There's nothing worse that an old codger trying to convince you that the pop music he liked in his day was genuinely good music unlike ‘all this modern stuff’. Nothing worse, that is, apart from two of them.
When I talked to Christopher West recently in the Way of Beauty podcast that’s what we were!
But read on! We had something important to say too, I think. We discussed how pious Christians (meant in a positive sense here) do often tend to disregard popular culture and feel that it necessarily conveys neo-pagan value. Christopher and I, on the other hand, both felt that while much of it is bad, much of it is good. Furthermore, we thought, Christians have an obligation to engage with and transform mass contemporary culture for the good of all.
Why, we wondered, are Christian attempts to do so, such as Christian rock, so appallingly sentimental and embarrassing?
In the course of our discussion we both reminisced about our experiences of being inspired by the popular culture of our youth into seeking something good and beautiful. This happened, despite of, not because of the intentions of the artists, who in neither case were Christian. In his case, it was Bruce Springsteen and in mine it was 1970s era Genesis (the rock band, not book in the bible). You can listen to the whole podcast here.
If you are of a different generation, then please, before you roll your eyes to the ceiling and tune out, bear with me - we had reasonable points to make that will be of importance to people of all ages! I know that the most popular artist from last year was someone called Drake. So if you’re bothered by references to these 1970s dinosaurs, I suggest that you insert his name and picture in there instead. (I have no idea who he is or what his music is like incidentally!)
In our podcast, Christopher spoke of how the themes of the song Born to Run, for all the fact that no one would call it Christian rock, nevertheless evoked themes in its narrative that stimulated a desire in him for meaning that would only be satisfied years later by the Faith. I spoke of how the musical form of the songs of Genesis, created in me a desire for beauty which would only be satiated, again years later, when I heard Palestrina being sung in the Brompton Oratory.
This is the point: contemporary culture can direct people to God without arousing prejudice if it participates in the themes and the forms of the narrative of faith and of liturgical art, music and architecture.
When I was sixteen, I had no interest in music and if you'd asked me I would have said that I just wasn't musical. Then I heard the album (do we still use that word nowadays?) by the English rock band Genesis called Selling England by the Pound. This was my first experience of hearing a piece of music that just transported me through its beauty (the instrumental section in the last half of the track called Cinema Show and then instrumental sections, again, on the track, the Firth of Fifth ). What would happen to me later with Schubert, Brahms, Mozart and Palestrina happened to me first as a result of hearing Genesis.
As a result of my experience in listening to this album, I became very interested in music and energetically started to listen to all I could and search for other groups that seemed to be similar. I listened to groups Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Rush if these mean anything to anyone any more.? I didn't experience such a strong reaction to a piece of music again until I heard Schubert's Impromptus five years later. (You can read about that occasion in an earlier article Schubert Soothes Savage Beasts and Subdues Students Throwing Brussel Sprouts.)
Many years later I heard an interview with members of the band and they talked about how they composed the music. Unlike every rock band they knew about, they refused to use the blues scale and used conventional classical scales and musical forms in what they did. They used rock instruments, and had complex rhythms in it, with Phil Collins a virtuoso drummer interpreting their music. I didn't know it at the time, but this is what I was picking up in their music and responding to. This is why it sounded different.
I always think that music connects with the soul and then gives it motion. That motion can be towards something higher, or something lower. If it is sending me towards something higher, then it is stimulating in me, at some level, a desire for the ultimate beauty, God. This music connected with me as sixteen year old and created a desire for more, Beauty itself.
What Genesis had done was create a style of popular culture that participated in the traditional forms of beauty. They were good composers and musicians but (and time may judge otherwise) probably not at the level of those other figures. They were not, to my knowledge Christian, but they were doing what Christians who wished to engage with modern culture ought to have been doing. That is, create forms that participate in the timeless values that unite all that is good, and then present in such as way that connect with the people of the day and open their hearts, subtly, to God. Popular culture changes so much and so quickly that I wouldn't expect Genesis to connect with people today in the same way.
We need more composers who can do the same thing today - create a Christian popular culture that hooks people subtly through form. It would not sound like Genesis now I don't think. It almost certainly just sounds dated to most people who listen to today's pop music, but the same principle could apply if someone knew how to do it.
The other point is that Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins were a success in their field by any measure. I would maintain that harnessing beauty in the arts offers those artists who do it well a greater chance of popular success than if they just go along with the herd.
The stories told in Genesis songs also captured my imagination, although the music was more important to me. For Christopher West, as he tells it in the podcast, it was the themes of Bruce Springsteen songs that captured his imagination.
Again, to the degree that any song participates in the narrative of salvation history it will resonate with people because it will speak to what they most deeply desire.
A group that did this cleverly, again, back in my day, was the Canadian rock band, Rush. Here is one small example.
Compare the lyrics of this song, The Trees, with the conversation between the trees, the vine and the briar, vine in Judges 9 in the bible.
There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas
The trouble with the maples
And they're quite convinced they're right
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can't help their feelings
If they like the way they're made
And they wonder why the maples
Can't be happy in their shade?
There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream 'oppression!'
And the oaks, just shake their heads
So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
'The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light'
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
I don’t know if the writer, Neil Peart (and the band’s drummer) deliberately drew in this parallel imagery, but this imagery taps into the same sense of natural hierarchy of being that the bible writers use. That is why it is so effective.
Anyway, so back to being a grumpy old man...here's some more real music from Geneisis not like the stuff that the youth of today listen to....
This is a version of a song called The Firth of Fifth played by the current band of the guitarist, Steve Hackett, who is still touring. I saw him perform this in Berkeley last year…
Below Genesis circa 1972.....the singer in those days was Peter Gabriel.