There are few things more likely to spawn a dilemma in life than being a young conservative Catholic and liking rock music. After all, it is quite difficult suddenly to acquire insight in theology and politics and then realize that one’s heroes from adolescence are sniveling, left-wing, vegetarian, neo-pagan tree-huggers who disdain all that one holds dear, especially one’s religion.
Take, for example, Sting. Rock stars ruled my limited personal life when I was a gawky prepubescent, as they continue to do in other young lives. When I was ten or eleven, I developed a crush on Sting. He wasn’t as bad back then as he is now. That was back in the good old days when rock stars did useful things, such as sing about love and fast cars.
Then Sting and a slough of other musicians decided that entertaining us and perhaps dropping the odd esoteric reference to Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Koestler weren’t good enough; they had to be “socially conscious.” That meant performing free at huge benefit concerts with threescore other bands in order to tell us teenyboppers who to feed, stop sending arms to, start sending arms to, write letters to, what to buy, what laws to push, what laws to reject (even though no one who cared was old enough to vote), what not to wear, what not to eat, and what not to throw in the garbage. They called it consciousness-raising.
It wasn’t an entirely new idea. John Lennon and others started it in the ’60s by protesting the Vietnam War, promoting feminism (at least when Yoko was listening), and telling world leaders how to achieve peace in between getting arrested for possession of illegal substances. But the ’80s and ’90s saw an explosion of self-important musicians trying to save the world, without evident success.
I, for one, believed absolutely everything Sting said about politics, literature, art, religion, and life, despite his past as a die-hard Communist before mellowing into a member of Britain’s Labour Party. Sting has always been the rock star for intellectuals because he reads voraciously, sounds eloquent, and writes fairly cerebral lyrics with lines stolen from Jung, T.S. Eliot, and Shakespeare. He was interesting but harmless. He didn’t breathe fire or worship Satan. He was a Jesuit-educated former English teacher who started out playing traditional jazz. My mother, who stopped buying records in 1960, even kept a large picture of him tacked up on the refrigerator.
When Sting left the Police, his political action escalated at the same rate as his music and looks took nosedives. He forgot that his best songs were about romance and not much else. I was tolerant, though. I ignored it when he wrote a protest song about World War I and somehow managed to include Soho opium addicts in the last verse. I even forgave him for bemoaning the fate of England’s coal miners. But when he joined the Amnesty International crowd and started writing depressing songs about Chilean political prisoners’ wives, it became downright embarrassing. My support for Sting began to crumble, but not enough for me to resist dragging my boyfriend through a blizzard to a Sting concert in Bloomington when I was 16.
While Sting was using his fame and influence to back his favorite causes, I was in the right-wing battalion of my high school speech team, debating the harmfulness of socialism. I quit the team after one of my opponents burst into tears while I cross-examined her. It was indeed hard to be a Reagan Youth while my hero was visiting with Ubangi tribesmen, saving the rain forests, and also meeting with government leaders all over the globe to tell them how to solve their problems. He preached zero-population growth while his live-in girlfriend increased his own offspring aggregate to four. He decried pollution, holes in the ozone layer and depletion of the world’s natural resources by the U.S. during an interview in which he tossed a freshly cut log on an open fire. After recording a gorgeous rendition of a Basque Christmas carol, “Gabriel’s Message,” he rejected his Catholic background more strenuously than ever, in favor of psychology and some kind of animistic neo-paganism cross-bred with vegetarianism and American Indian spirituality. I was hurt.
Sting’s third solo album, however, was the last straw. The Soul Cages consisted of dirges about his father’s death, the hard lives of industrial ship-builders, lobster fishermen, and the awfulness of institutionalized religion. To this day I can’t bring myself to listen to that entire album. It was a disillusioning experience.
Sting’s antics have been part of larger crusade for political change by entertainers. Now the two most fashionable causes among rock stars are AIDS and the environment. MTV has taken upon itself the task of encouraging young people to learn about these issues and then to vote following celebrity example. The problem is that anyone who would honestly look to Madonna for political advice probably doesn’t know the difference between George Bush and Josef Stalin.
