Can the Angels Sing the Devil’s Music?

Perhaps There is More to Bawdy Rock ‘N’ Roll Than the Glorification of a Crazy Night. (Part 1 of 2)

Ian Olson / 6.25.21

Could a theology of rock music ever be anything more than an exercise in motivated reasoning, eager to justify the listener’s guilty conscience? Or could a sturdy theology of a creation-undergoing-redemption genuinely overcome the cognitive dissonance between Christian faith and the sweet vulgarity of rock ‘n’ roll? 

I want to think there’s a there there. After all, few things feel as exhilaratingly freeing and sin-shunning as a power chord being sounded during a guitarist’s lift-off from earth.

But by the same token I don’t want to settle for predetermined answers that simply affirm what I already want to be true. It isn’t enough to say that I am a Christian husband and I enjoy the Beastie Boys’ classic “Hey Ladies.” Why don’t I feel weirder about that than I do? Should I? Or am I doing something right without even realizing it?

Maybe that’s not your jam — fair enough. But you do have that one ditty (at least one!) you just can’t, on the formal level, reconcile with the values you profess. The kind your kids ask about with innocent confusion. Here’s another one of mine: How is it that I feel so riotously giddy every time I sing along to Van Halen’s “Beautiful Girls”? Is it the drunken affair David Lee Roth must be remembering in his lyrics that gets me so happy? If I’m not about that, then why do I respond so strongly to a song about that

How then do I account for my pleasure in this lecherous celebration of cherchez la femme? Am I just that depraved, that the song draws out my indwelling sin in a way nothing else can? Is there a glorification of taboo provoking the jouissance of fictive transgression? I suppose that’s a possibility to consider, but it seems egregiously reductionistic to claim that’s the only appeal. It also reeks of an obnoxious sanctimoniousness that overlooks the complexity of being human.

One answer that might be given is, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a song.” But art should never be treated lightly, even if we are conditioned to do so by the commodifying powers that be. The aesthetic always persuades by suggesting an ontology. This is part of the reason Plato could think he was doing the ideal city a favor in outlawing poets. Thinkers who understand the persuasiveness of art fear the power it wields over our affections and allegiances. 

The pendulum swing in aesthetics over the past century has tended to emphasize that art is its own justification, and there is a great degree of truth to this. We can rejoice that so many of the songs that have enriched our lives do not depend for their power upon their creators’ morality (or, more to the point, the lack thereof). This emphasis upon a songwriter’s autonomy finds long-standing support in the Christian tradition[1]; Jacques Maritain, for instance, states that art’s good is defined by the works it produces rather than the end of humanity. On this basis a bad person can create good music because the rules and ends governing each are separate from one another.[2] But if we leave it at that, are we inadvertently unlatching a chest and allowing the demon inside it a way out? This much latitude may leave us with no way to identify the abuses of artistic propaganda.  

We have to ask what the purpose of artistic endeavors might be. The popular answer — that art exists to express feelings — doesn’t cut it.[3] Music inspires something to which others can emotionally cling, something that does not depend upon a parallel, direct-from-life experience. However autobiographical a song may be, the story is still put to music, recorded, and performed in order to create an effect upon the listener.

Does art reflect our ideals and aspirations then? It certainly can do that, but when the song feels detached from reality or seems to deny how the present falls short, it slides into propaganda. One mistake is to exaggerate the darkness pervading our world, but another is to glorify it by inadequately portraying it as darkness. It’s the difference between feeling exultant as I turn up “Dynamite” in my car and being forced to listen to Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” Sure, I don’t directly identify with Taio Cruz asserting he’s going to wear his favorite brands to the club, but I do feel gross when Ms. Thank U, Next shows no ironic detachment from her boasting about being able to buy precisely whatever she wants.

This leads many to feel like there is some sort of wedge between realistic representation and our ideals. That is, why represent what is real if it falls egregiously short of what is right? If we don’t want to just fool ourselves, doesn’t it need to aim at both? 

Maritain would opine at this point that “[t]he imitative arts aim neither at copying the appearance of nature nor at depicting ‘the ideal,’ but at making something beautiful by the display of a form with the help of visible symbols.”[4] Depiction is thus always an interpretation: nothing is ever represented simply to say, “Here is a beautiful woman,” or, “This is what took place at the party last night.”  The musician does not put material to use simply to replicate what already is. Woven within the depiction is a judgment of what is, a judgment that at least tacitly assumes another frame of reference beyond what is recognizable behind the tools and matter of representation. Depiction gives form to hope in this double register.

By way of analogy, consider the renowned Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grunewald, a terrifyingly poignant representation of the crucifixion, depicting not only the agonies of the cross but the identification of Christ with the plague-sufferers for whom the monks of St. Anthony’s cared. There is a degree of realism that makes the subjects recognizable as human beings — like Christ crucified, like Mary swooning, like John consoling her.

And yet we cannot call it “realism” and leave it at that, as Grunewald is not above depicting what could not possibly be seen at the same time as Christ’s agony. For instance, John the Baptist stands to the left of Jesus, pointing the viewer towards the tortured, forsaken Son of God, just as he was sent to do. Of course, if you’re familiar with the chronology of events, John is not only absent from the scene of Jesus’s death: he himself is already dead, having been executed by Herod years before. And yet there he is, performing his heralding mission as he did before anyone ever imagined the Christ would be crucified.

And look at the sores peppering Jesus’s body and the painful contortions of his limbs. These evoke the skin diseases afflicting the poor souls who would behold this altarpiece and in it behold Christ sharing in their affliction. This isn’t something an eyewitness to the crucifixion would have seen, but it is not false for being present here as it makes visible his solidarity with the suffering and outcast.

Like all art, then, Grunewald’s Crucifixion doesn’t simply present what is or was — for all the painting’s gore, it’s not “telling it like it was.” Grunewald frames a representation of reality in such a way as to make visible the surplus of meaning overflowing from it. It presents the real to us in this way so as to show the truth which eludes sense perception. Depiction is always interpretation.

Grunewald doesn’t paint this scene to straightforwardly testify, “This, as you all know, is what beauty is.” It requires a certain way of seeing in order to apprehend what is depicted here as beautiful. But neither is he portraying the horrors of the cross simply to show us abjection in and of itself. Both of these things are present in the altarpiece and, in fact, mutually interpret one another to depict something too profound to be apprehended in a single word. Above and utterly beyond the intentions of the authorities who put Jesus to death, above and beyond what “darkness” and “suffering” and even “beauty” routinely mean, there is something more, something true.

There is likewise a tension electrostatically crackling in the distance between what a musician might intend by a song and what the song itself communicates. The use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at political rallies is a famous example of this. There is a boundedness: a novel or a song cannot mean just whatever we want it to mean, and yet it always means more than what the author meant it to. How else can Beck’s “Wow” be about nothing in particular, and yet simultaneously remind me of an excruciatingly painful time and make me feel so elated?

Might there be more to bawdy rock ‘n’ roll than the glorification of a crazy night? On account of the (im)morality expressed therein, should it be justifiably black-listed by the chaste? Can the angels sing the devil’s music?

The best of interpreters — those guided by charity rather than judgment — see things the way they are and yet do not pretend that what is visible at the surface amounts to the totality of meaning. We hold onto the hope that there is a surplus that says more than what is explicitly said. And if this is so, is there not a chance that some things, shrouded in the trappings of this age, can speak to us in such a way that harmonic overtones of the age to come ripple into our present?

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *