Engaging Eleanor Rigby: A Christian Alternative to Lonely Listening

From boycotts to baptized alternatives
to filching the best bar songs
for hymnody, Christians have had
various relationships with popular music.
Should we shut out all forms of art,
popular or otherwise, that don’t originate
with committed Christian artists? Or
does the call to Christian witness demand
that we engage popular artists where they
stand and on their own terms? According
to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinithians
10:23, we have the freedom to listen
to any music, but how do we assess what
is “beneficial”? How we answer these
questions reveals central theological assumptions.
Reformed folks would tend to
heartily endorse the “engagement” option
above, yet engagement is not fulfilled by
following a timeless set of rules. In the
case of popular music, it requires adapting
as habits and the industry change–a
difficult task in a fast-paced world.

Some readers may consider themselves
pop culture junkies, or at least
somewhat familiar with contemporary
music. Maybe they read Paste magazine,
browse Pitchfork’s online reviews, and
keep tabs on who’s coming to Lollapalooza
next year. Other readers might have
a Rolling Stones record tucked away in
storage but find themselves more familiar
these days with the jazz and classical
music played on the local NPR affiliate,
or with the hymns and praise music on
“family-friendly” radio stations. Wherever
you find yourself on the popular music
spectrum, I hope to take you on a kind
of tour, exploring some misguided Christian
responses to popular music as well
as reflecting on how today’s music industry
and listening habits present unique
challenges to those who long for signs of
redemption in the popular arts.

In 2006 I began working in the student
activities office at a Christian college
in Michigan. What drew me to this
particular college was its deeply reflective
and theological approach to pop culture
programming. Rather than conform
to a diversionary model of student activities–i.e., try to distract students from
sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll–we boldly
proclaim Christ’s lordship over all of life
by bringing rock ‘n’ roll to the students.
 
Both misconceptions are dangerous. To
assume that pop music is harmless is to
underestimate the power of storytelling
that is inherent in popular music as art.
We are formed by stories–a reality that
is embodied by every Christian who tries
to make sense of what the creation of
the world, the resurrection of Christ, and
the presence of the Holy Spirit revealed
at Pentecost might imply for daily life.
 

I use the term “rock ‘n’ roll” in a broad
sense that encompasses all genres of
popular music. Hip hop, folk, indie rock,
bluegrass, salsa, gospel, and electronica
have all come across our stages in recent
years. Interwoven with our work
of booking artists is education in cultural
discernment through music listening
sessions, articles, mentoring student
groups, and more. As we interact with students, faculty, and staff, we see both
hunger for Christ-centered approaches to
popular culture and common misconceptions
about the relationship between pop
culture and Christianity.

Of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll
triumvirate, rock ‘n’ roll is probably the
least feared, and yet, in faith circles, it’s
hardly revered. Like reality television or
blockbuster films, popular music can be
perceived as harmless throwaway fluff
not worthy of intellectual engagement
and Christian discernment. Or, given
the vast “alternative” empire of the Christian
music industry, pop music outside
of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM)
can be deemed simply unnecessary–why
listen to Rock Band A when you can listen
to CCM Band A, which has
similar music plus wholesome
lyrics that meet the
Jesus quotient?

Both misconceptions
are dangerous. To assume
that pop music is harmless
is to underestimate the
power of storytelling that
is inherent in popular music
as art. We are formed
by stories–a reality that is
embodied by every Christian
who tries to make sense
of what the creation of the
world, the resurrection of
Christ, and the presence of
the Holy Spirit revealed at
Pentecost might imply for
daily life. We tell the stories of scripture
over and over again in our homes and in
our worship liturgies because we believe
in the power of those stories to transform
hearers of the Word into doers of the
Word. So what happens when 13-yearold
girls set their iPods on repeat to hear
Hannah Montana tell them over and over
again how much school sucks? What
happens when a college student attempts
to hear his professor’s call to righteous
troublemaking after falling asleep the
night before to music promoting an empty
rebellion that suits the marketplace
just fine? Pulling in another popular art
genre, what happens when the television
show 24 portrays torture as a legitimate
tool of heroes, and those who question
torture’s ethics as wimps? For better or
worse, stories form us, whether they are
told on Sunday morning or Friday night,
via the pulpit or the stereo. Ignoring the
stories popular music is telling, even if the
artistic quality is poor, doesn’t diminish
their power.

