only three members left.)

Graham finds in rock culture a similar religiousness, both affirmed in rock’s ecstasies and willingness to toy, however incompletely, with gender; and denied in rock’s relativism, hedonism and penchant for damage. (Patti Smith and Jim Morrison are featured mostly as exemplars of affirmation, but there are whiffs of their participation in the denials.) Rock, Graham seems to suggest, is coming from a religious place but can barely handle knowing that about itself.

The robust physicality of Shaker worship, which apparently varied from improvisational to ordered over the course of the movement, and included dancing, shouting, marching, and more, helps Graham in “Rock My Religion” to establish a basic contrast between Shakers and rock culture. Whereas for Shakers, “carnal mortification freed the Shaker from false pride,”┬árock takes bodily performance and display as so many occasions to “glorif[y] unrepentant fallen sinners.” The Shakers’ ecstatic practice was intended to carve Christians apart from worldly sexuality, but according to “Rock My Religion,” “rock sexualizes the traditional Shaker dance.”

In a film of brief narrations and lots of found footage of punk, psychedelic, and early rock and roll of the 1950s (especially Jerry Lee Lewis), intercut with shots of Shaker communes and prints of Shaker worship, one of the longer narrative parts summarizes what seems at first glance to be the burden of the video: “Rock performances electrically unleash anarchic energies, and provide a hypnotic ritualistic trance basis for the mass audience, especially when both musicians and audience are under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Such shows suggest the transport of the tent meeting, or the Shakers’ deliberate seeking out of the devil, in order to purify themselves and ensure communion with God.”

This is the kind of material that is of course made to order for students of popular music and theology. Interestingly, Graham’s analysis gets close to liberal evangelical Christians’ analyses of popular music in attributing its center to a disowned evangelical fervor, and gets close to a Catholic analysis of popular music in its attention to the structuring rituals that conduct persons into particular religious meanings and identities in religion and rock.

But I was confused by the focus on Shakers to the exclusion of African-American religious heritages in rock and roll. Moreover, the long, uncommented shots of Shaker rooms and punk rock concerts, combined with the almost guileless and deadpan restatements of Shaker theology, on the one hand, and 1980s-sounding criticisms of rock culture, on the other, augmented by indulgences like a rambling meditation from an obviously stoned Jim Morrison, gave me this impression: “Rock My Religion” is a subtle parody of religion itself for the Reagan era, built out of a conflation of DIY sensibilities that gesture toward early ’80s NYC punk and evangelical anti-rock propaganda (one could purchase roughly-produced videotapes at the time of conservative anti-rock evidence for collusions with Satan) at the very same time, and that root rock in Shaker religion as a way of parodying the smallness of conventional associations between religion and rock both on the conservative (denouncing rock as demonic) and on the liberal (defending rock and as a continuation of religion for a secular age) end of the spectrum. This could be why “Rock My Religion” seems so very much like those infamous public-service short films that were popular in the USA in the 1950s, meant to teach social and personal hygiene, like this:

By creatively adapting the form of the social-hygiene short film in a way that takes on board both DIY and evangelical technologies, and giving parodic voice to the tight but finally melancholy relationship between rock and religion, “Rock My Religion” deconstructs the 1980s conversation instead of offering a straightforward thesis about rock’s debt to Shakerism.

I’m just suggesting this reading and am curious about what others think.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, USA

3 Comments »

  1. Tom,
    I haven’t watched the video in its entirety, but Morrison certainly viewed Doors music as religious and spiritual. He spoke to reporters extensively about Greek tragedy and religion. Go to doorsgoldmine.com for more on Morrison’s meaning and intent and to download a free copy of The Top 10 Commandments of Jim Morrison. There is a lot more here than meets the ear.
    Regards,
    David

    Comment by David Shiang — July 12, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  2. I’ll have to watch this again with your thoughts in mind.

    Comment by Michael Iafrate — July 13, 2011 @ 12:55 am

  3. I’ve seen full video from Jim Morrison grave on Pere Lachaise on 40 aniversary 1971-2011 . I’ve seen on http://jim-morrison-fanclub.blogspot.com/.If you like you can watch !

    Comment by http://jim-morrison-fanclub.blogspot.com/ — July 16, 2011 @ 3:23 am

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