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The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane

by Christopher Partridge

Oxford, 2013, 368 pages, Paperback $24.95

Christopher Partridge’s new book, The Lyre of Orpheus, provides an amazing wealth of information about religion and popular music. It should be read while sitting at a computer, since you will want to search YouTube or Spotify for the songs that he so passionately discusses. Unfortunately, his larger theory is not nearly as interesting as his close reading of individual artists.

That larger theory goes like this: Rock is essentially transgressive. Christianity upholds a sacred order that excludes the profane. Therefore, contemporary Christian music cannot be true rock and roll, because it is “unable to establish a credible presence in [rock’s] profane affective space.” But Partridge is wrong to assume it is impossible for Christianity to adopt, transform, and redeem popular music. Satan might or might not be beyond redemption, but everything else, including the devil’s music, isn’t.

The Lyre of Orpheus showcases rock’s darker side, but inadvertently demonstrates the limits of its acoustical rebellion. There’s something sad about aging rock stars still stuck in teenager fantasies, but it’s even sadder for a writer of this caliber to take their adolescent antics so seriously. It is bad enough, although entirely predictable, that Jim Morrison gloated “there are no rules, there are no limits” and Lady Gaga proclaimed that “in pop you know you have succeeded when there is an element of crime,” but it’s Partridge fault for interpreting their hyperboles literally.

Partridge reserves his most exuberant praise for Genesis P-Orridge, whose “industrial paganism” uses pornography, violence, and degradation to provide “a brutal critique of the modern world.” Genesis P-Orridge is, for Partridge, a Christ figure who “has suffered for his art” and has been “subject to systematic demonization.” But is it defamation when society responds exactly the way your work has asked it to?

Without any transcendent order, the sacred and profane become relative: Transgressive acts effectively switch their places, like reversing the poles of a magnet. “The pure can contaminate,” he explains, “and the impure can sanctify.” Good can become evil and evil good with just the right soundboard mix. To his credit, Partridge acknowledges the risk involved in this moral magic, as in the obvious case of Jim Morrison, yet he blames Morrison’s death on the oppressive forces of social conservation rather than a disordered love of excess. Was Morrison just trying to have a good time, or was he inventing a new sense of the sacred? For Partridge, the answer is both.

Here’s where Partridge is right: Sound is not a neutral medium. Partridge argues, for example, that “bass is subversive.” Echo and reverb can evoke ethereal flights, but extremely low sounds require lots of power to be amplified. Go low enough (below 20 hertz), where the body feels what it cannot hear, and foundations personal and social are shaken indeed.

The dissonance of rock, for Partridge, “represents an inversion of the mythic rationale informing creation narratives and, as such, Christian theological teleology.” It is the “threat of a return to chaos,” which makes rock the acoustical expression of the “waste and void” of Genesis 1:2. Rock is excess with a vengeance.

One implication of this line of thought goes unnoticed by Partridge: If rock is the soundtrack to the coming of the Antichrist, then the decline of Christianity should also produce the decline of rock. There is evidence that this is already happening, since rebels, after all, really do need a cause. Partridge seems hardly aware of how pathetic it is that heavy metal has devolving into specialized sub-genres like death, thrash, sludge, and drone, each with their own code of conduct and their own lines of fashion accessories.

Without Christianity, rock’s agitations become spume and splutter, which suggests that rock cannot be essentially transgressive. Transgression is always derivative, secondary, reactive, and thus essentially conservative, secretly in service to the hegemonic order it seeks to overthrow. Dissonance is dependent on the natural appeal of harmony, just as Satan’s activities are possible only due to God’s providential permission. That is why rock, when it tries to be overtly blasphemous, ends up being overly impressed with its own puerile histrionics.

Rock is a threat to Christianity not because it is essentially transgressive, but because it too often acquiesces to modernity’s distancing of art from truth. The result is a mindless numbing of the emotions, which is why drugs really are an important part of rock’s “affective space.” Going to a hard rock concert without getting high is like going to church without taking communion. What’s the point?

In the end, Partridge has made the case for rock’s need for an intervention, if not outright redemption. The honesty of rock is in its vocal yearning, not its electric thrashing. The alternative to transgression is transcendence, not docile submission to social order. Rock was born out of blues, folk and Gospel, not sexual aggression and gender bending. There is nothing inevitable about rock’s demise, although it might take a miracle for rock to rediscover its voice.

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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