For those who are convinced that
the kids will listen to pop music whether
they’re permitted to or not, there’s the
temptation to promote the “safe” music
of CCM. However, if we profess that sin
permeates all human activity,
 
If most music listeners, then, are
engaging in music in isolation, there is
less opportunity for the stories being
told in popular music to be called out
as true or false, except by the inclination
and abilities of the individual.
 

we ought to question the baptism of any aspect of
culture as safe or sacred, which allows us
to think we can check discernment at the
door. Bringing prayerfulness and skepticism
to a Jars of Clay concert is just as
important as taking those tools along to
hear Britney Spears–maybe even more
important, because darkness is so much
harder to discern when it’s hidden amidst
confessional language.

Fortunately, there are many musicians
of faith who are intentionally blurring
the demarcation between “safe”
Christian music and “unsafe” secular
music–a blessing for both Christians
and non-Christians. Within the indie
rock genre, Daniel Smith is a pioneer in
fence-jumping. As an undergraduate at
Rutgers University in the early 1990s,
Smith experienced a reawakening that
manifested itself in his senior thesis project.
According to a release Smith wrote
for his record label Secretly Canadian:

This was the year I stopped running
away from home, picked up
my acoustic guitar again, and
changed from being Dan back to
Daniel. I woke up to the fact that
I have an amazing family, an
amazing childhood, and I began
to relate everything I was thinking
and doing with this in mind.
….I began reading the Bible
and praying again, and songs
and art started flowing. I would
meet with my dad and talk philosophy
and theology, and I became
a child again.

The fruit of Smith’s experience became
known as Danielson Famile, an
assortment of friends and siblings who
performed in elaborate costumes (often
nurse uniforms as symbols of healing)
and belted out explicitly confessional lyrics
without apology and without disguising
them in industry “cool.” The mystery
of their genuine faith and creativity
compelled all sorts of listeners, not just
Christian teenagers, looking for the next
“safe” music fix.

Where to begin:

  • If you have teen-agers or other people
    who are old enough to have distinct
    musical taste in your household,
    hook iPods up to the stereo or pull
    out actual albums and listen to music
    together. Even better, have only one
    stereo in the house and make the
    house an ear-bud-free zone.
  • Check out an issue of Paste magazine.
    Paste is one of the preeminent music
    magazines being published today,
    and it was founded by Christians who
    seek a common language to critique
    and share the music they love. Each
    issue comes with a CD sampler of
    new music.
  • Support live music. Unless you’re
    working at a research station in
    Antarctica, chances are you live
    within walking, biking, or reasonable
    driving distance of a live music venue.
    Check the local paper for concert
    listings and attend something outside
    of what you recognize. Pay attention
    to what might be lost in our culture if
    live music venues ceased to exist.
    Going further: Consider beginning
    with a particular artist and move
    out onto the pop music landscape
    from there. Listen intentionally to the
    work of popular artists, even–maybe
    especially–those who are telling
    important stories that don’t emerge
    from a specifically Christian faith
    commitment. I would recommend:
  • Andrew Bird: Exploring lyrical
    themes like technology, philosophy,
    history, religion, sociology, and more,
    Bird is an artist who appeals to
    both serious academics and playful
    extroverts. Glockenspiel, violin,
    guitar, and whistling are his favorite
    instruments as he spins intricate,
    whimsical songs through the technique
    of looping. His live performances
    are captivating as he and one or two other instrumentalists record short
    tracks that play over one another to
    form a complete whole, complemented
    by Bird’s pleasant tenor voice. The
    NPR music archive for Andrew Bird
    (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14865321) has
    interviews and live performances.
    Recommended album: Armchair
    Apocrypha
    .
  • Neko Case: With a voice to match
    her blazing red hair, Neko Case is
    a postmodern troubadour, weaving
    poetic tales about people and places,
    both beautiful and broken–often at
    the same time. Case’s punk origins
    and playful, blunt honesty combine
    with her passions for fairy tales, good
    novels, country gospel music, and
    animals to form songs that feel old
    and new at the same time. Visit her
    web site to hear samples of her work.
    Recommended album: Fox Confessor
    Brings the Flood
    .
  • Lupe Fiasco: If you’re feeling a
    little bit more adventurous, or if you
    already have a predilection toward
    hip hop, look into the music of
    Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco. Fiasco is
    one of several hip hop artists who
    are tr ying to dismantle the image
    of the gang-banging, drug-dealing,
    misogynistic thug that’s been
    marketed with rap music over the
    past two decades. A devout Muslim,
    Fiasco creates satirical characters,
    raps about skateboarding, and
    directly challenges the notion of
    what’s cool among his peers. Listen
    to streaming tracks for free and find
    out more about Fiasco’s story at his
    web site. The album I’d recommend
    listening to is The Cool. However, to
    avoid falling into the trap of judging
    hip hop only on the basis of obscene
    language, research the concept
    behind The Cool before listening and
    consider what Fiasco is attempting
    to critique and how his Muslim faith
    influences his art.