So, once again, musicians feel compelled to Do Something. An album called Red Hot and Blue, a collection of Cole Porter remakes ranging from tasteful to horrific, was put together in 1990 to raise money for AIDS research. The album also included a tiny avant-garde pamphlet with sayings like, “People with AIDS are innocent” and “AIDS is a political crisis,” and a ponderous list of questions and answers about my. K.D. Lang, a lesbian singer trying to go mainstream, hit big with a song about a lover dying of AIDS. When Freddie Mercury, the singer for Queen, died of AIDS, there were tributes, remakes, repackaged music, and benefit concerts in his name, even though I was personally ridiculed just three years ago for being so uncool as actually to own a copy of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” now made so popular by Freddie’s death and the movie Wayne’s World. Now it is not only ultra-hip to like Queen, it is politically required.
Looking through the Heavy Metal, Alternative Music, Soft Rock, Top Forty, and just plain Rock sections at a local record store, I found it difficult to locate a conservative or even a practicing Christian musician, especially since I don’t like Christian rock. There are some obscure gems out there, such as “Thank God for the Bomb,” “Damn Yankees,” and “Don’t Tread on Me” — all pro-U.S. defense songs — and even “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” a song against abortion. Don’t expect to hear them on the radio, though. After all of the sappy political testimonials on MTV, I turned reactionary and came to appreciate Neanderthals like Ted Nugent, if only for being a member of the NRA and the owner of a hunting bow company.
Christianity is represented most obviously by Irish musicians. They are usually prouder and more up-front about their religion, with album titles like, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Bono from U2 has always claimed to be a practicing Catholic, mentions Christ in a positive manner in his songs, and even went through a stage when he appeared to be impersonating an apostle, although now he seems to think he is Jim Morrison instead. Sinead O’Connor includes Christ in her songs, but also supports abortion in Ireland and has recently admitted having two abortions herself — to say nothing of her deranged tantrum with the Pope’s photo. Most rock stars are rather outspokenly pro-abortion. Bob Geldof, known as Saint Bob, the Irish organizer of Band Aid and Live Aid, scored a surprising win for the pro-life team by covering “You Can’t Be Too Strong” in concert a couple of years ago. The only other anti-abortion songs that come to mind were done by, of all people, Madonna and the Sex Pistols.
Christianity takes quite a beating these days. Openly satanic groups aside, there are widely accepted bands, usually ones trying to target the college audience, who make a lucrative habit of employing blasphemy in their work. Even some bands’ names are offensive — Jesus and the Mary Chain, Jesus Jones, Godflesh, and the Screaming Blue Messiahs.
Crucifixes and other Christian symbols have been used in album art stretching as far back as the Doors, usually in a denigrating fashion. Atheism is promoted by some musicians as hip. XTC has produced several gems about rejecting God, such as “Dear Father.” Despite his blatantly bitter atheism, XTC singer Andy Partridge appears regularly on MTV to bemoan the ownership of so many automobiles, all polluting this beautiful planet of ours and its ecosystems.
It is quite annoying to buy an album and then discover a song either mocking or insulting Christ. The artistic-freedom crowd can relax. I’m not out to censor them out of existence or have them burned at the stake. I would hate to give them that much attention. I prefer the Adam Smith method of censorship — not buying it. Christian rock music is offered to me regularly as an alternative, but it doesn’t hold any attraction for me. I find it unsettling to be accosted by hulking musicians with hair much longer than mine, the usual rock star uniform, and business cards embossed with Bible verses, who ask me if I believe in Jesus and then want to pray with me.
Rock music and religion, I now believe, are separate entities. Rock music is about affection, alcohol, and automobiles, not the Eucharist. On the other hand, I would not want to hear “You Shook Me All Night Long” played on a church organ either. I am also known to become incensed when music directors pull out tambourines at Mass. I appreciate Christian musicians’ work and would rather see Bibles thrown out to audience members than joints, but I’m content to keep my Mojo Nixon and Gregorian chant tapes separate.
I now avoid political messages in music altogether. One of the reasons I adore bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson so much is that I never have to worry about them jumping onto soap boxes and telling me to recycle everything, practice safe sex, and stop eating meat. With the release of Ten Summoners Tales, his most recent album, Sting now claims to be interested only in writing about love and being happy. We’ll see (I’ll be watching him). Maybe his friends will get the message to leave our consciousness where they found it and do something important—like a cover of “Hootchie Cootchie Man.”