This One's Called Praise

Psalm 150 happened in our youth center last night, although we might have to change some of the words to make it an exact fit:

          Praise him with bass and lead guitar
          Praise him with unintelligible lyrics
          Praise him with moshing and drumming....


We could keep unchanged the line about Praise him with the clash of cymbals!

The psalm was loud with praise and with the high emotion of performance. You could even say it was a responsorial psalm, profoundly chanted by exuberant teenagers, the faithful believers.

Last night we hosted four local bands for an impromptu concert. I say impromptu because the boys in the bands asked for permission to play only a few days earlier in the week. There was no time to advertise the event in the parish bulletin or newsletter; instead, they simply plastered the high school with flyers. If the turnout was any indication of the success of their publicity technique, we should plaster the high school with flyers for confirmation classes and Benediction. But I suspect the bands themselves were the draw.

These are boys from the parish, some of whom I have known since they got around in a double stroller. Now they drive stickshift cars. They are boys who have passed through all the awkward boy phases in front of my eyes: missing front teeth, monster-sized feet, bad haircuts, voices I used to mistake for their moms’ on the phone, becoming strangely raspy, wisps of beginner moustaches. But somehow I blinked, and now they are the Elvises of Tehachapi, with the fans to prove it. They are deeply graced with the gifts of youth and music.

As chaperone, I brought out soda and chips and licorice, which seemed to touch the boys who were setting up. They were charging one dollar for admission, and offered to give a 25-percent cut to the church, which in in turn touched me. I told them that by the time they split the proceeds among four bands, they’d be better off to accept the donation of the church space, which they graciously did. The privileged friends of the bands set up a table with the bands’ T-shirts and CD’s for sale. They also managed the admission at the door. The throngs who appeared with dollar in hand got a library date stamp in return. The bands’ organization was impressive. And the kids were unfailingly polite, which made me breathe easier.

Then the music started, which sounded like a panther in heat. I was glad to be just outside the door, but feared for the eardrums of the musicians and their fans. With that kind of damage, how would they ever be able to hear the first words of their own future children? The singing alighted somewhere between a shout and a shriek, but I could not distinguish a single English word. I could make out the muttered introsThis one’s a new one, called Panic’but none of the lyrics. I found myself thinking things in my mother’s voice: These songs all sound the same! How can they understand the words? These are the phrases I swore as a teenager I would never say. While the boys assured me they are straight-edge, which is code for no substance abuse, no premarital sex and no naughty lyrics, I had to trust that their songs addressed the standard topics of love and rejection. For all I could tell, I was allowing bands to sing songs in a Catholic youth center with lyrics disputing the theology of the Trinity. But I trusted not.

As the evening got louder and hotter, some of the fans began moshing. From what I observed, girls try to stay out of the way of the mostly male moshers. This may be because moshing can mess up your hair or outfit, because basically moshing consists of careening into each other at high speeds, like robots gone berserk. My first instinct was to turn on the lights and break up the party. I feared the evening would end abruptly anyway, with 911 calls and broken bones, but as I watched, I sensed a ballet-like dimension. They were dancing.

They took care not to hurt one another, while at the same time taking care to appear completely out of control. Elbows were withdrawn at the last moment. Heads moved to avoid collision. Eyes searched for potential head-ons, and bodies took subtle evasive actions. It was a ritual dance, performed with a precision meant to seem haphazard and a nonchalant affection for one’s dance partners.

Not to romanticize overly: I imagine this could be quite dangerous in a larger venue, with drug-laced participants who don’t know or care about one another. As it was, we had one bloody nose and one boy who danced so fervently he had to run outside to catch his breath. But the purpose of moshing is not violence. It is dancing, the shock level comparable to the twist or the tango in their respective debuts. People have long danced as a means of creative self-expression and in communal celebration. So do our children.

I cringed to imagine an average parishioner stopping by the youth center and complaining about the noise and crowds of tattooed, pierced, inappropriately dressed kids. In truth I owe a debt to the work of Anna Scally and Cornerstone Media, whose workshop and tapes made me see popular music in a new, positive light. Before that, this evening would have frightened me. I might have complained about these kids. In response I can only offer that this was an evening of praisethat feeling we all get about the thing we must do, whether it is playing a guitar really loud or writing or cooking or building a house or charting the stars. That is our gift, with which we praise God. It is important that we say yes to our youth when they ask for the opportunity to praise, even if they don’t realize that’s what they are asking. We must not say no to their inspiration. We have the space; they have the noise. Let’s bring it on.

Wonderful things happened in our youth center last night. Kids who approached the Catholic Church with fear, whose only prior experience with the church was watching The Exorcist and being scared silly, felt welcome and had good clean fun at the Catholic Church. No moshers left bleeding. No one left drunk or high. Passion showed on faces usually masked with studied boredom. The more experienced band members stuck around and casually but caringly mentored the greener band members through one of their first performances, advised them, encouraged them, even though every sentence ended with the word dude.

It was the loudest and stickiest prayer service I’ve ever attended. But I can honestly say that they prayed, in their unique way:

Let everything that has breath praise
the Lord!
O praise the Lord.

They want to play again soon. O praise the Lord!

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