Indeed, artists in this genre persistently
eschew safety in favor of honesty.
Consider Sufjan Stevens, who emerged in
Danielson Famile’s wake as a reluctant
poster boy for the new sub-genre of quirky
Christian indie rock. A close listener
will hear Stevens identify himself with
John Wayne Gacy, Jr., one of the most
notorious serial killers of the twentieth
century, on the grounds that they both
are corrupted by evil, hiding their secret
sins “beneath the floorboards.” Another
song, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” confesses
the halting intimacies of young romance
budding in the shadow of death and the
failure of prayer to change the course of
cancer for a young girl:

Tuesday night at the Bible study


We lift our hands and pray over your body


But nothing ever happens


I remember at Michael’s house


In the living room when you kissed my neck


And I almost touched your blouse

Christian artists like Smith and Stevens
who are not dependent on the Christian
music industry to sell their art are certainly
worth listening to. They wrestle
poetically and artfully with big questions,
laying bare their deepest hopes
and fears. But exclusively supporting
a new faith-friendly sub-genre isn’t the
ultimate answer to how Christians can
winsomely approach popular music either.
We need to equip ourselves to approach
all kinds of music, not just music
that explicitly wrestles with Christian
faith. And we need to address a
much larger issue than lyrical content
or artists’ faith convictions.

 

Though many parents of teenagers
may beg to differ, the most insidious
danger related to popular music today is
not obscene lyrics or orgiastic rhythms
but the habit of listening to music in
solitude. Driven by an idolatry of self
that is crafted and perpetuated by consumerism,
some members of Generation
Y are permanently wired to their
own personal soundtracks. More and
more, listeners download individual
songs rather than whole albums, and
so the personal music collection takes
on a carnival quality. This habit is akin
to plastering the dorm walls with Van
Gogh’s Starry Night, Monet’s Water Lilies,
and Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic image
of Che Guevara without knowing anything
about these artists’ biographies,
their views of the world, or their other
work.

The problem of inconsistent, selffocused
consumption extends far beyond
college campuses and far beyond
music. Many of us experience a frustrating
fragmentation of purpose in
our workplaces, our churches, and our
homes. This state of being is due in
no small part to being broken people,
but it is also reinforced within our particular
cultural context. Inconsistency
guided by personal impulse and the cult
of cool is a virtue in the powerful religion
of consumerism. In Colossians Remixed
(InterVarsity 2004), their exploration of global consumerism as the current imperial
context in which Christians live,
Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat quote
Nicholas Boyle:

The market does not concern itself
with whether my choice is
rational, whether it is identical
or consistent with choices I made
yesterday or may make tomorrow,
nor does it concern itself
with any purposes I may have in
making my choice or any consequences
of my choice insofar as
these do not themselves involve
market decisions. Indeed, as far
as the market is concerned, I exist
only in the moment of making
a single commercial choice.

