Friday, October 31, 2008

Popular Music, the Internet and Religious Identity

by Elina Arola

In this essay I attempt to shed some light on how religious identity is constructed through the use of popular music and the internet, and how religious (especially Christian) authorities use popular music to encourage young people to reach out to them. I will also briefly examine how Christian churches view popular music and its impact on the behaviour and attitudes of young people. My focus will be on heavy metal and Christian metal but my research references have material ranging from a variety of popular music genres (e.g. Stiles 2005). I intend to start with introducing different takes on identity construction by means of popular music and the internet, and then tying these together in an example of the transnational Christian metal scene as discussed by Moberg (2007, 2008). I will also critically examine the views asserted by Christian authorities on the values and morals they think metal music conveys, and those they wish to convey themselves, by using a similar musical aesthetic in their own evangelization.

Metal and Christianity

Metal has been a controversial genre ever since its emergence in the early 1970s and religious authorities have condemned its messages and ideologies as satanic and evil (e.g. Moberg 2008). The conflict between the Christian church and popular music has been discussed in various studies by e.g. Dyrendal (2008) and Cataldo (2005). Christianity has blamed metal music for turning adolescents to Satanism. Dyrendal debunks this by making a clear distinction between Satanism as a religion, and adolescent Satanism, or “devil-worshipping”. According to him, Christian authorities’ use of popular media (such as horror films and heavy metal imagery) to warn their members of the dangers of Satanism has turned against itself, making rebellion even more attractive. (Dyrendal 2008: 74-75). On the other hand, the popular music scene is frustrated with Christianity, as well. Cataldo examines the lyrics of several different musical acts (ranging from Disturbed and Metallica to Jewel and R.E.M.) to find signs of this frustration. Christianity in the United States is viewed by these artists to be “stumbling [in the] fulfilment of its social role”, and conveying conflicting messages when it preaches about love and understanding, but condemns various minorities and supports the government in its war pursuits. (Cataldo 2005).

According to Moberg, Christian metal emerged in the United States in the late 1970s as a way for Christian churches to evangelize to secular metal fans, and spread quickly to European countries with established secular metal scenes. One of the main characteristics of Christian metal is the way it has embraced the features (the musical and visual aesthetic) as well as the ideology behind secular metal (standing up for one’s values, not following authority figures etc.). The only notable musical difference between secular and Christian metal is the lyrical content of the songs. (2007: 427-428).

Stiles highlights the economic importance of contemporary Christian music (CCM) in his article Contemporary Christian Music: Public Relations amid Scandal. The industry has boomed especially since the 1980s when artists decided to start drawing influences from secular genres. This combined with a “self-supporting core fan base” has kept the industry afloat even through tough times. (Stiles 2005: 5-7). Luhr (2005) sets Christian metal in a larger framework of contemporary Christian music, and examines its political impact in her article. According to her, the main difference between Christian metal and other genres of CCM was that Christian metal bands played to secular audiences, while other bands and artists from other genres generally focused on people who already were believers (2005: 104).

Popular Music, the Internet and the Construction of Religious Identity

In recent years, the role of institutional religion in people’s lives has declined quite substantially (Lynch 2006: 481, Lövheim 2004: 63). Instead of attending services and prayer sessions in churches and mosques, people are turning to other means of having religious experiences, and new channels for making their religious identities manifest. In his article, Gordon Lynch lists three issues that are relevant for the study of religion and society. The first one is the above-mentioned decline of institutional religion. The second is the rise of a phenomenon of alternative spirituality that is distinct from religion. The third issue is the growing significance of media for religion and spirituality, or the “mediatization of religion.” It is in the intersection of these three issues that the study of popular music and religion becomes particularly important (2006: 481-482).

Lynch goes on to summarize the key scholarly works on the role of popular music in the construction of religious identity. The connection between popular music and religious identity has not been a popular research topic until recently, with scholars such as Robin Sylvan (2005), Christopher Partridge (2005) and Graham St John (2004) examining religious experiences and religious content in popular music, and attempting to connect them to the construction of religious identities. While Lynch finds their work important, he offers some critical feedback on the execution of their research and the conclusions they draw. Lynch finds Sylvan’s definition of religion too broad (which leads to hasty conclusions); criticizes Partridge’s account of the religious content of popular music for not taking into consideration the audience; and wonders why St John’s study of rave audiences’ religious experiences does not go on to explain how these experiences are used in the construction of religious identity. (Lynch 2006: 482-484). To complement these shortcomings, Lynch suggests that we turn to Tia De Nora’s work (2000) in the field of music sociology. Lynch highlights De Nora’s argument of music as a tool for managing one’s identity, environment and emotional state, and her conclusion that people formulate musical meanings in the interplay of memories, musical aesthetics, and the environment and circumstances in which the music is heard (Lynch 2006: 486).

In her article on constructing religious identities online, Mia Lövheim argues that, while the construction of identity is based on the interaction between one’s presentation of self and the feedback one receives for it, it is also influenced by the medium of communication one uses for this interaction (2004: 60). Her other main point is that one can not construct an identity based entirely on online interaction, but that one’s offline experiences play an integral part in it as well. The third important thing to bring up from this article is the relationship of religion and popular media. Lövheim (2004: 64) cites Lynn Schofield Clark’s (2003) conclusion that young people have to negotiate between the different meanings of religious symbols communicated by popular media and organized religion.

In his articles on the “transnational Christian metal scene”, Marcus Moberg (2007, 2008) examines how relatively marginal local Christian metal scenes in Northern Europe, the United States and South America have come together on the internet to form a transnational scene that transgresses the geographical boundaries that would have kept these scenes apart in the past. Moberg chooses to use the term ‘scene’ instead of ‘subculture’ because of its suitability for examining temporal and spatial relations and circumstances within the consumption and production of popular music (Kahn-Harris 2007, in Moberg 2008: 82), and because it draws attention to the interconnectedness of different aspects of popular music culture (such as fandom, the popular music industry etc.). Moberg defines scene as something that “is formed when a number of people in a certain place, with a shared passion for a particular kind of music, come together and develop a vide [sic] range of other practices, discourses, aesthetics and styles in relation to that particular form of music.” His aim is to use the concept of scene to illustrate the local, national and transnational dimensions within Christian metal. (Moberg 2008: 83).

Moberg (2007) examines the construction of alternative Christian identities in the context of the transnational Christian metal scene. The processes involved in the construction of identity require a scene (such as the church) (Dyrendal 2008: 68), but with Christian metal being a relatively marginal scene, there is a need to look outside the box to find a channel for the self presentation discussed by Lövheim (2004). Moberg identifies four central discourses that are central in the Christian metal scene.

The Christian metal scene is seen as “(1.) an alternative form of religious expression and identity, (2.) a legitimate form of religious expression, (3.) an effective means of evangelism and fighting and standing up for the Christian faith, and, (4.) a positive alternative to secular metal.” (Moberg 2007: 424-425). The scene has brought together people from different social, ideological and religious backgrounds, and, while these differences raise some debates among members, the scene is viewed as a shared space where Christians with different backgrounds can “shape an alternative form of religious expression and Christian identity.” The internet has facilitated the spreading of these discourses, and this has led to an independent “scenic infrastructure” which consists of record companies, fanzines, magazines, distribution channels, message boards and festivals. (ibid: 428-429) Fans of Christian metal tend to feel alienated from their churches because of their habitus and musical preference and the imagery and rhetoric connected to it (ibid: 429). The church’s attitude against metal is another reason. Luhr argues that Christian musicians, as well as the people who rally against metal, believe music can be used to influence audience behaviour and attitudes, and that, using the theatrics and imagery in addition to the musical aesthetic of secular metal, they can reach people more easily. On the other hand, critics among the Christian community are worried that by turning to these means of evangelizing, the musicians will corrupt their own values and morals. (Luhr 2005: 106). Thus, it can be argued, that turning to the internet to create networks of likeminded people, such as in the case of Moberg’s Christian metal scene, is a way of reinforcing one’s own religious identity without being condemned or judged by authority figures – an ideology that both secular and Christian metal fans would agree with.

