19 September 2011

Yes This Is A Cult

A couple days ago, I was watching music videos on youtube. You might say that was a singularly unproductive use of my time. I might agree. But I will say, that is entirely beside the point.

So anyways. Music videos. There I was, watching this music video by one of Virgin Record's biggest bands. The song was decent. Nothing brilliant, but a solid song. A nice hook in the chorus -- "No! No! No! No!", but it wasn't crunchy enough to be memorable. When I went to look up the song again, I couldn't even remember what the hook was.  But you get the picture. It was a typical rock song such as one might hear on the radio.

The video was what stood out to me. It starts with some of this band's fans talking about what music means to them, and then clips of the band's live performances around the world start to play. The cinematographer is very good. Whoever assembled the video included small captions on the clips, like you might see in scrapbook.

Little things like "This was an awesome day." But that wasn't what stood out to me. About halfway through the video is an image the main singer holding his hands out, silhouetted by bright stage lights. As the image fades, the words "Yes This is a Cult" appear, to be replaced the image of the singer.

That got me thinking. I've made the snarky comment about that being dangerous for me enough, so we'll skip directly to the thought.

Almost everywhere you look, major religions and civilizations use music as an offering of worship to their gods. It could be chanting; ringing of bells; beating of drums; modern evangelical Christian worship; rich harmonies -- what have you. Point is, music is almost universally acknowledged as one of the best ways to connect with the supernatural.

I would argue that it is one of the few natural realities that transcend mere physical reality. Music isn't merely noise: it's tonal patterns or rhythmic noises that somehow give humans pleasure.  It's one of those sublime things, that, when done correctly, has the ability to elevate us from mere existence to something more beautiful. A click point, if you permit a return to old terminology.

For some reason, we view it as a worthy offering to God, the gods, fate, or whatever we happen to be worshiping at the time. And it's not surprising. Music can be sublime.

But watching the 30 Seconds to Mars video, I noticed something very interesting. The concert-goers were acting in much the same way as my church does when we really get into worship. Their hands were held in the air; they sang the words along with the band; they swayed in time to the music; and they responded to instructions from the band.

Yes This is A Cult.

If you're a long time reader of this blog, you've probably come to the realization that I  am an artistic person. I don't say this to be self-satisfied or obnoxious. It's a reality of who God created me to be. I picked up an ocarina at the market a few weeks ago, and figured out how to play "My Heart Will Go On" by the end of the day. My parents gave me penny whistles for my birthday, and there's a similar story. But like I said, I'm not trying to say this to toot my own horn. Though I probably could after a couple tries. ;)

As a Christian, I know I have an artistic gifting to be used for God's glory. But it is a depressing realization to know that, were I not saved, I would still be very artistic. I am gifted, and so use that gifting in worship. But were I not a Christian, I would still be using the gift.

Yes This is a Cult

It all comes down to a question of motivations, really. Music is, by nature, very beautiful; very sublime. But music is NOT the end goal. And as a musician, I have to keep telling myself that. The people in the music video were not the concert as a way to glorify God; they were using it as a way to glorify Music.

"Some people believe in god: I believe in Music. You know, some people pray: I turn up the radio." 

"Music makes the world go 'round, you know. And if it weren't for Music, I wouldn't be around right now. Music is EV- ERY - THING  to me. That's all I can say."

Some fans said this in the end of the music video. I get where they are coming from. When I listen to good music, and I mean REALLY GOOD music, I tend to forget the mundane realities of every day life. I start to focus on the rhythms of the guitar, the nuances of the vocalist's inflections, the fills and frills of the drummer, the juggling of tracks in the mix. It calms and concentrates. Things, simple things like running on a treadmill, somehow seem more important if I've got some rock pounding in through my ear buds.

Motivation is what changes music from a sublime thing to the Ultimate thing. It's what changes it from a gift to a sin; from a pleasure to idolatry.

The musicians who go into the industry to "become famous" pretty obviously have their priorities messed up. But what about a little, simple enjoyment? Is it really so bad for us to just enjoy the momentum, to be caught up in three-minutes of pure bliss?

Maybe. I went to EMP (Experience Music Project) in Seattle for my birthday last week. I saw an exhibit filled with Jimi Hendrix collectibles - old guitars he'd smashed, stage outfits, the whole nine yards. One of the exhibit panels made the comment that the guitars Hendrix burned were often written with mantra-esque phrases, as a kind of spiritual offering to Music.

Yes This is a Cult

Well, obviously Hendrix was a little out there. But the musicians who just want to make Music, they're not so bad, right? The musicians who are in it because they just love to make Music... They're not treating it the wrong way, are they?

Obviously, you have to take this on an individual basis, but we have to realise that there is a very, very fine line between treating music as sublime and treating it as Ultimate.

Well, that may be well and good for all those silly people who listen to pop music. I mean, classical music was written Sola Deo Gloria, so we don't have to worry about idolatry.

WRONG. I fall into this assumption more often than I'd care to admit, but let's face it: the 1812 Overture can be just as inspiring as any rock standard. The musicians who devote their lives to rigorous training just to play classical music are in just as much danger of idolizing their music as the rock musicians who burn their guitars for Music.

Yes This is a Cult.


  1. This post is pretty much my veiw on music too. And that line in that music video just makes me think harder about what is good to listen to and isn't going to damage my moral compass and what's bad.
    That image is very disturbing. How easy is an ocarina to acquire and play?

  2. Ocarinas are pretty easy to get. There are a lot of them on ebay, amazon, and there are probably some in your local music store or farmer's market. I got mine in Pike's Place Market, so that might be an anomaly. Ease of playing depends on how many holes the ocarina has. I've got a five-hole ocarina, but they can have as many as 12 holes. There are books teaching how to play, so the only skill you really need to have is the ability to exhale slowly and strongly between quick inhalations.