A piece for The Word magazine in June 2009.
Why do we only let musicians find God if it’s a god we consider fashionable?
A few weeks ago the Elvis Presley industry put out yet another reissue, a CD set called I Believe: The Gospel Masters. Though his sacred songs weren’t always great there are times when it’s spine-chilling to eavesdrop on the King in conversation with God. What’s more peculiar, though, is the record’s evidence of how far we have travelled in the decades since this music was recorded. Up until, say, the mid-1960s, nobody was surprised that rock’n’roll’s biggest star should employ his studio down-time in a parallel career as Christian troubadour.
I don’t know how many well-known rock musicians are Christians nowadays. Moby and some members of U2 have confessed an interest. Nick Cave keeps an eye on the general area; he once wrote a powerful introduction to an edition of The Gospel According To Mark. Are there any others? If so, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it.
Given the central place that mainstream Christianity once held in British life, its total disappearance from music is striking. Of course America is different, and when Russell Brand was recently in the news for mocking the chaste young Jonas Brothers (a God-fearing boy-band from New Jersey) he was pointing up the cultural gulf. There is no UK equivalent to the Jonas Brothers. But the retreat of Christianity is true of white rock everywhere. If you want to hear a kind word for the Lord, you must look to soul and R&B. The enduring paradox of African-American music is the way that faith and sensuality co-exist in ways that Cliff Richard never quite managed.
In fact, if an act feels any religious inclinations then it really helps to be black. Just as Al Green and Aretha Franklin could “do God” with impunity, so could Bob Marley and reggae singers preach the Rastafarian creed with almost no dissent. In hip hop you can take this even further. Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg are among the rappers with an interest in the highly controversial Nation of Islam. Its offshoot group, The Five Percent (meaning an élite minority of “poor, righteous teachers” or enlightened ones) is widely admired by many, including Rakim, Gang Starr and the Wu-Tang Clan. Weird theories of racial destiny would spell career suicide if adopted by any white act outside the loonier fringes of death metal.
So what are the options if you’re white? It’s always best to step away from dull Western tradition. The Beatles took up transcendental meditation and George Harrison practised some variety of Hinduism for the rest of his life. Anything Eastern looks attractively deep. Pop stars like Courtney Love and Boy George have found Buddhism to be a good look for years – few Westerners really understand it, but the image is vaguely benign. Even Kabbalah, the mystic-Jewish tipple of Madonna and Britney, is at worst regarded as a harmless eccentricity. Becoming a Muslim would be admittedly be pretty radical; when Richard Thompson and Cat Stevens converted, a long time ago, Islam wasn’t so high on the public agenda. But I doubt you would draw the sort of guffaws you would get for turning to Jesus. Who would dare?
The trouble with Islam, and Judaism and Christianity, is that they’re rather hard work. To understand them properly you need to study, and that’s not what pop stars really do. Pop stars strike poses, they throw shapes. The most convenient stance, I would suggest, is now agnosticism. Even atheism takes too much explaining. Personally, I am a lapsed atheist who used to consider it a tolerant, coolly sceptical voice outside the religious squabble-fest. But now it’s only another red-faced shouter in the market-place of faiths, third stall on the right, just past the New Age dolphin-snoggers and the Techno-pagan Nietzscheans. It all bears out the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton’s prediction: when people stop believing in God, they start believing in everything.
Christianity has had big PR problems in recent years, largely thanks to the global unpopularity of US fundamentalists. In reality, they are not representative – but the sheer boring niceness of the Church of England, with its anguished doubts and Fair Trade coffee mornings, is not an inspiring alternative. I miss the wild religious primitivism that once brought rock’n’roll to life, through the Deep South psycho-dramas of Hank Williams, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, men for whom the Devil was real and had the best whiskey. Theirs was music with a whiff of brimstone and the sharp jab of a pitchfork. The gospel homilies of Elvis, I’m afraid, began the dampening process that has put out that hellfire. For music of a searingly religious charge I would not look to white rock any more.
But then again, who knows? There may be an unknown revolutionary now preparing in the wilderness. Orthodoxy is the last transgression left. When every ritual of rock rebellion has finally played out, a sudden glimpse of the old rugged cross would be the most shocking sight of all.