Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Has music become more real than religion for the young?

The young man got more excited when I observed that “music seems to have become the real religion of a great many young people.” What I had heard him saying was that his journey into self-knowledge, soul-knowledge, was happening via music.

I was all the more interested because this seventeen year old has served as an acolyte, sung in the choir, participated in youth activities, and says he likes church. But his journey into the soul is marked chiefly by a succession of musical periods, all of it from secular sources.

It wasn’t that way when I was his age. As a teen-ager (we were “young people” in my Detroit neighborhood in the 50s), music was entertainment, not meaning—a pleasant diversion. I ask you, how much meaning-juice can you get out of “How much is that doggie in the window/ the one with the waggly tale?” or even the early Elvis: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog...”? The path to adult identify was well laid out for us within a fairly clear, if superficial, moral and religious framework.

But things changed in the culture, and music along with, though it’s hard to tell which comes first as there arose a deep, searching synergy between them. First there was the folk music explosion, with its ballads and yearnings. Then came the early civil rights music like Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition of “If I had a hammer/ I’d hammer out justice”) Culture changing forces were on the move, and the old path to adulthood became less formally outlined, less clear.

I remember vividly the first time, in my post-college seminary days, that I heard Bob Dylan’s “A hard rain’s gonna fall.” Being a meaning-junkie, my soul perked up its ears, and I was led into the revolutionary, self-transformative spirit of the 60s and 70s. So I haven’t been altogether surprised to hear from more than one younger person, recently, how formative music is for them as they seek a sense of identity in a largely post-Christian popular culture. I get it because for us, in our early 20s, a lot in the world suddenly went “up for grabs” and plunged us into questioning and re-defining ourselves and our world. I, at least, was a somewhat late bloomer in this search.

Still, it was different. My soul had already been significantly formed by a deep Christian rooting, a teen-age evangelical “decision for Christ,” a lot of Bible study, and a rich and meaningful experience as a growing kid in a vital Christian congregation with a thoughtful and progressive minister, for someone on the liberal edges of fundamentalism. The bards of the counter-culture period came as expansions of meanings already established, formative forces for a soul already set on a path.

The world is very different now for Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) kids growing up in America. The tameness of most of our congregational music, the sedateness of our liturgy, and the “nice” character of our teaching can’t hold a candle to the power of most of the music out there, where the vocals are saturated with angst of soul and frameworks of meaning. As long ago as the mid-1960s the Pied Pipers of the music industry and the alternative music scene captured the attention of a huge swath of kids. The transmission of the great cultural heritage of the West, including the sacred Story, was interrupted and dimmed by the new music-makers.

This is not in any way an “ain’t it awful” rant about kids, music or society. On the contrary, I’m intrigued about where the soul is being touched and where God may be hiding out. I’m offering an observation of what’s happening on the ground, and why so many young people, even those with a church, synagogue or mosque grounding, just don’t seem be receiving the transmission of the heritage. A rabbi I know, for example, who at the time presided over a growing and very successful synagogue, lamented to me in a surprising moment of irony, that his congregation provided a place where acculturated, suburban Jews could bring their children so that “they would have the memory of having been Jewish.”

So now I’m not only returning to the music of my youth, revisiting my late 20-something use of music as, at least, a commentary on themes established, but being taught by some contemporary youths—a high school junior and a graduating college senior in particular—something about the contemporary alternative music scene. What I’m finding people reading this blog may have known for years, but I’m finding a revelation about the state of soul of lots of younger people. A prime example for me has been discovering “Radiohead,” a British group which performs seductively beautiful music with lyrics that seem to express the confusion and despair of a culture dying and being reborn at the same time—but reborn to what? Take this for example:

We're rotten fruit/ We're damaged goods
What the hell, we've got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble/ We're backdrifters

Or this:

Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken
You can force it but it will stay stung/ You can crush it as dry as a bone
You can walk it home straight from school/ You can kiss it, you can break all the rules
But still...Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken

What I hear in what I’m being introduced to, and this is by no means the whole of contemporary music is the underbelly of much American youth culture. There are other voices, of course, pointing in a different direction—U2 for example, or this cut from Delta Spirit:

my heart it is thumping/ the veins they've been blue
the blood thats been pumping/ still hasn't met you
the beard that I'm growing/not fully grown
the years are not coming/the way I thought they would
hoping and waiting/for something to sing
like the angels in heaven/ the bones on the street
hoping for love/ to find a new voice
the song that's needs singing/has already been sung before

These kids are from “good” homes in affluent suburbs; they are well-educated, and headed onto the American career path of success, with high hopes of “making it.” And yet this music speaks of an underlying mood full of confusion, searching, with touches of despair and whiffs of nihilism. It is a disarming revelation of the underbelly of soul for millions, I suspect.

Part of this is surely the breakdown of the transmission of the sacred meanings that have sustained Western culture for centuries. As one young man told me recently, “I’ve been fed a lot of information, and filled with questions in college, but given no framework of value or meaning by which to understand the meaning of any of it for my life.” Nor had he really gotten such a framework from his church, though I know they tried.

As another young man, now in his 30s, who is an adult convert to the religion he wasn’t touched by in his youth describes the situation:

All is broken, at least for us urban cosmopolitan youth who were raised in the deracinating circumstances of "multiculturalism" and "self-expression." the two, of course, are related, because if there are no communal horizons, if it is all hybridity and fluidity, then it is up to the self to self-discover. Hence the individualization of everything, the growing despair and disenchantment of youth, and the thriving marketplace of quick-fixes, base sentiments, and little real guidance. In the pool of the marketplace, narcissus finds only his reflection. It compels nothing, asks
nothing, does nothing.

Well, perhaps it sings us some good songs. Perhaps it speaks to us in ways we actually feel. But unlike the church, or what the church might be, it doesn't take those feelings and guide them to a higher purpose. Transformation is not the business of the market. It's the business of communal traditions. And so we have a marketplace that knows how we feel but asks nothing. And a church that has no clue how to speak to us, but asks everything.

Such a statement of the reality of a post-Christian and now post-modern situation! And I don’t have a spiffy answer about to how to transmit the sacred meanings in this situation, though I plan to follow some clues about how to sing the “song that has been sung before.” But it’s a quest people concerned with this transmission need to take. Anybody reading this is quite free to make comments. I know others are further along than I am. As I said, I’m a late bloomer.

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