Religion and Pop Music are Best Friends.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers primary school assemblies. Sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor with arms folded. Fingers on our lips to silence us, whilst one of our teachers fumbled to set up the projector to sing the morning hymn. I think most 90’s kids have fond memories of singing ‘He’s got the Whole world in His Hands’ at the top of their voices most mornings. At this point in my life religion and music were mainly associated with the Church, and it was only choirs that sang about God. Although, as I’ve grown and developed a very eclectic music taste (I’m not kidding, its very odd), I have noticed that religion is a blatantly obvious statement in Pop Music.
That’s right you heard it here first people, God has made it to the Top Ten! From Hozier to Kanye West, Harry Styles to Katy Perry, religion could be considered a key component of some of the world’s best selling songs today. Reading ‘The Huff Post: Top 10 Songs Secretly about God’ gave me a starting point. The article gives many examples; the one that stuck out to me was ‘One Direction’s: What makes you beautiful’ (apologies I am a Directioner). The post takes the lyric “ you don’t know you’re beautiful. If only you saw what I could see…” and claims that we should imagine the song sang to us by God. ‘We are created from love, but we hate ourselves because of our flaws. Only God can see we are beautiful’. I can understand this interpretation, however I argue that it is over analysed to incorporate religion, especially because they forgot to add the end of the lyric: ‘you’d understand why I want you so desperately’, bit cheeky for the Divine Figure. The songs that I have chosen to look at vary. In some religion is blatantly present, and others it is not so obvious.
Further research directed me to an article by Alana Masey: ‘Jesus Christ and Super Stars: How the Holy Rolled Mainstream in Pop Music’. Contrary to popular opinion of the older generation (faith has vanished nowadays), Masey disputes that:
“Faith hasn’t disappeared it has just migrated to the cultural region of popular music and away from the community focussed cultural region of the institutional church.”
Stripping out the jargon, Masey is demonstrating that religion is no longer kept safe and sound behind church doors. It is available to everyone through the medium of Pop Music. However, I dispute that pop music fails to represent religious teachings. The songs that I have looked at portray an artist’s experience with religion, rather than converting Songs of Praise into Top of The Pops.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of this post. You know the actual songs! ‘Religious music is in the very roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and it bursts to the surface every once in a while’ claims The Record: Hearing Devotion in Pop’s Details. The article draws from The Rolling Stones ‘You can’t always get what you want’ (1969); stating the use of the choral introduction gives a salute to Religion. This is mirrored in recent music. For instance, ‘Only Angel’ by Harry Styles (2017) mimics this choral introduction. However, in both cases, the lyrical meaning within the songs does not relate closely to religion. In a Review of the song composed by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Unterberger declares that the ‘ lyrics reflect the end of the overlong party that was the 1960’s’, and Styles’ lyrics are pointing to subject matter that isn’t very PG, lets say. Although, as Unterberger continues, he coins the song as a ‘Philosophical rumination’, the lyrics deeply explore different aspects of our lives, and how we ‘cant always get what we want’. Although I feel that this expression of religion in music is quite subtle, as there is no direct reference to religion.
In contrast, 1968 saw the release of ‘ Sympathy For The Devil’ from The Rolling Stones, within which, the presence of religion is explicit. The song seems to focus on the behaviour of the devil, causing evil and suffering. It exhibits that humans don’t understand ‘the nature of the Devil’s game’.
“And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ, had his moment of doubt and pain. Made damn sure that Pilate, washed his hands and sealed his fate”
Just from one glance at the lyrics, the song is jam packed full of religious references (like I need a reason to listen to The Rolling Stones more). This verse identifies the devil’s involvement in the crucifixion, and death of Christ. The element of religion in Pop music that feeds my interest is that unlike the church, popular music does not have to paint a pretty and optimistic picture of religion. It’s a tool that can be used by artists to express their own doubts with religion.
Nowadays, the theme of doubt is very evident in the religious references embedded in Pop music. 2009 saw the release of ‘Lazy Jesus’ by Nashville Pussy, with a majority of lyrics relating to doubt in the Divine. For instance:
“You don’t do anything, except telling everybody they’re wrong”
This verse seems to refer to religion as oppressive. Religion appears to be used as an instrument to manipulate a person’s behaviour. The theme of doubt in religious belief is reinforced in Kanye West’s ‘Ultra- Light Beam’ (2016), ‘I’m try’na keep my faith, but I’m looking for more, its holy war’. West is demonstrating through his lyrics that religion doesn’t answer all the questions that trouble us. I, for one can vouch that this is the case for me. I explored my reservations with religion in my dissertation, there is pointless suffering in the world that not even religion can provide a concrete answer for. Most of the examples in music express the struggle and search for impossible answers. West also makes more blatant biblical references.
“Cause I bet that my ex, looking back like a pillar of salt”
This verse had bright flashing lights around it for me. It stuck out like a sore thumb. Chance (the rapper who recites this verse) has cleverly used the Biblical story of the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). The Genesis story depicts a good man: Lot, and his wife escaping their hometown as it’s destroyed. God warns them not to look back. However, Lot’s wife (Ado or Edith) goes against God’s will and witnesses the hand of God in action. As a consequence she is turned to a pillar of salt. Although this verse has a deep religious connotation the meaning that the song displays is intertwined with Chance’s personal life and how his ex is ‘salty’ about missed opportunities.
As we have explored obvious religious references (the ones that scream ‘I’m in the Bible’), its only fair to look at the not so obvious. I’ll warn you now, the next section will include, the one, the only, Harold Edward Styles (I have an obsession, and no, its not healthy). Styles’ solo album contains many different genres, he seems to be channelling inspiration from the music he’s listened to growing up, so there’s something for everyone (this is not promo, but H give me a shout if you need me!). The song that I want to look at is not the obvious ‘Sign Of The Times’ (2017) with its references to the ascension, but I recognised that ‘Ever Since New York’ (2017) captured a moment of Religious struggle for Styles.
“I’ve been praying, never did before. Understand I’m talking to the walls. I’ve been praying, ever since New York”
Styles seems to be questioning the practice of prayer, relating it to ‘talking to the walls’, quizzical about whether it is worthwhile. Speaking from personal experience, I can relate to this, you pray because you’re looking for comfort, but the rational part of our brain tells us that no ones listening. In contrast to the doubtful and negative tones from some of these lyrics, Katy Perry expresses a positive experience. Perry’s ‘By The Grace of God’ (2013) portrays a positive message, claiming that religion helped her through the hardest times in her life. For example: ‘By the Grace of God, there was no other way, I picked myself back up’. The two examples that I have given here demonstrate my opinion, that religion in music in mainly used to portray the artists experience with religion, rather than the classic ‘Praise be to God’.
As we can see religion has enthralled music a long time, and I hope there is more to come. We have come along way, from Kumbya in an assembly hall, to Ever Since New York in a packed out arena! I think a large majority of examples of religion in music reveals details of the artist’s personal experience. Popular music makes religion more relatable to this generation; it’s a huge part of pop culture and part of that is thanks to artists like Katy Perry, Harry Styles and Kanye west, just to name a few. I am not claiming that religious followers can ditch the Sunday service and pop in a Rolling Stones album, I’m merely demonstrating that religion is still an active part of todays music. I am fully aware Ultra-Light Beam will not be showcased on Songs of Praise anytime soon, but through the medium of music, artists are able to present their doubt about the big guy in the sky.
Making Religion Out of Pop Music
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Song Review
Jesus Christ and Superstars- How The Holy Rolled Mainstream Into Pop Music
Top 10 Songs Secretly About God
The Record- Hearing Devotion In Pop’s Details:
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