Stairway to Heaven: Can you be saved by rock n roll?
If Catholics want to understand what the Second Vatican Council called the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of people today, they will need a more robust appreciation of popular music. Our focus here is on rock music because it not only epitomizes popular music in general but is also a rough genre of its own. Rock music is a global phenomenon that fosters inventive local rock scenes and joins musical producers and consumers from across national boundaries. Although it is more commercially controlled “from above” than ever, new technologies have made rock more fertile “from below.” Far from being the exclusive domain of teenagers, rock culture now spans many generations.
The two of us write as theologians who have been involved in rock culture for decades as both musicians and fans. We have meditated on what can help Catholics make more theological sense of rock. Too much Christian writing on the subject has been negative and antagonistic, focusing more on sensational lyrics than on its religiously meaningful effects. Two particular parts of rock culture offer church workers and theologians positive material for reflection: its history and its power to move and shape people.
A Look at History
Every aspect of rock’s makeup should prompt ministerial and theological interest. Recent historical surveys, for example, have highlighted the strong religious background of the “founders” of rock ’n’ roll. From African-American cultures came music shaped by Christianity, which greatly influenced seminal rock artists like Rosetta Tharpe, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. These artists melded blues and gospel with country music and other influences. The sounds and gestures of early rock, its appeal to the spirit and its power to move people emotionally, clearly emerged from the habits and traditions of the church.
With commercial success, however, rock began to emphasize the “carnal” dimension of the incarnation to such a degree that it has been criticized for emphasizing the body and sexuality over other parts of the human experience. What are we to make of rock’s sometimes over-the-top eroticism?
The cultural historian James Miller, author of Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, argues that the apprehension about rock’s bodily appeal, which was present from the beginning, was part of white America’s anxiety about imagined black sexuality. Today, although rock has diversified racially—and many rock bands, fans and students of the culture are explicitly anti-racist—rock’s appeal to the body and sexuality remains strong. The term rock ’n’ roll as a sexual euphemism is, for better or worse, a symbol of the permanent place of this facet of the music.
Yet the world of secular music has not outgrown racial anxiety. (Many white artists and fans still fail to question the racial homogeneity of their musical cultures.) The peculiarly American cultural cocktail of race, religion and sexuality, which has been determinative for rock, also overlaps with important elements in U.S. Catholic history. Catholicism remains beset by struggles to foster racial-ethnic diversity, to honor the complexity of sexuality and its mature expressions and to appreciate the ways that individual religious experience gives rise to unique spiritual paths. In these ways rock culture and Catholic culture have a lot to say to one another.
The history of rock, then, should make Catholics theologically curious: How do the struggles intrinsic to our own history overlap with the tension-filled elements essential to rock ’n’ roll?
A Power to Move and Shape
To gain some theological appreciation for the music, it might be tempting to look first for discrete messages in rock, particularly in the lyrics. But a better place to begin is where most of rock’s devotees first feel its unique power: in the quality and intensity of its sound.
Rock music is usually heavily amplified and built on a pulsating substructure—a regular, pounding beat, a “pocket”—provided by a rhythm section (drums, bass, rhythm guitar). Instead of providing background accompaniment to a focal melody, rock music often foregrounds its rhythm section to surround the listener with a thickly textured, highly punctuated sonic atmosphere—particularly when played loudly. With its compulsive rhythms, hard-driving bass lines, shimmering guitars and piercing vocals, rock music can flood the body, eliciting all manner of responses: dancing, stomping, head-banging or, for the deeply committed, playing the “air guitar.”
Listeners can also rediscover a rootedness in the body, while at the same time experiencing the body’s expansion as it seems to fuse with the music. Many report a deeper awareness of their own bodies, as they take pleasure in moving to an arresting sound, beat and melody. This is similar to the way many people feel during peak religious experiences—taken out of themselves and welcomed into something greater, in a way they remember long after the event itself. Enjoying rock, then, is one way many people reconnect with their bodily existence. It provides a visceral form of transcendence.
Rock culture also provides specific places where personal values and social practices are fostered and deepened, like the conspicuous pilgrimages to concerts or festivals and the public celebration of musicians. Many fans’ personal identities are also formed through participating in Web forums; collecting shirts, ticket stubs or drumsticks; as well as taking particular lyrics to heart as emotional and spiritual guides. Perhaps most influential is the way rock ’n’ roll has become for many a “soundtrack to life,” marking important moments with richness and depth and giving voice to moods, attitudes and convictions in ways that cannot be translated into other forms of expression. Rock helps to hold life together.
This unique power to form people should make Catholics ask: How is secular music being used for the negotiation of life?
A Patient Curiosity
While some presume rock’s most creative days are past, rock is remarkably vibrant today. It has fragmented into dozens of styles across thousands of distinct global rock scenes, generating live-music industries from cover bands in tiny bars to festival shows that draw hundreds of thousands. Rock has also recalled its original Christian inspiration in a vibrant Christian music subculture, including churches that import rock into worship. New generations of African-American fans and musicians are reclaiming their rock heritage in local venues and on Broadway. The music is also being renewed in Latino rockero here and abroad. And with the advent of personal technological devices, rock is being heard, seen and incorporated into everyday life more personally and more often.
Catholic pastoral and theological circles need to overcome a tendency to engage only “higher” forms of artistic expression, which are ill suited for making sense of the actual musical cultures of people today. Evaluative distinctions like “high” and “low” art seem increasingly anachronistic in a secular age and suggest a suspicion of life’s more visceral dimensions, which rock music explores.
Rock music might therefore be thought of as a teacher of theology, not merely a topic for theological investigation. Such possibilities are evident in its prophetic utterances and invitation to celebration, both of which are sometimes mischaracterized as mere self-gratification. Like much in the Christian tradition, rock music can issue strong denunciations of power through protest, while simultaneously affirming the joy of life as though it were one great open-air festival.
That rock music is capable of excesses in both kinds of impulses should not keep theology and ministry from a patient curiosity about the spiritual lives of the many who make secular music an important part of their lives.