Sex, religion and iconography in pop music
On Oct. 31, the American pop star Sabrina Carpenter released the music video for her new single, “Feather.” The video, which has over five million views and counting on YouTube, sparked outrage among Catholic viewers in the video’s comments section, with one viewer saying, “Jesus, we pray that you save Sabrina Carpenter.”
In the video, the singer dances provocatively in the sanctuary of the historic 19th-century Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn said in the aftermath that he is “appalled” and disciplined the pastor who permitted the music video to be filmed in the sanctuary.
Ms. Carpenter’s Catholic-church-based music video is not a novel concept. Catholic iconography and religious language in general have long been the basis for popular songs and their music videos—specifically for songs with sexual themes and erotic imagery.
Catholic iconography and religious language in general have long been the basis for popular songs and their music videos—specifically for songs with sexual themes and erotic imagery.
Thomas Beaudoin, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, said in an interview that popular music in the United States has often been entangled with religion. One can find clear connections between the sacred and the sexual in American popular music as far back as the mid-1950s.
Theology is “always trying to get to some conception of the divine,” Mr. Beaudoin said, and theology connects our “sacred center to our lived experience.” Because popular music is “involved in invocations of a sacred center,” he said, it follows that human sexuality, a form of “lived experience,” has found its way into the lyrics of many seemingly religiously coded songs.
‘Like A Prayer’ by Madonna
The video for Madonna’s 1989 hit single “Like a Prayer” manifests that entanglement between the spiritual and the sexual. To upbeat drums and a gospel choir, the young Madonna wanders throughout a church in a tight black dress with a necklace supporting a crucifix around her neck. (The inside of the church is an artificial sound stage, while the exterior is purportedly a Baptist church in California.) Between burning crosses and stigmata wounds, Madonna provokes what Beaudoin refers to as the “somatic capital of Christianity.”
Somatic capital, Mr. Beaudoin explains, is the value gained by an individual from the external showcasing of a particular image of oneself. Madonna’s body and outward displays of sexuality have a certain kind of value that other people consume. Here, Madonna’s “self” is developed from her sexuality, which she then connects to the Catholic belief system in which she was raised. The natural beauty of America’s “Material Girl” is already striking, but against the backdrop of an altar, Madonna’s looks mesmerize the viewer as she sings “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer/ I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.”
Madonna capitalizes on that understanding of sexuality in her performance, from dancing in the sanctuary to kissing a saintly figure. She merges the secular and the sacred seamlessly in her controversial and iconic music video.
“Sexuality is a bodily desire and bodily performance with the other,” Mr. Beaudoin said, and that understanding of sexuality “has always been in the Christian tradition.” Madonna capitalizes on that understanding of sexuality in her performance, from dancing in the sanctuary to kissing a saintly figure. She merges the secular and the sacred seamlessly in her controversial and iconic music video.
‘Judas’ by Lady Gaga
Like Madonna, Lady Gaga, who was raised by devoutly Christian parents and attended Catholic school since age 11, unifies her sexuality and bodily desire with Catholic spirituality. In the music video for her 2011 song “Judas,” Jesus is a biker wearing a bejeweled crown of thorns who goes clubbing with Mary Magdalene (Gaga). Jesus and Judas get into a bar fight as Gaga’s character proclaims “I'm just a Holy Fool, oh, baby, it’s so cruel/ But I’m still in love with Judas, baby.”
The verses reflect her need to know God as intimately as one knows a lover, but her desire for another lover (in this case Judas) pulls her away from God.
I want to love you
but something’s pulling me away from you
Jesus is my virtue
and Judas is the demon I cling to.
The idea of God as a lover may seem blasphemous, but this language is not incongruous with much of Christian spirituality. Consider, for one, John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul”: “O night that has united/ The Lover with His beloved,/Transforming the beloved in her Lover.” The Song of Songs offers a clear example of erotic love translated into the spiritual senses of affection: “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth.”
The idea of God as a lover may seem blasphemous, but this language is not incongruous with much of Christian spirituality.
Religious imagery appears constantly in Lady Gaga’s lyrics and her music videos. Gaga has closely aligned herself with the L.G.B.T.Q. community, many of whom have, as a 2011 America article noted, hailed her “as a prophetic voice to the millions around the world who yearn for acceptance.” For some, “Judas” has become an anthem for those reconciling their faith with their sexual orientation and acceptance in the Catholic Church; thus, “the song becomes this new kind of spiritual creation, and in that song, there is something novel,” said Mr. Beaudoin.
As a Catholic viewer, it can be disturbing to see Gaga’s sexualization of religious imagery. This includes her swallowing rosary beads while dressed in a latex outfit resembling a nun’s habit in a music video for her hit single “Alejandro.” In her provocative distortion of religious images however, she seamlessly integrates the spiritual and sexual.
‘Take me to church’ by Hozier
“If you're an artist,” Mr. Beaudoin said, “your music may show things that you're not aware of, but that are part of your faith, your sacred center.” For an artist like Hozier, an Irish folk-pop singer raised in a religious household, his sacred center has diverted from institutional religion. He has used music as a means to understand his spirituality. With his 2013 alternative rock ballad “Take Me to Church” remaining on the Billboard charts for 23 weeks, with two billion streams on Spotify, his music has touched a cultural nerve.
While the song’s title calls for the artist to be brought back to church, the lyrics reveal that “church” is a metaphor for a sexual connection shared between two lovers. “She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom/ The only heaven I'll be sent to/ is when I'm alone with you.’” The connection between what happens in worship and what happens in the bedroom is a perfect example of how the devotion of religious believers can be analogous to that of lovers. Translating religious devotion into sexual imagery remains at the heart of many of Hozier’s works.
Translating religious devotion into sexual imagery remains at the heart of many of Hozier’s works.
Many of the lyrics in “Take Me to Church” sound like a description of a straight couple, but the music video features the complex relationship between two male lovers. In this, it addresses the stigmatization of L.G.B.T.Q. individuals by religious institutions. Lines such as “I was born sick, but I love it/ command me to be well” highlight the conflict between one’s natural identity and societal expectations around what is “normal” for one’s identity.
What to make of ‘Feather’
The staff at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Brooklyn said that it was misled about the type of music video being filmed, because Sabrina Carpenter’s production team “failed to accurately represent the video content.” The controversial video resulted in numerous headlines shaming Ms. Carpenter’s actions. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s music video, whatever judgment we make of its content, made its point more effectively by using the church as a space for a metaphorical funeral for a toxic relationship.
In the song’s lyrics, Ms. Carpenter says that because her past lover viewed her as purely a sexual being, she was used by her lover. Now that she has metaphorically “killed” this lover (the music video has a few bloody scenes) she is “light as a feather.” While the lyrics are not explicitly religious, her choice to film in a church is an attempt, as Mr. Beaudoin explained, to merge the notion of a sanctified lover with the turmoil of a toxic relationship in a provocative way.
Sabrina Carpenter is merely the latest in a long line of artists who meld the spiritual and the sexual, some more provocatively than others. Her video and the backlash against it reveals the power of popular music when it deals specifically with themes of love, sex and betrayal in such deeply felt fashion.