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Posted in: Fandom,General,Musical Performance,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on March 17, 2013
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 (more…)
I’ve been thinking of late about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the claim de Certeau makes in his introduction that “everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others” [xii].
Elvis Costello swiped the quotation from Lionel Trilling (or was it Picasso?) to the effect that immature artists imitate, and great artists steal. As I look back at the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, from Pat Boone to Elvis to the Beastie Boys, I’m struck that the genre has moved forward by hefty amounts of creative “borrowing” — Page and Clapton borrowed blues riffs, Captian Beefheart borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf, the Police borrowed Reggae. To borrow a phrase, “it goes on and on and on and on.”
So, for the next few days, I’d like to reflect on some aspects of poaching, on the various ways the economy of Rock ‘n’ Roll depends upon various forms of borrowing (or stealing). Along the way, I invite your responses and comments, as well as your own thoughts and examples about how poaching works.
Probably the best known style of poaching in Rock is the cover song. However, the practice is not consistently rewarding. Often, covering a song becomes an exercise in a bad sort of repetition. Aping a style or a sound, and adding little to the puzzle in the process.
I’m going to start here with a controversial example, Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — partly because it’s one of the most-covered songs of all time, and partly because it’s a song that I really have little appreciation. Three chords and twenty-three words. It’s a dirge (in my humble opinion). It’s a bore.
And yet, it lives on, like a Frankenstein monster. I’ve picked three versions here to illustrate this first type of poaching — versions that borrow and add little, if anything, to the artifact. Just copies and copies and copies of a lost original.
To prove the point (about the lost original part, especially), let’s start out with Dylan, basically covering himself:
Clapton managed to redeem it, for a season, with (in my opinion) the most palatable poach to date:
And then there’s the version that just kills the song dead in its tracks (and, in my humble opinion, perhaps the least interesting cover in the whole history of Rock):
In subsequent posts, I will take up examples of covers that are actually challenging and worthwhile reinventions of songs, among other issues. For now, though, I invite your thoughts. And feel free to steal mine.
- David Dault, Memphis, TN
25 July 2008
There have been so few consistently beautifully transporting spiritual exercises undergone in my life as the ones occasioned by the growing up of my daughter. She is three years old, and was in the car with me recently when I played Journey’s 1978 “Infinity” album. She is usually entertained by the non-musical aspects of my rock and roll tastes (the colorful iconography of concert t-shirts, the drama of air guitar solos, the everyday insouciance in the recitation of a lyric from Tool or Wolfmother, Rush or Winger).
But today, a revelation unlike any other so far: when Steve Perry poured forth the angelic invocation at the beginning of the tune “Opened the Door,” a plaintive “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrllllllllllllllllllll…… oh you came to me,” my daughter opened her mouth and out came her very own “Opened the Door”, and you must believe me when I tell you her pitch, intonation, the whole body of her voice was just so, so right, and it was just an extended vocalization: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” but it was what Perry had just sung. As if her singing voice were awakened by his summons: “Girl!!”
Whatever she eventually makes of her singing voice down the road, I hope I never forget what she sounded like in that moment. This revelation of these sounds from my daughter introduced a veil of light, re-introduced this girl, this veil, not only in a way that I had never known before, but with a creative force that brought a new love and wonder out of me.
Then, best best best best best of all, when I tried to turn down the music to tell her how sublime she sounded, she instead demanded “Turn it up!” Everything about me swooned, staggered, surrendered. The gods of rock, the rocking of the gods: my daughter sang with Steve Perry, and then demanded that I crank it! What mystery did she allow into the car? I re-enter Luke 1:43: “And why has this happened to me?”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
[Originally posted to the "In All Things" blog at America magazine, 25 July 2008]
Posted in: General,Secular Liturgies by Tom Beaudoin on October 29, 2010
There is an influential stream of scholarship in cultural and religious studies that argues that public and “secular” events can be considered religious when they conduct a group of people into a shared directedness to a good beyond themselves, whether that be a particular worthy goal or the spirit of the community itself. The basic theological notion is that a transcendent reference is contained within it. This position has come in for substantial criticism in the last decade or so as insufficiently contextual and theological; in other words, it does not pay enough specific attention to the conceptions-practices on the ground, and it does not root a theological judgment fully enough in a particular tradition. That said, I still thought of this line of reasoning — which does retain an influence not only in academic theology but in the Western popular consciousness — when I saw these videos today. In them, you will see Steve Perry, the golden-throated former singer of Journey, at a baseball game in San Francisco (as a fan), leading the tens of thousands around him in singing along with the Journey songs (“Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and “Lights”) being played over the stadium sound system.
Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on June 6, 2010
“Hello, Cleveland!” is the famous (attempted) greeting from “This is Spinal Tap!”, but it will be repeated more than once this coming weekend as several of us in the Rock and Theology Project join a great many other Catholic theologians at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in Cleveland, Ohio. (The latest draft of the official program can be found at the CTSA site here.)
Cleveland is, of course, also the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (I wrote about my visit to the RRHOF Annex, here in New York, at R&T last November.) The R&T theologians will naturally be making this pilgrimage.
Amid many excellent sessions on offer at the convention, might I recommend one I’ve had a hand in organizing: it is a joint session between the Moral Theology and the Practical Theology groups, in which we will explore where these two theological approaches, moral and practical, overlap, diverge, and give promise of future interaction. Two esteemed scholars in these fields will present papers on this relationship: David McCarthy of Mount Saint Mary’s University (moral theology), and Claire Wolfteich of Boston University (practical theology). This conversation is important for many reasons, not least because both moral and practical theologies take responsibility for theological questions from and for everyday life and pastoral work. They both focus on religious practices and practices of interest to religion. But they tend to go about their work quite differently. How differently, and what those differences mean, is one question. (The conversations in European theology about the relationship between moral theology/ethics and practical theology are perhaps more advanced than in the United States; in a future post maybe I can give a brief summary of some recent research there.)
The CTSA is one of two annual conferences (the other being the mother-of-all-religion-conferences, the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion), where I see a great many friends and colleagues, and where “I get the joy of rediscovering” why I chose and remain in academic theological life. As always at such conferences, I hope to find some live music to round out a weekend of theology, rock, and friendship in Cleveland.
In a well-known scene in “This is Spinal Tap!”, the band faces the indignity of being listed after “Puppet Show” at an amusement park gig. The promoter, half-apologetically, sees the sign, tries to act shocked, and announces for the ages, “If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a million times: It’s ‘Spinal Tap’ first, and ‘Puppet Show’ second.”
I don’t know if it’s rock first and theology second this weekend, but the reason I’m involved with Rock and Theology is that I can’t say yes to one without a simultaneous yes to the other.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on April 9, 2010
Posted in: General,Rock and Theology Project,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on March 22, 2010
This semester, I have been teaching a course at Fordham on research into theological practices. Each week the students and I discuss matters pertaining to models for theological research into lived religion or the practice of faith, and attendant issues of the stance of the researcher, the goals of research, and the relationships that practical theologians take up to systematic theologians and other theological frameworks, on the one hand, and social scientists on the other.
While teaching this course, I find myself pondering my own next theological research and writing project. I am planning to write a book on rock and theology, and have been keeping notes for such a book over the past year since the R&T blog got going. I find that my writing projects generally need a slow-burning groove in order to most fruitfully go forward.
Much of the work is unconscious, as I get insights from associations to something I read, or while exercising, or while talking to a friend, as much as from intentionally sitting down to write. (I’ve even gotten a usable phrase or two from a dream.) But being intentional works for me, too, and I keep a rough writing schedule to try to stay on track and imaginatively plotting where the work might go from month to month. As I’ve written before at R&T, a good deal of that intentional writing is still aided by unconscious forces, insofar as I often listen to music while writing. (And up to the recent past, listening quite loudly, about which I now have some pretty serious, though not yet total, regret, because it has contributed to my hearing loss.)
I find that my writing projects are like coin-machine games that let you drop in a coin onto a platform with a bar pushing back and forth, back and forth, ever so slightly moving the coins toward the ledge. The coins often don’t seem to move at all, or when they do, it is only a tiny bit – or sideways. But once in a great while, with aim and with luck, you can drop a coin in at the right moment in front of that moving bar and you can start a chain reaction of pushed pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that will topple over the edge of the platform and out the bottom of the machine into your surprised and satisfied hands.
(Here is a fellow happy to illustrate how it works.)
Having now written three books, I have found that the process of book-writing opens all sorts of orthogonal ideas for me that become material for another book or articles or lectures, which themselves will later become material for a book. So in writing one book, I need to keep several other files open for the tangential but far from disorganized ideas that keep arising. Thus the bar moves back and forth, back and forth on several of my projects at once. Coins get dropped in on each game/project almost daily.
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’.