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I spent the last four days at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, launching ground for a good number of new bands over the past many years, and major meetup for those interested in the state of popular music. With a couple thousand bands, presentations and panels, exhibits, and a whole lot more, it is by any measure a major music gathering, featuring music across many genres. (I even heard “country rap” last night as I saw Colt Ford perform a raucous set, including covering “Give it Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers to an enthusiastic crowd.) I have a few “religion” pictures from SXSW to post soon. But before I do, a brief thought:

Religion in its “overt” forms seems to play a very minor, and almost absent, role at SXSW. I say this with little experience, though, having only attended for two years. I’m not suggesting that it needs to have a more prominent role, only that I notice being in an environment of tens of thousands of people, amidst a ton of bands, and having almost no “explicitly” religious talk or images. I wonder: do people check it at the door? Is this a liminal space where religious/spiritual/faith/etc investments are laid aside, and in that way is a “secular” space? Please don’t hear me to be saying that I wish things were otherwise, only that I think these spaces in public life are significant ones, even if I cannot put my finger on why and how. Okay, let me suggest one possible meaning: popular/secular music culture, which itself grew in close relation to church contexts in the USA, is able to provide an experience-rich arena that speaks to spiritual/carnal needs, in a way that lets the focus rest more on commonalities among peoples than differences, and triggers an access to shared sentiments that — as long as the festival lasts, and sometimes longer — make doctrines and practices that might otherwise divide people seem less important. In other words, music culture changes religious/spiritual culture even as it feeds off of it. There is an enduring loop going on.

It is as if in the depths of the festival, the song “People and Places” by Journey is playing in a loop, and the musicians and fans are asking each other: “Do you feel me?” “Do you see the faces running ’round the different places… all the people that you want to know.” “Yes I see their joy and sadness…” And then, the music happens, and the chorus tells its worth: “Take a ride on a rocket / take your mind, unlock it” “You all know we can do it / if you put your mind to it” “You take your life as you feel it / let no one deceive it.” When minds are “unlocked” on this musical “rocket,” are we dealing only with a narcissistic relativism? Or instead — as I would argue — are we dealing with some of the very bases for religion/spirituality/faith/etc, namely: the taste for a loving accord with beauty… which music provides.

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Do music festivals like SXSW take away from people’s distinct spiritual paths (as some observers might fear), or do they temporarily offer a habitation for every path that can find its joy (and ground?) in music, therein converting former paths into a provisional — and freeing — pathlessness?

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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