Introduction - The Hidden Heart of Song

"Music was born free; and to

 win freedom is its destiny"
         - Furrucio Busoni, 1866-1924.

    This site aims to get people to think more about words in songs, especially in relation to religion although other themes are joyfully included.  Why would anybody want to do this?  Well there are numerous reasons:

a. to help people think more about the artistry and imaginative power in songs;

b. to encourage song listeners to become more active song-listeners by paying as much attention to lyrics as they might to the rhythm or melody;

c. to enhance appreciation of song as a art form that speaks and conveys a deep message about life, meaning and relations in a way that can't be expressed through any other means - in brief, to make songs, and thus life, more interesting;

d. good art is always more interesting than the sum total of what we as individuals can think or say about it, which means there is always something we are unaware of.  This as natural as the fact that, from the perspective of the artist, the canvas or the piano always has more potential possibilities than the individual artist can ever succeed in exhausting;

e. to foster an appetite and curiosity for songs with depth that require a degree of imaginative work so that they can be decoded over those songs that require little work and possess very little depth and eventual reward and satisfaction;

f. to promote the strong relationship between skepticism and songs, in opposition to the belief that skepticism and non-belief  are bereft of imagination and only religion leads to art.  I would like to expand upon this further by showing how much art has been affected by skepticism, from literature to painting and in doing so show that skepticism and reality centredness are as powerful
sources of creative energy as belief is commonly taken to be.  In fact, when we look at animals, in particular birds, we have to admit that, in all probability, the advantage of song, in the bird kingdom, is that of procuring a mate.  Yes, sexuality better explains why Elvis decided to dream about gyrating his hips in public and why the Beatles began to dream of wooing fans from a stage than any appeal to their 'spiritual life' , and this libidinous call, originating from the swinging of hips, in the case of Elvis, has been an affront to conservative morality for decades and remains so in the fundamentalist heartlands of conservative psyches.

Popular Song and Religion

Popular song is contemptuously opposed to institutionalised religion in its aspiration and ethos.  Yet it is covertly so as to avoid the possibility of being impugned by zealots, conservative and over sensitive parents whose children are expected to buy the very music parents can potentially disapprove of although that they have tried to harass and target popular culture ever since its genesis as can be seen in the formation of the Parent Music Resource Monitor (PMRC founded in 1985 to promote parental control over youth consumption of music, particularly heavy metal).   The covert nature confronting many varied forms of taboo in popular song can also occur without the song writer intended such challenge to taboo, because any song has to be edited, tailored and guided by others in the industry - a little bit like Tony Blair, being ordered by advisors to tone down on religious language in speeches, despite being religious.  In fact, Blair couldn't even publicly admit to being Catholic until his removal from office for fear of political damage.  Cliff Richard's songs and hits are secular, his yuletide offerings have really just become eccentric novelties and even if one takes a look at season spin-offs, most of the annual yuletide songs in the past thirty years have made no mention of nativities and wise men at all.   Only a very few artists like George Harrison have managed to combine overt religion with pop, and even then only because his interests in Hinduism doesn't score as high on the yawn factor as Christian symbols.  Even the unassailably eccentric Bono and U2 prefer to avoid using overt Christian symbols.   In fact, U2 have turned religious songs dressed in accessible secular language into a distinct art-form - further evidence of the compromises the religious have to make.   Whether U2 do this through enlightened choice or managerial compulsion is anyone's guess.  
    On the most superficial level, it can be seen that popular song makes an idol of the here and now and simply ignores the transcendental tomorrow and many song writers must cater for this demand.  It is lust and longing, dreams and divorce, pain and passion and today's treacheries and tribulations that are its narrow obsession, not redemption, piety and afterlives.   Art is actually obsessed with material reality, which is strange given its connection to the spiritual.  Yes, without seeking to denigrate his achievement, popular song was curing us of God long before Dawkins and the God Delusion were even born or conceived and was doing so, not through argument (although this is sometimes needed), but through the casting of new spells that re-enchant people with this world, as opposed to anything other-worldly.

