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Pop music needs to be taken more seriously

05 April 2013

It is vital for Christians to be in touch with people's listening habits: they reveal their values, argue Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts

IN THE first few months of this year, news headlines included the "collapse" of HMV; the first new album in ten years from David Bowie; and Adele's picking up a Brit award and an Oscar for her theme song for the latest Bond film, Sky-fall.

Popular music is in the cultural lifeblood of society in the UK, but is rarely talked about in pulpits, or among theologians. But there is more common ground than is popularly perceived between habits of faith and serious listening to popular music.

We have been researching listening habits in popular music in this country and the United States for some years. In surveys gathered online, through students, other groups, and one-to-one encounters, respondents have shared their patterns of listening and the emotions that music provokes.

We are not the only ones interested in this developing area of study. A growing body of theologians, such as David Brown, Tom Beaudoin, James K. A. Smith, Jeff Keuss, and Michael J. Gilmour, are exploring how Christianity and this type of music relate to each other.

Our research suggests that points of contact and exploration include: first, embodied practice - how music makes us aware of our bodies, gets us moving (through dance), and influences whom we spend time with; second, ritual - habitual and ritualised behaviour is characteristic in individual and communal listening practices; third, connectedness - popular music often involves fandom and friendship, and its links with social media extend these aspects; and, fourth, transcendence - many fans of popular music speak of its being "uplifting", or that it "takes you to another place". To put it in more attention-grabbing terms: popular music is often about sex, friends, and emotional highs.

These strands of popular-music practice each relate directly to Christian theological concepts. Embodied practice links with incarnation. Attention to the sacraments connects with forms of ritual practice.

Sacramentality invites us to look more broadly at how God communicates through everyday life. Transcendence brings together theological themes, such as divine revelation and salvation, encapsulating the sense of genuine encounter with an Other beyond oneself.

We are not saying that popular music is a religion, or that it replaces religion, or even that it functions in any way like a religion. Nor are we saying that all popular music is equally valuable, or functions always in similar ways. We are simply saying that what popular music does to and for people is important - often very important indeed.

As far as churches are concerned, this means: (a) preachers and worship leaders should take the listening habits of members of the congregation seriously; (b) actively creating spaces for listening to and reflecting on popular music and on people's listening; (c) resisting the abuse of music: that is, challenging the notion that we can use music simply to say what we want it to say, and being attentive to other forms of music - not just what we are used to, and not just what our "tribe" finds acceptable.

Searching for "Christian-type words" in pop songs is not enough. Instead, we need to attend to the sounds to which listeners respond, and to the emotions experienced.

Music creates an "affective space" for hearers, collectively and individually. "Affective space" is a type of zone that people inhabit as they listen to music, within which they enjoy an emotional encounter, and may also move on to make connections with their life narrative, and their value-system.

Conrad Ostwalt, the Professor of Religious Studies at Appalachian State University, speaks for many when he writes: "We find popular culture functioning in some of the same ways as institutionalised religious ritual; so that popular culture is the entity that provides the context for understanding values, belief systems, and myths" (Secular Steeples, TPI, 2003). Churches need to take this place of emotional engagement, the affective space, much more seriously.

AT the start of each episode of his BBC2 series Howard Goodall's Story of Music, the presenter states: "Whatever music you're into - Monteverdi or Mantovani, Mozart or Motown . . . music can make us weep or make us dance. It's reflected the times in which it was written. It has delighted, challenged, comforted, and excited us."

In his discussion of Wagner, Mr Goodall notes the "disastrous schism between high and low art". Our research into the ways in which people continue to engage with popular music affirms this judgement about the power and emotional range of music, and also reminds churches not to accede to that "disastrous schism" that limits the kinds of music that can prove profound for listeners, and narrows the affective spaces that music helps to create.

Taking people's listening habits seriously does not mean handing over these spheres to Simon Cowell and the other gods (or idols) of popular culture. It is always necessary to question what is happening within the affective spaces that popular music creates. It is far more than mere entertainment.

Yet it is also important to respect the functions and value of what such music and wider expressions of contemporary culture achieve, both for those who are religious, and those who are not. So-called secular songs have their place in worship. There are canons of popular music to be listened to, and the contents of an iPod might be a rich spiritual resource.

Dr Clive Marsh is Director of Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester, and the Revd Vaughan S. Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick. They are co-authors of Personal Jesus: How popular music shapes our souls (Baker Academic, 2012), and are running a course on the subject at Gladstone's Library, later this month (www.st-deiniols.com).

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