This is a fascinating question because it opens up a discussion about precisely what we are exploring with these terms. What is ‘popular’ music? What is ‘religion’? And then how do they interact?
‘Popular music’ may mean the music of the masses, folk music or pop (as opposed to rock, or country) music. Alternatively it may include all of those genres and more – Death Metal, Hip Hop, Grime, Rockabilly, Blues … the list could go on. It could mean ‘popular classical’ music – Ennio Morricone or even Mozart (as opposed to, say, Schopenhauer or Scriabin).
As soon as we start thinking about religious ‘practices’ as well we get a sense that religion can refer to more intangible ideas such as spirituality or social habits which function in a religion-like way.
What do we mean by ‘religion’? It might be defined in terms of one of the major world faiths, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism. However, as soon as we start thinking about religious ‘practices’ as well we get a sense that religion can refer to more intangible ideas such as spirituality or social habits which function in a religion-like way. For instance, singing Handel’s Messiah (itself a form of ‘popular’ music) at Easter might be seen as a religious or a social practice, or both.
Religion can certainly refer to much more than a systematic set of beliefs or creeds and relates to the rhythm of life, wherever we live in the world. Seasons have their effects on the spiritual life. The quasi-religious role that music festivals now play in Western culture has been identified by a number of social scientists. So here we can begin to see popular music and religion relating to each other in different ways. Lets look briefly at three that are particularly significant in addressing this question – First, how popular music functions in religion; second, how popular music can be seen as religion; and finally, how they are sometimes in dialogue.
First, popular music in religion – here we see how religious communities have adopted forms of popular culture, such as the various genres of Contemporary Christian Music. But this is not just something we find in churches. The various forms of religion take different approaches to music and even within the same faith there can be some adherents who resist popular and other types of music in worship and others who encourage it.
Many forms of popular culture are perceived as functioning in a way that is analogous to religion
But there is another way to understand this relationship, which is to see popular music as religion – many forms of popular culture are perceived as functioning in a way that is analogous to religion. Fans of a range of popular music behave in ways that are similar those participants in religious faith – journeys to see favourite artists (pilgrimage), time set aside to listen to chosen artists (mediation/prayer), a selection of much loved tracks (canon).
Finally, religion and popular culture can be in dialogue. This may take the form of parody or homage (think of the video for Lady Gaga’s ‘Judas’), or theological critique (such as Patti Smith’s re-working of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ which begins with the words: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”), or it may involve deeper study of the how religious adherents are seeking to better understand what is happening in popular music and religion, either for greater clarity, or to evangelise with it, or denounce it.
Music and religion in their broadest sense have been part of human culture from the outset and have contributed enormously to its development and evolution. Their relationship is complex and will continue to transform as both popular music and faith change, becoming ever more multifaceted.
Find more information about popular music and religion here.