    There are few solemn moments in popular song in which artists use religious vocabulary in an overt way, Neil Diamond does
this a lot, as did Johnny Cash, but such moments are exceptions to the prevailing current, not the tide itself.   The American country scene, from whence Cash hailed, is very conservative and artists may feel compelled to churn out 
clichés quite insincerely.  Anyway,  no where is the secular and secularising tide more obvious than in heavy metal, which, from its very genesis, has been deliberately offending Christian symbols and idols; however, because heavy metal tends to revel in a pornography of ugliness and brutal sound, only sounds which slowly reveal themselves to the imagination have been selected on this web-page - songs which have to be slowly undressed, as opposed to those that present themselves stark naked from the outset.

    Religions have tried to op-opt and ingratiate themselves to the tidal impact of popular culture generally.  The following is from Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain:

"Many Christian congregations in Britain tried to compromise with the new age of youth and the late 1960s, developing new forms of religious worship using guitars and penny whistles, modern dress and a 'happy-clappy' atmosphere in an attempt to mimic the forms of youth culture.  Churches continued to try to absorb rock bands and new-fangled discotheques within their premises. 
    In Edinburgh, large numbers of fourteen to seventeen year olds (including the author) were members of a considerable 'church hall' circuit of rock dances and discos, but his had largely collapsed by 1970 as it was shut down by congregations unable to countenance the increasing loudness of the music. the arrival of soft drugs, the visits of the police and, above all, the brazen nature of teenagers' casual sexual liaisons."

    Popular culture is slightly akin to science, in that it derives its identity and purpose, in part, as a reaction against religious traditions (as already said, this is overtly the case with heavy metal).  Science is a reaction against revelation and trust in authority (faith) and popular song against religion's sexual control, especially the out-dated concept of domesticated female piety that was still present in western countries in the 50s.  Popular culture is about dating, boy friends and girl friends, sex before marriage and even pleasurable sex (listen to Hard Day's Night ...).  It is difficult to see how this can be openly endorsed by most religious conservatives  now, let alone in the 50s and 60s.  Alongside the sex there is the consumption (Madonna: 'we live in a material world'), freedom (especially of girls, cf. Queen: I Want to Break Free) and a rejection of deference to authority (Rage Against the Machine: Killing in the Name), all of which are direct challenges to religious conservatism.  Art is sensual and utterly this worldly (despite pretensions of spirituality), all poetry begins from the material world, from nature, from experience, from events on Earth and is therefore problematic to religion, which at the most can only try to control creative forces.

On a psychologically deeper level, there is the in-built libidinous incontinence which appeals to the now-centered passions of its youthful purveyors.   Patience is most definitely not a virtue in the flighty song listings of the average album.  What, if not incontinence, is Hendrix appealing to when he sings you're just like cross town traffic?  Get out the way and stop slowing me down, is what he's saying!  For an even more elaborate but delightful example, one should reexamine Dr. Hook's Sylvia's Mother; imagine our poor protagonist, standing in an old fashioned phone box trying to connect with his sweetheart, lucklessly stumbling only upon her mother who can't stand the sight of him.   Psychologically locked, for the time being, in this gradually increasingly claustrophobic phone box, he has, on the one hand, a recalcitrant mother telling him that Sylvia has found someone else and is getting married soon, and on the other, the operator says 30c more, for the next 3 minutes ... Imagine Orpheus and Euridice, with Euridice far away and about to get married to someone else (instead of dead), with Orpheus in a phone box instead instead of the underworld and Sylvia's Mother instead of the cold and indifferent hand of fate threatening to take the girl way.

 He wants to see and speak to her now, the obstructions in his path are cosmically unjust and the frustration, to him at least, is one of near life threatening proportions. Our songs are utterly here and now centred with a blind youth's indifference to anything belonging to our futures on this world, let alone the next.  It is hardly surprising that religions are quite aloof and even antagonistic to popular culture, and when modern song is utilised for religious services, for instance gospel, the words must naturally reflect a religious content.  Percussion is kept mininal, and when gospel in transported to pop, it is the words that are casualities of change. Pop culture and religious culture can not share the same words even when the music is identical, their worlds are simply mutually exclusive.