The vision of what consumerism demands
(or doesn’t demand) of music listeners
is bleak and contrasts starkly
with the Christian vision of artists and
interpreters of art living in right relationship
with one another, understanding
and evaluating one another’s stories.
A consumerist approach encourages taking
in something on the basis of an unreflective
reaction successfully captured
in a single moment when impulse and resources
meet an object up for sale. When
this approach dominates a population’s
experience of a particular art form, that
population misses out on the form’s power
to move us, to arouse collective joy or
lament, and to inspire loving relationships
in which ideas live and are proven
true or false apart from any financial or
status incentive.

Still, the problem of personalized
listening is not without a bright side. As a result of the technology that drives
personalization, more music is being
heard beyond what’s sold by a few large
corporations. Even though the musical
preferences of Clear Channel Communications
continue to dominate the
radio stations across the country, the
advent of new technology has curbed
radio’s power to dictate popular music
taste. Gone are the days of teen hysteria
over two or three nationally recognized
artists whose name ever yone
knew, regardless of whether they were
even paying attention (think Beatlemania).
Internet-based ser vices like Pandora
Radio and Last.fm exist specifically
to expand listeners’ tastes from
what they already know and like to what
they might soon know and like, while
Amie Street and CD Baby provide worldwide
retail outlets for everything from
major studio releases to bedroom
recording experiments.
Social networking tools like
MySpace and Facebook have
also become useful in the
effort to overcome industry
noise and utilize grassroots
music promotion. Not every
singer-songwriter is suddenly
able to make a living from
coffee shop gigs, but such diversification
of musical experience
does provide rich soil
for more artists and more creativity.

“More” is not a virtue in and of itself,
however. When no one is gathering
around the family radio or blasting the
latest record from an oversized boom
box on the street, opportunities for engaging
music with others are fewer and
farther between. In fact, live concerts
are one of the last cultural rituals for
communal listening to popular music,
and even those events are endangered
as it becomes more difficult for venues
to book artists who will attract a critical
mass of concertgoers.

If most music listeners, then, are engaging
music in isolation, there is less
opportunity for the stories being told in
popular music to be called out as true
or false, except by the inclination and
abilities of the individual. On the other
hand, if we’re listening together, we can communally validate our sense that the
Spirit was in the room during that particular
Nick Cave song, even though the
song was highly critical of the church.
If we’re listening together, we can talk
about how it’s possible to enjoy Hannah
Montana’s bubble gum pop without developing
a disrespectful attitude toward
teachers and parents. If we’re listening
together, there’s less to fear from the
standard bogeymen of “that loud music”
because the music becomes a part
of our community life, where contradictions
in values can be considered from
multiple angles in a spirit of openness,
love, and truth.

Unlike most other eras since the
advent of rock ‘n’ roll, today the popular
music industry at large has become
more sympathetic toward confessional
Christian artists–musicians like Daniel
Smith and Sufjan Stevens and rock
bands of Christians like Anberlin and
Switchfoot. Of course, this will only be
the case within the industry as long as
faith sells in the marketplace. We do
well to recognize and support artists
who are Christian and doing good art
work in the public square. But if we
are to be equipped to seek out and listen
well to good music regardless of which
way the market swings in the future, we
also need to equip ourselves with more
lasting skills that we can take to the club
or to the record store, whatever happens
to the trends.

Like sock hops and big hair, specific
trends in popular music will come and
go, but popular music–music loved by
the people–will always endure in one
form or another. I would not go so far
as to declare that every member of the
Christian body needs to know the latest
Beyoncé single by heart, but we should
not be ignorant of our connections with
popular music, whether we raise teenagers,
listen to the radio, teach students,
or watch prime time television (which is
increasingly becoming a vehicle for new
music). Will we be complicit in consumerism’s
hold over popular art or will we
be pop culture prophets, calling out the
difference between light and dark in
our homes, in our concert venues, and
on our stereos and iPods?

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is co-coordinator
of research and program
in the Student Activities
Office at Calvin College in
Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She edits the online,
bi-weekly magazine catapult
magazine (www.catapultmagazine.com).