When Critics Forget Music's God Thing
There's an old joke about a specialist: someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.
That witticism might now be applied to pop music critics. They know everything about popular music except for what makes it great: God.
Pop music, which in my view is the last dynamic form of artistic modernism, is a God-suffused art form. It focuses on love as a transcendent and holy power (Taylor Swift, Future Islands, Maroon 5) but also on the holiness of everyday life (U2, Bruce Springsteen, and even Justin Bieber). At it's best, it reflects both holy sorrow and the redemptive power of beauty. U2's song "One" is a wrenching wail about the broken relationship between a father and son. But in the song's structure, in the beauty in which it is performed and sung, there is evidence of God drawing grace out of the very sorrow that animate the lyrics.
Pop music is a spiritual art form. Ask anyone about their favorite pop songs and you will hear a kind of prayer to beautiful and holy things that have happened to them in life: falling in love (most of the Top 40), recovering from a depression ("Don't Worry Baby"), a particularly joyful occasion (Taylor Swift's "Style"), a time when they took a stance against an evil (rap, "What's Going On?"). Pop music is the soundtrack to the most metaphysically charged moments in our lives. To not write about God when writing about popular music is like writing about the New England Patriots without mentioning Tom Brady. The writer doesn't have to be particularly religious, but should understand spiritual concepts the way a war correspondent has a grasp on weaponry.
The disconnect between pop music critics and the nature of the thing they are covering has caused some consternation in the rock press. They scramble to bring more detail and color to their prose, they courageously pan popular artists -- and by missing the crucial ingredient it all falls flat. Chris Richards, a music critic for the Washington Post, recently published a manifesto called "Do You Want Poptimism? Or Do You Want the Truth?"
Richards is upset with "poptimism," the new movement among some music critics where pop music is just as valid as socially important rock and roll. Thus Taylor Swift is just as relevant as Grizzly Bear -- or even the Rolling Stones. Poptimism was a corrective to decades of rock critics who ignored disco, pop and soul music simply because it was hugely popular (and, I would argue, too religious).
Richards appreciates poptimism but argues that it has gone to far. The critics, he writes, are overpraising super-popular artists: "[Poptimism] rightfully recognizes the complexity of pop music, but it too often fails to generate a justly complex conversation. And when everyone agrees that a shiny new piece of art is unimpeachable, how can we feel as though we're not missing out on the truth?"
But complexity is not truth, and one of the great things about rock and roll is that at its best it strives for truth. One of the most famous pieces of rock writing, indeed a work that has been called the greatest rock review of all time, is Lester Bangs's review of Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. Bangs wrote about Astral Weeks in 1978, ten years after the album was released. Here is an excerpt:
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece -- i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far - no matter how I'd been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what's more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison's previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.
Bangs's decades-old evaluation of Astral Weeks seems more relevant than all the reviews that have run this year by Chris Richards and any other rock critic. Bangs's piece resembles a papal encyclical more than anything you'd see today in Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, and as such violates the orthodoxy of the rock press. Years ago I wrote a piece comparing the Beatles to Christianity, and afterwards I was lectured for a week about what a snake-handling crazy Christian I am. Rock and roll, the secular rock and roll mob shouted at me, is about sex and drugs and violence! Better yet, it means absolutely anything we want it to! Anything! That stuff in U2 about "carrying the cross of my shame" is just Bono being Bono.
For the past several years my favorite band has been The Twilight Sad, a group from a small town in Scotland. The Twilight Sad mixes Scottish folk melodies with driving rock rhythms and swirling noise. The effect is both hypnotic and exhilarating; the songs delve into tragic themes: love lost, grief, death, betrayal and lies. This has earned the band's style the nickname "Scottish miserablism" in the press. This is a cheap term that reveals secular bias of the entertainment press. Rock critics love anger, aggression, and rage; what they can't tolerate or understand is the "swath of pure beauty and mystical awe" that Lester Bangs identified.
It is that holy swath that informs the best pop music, from the Beatles to ballads of Sam Smith, from the Catholic-saturated imagery of Bruce Springsteen's songs to the dream world of Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams." It's the God thing.
In his piece on poptimism, Chris Richards writes: "For a good critic, listening to a recording should be like a skeptical stroll around the new-car lot, not an unwrapping frenzy on Christmas morning." He has it exactly backwards. Listening to a new pop music record should have exactly the anticipation of Christmas morning. Although if it turns out to be a truly great work, I would use a different example from the liturgical calendar to describe the experience: Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday.