Mississippi is known as the "birthplace of America's music". If that's true, it makes sense that Mississippians would be interested in the history of popular music in our country. This month commemorates some pretty significant moments in the history of rock ‘n roll. It was 50 years ago this month (February 9, 1964) that The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, introducing them to an American audience for the first time. It was 55 years ago this month (February 3, 1959) that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa—the infamous moment nicknamed by Don McLean as the “day the music died”.
Holly was 22 and left behind his wife, who was expecting and whom he had married only six months before. Richardson was only 28 and also left behind a pregnant wife. Valens was only 17. In his 1972 hit, “American Pie" Don McLean reminisced about this national tragedy, calling it "The Day the Music Died" and suggesting that it was a moment when America, as a nation, lost its innocence.
Both Holly’s and Valens’ careers have been immortalized on the big screen. In 2011, two tribute albums were released in honor of what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. Dead for more than five decades now, Buddy Holly has unquestionably remained a large influence on rock music. Popular music has changed a lot since 1959 though.
Last month (January 26), the Grammy Awards were handed out and, as is often the case, much of the entertainment showcased on Grammy night carried a fair amount of shock value. 2014’s Grammy Awards serve to illustrate just how much rock music has changed since the beginning of the genre, 60 years ago.
1. Recap of the 2014 Grammy Awards
In an article published by Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer reflected on the 56th annual Grammy Awards, saying, “We continued to see the objectification of women, communicating that talent mattered less than appearance… The coarsening of language and more were all on display.”
For those who didn’t tune in, here’s a more detailed, illuminating summary of the night’s events, from an article “Your Grammys’ Church” published this week on The Aquila Report and written by Peter Jones, professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in California:
“Beyoncé’s… outlandishly sexualized dance routine, in a revealing black thong bodysuit over fishnet tights, simulating all the moves belonging solely to the privacy of the marital bedroom, was an act of heterosexual public debauchery. Her hit song, ‘Drunk in Love’ served as an introductory hymn that set the worship tone for the evening… The order of service continued with testimonies of deliverance. Ex-evangelical Katy Perry (famous for her song, ‘I Kissed a Girl and Liked It’) celebrated her apostasy, dressed up as a witch with a large red cross on her chest, and was symbolically ‘burned at the stake.’… The three-hour service ended on an ecstatic, unholy high note. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (Grammy for Best New Artist), began the finale with their hit song ‘Same Love’… As if by magic, the stage morphed into a massive cathedral with imposing stained-glass windows and a marriage archway… Madonna and … Queen Latifah then appeared on stage to join in marriage 33 couples of numerous sexual permutations, thereby sealing the new religion’s Oneist creed: all religions and all sexualities are One—to the thunderous applause of the thousands present…”
A line from the song “Same Love” says that those who affirm traditional marriage “paraphrase a book written thirty-five hundred years ago"—implying that historic standards of sexual ethics are old-fashioned/out of touch.
2. Putting 2014 in perspective: How rock music has evolved
Buddy Holly represented a more innocent period of rock ‘n roll. Even in the 50s, many people were alarmed at what they saw as the sexual overtones of early rock music. Compared to what came in subsequent decades, though, the rockabilly of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry was wholesome. Let’s not forget that Elvis, a lifelong professing Christian, is not only in the rock ‘n roll hall of fame, but also in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Contrary to the 1978 film, The Buddy Holly Story, which portrayed Holly’s parents as being at odds with his music aspirations, they were in fact very supportive. Holly’s mother even helped write one of his hits, “Maybe Baby”. Holly’s music was “family friendly”. The Beatles, who named themselves in honor of Holly’s band, The Crickets, put out music that is basically family friendly, for the most part. In 2000, when Plugged In Magazine (a very conservative publication affiliated with Focus on the Family) reviewed The Beatles hits compilation album, One, the reviewer found nothing objectionable about any of The Beatles 27 No. 1 hits.
That said, it’s not as if popular music has been wholesome up until and has suddenly taken a dramatic shift in 2014. For all the attention that this year’s Grammy Awards garnered, of course it’s well known the rock music industry has, for decades, been putting out provocative material.
Take, for example, one of the best selling rock performers over the last four decades, Billy Joel. Joel, a self-described atheist, has, generally speaking, not made a career of putting out faith-bashing music. There are a few notable exceptions—“Only the Good Die Young” (1977), being the most well known example. For all the snazzy piano playing and the catchy melody, the song boils down to a sex hungry guy’s crass attempt to persuade a Catholic girl to throw away her principles and have sex with him. One of the last lines represents one of the most flippant dismissals of Christian morals in all of rock music:
“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than the cry with the saints
‘Cause sinners are much more fun
Darling, only the good die young”
In a lesser-known song, “Blonde Over Blue” (1993), Joel sang:
“These days, not a damn soul prays
And there is no faith ‘cause there’s nothing to believe in”
Though some of Joel’s songs represent the worst in rock music (worldview-wise, not musically speaking), even he at times could reflect a nominal Judeo-Christian outlook in his songs. In a recent Billboard interview, Joel reminisced of how his first experience singing in a choir context was at the Church of Christ in Hicksville, New York. There are, despite Joel’s atheism, a few examples of songs with religious overtones. Take, for example, “Travelin’ Prayer” (1973):
“Hey Lord, would you look out for her tonight
and make sure all her dreams are sweet
Hey Lord, would ya guide her along the roads and make them softer for her feet
Hey Lord, would ya look out for her tonight and make sure that she's gonna be alright
Until she's home in here with me”
Joel’s 1982 hit, “Goodnight Saigon”, written from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, says:
“We dug in deep
and shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might”
What’s the point? If Joel is representative of classic rock (and having sold well over 100 million albums, he’s as good of a candidate as any from his generation), one can conclude that yesterday’s non-Christian musicians often adopted, at the very least, a non-militant stance towards religious people. Songs like “Same Love” show a shift. The hostility expressed against traditional Christian morality at this year’s Grammies is not unprecedented, but it does seem to have been taken to a new level. Religious people are being mocked and marginalized and the culture is willing to simply take for granted that they are wrong and backwards without even being willing to engage them or give them a platform to articulate their own views.
In closing, it’s understandable how Christians who hold firmly to a Christian view of sexuality would take offense at this year’s Grammy Awards and the general direction popular music is going today. There are many different ways that Christians could respond, but a common temptation among Christians who think of themselves as “conservative” is to check out—to simply escape and make no attempt to engage the culture.
It’s easy to shut up when speaking Christ’s truth gets one labeled a bigot. Of course, Christians sometimes do speak Christian truth in a mean-spirited manner, and it can be enticing to not even attempt to speak into the culture, knowing how difficult it is. Humanly speaking, it’s easier to either capitulate and not speak truth at all or to speak the truth insensitively or abrasively.
Living in this culture requires God’s grace. Of course, that’s always been true in every age. It’s easy to wring hands and think the world’s worse than ever before, but ever since the dawn of human history, human nature has been fallen. 2014 doesn’t present any challenges to Christians that are strictly “new”. One thing is certain: 2014 is not a time to sit smugly and wag fingers at the world, forgetful that we, as Christians, are all “wretches” that God saved simply because of his amazing grace. As Rich Mullins said, “There’s no point in pointing fingers unless you’re pointing to the truth.”
As despondent of a picture as Peter Jones’ article paints, he remains hopeful:
“This is a formula for cultural collapse. But there is hope. Those watching or attending the church of the Grammys are made in God’s image and will one day be disillusioned with the lie.”
May Christians be prepared to point people to the truth when disillusionment with the lie sets in.