Saturday, April 08, 2006

Religious Music and the Real World, Part I: The Hold Steady

I subscribe to Duke Ellington's theory of musical catagorization: "There are two kinds of music, good music and bad music." Because of this, I'm pretty open to all "types" of music. Country usually gets a bad rap from the musical elite, but old-style Wilco and Lucinda Williams are as good as they come. One category I've usually kept far from my radar, however, is any pop-music that eminates religious devotion. This is not because I'm not a religious guy, I am. Rather, I think it's because most non-classical religious music (a la Amy Grant or EFY) is corny, false and ridiculous.

Recently I've found that I'm totally wrong in my categorical exclusion of "religious" pop music.

There are some GREAT bands out there that treat religious belief realistically and seriously. "The Hold Steady" is one of them. Their most recent album's sound isn't much different from your average guitar-riff driven rock band. Nothing special there. But the lyrics are amazing!!!

"Separation Sunday" is a concept album about a teenage girl in Minnesota named "Halleluiah" who is stuck somewhere between the allure of drugs and sex and her Catholic upbringing. Pitchfork describes the album like this: "with its greater emphasis on religious wonder and dread, everything is sacred, and we realize that the booze and drugs and shady deals were always just a wrongheaded quest for divinity. As the characters flit from town to town searching for something ineffable, there's a sense, beneath the mounting urgency and desperation, that redemption might always be just around the corner."

The story is good, but the best part is that it's real. The religious life isn't flowers and puppy dogs, despite what the EFY soundtracks would have us believe. It's a struggle and I'm glad someone out there recognizes it. At the risk of giving away the end of the story, here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Halleluiah came to in a confession booth.
Infested with infections.
Smiling on an abcessed tooth.
Running hard on residue.
Crashing thru the vestibule.
The crucifixion cruise.
She climbed the cross and found she liked the view.
Sat reflecting on the resurrection.
Talking loud over lousy connections.
She put her mouth around a difficult question.

She said lord what do you recommend?
To a real sweet girl who's made some not sweet friends.
Lord what would you prescribe?
To a real soft girl who's having real hard times.


At 4/08/2006 12:14:00 PM,

Chris turned me on to the Hold Steady and I love Seperation Sunday. I agree with everything he said about the album, the lyrics are great. It is hard to do a good concept album because sometimes the music suffers for the sake of the "story". For exmple, I think that the story of Tommy by the Who is clever, but the music is very sub par compared to their other work. This album has both so check it out.

At 4/09/2006 06:32:00 PM,

Is there any way to make this post without specifically dragging EFY into it? Granted, I'm not a fan of the old style wanna-be pop CD's (ala Jericho Road, etc.) - but it disrespects the current trend towards spiritually-uplifting music that should be given due credit (ex. - next summer's Greatest Gift theme).

At 4/09/2006 07:33:00 PM,

Dan, maybe the problem is that we are not familiar with the "current trend" of EFY music. I think I got kind of turned off to it by the PEter Breinholt stuff, and havent tuned in in quite some time.

At 4/09/2006 08:34:00 PM,

I gotta stick by the EFY music bashing. It was okay on the mission when it was the closest thing to real music allowed, but it really is pretty bad. I have nothing against the spiritually uplifting messages, I just don't like the music. Plus I kind of feel like some people take unfair advantage of the LDS market in music and movies, make it remotely about the church and expect 11 million sales no matter how good/bad it is (singles ward, the RM, Jericho road, etc.) I will admit though that I don't know anything about this new greatest gift thing.

At 4/09/2006 09:13:00 PM,


Sheldon's right, I admittedly haven't listened to the EFY soundtrack for years, hence, I just used it as a catch-all.

Again I refer you to my theory: there's only good music and bad music, if the EFY soundtrack is good music then I have no objections.

At 4/09/2006 09:16:00 PM,

But more important than anything we discuss here....

Check out this rabbit 

I didn't want to take up a whole post to point you to this, but WOW!! 

Posted by Chris

At 4/10/2006 07:40:00 AM,

the Giant Rabbit picture should go next to the Giant Boxer picture you posted.

At 4/10/2006 10:36:00 AM,

I'm certainly in favor of the trend toward spiritually-uplifting music. The problem, however, is that most current LDS music (and LDS literature and film) falls short of being good in its own right (and by that I mean, without the "spiritually uplifting" aspect of it, it wouldn't have legs to stand on). I'm sure much of that has to do with it being a very young genre. Hopefully LDS artists of all kinds will find their groove eventually--but my guess is that it's going to take a couple of generations.

At 4/11/2006 12:10:00 PM,

Regardless of the flaws/benefits of the EFY program (and its music in general), I think a blanket statement good/bad description of any music is too dependant on subjective views.

And the "only good music, bad music" theory? Come on Chris... there's really only Good movies/Bad movies; Good People/Bad People... etc. Good descriptive theories/Bad descriptive theories... and this would be of the latter type.

(P.S. I felt that I had a fiduciary obligation to defend EFY. Although between you and me -- and the rest of the blogging world -- I can't listen to most of the music mentioned in these posts either)

At 4/11/2006 12:32:00 PM,


Dichotomies are not inherently flawed.

God uses good/bad descriptive categories, as well. "Only the pure in heart" will inherit Zion. Only those spotless can remain in God's presence, etc. etc.

At 4/11/2006 01:02:00 PM,

the reason why the good/bad distinction is "good" (as opposed to "bad") is because it is so subjective. Objectivity is overrated.

As Herr Nietzsche (patron saint of LYMA...for me at least) once said: "there is only subjective living."

Sorry, I realize my continental roots are peeking through here.  

Posted by Chris P.

At 4/13/2006 08:36:00 PM,

I wasn't claiming that they were "inherently flawed" (although I think I could make that argument as well). I was just pointing out that in the specific case of music, the Good/Bad statement really doesn't say anything.

Additionally, your examples of "pure in heart" and "spotless in God's presence" don't actually represent the same type of subjective "dichotomies." Rather, I would argue that each (particularly from GOD'S perspective) is an objective determination. You're either spotless or not. It's not a sliding (and certainly individualistic) scale, such as "Good."

Props on the continental roots - though you already know which school (wow, literally too) I come from.

Perhaps a weak reply, but wouldn't "the Herr's" statement itself necessarily incorporate some level of objectivity? (Hmm.. how would Nietzsche view "S"'s arguments above?)




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