The old feud between rock music and organized religion has given way to a more open embrace of spirituality. But mixing the two is still as dangerous as ever – these days, appearing too religious can jeopardize an artist’s credibility and commercial appeal.
“VH1 All Access: Rock & Religion” takes an in-depth look at the influence of religion on pop music – from imagery in music videos, to artists’ spiritual journeys, to the internal struggles faced by Christian roots rockers in the 1950s – when the latest edition of the hit weekly one-hour series premieres Thursday, June 21 at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT).
“VH1 All Access: Rock & Religion” examines this evolving relationship between pop music and spirituality, presenting rare film and video footage, news clips, and interview footage featuring Creed’s Scott Stapp, Madonna, Ricky Martin, Joan Osborne, Carlos Santana, Lauryn Hill, Moby, Sting, Prince, Sam Phillips, Cat Stevens, Mary J. Blige, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson, Michael Stipe, Bono, Pete Townshend and many other artists, plus record exec Lindsey Fellows, Journalists Ann Powers of The New York Times, Alan Light of Spin and Christopher Farley of Time, video director Tarsem, and theologians like Rabbi Marc Gellman, Father Tom Hartman, and Dr. Tom Beaudoin.
Ever since Elvis first swiveled his hips and rock ‘n’ roll became known as “the Devil’s music,” rock has invariably tangled with the forces of organized religion. In this battle, the anti-religion anthems of the shock rockers and Madonna evolved into the alienated, searching expressions of the ’90s. Now in the new millennium, not only has a new synthesis of optimistic Christian and mystic spirituality taken hold, but organized religion has also embraced rock and pop music as a way of attracting young worshipers. Despite this seeming detente, some rock musicians still taunt organized religion with their Satanic-inspired performances, and the tension between true artistic expression and commercial exploitation still exists.
“VH1 All Access: Rock & Religion” Explores:
The Current State of Rock and Religion – From Christian grunge to hip- hop prophecies to art-pop dharma, spiritual vibrations are bombarding the musical universe. At the 8 – Video Music Awards, everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Puffy Combs was thanking God, while Madonna warbled a Sanskrit-derived tune. But how do artists find the delicate balance between true expression and creating a commercial hit? Despite their Christian origins and religious imagery, Creed lead singer Scott Stapp insists his band does not play “Christian rock” – “I think the media, it was easy for them initially to kind of try to discredit us, and say ‘Oh, they’re just a Christian band,’ because they didn’t want to take the time to understand what we were.” Likewise, Sixpence None the Richer’s Tess Wiley explains why the group musically downplays their Christianity.
Imagery – Religious imagery has been used in music videos in a variety of ways – Some artists use crucifixes and Christ-like figures to send a message, others to provoke a response. Some of the most elaborate visual statements have been made by Nirvana in “Heart Shaped Box,” Sting’s “Brand New Day” – in which he walks on water, and Marilyn Manson’s provocative “Anti- Christ Superstar.”
The Internal Struggle – The rock and religion argument has been less external than in the hearts and souls of the rockers. Virtually all of the early rockers were serious southern Protestants, usually Baptists, raised to believe music was a gift to be used in the service of the Lord. Rock music used to get girls and buy flashy cars became the Devil’s music. Little Richard epitomizes the same struggle in the Gospel tradition Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Prince also demonstrate the conflict between religion and sexual expression. And in the Catholic tradition, there’s no better example of internal struggle than Madonna – she spent her whole career kicking at her Catholicism, but now she’s done an about-face, baptizing both of her children and announcing a very public obsession with yoga, cabala and other divine forces.
The Seekers – Some of rock’s greatest legends have made very public religious pursuits and conversions, from the Beatles’ 8 – trip to India to follow the teachings of Maharishi Yogi, to Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian experience, Cat Stevens’ conversion to Islam, U2’s Christian roots, and Pete Townshend’s embrace of Meher Baba.