    By way of another example, take Lennon's Whatever Gets You Through the Night (is alright).  As an ethical imperative it hardly seems squareable with conservative ethics in which the night and what is done in the night is observed by God and subject sexual control.   It's Araining Men (Hallelujah!) joyfully wailed the Weather Girls, which is a far cry from manna or the kingdom of man. The Hallelujah may have been kept for joyous decorative gospel effect, but the expectation of handsome sex ready men falling from the skies is again, a very modern demand on the cosmos, a demand what would be been seen as wicked, licentious and sinful for much of the past. Pop, Rock n Roll and whatever else anyone might want to call it has been silently undermining earlier ethical traditions like an insidious army of sappers since its inception. To not see this is to not see how much pop is a challenge of one younger generation against another older one. Pop is a rejection of something that preceded it. It has novelty, rejection and potential ridicule in its very DNA. Where pop exists there is generational conflict, correction of past mistakes and renewal.  Where pop is absent there is only deference and repetition of a previous culture. 

    But for many a song, music is problematic for the words, for no other reason than that the beauty of the rhythms and harmonies performs a strange temporary lobotomy on that part of the brain which deals with words.  Religions, curiously enough, stumbled into long before anyone: 

 Scriptures "are learned by oral transmission and it is rare to see a book used in religious services.  Diagrams accampanied by 
letters and a few words are credited with magical powers, but still tantric spells are things to be recited rather than written.  This view of scripture makes the hearer uncritical.  The ordinary layman hears parts of a sacred book recited and probably admires what he understands, but he has no means of judging of a book as a whole, especially of its coherency and consistency." - Sir. Charles Eliot, taken from Hinduism & Buddhism, An Historical Sketch

    It should be noted that 'book' in this paragraph does not refer to a physical object with pages but an orally memorised selection of verses and chants, which have been put together with aesthetic consideration for metre and rhyme.   Devotion chanting of the Koran in Arabic can also breed the same somnambulistic listening.  Beauty is seductive and by-passes rational and logical processes.  This was well known by the ancients. Plato, in The Republic, held grave concerns about the
power of art to seduce the young and corrupt their thoughts and passions.  In the utopian state he imagined in The Republic, art, along with all culture, had to be carefully controlled, with music and painting receiving great criticism and even totally banned.  This might seem proto-Taliban in its austerity, but one should remember that Plato was writing after witnessing the collapse of Athens to Sparta so it's Sparta with its military authority that Plato is valorising in The Republic; also, we have long over-cherished Greece and democracy, coupled with the fact that seduction is problematic for rationalists, who want as much of our experience and inner life translated into propositions as possible, which take sentence form and which can then be coldly compared and contrasted with other propositions to producd rationally generated conclusions.  Music and art do not generally permit us to do this, because most art does not even deal in words which are the main media and vehicles of rationality.
     This picture of 'mental' life, for all its advantages and disadvantages, also has a problem with seduction in other forms of cultural life too, in, for instance, politics.  Most of us react as rationalists when confronted with cheap rhetoric and tricks that interfere with rational processes in politics.  The word brainwashing is the direct opposit of persuasion - the latter leaves an individual free and autonomous and applies to a person's rational self-interest in some way, or to the interest of others, whereas the latter seems to reduce human beings into somthing passive to the point of being a mere object, an instrument of someone else's will.


theism is in a peculiar bind here - it wants to promote active rationality in a world given to somnambulism and habit, which means valorising reason in persuasion, while denigrating the arts and tricks of seduction, while, at the same time, for the first time in human history, composing and slowly putting together an atheist culture, that can charm and ignite our imaginations in a bid to wrest from religion its last weapon of stupefaction.  This web-page does not seek to solve this problem, but to optimistically ignore it by highlighting the great moments of artistry atheistically inclined imaginations have reached.  I accept that many of the song writer's listed on this page may  not call themselves atheist, but the songs have been included nevertheless on the grounds that the songs have a clear or  hidden secular message that has the power to undermine and question belief.  One should also keep in mind that these songs would simply not be possible in a religious milieu, and so, to repeat a point,  these are presented as the self-reflexive articles of a culture losing its connection to the old orthodoxies and melting taboos.

    The songs selected will invariably reflect my experience and taste, a natural trap which I can only transcend by offering people the chance to suggest songs and feedback for possible inclusion onto this web-site.  

Other pages on Song:

a. Taboo in Song:

My Youtube film:


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