Religion and popular music

Häger, A., ed., 2018. Religion and popular music: artists, fans, and cultures. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 246 pp. ISBN 978-13-5000-147-3.

This edited volume offers a multifaceted introduction to the encounters between religion and popular music through the lenses of artists, fans, and cultures. A comparatively narrow field of research within the broader study of religion and popular culture, religion and popular music studies have received considerable attention in recent years, with the publication of a number of collections and handbooks. Concurrently, the study of religion and popular music has become a subject in its own right – rather than merely a scholarly side interest – for a growing number of scholars, thus further speaking to its increasing establishment. The study of religion and popular music addresses a continuously transforming cultural context that affects ‘the permeation of the boundaries between religion and popular music’ (p. 1). It is precisely in moments of close attention to these evolving relationships and frontiers between social, cultural, and religious spheres that this book is most productive – both in contributing to the formation of a field of study, and as a topical theorization of an oft-overlooked cluster of contemporary cultural practices.

The individual chapters of this anthology are structured around three primary sections, succinctly titled ‘artists’, ‘fans’, and ‘cultures’. Setting off, the artist section of the book offers case studies of music, text, video, and artist biography to explore multiple ways in which popular music and religion may bleed into each other, and to acknowledge the tensions arising in light of this blurring of boundaries. Starting out, Adrian-Mario Gellel’s identification of a tripartite cluster of symbols – classical, folk tale, and biographical – in Katy Perry’s music and music video productively points to the complexities arising upon the incorporation of religious symbolism in the individualist narratives of pop personae. The tensions between spirituality and a capitalist popular music industry are further examined in Angela M. Nelson’s study of African American gospel artist CeCe Winan. Nelson productively juxtaposes theoretical concepts ranging from religious studies to critical theory, to examine Winan’s strategies for negotiating two seemingly incongruent cultural spheres throughout her career. Turning attention to the work of Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, the subsequent chapters challenge quotidian assumptions about the representations of evil in rock and heavy metal music. While Brian Froese’s analyses create an expansive survey of Judas Priest’s use of religious symbolism, Michael Gilmour’s study of Ozzy Osbourne’s persona through the framework of the trickster/outlaw figure moves one step further in productively asking for the function of such representations in day-to-day negotiations of normative religious, cultural, and moral values.

At their most insightful, the analyses of the opening section are productive illustrations of travelling concepts (to borrow Mieke Bal’s notion), employing theoretical tools from various scholarly traditions. Beyond analyzing the points of contact between religion and popular music, they challenge presumptions about each of these cultural practices in their own right. Somewhat jarring with this productive multiplicity of methods and concepts, the next to-total absence of music analysis is salient and feels like a missed opportunity. Given popular music’s rich tradition of incorporating elements of religious music, and drawing on musical semiotics of the sacred, attending to sonic characteristics with the same rigor as to lyrics and visual imagery would have made the analyses of this section all the more insightful. The few instances, where analyses do extend to music in other sections of this volume – for instance David-Emil Wickström’s discussion of the approximation of Middle Eastern scales in superposition with Islamophobic lyrics in a song by the Russian-Orthodox-identifying rock band Alisa – aptly illustrate this potential.

The second section shifts perspective to the spiritual and religious dimensions of fandom, primarily applying ethnographic and discourse-analytical methods. As a consequence of these methodological orientations, the chapters of this section are insightful in depicting the agency in and the diversity of practices of fandom. However, at times the analyses stop short of contextualizing fans’ experiences in broader socio-cultural dynamics and discourses. For instance, Eloísa Martín’s study of posthumous practices of fandom connected to the Argentinian singer Gilda is insightful in emphasizing the agency of fans in processes of mystification, while missing a critical discussion of underlying (stereotypical) discourses of gender, sexuality, and class that seem to play a substantial role in some fans’ attachment to the singer. Somewhat similarly, Sabina Hadžibuli’s analysis of Nick Cave-fandom in the context of the post-communist re-establishment of the Orthodox Church in Serbia as well as Carla Shriever’s study of para-religious practices of Prince-fandom convincingly identify central themes in the respective practices of fandom, yet would have been strengthened by a more robust abstraction and theorization of these practices and their relationships to evolving religious cultures.

The structure of the publication is certainly partly responsible for this limitation. As with many collected volumes, the twelve individual analytical chapters are brief, only one of them exceeding fifteen pages in length. While these confinements become starkly visible in a number of chapters, they are also acknowledged by several authors, who point to spatial constraints at the outsets of their respective chapters. Nonetheless, the relative briefness of chapters allows for a larger number of individual contributions, thus ultimately facilitating a comprehensive introduction to the topic that offers theoretical, methodological, and regional multiplicity. The latter aspect is one of the volume’s definite benefits, and most pronounced in the final section, productively challenging overly simplistic understandings of secularization and sacralization informed by a Western-centric outlook.

Representing elementary concepts in religious studies, editor Andreas Häger productively describes secularization and sacralization as complementary boundary projects that take part in the tightening and widening confines of religion and culture (p. 7). As he explains further, these processes are embodied for instance in the dynamics of appropriation between religion and popular music, and in the merging of or distancing between religion and the nation state (ibid.). While these ‘boundary projects’ inform most of the contributions to the volume, they take center stage in the analyses of the final section, which flesh out the complexities masked by linear understandings of processes of secularization and sacralization. The unlooked-for contradictions and complexities of sacralization are productively analyzed in Wickström’s study of the instrumentalization of Russian rock by the Russian Orthodox Church that ultimately serves the promotion of a Russian nationalist ideology as well as Jim Donaghey’s analysis of the individualized and complex negotiations of Islam and punk in contemporary Indonesia, where Islamic religion is increasingly culturally and socially instituted. Contrastingly situated in the secular national context of Sweden, Thomas Bossius studies the work of three Swedish country music artists to explore the consolidation of the particular cultural and aesthetic conventions of their genre, their personal belief, and the norms of a secularized society. The US and Sweden also provide the national contexts in Häger’s study of so-called ‘Dylan masses’, where he examines the minute-negotiations of conventions of religious service and popular music informing the consolidation of Bob Dylan’s music and Protestant or Lutheran church services.

Melanie Takahashi’s closing study of contemporary EDM culture turns attention to questions of spirituality and affect through a differentiated comparison of electronic dance music and possession trance rituals. Epitomizing the synopsis of spiritual and popular musical practices, the chapter is a productive final illustration of the insights and possible limits of the emerging field of religion and popular music studies. Takahashi distinguishes the rave culture of the 1990s from contemporary (mainstream) EDM along the dividing line of spirituality, conceptualizing the experience offered by the former as a shared sonic-spiritual journey of listeners and the DJ. Whereas she argues that ‘rave offered an understanding of the varying expressions of spirituality in a postmodern globalising world’, she proposes that ‘EDM speaks to the importance of dance without any sense of commitment to belief’ (p. 199, emphasis mine).  With this closing opposition, the volume may thus arrive at the limits of theorizing the encounters of religion and popular music. Perhaps, however, it merely reaches the frontier of a particular concept of religion and spirituality, thus calling for the continuous theorization of dynamic and increasingly individualized forms of spirituality in the 21st century.

Veronika Muchitsch