Concluding Remarks

In today’s world of highly independent and individual religions and spiritualities, popular music and the internet are important tools in identity construction. Clark (2006: 476) argues that music has become a vehicle for having religious experiences that may not normally be available to people. Based on what I have read from Moberg’s (2007) and Lövheim’s (2004) work on identity construction, I think the same can be said about the internet. I agree with Lynch (2006) in that more research needs to be conducted on the relationship of religion, identity and popular music, but I would argue that the role of the internet and online identities can not be excluded. As Clark (2006: 476) puts it, “people now have transnational experiences and identities”, which Moberg has confirmed in his work. The music industry has become increasingly global because of the internet. And with the introduction of small and cheap portable music devices, music has become a more intimate and immediate part of people’s everyday lives – in a sense it has occupied the void left behind by the decline of institutional religion.

Whether the music people use to construct their identities is produced in a religious framework or not does not matter in the end. The experiences people get from music are deeply personal and individual, and it is up to the individual to choose which genre of music he or she likes, and whether the experiences can be described as religious or spiritual or not. What matters is that people can find other individuals to relate to, in order to get the feedback they need for identity construction. It is in this respect that we need to recognize the internet as the invaluable tool that it is.

Primary Academic References
Cataldo, J (2005): Popular Music on Christianity in the United States: Christianity’s Failure to Love. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. IX, Spring ‘05:
Clark, LS (2006): Introduction to a Forum on Religion, Popular Music, and Globalization. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 45, Issue 4. Pp. 475-479.
Dyrendal, A (2008): Devilish Consumption: Popular Culture in Satanic Socialization. Numen, Vol. 55, No. 1. Pp. 68-98.
Luhr, E (2005): Metal Missionaries to the Nation: Christian Heavy Metal Music, "Family Values," and Youth Culture, 1984-1994. American Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1. Pp. 103-128
Lynch, G (2006): The Role of Popular Music in the Construction of Alternative Spiritual Identities and Ideologies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 45, Issue 4. Pp. 481-488.
Lövheim, M (2004): Young People, Religious Identity and the Internet. Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. New York, Routledge. Pp. 59-73.
Moberg, M (2007): The Transnational Christian Metal Scene Expressing Alternative Christian Identity through a Form of Popular Music. Linköping University Electronic Press, Linköpings universitet:
Moberg, M (2008): The Internet and the Construction of a Transnational Christian Metal Music Scene. Culture and Religion. Vol. 9, Issue 1. Pp. 81-99.
Stiles, J (2005): Contemporary Christian Music: Public Relations amid Scandal. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Vol. XI: Fall ’05:

Secondary Academic References
Clark, LS (2003) From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York. Oxford University Press.
De Nora, T (2000): Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Kahn-Harris, K (2007): Extreme metal. Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford. Berg.
Partridge, C (2005a): The Re-Enchantment of the West (vol. 1): Understanding Popular Culture. London. Continuum.
Partridge, C (2005b): The Re-Enchantment of the West (vol. 2): Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture. London. Continuum.
St John, G (ed.) (2004): Rave Culture and Religion. London. Routledge.
Sylvan, R (2005): Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimension of Popular Music. New York. New York University Press.

1 comment:

Marcus Moberg said...

Nice work! There is one thing that I'm not entirely sure about though. In my own view I never really argue that Christian metalheads tend to feel "alienated" from their own churches. However, I do write that they tend to feel some degree of estrangement from them. That, however, is not always the case either. This is a difficult question. "Ambivalence" would perhaps be a better word. But again, nice work!