The Glory and Peril of Music

To somebody thinking about postmodern culture, one of the most fascinating passages in the New Testament is Titus 1:12: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”

What is fascinating is not the slam on ancient Cretans, but the fact that Paul refers the Cretan poet Epimenides as a “prophet.” I think this fascinating because Epimenides was, among other things, what we would today call a poet or songwriter, not an inspired biblical prophet, as Paul well knew. In short, Paul recognizes the enormous power to lead and sway that a poet like Epimenides enjoyed.

It is, of course, a truism that music in praise of limitless sexual depravity, violence, and the worship of wealth and power is the order of the day in the vast wasteland that is popular music. What is not so often noted is that we continue to listen because, like it or not, musicians now occupy a place in the psychological worldview of our children (and ourselves) that was once occupied by the biblical prophets or the great poets of antiquity.

I mean more than the fact that both children and adults with headphones clamped on their heads can recite whole albumsful of the lyrics and that such lyrics can stick for decades, no matter how revolting or inane they might be. Rather, I mean that our culture, hungry for prophets, tends to treat musicians as prophets even when their “prophetic” output ranges from twaddle to paeans to the Satan and rape. We tend to look to music to illumine and guide and provide a sort of private iconography for our spiritual and moral universe and that desire is so strong that we will keep listening even when the prophet is a cad or a jerk. And in so doing, we are essentially consulting the god Mammon for wisdom since pop music is almost entirely a manufactured product of a ruthlessly corporate, industry-driven realm.

Why does music hold such power over us? I suspect it is because music is a higher or more potent expression of language. What I mean is this: Peter Kreeft has argued that we have things backwards when it comes to music. Most of us think that language began as a series of grunts and that poetry (and eventually music) evolved from the flat prose of our brutish ancestors. Kreeft says that it is far more true to experience and history to say that music came first, that poetry is the attempt of language to attain to the heights of music and that prose is the fossilized remains of a language that was once much more poetic than today. That is why children sing so much and adults don’t and that is why the oldest examples of language we have are not grunts but the high poetry of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Job and such like. In the morning of the world we get, not the Congressional Record or a newspaper, but the Iliad and Odyssey. It is only when a society starts to decay that it either turns from music to stock reports or turns music into a servant of stockholders and not children.

Poetry, music, and story are then incredibly powerful vehicles for communicating, much more so than straight prose. They are more a living language. Or rather, prose is the skeletal remains of poetry and song. Paul recognizes this and therefore draws the connection between a poet/musician and a prophet. However, because poetry and song are higher and more potent kinds of language than prose, they are more dangerous when perverted. They can be powerful media for false, as well as true, prophecy. And they are especially so precisely because they address themselves to us and to our children in ways that are deeper than mere rationalist arguments. It’s one thing to say “It’s only a TV show” or “It’s just a song” to our children. But the fact is, the spectacle of Britney Spears transforming herself from a Bubble Gum girl into a stripper and sex object on national TV sends, for the umpteenth time, a “prophetic” message to every kid with eyes and a desire to fit in and not be a nerd: “Britney is the way. You are an ugly loser. Salvation is in money, sex, and power.” So does the ongoing coarsening of so much of the rest of music which goes far beyond the titillation of Spears to the coarse, neanderthal ugliness of Eminem. That such a thug can be anointed an “artist who speaks to a new generation” by anyone remotely associated with a civilized society is proof positive of my central thesis: that our society is desperate for prophets, that it associates musicians with prophecy (the task of which is always to articulate a Way), and that it is willing to go to grotesque lengths to see them in any brainless musician foisted on us by a corporation, if there is nothing else available. As a friend of mine once said of Madonna: Under all that voluptuous flesh is the soul of an accountant.

So what do we do? Present a more beautiful vision. Catholic parents need to protest at times, to be sure. But more than this we must begin to offer the Catholic artistic vision as a true prophecy in contrast to the ugliness and flash so many musicians speak as false prophets. In our baptism, we are anointed priests, kings and prophets. We can, if we choose, really present to our children what is good, true and beautiful. But we have to choose to do so. A music corporation bent on fleecing us and making us addicts of its product won’t do it for us.

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