How do we read music? I’m not asking how we read the sheets we sometimes set in front of us — the ones with the notes crawling all up and down next to the treble and bass clefs — I mean when we try to learn a new song. Why do we choose to listen to one song, or album, by a particular country artist, let’s say, rather than another? Is it the song? Does it sound more “country” than the other songs by other country artists to which we won’t listen? How do we choose which artists to which to listen? Will we listen to Maren Morris or Margo Price because they’re more “country” (read: “authentic”) than Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, or Rascal Flatts? Is it the case that some artists simply record songs for a certain audience —hoping to reach a certain market, sure, but also so comfortable with their core audience that they hew to a tried and true formula that expresses their message in their music?
A few years ago, I was invited to give a little talk about religion and rock in a class of roughly the same name at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. As I planned for the conversation, I decided to focus on the roots of rock and the religious influences on the music. One hour is not long enough to discuss deeply more than one or two of the figures or the styles of the music that rock co-opted and made its very own. I focused, of course, on Thomas Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sam Cooke, among others, and played clips — sometimes entire songs — of their music. During the break, a student asked me about contemporary Christian music and rock’s influence on it. That’s another long story, of course, but as we chatted, he asked why some people think it’s okay to listen to some Christian music — and rock music — and not other parts of the same genre. Following the break, our conversation in the class took a very different direction, and I had the chance to ask the students how they read music.
Gospel singer Andrae Crouch died just over two years ago, and reflecting on his death brought this conversation back to mind. In many ways, though, the questions are never far from my mind since I teach classes in the history of gospel music and play it now and again in my local church. When I was in college and playing in prisons and in weekend revivals, I often thought about this question. I mean, here I am playing Johnny Winter and Alvin Lee in bands during the week, but on Friday night I’m playing songs about Jesus and heaven. If someone asked me to play in church, I’d often play Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” (in really liberal churches) or “Wind-Up,” which for me expressed authentic messages of the struggle between faith and doubt, hypocrisy and authentic religion. Looking back on those days, I’m not sure how deeply religious I really was, and I often joked that once God entered rock and roll — as happened in the music of Larry Norman and, later, Petra — rock and roll was ruined. I did realize even back then, though, that some folks would not listen to Andrae Crouch because he wasn’t religious enough; or they’d listen to Crouch but close their ears to Truth — probably the first Jesus band to play like Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears; or they’d find Larry Norman — who wrote the famous tune “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” — singing lyrics closest to God’s message for the world and wouldn’t listen to any other singers releasing Christian rock.
That student’s question brought back many of these questions, and so I responded to the class with M.H. Abrams’ now-well-known grouping of ways to read literature. In his still must-read The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford), first published in 1953, Abrams challenges the then-popular method of literary criticism, the New Criticism. New Critics advocated close readings of a works alone and in itself — and the examples these critics used in their books, such as Cleanth Brooks did in The Well-Wrought Urn (Harvest/HBJ, 1947), the manifesto of the New Criticism, were poems rather than novels — out of which readers could recognize irony, paradox, and satire. New Critics adamantly argued that neither an author’s biography nor her social context could help readers understand a work of art; in fact, some critics had a name for the fallacy that we could ever know an author’s intentions — the intentional fallacy. Abrams took the first shot at these critics by suggesting that we can never fully understand a work of art without first understanding the universe out of which it arises (mimetic), its author (expressive), the work itself (pragmatic), and the audience of the work (objective).
First, do we choose to listen to songs or albums because the artist hews to a certain moral or religious creed? In the world of religious music, is it okay to listen to the Chuck Wagon Gang and Cece Winans at the same time? What about Hillsong United and the McCrary Sisters? Is one or the other “safe” enough for me to listen to without corrupting or challenging my own moral or religious standards? Even more to the point, is it okay for me to listen to Parachute or The Lone Bellow or Anderson East or Rhiannon Giddens, artists whose music decidedly grapples with spiritual questions? Take this question out of the realm of religion and place it in the realm of Americana for a moment; if I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Americana music fan, is it okay to listen to William Bell, Tasha Taylor, Hilary Scott and the Scott Family, Reba McEntire? Do they hew to the Americana creed, or are their musical values so far beyond the pale that if my Americana friends heard me listening to them, they’d question my Americana cred? Of course, questions about the identity of the artist and whether it’s safe to listen to an artist who doesn’t confess certain principles are most prevalent in circles that listen to religious music, but once we draw boundaries around genres — however we define them, whether according to style, artist, or audience — we implicitly ask the question about which artists fit this category and which do not (or can an artist’s new album be included, even if we think the artist doesn’t fit the standards of the category?). As an example, Billboard deals with this question by posting separate charts for gospel music and Christian music.
Second, do we choose to listen to a song or an album because it expresses some deep truth that, no matter what the artist believes, takes hold of us and changes us or at least drives us to think a little more deeply about certain questions? What about the music itself? Isn’t there some music that, in spite of the lyrics or no matter the lyrics, somehow carries us out of ourselves, transcending for a few moments the world around us? And can we listen to the songs that affect us this way no matter who the artist? Of course, if you can listen only to music written and sung by artists who reflect your own beliefs, then the work itself plays no role in determining the kinds of music you’ll listen to. This divide is of course apparent in religious music — listeners will drop a needle on a gospel song by the Happy Goodman Trio because the trio preaches righteous personal behavior, but will not drop a needle on a Larry Norman song because his own personal life calls into question his Christian witness. Yet this kind of division operates in any all genres/categories of music: I’m a bluegrass fan, but do I dare admit to my friends I listen to the new albums by Steep Canyon Rangers? I’m an Americana fan, but do I dare ask my friends to listen to Sugar Ray & the Bluetones' new album? When I played Jethro Tull’s “Wind-Up” in church (had to change the lyric in the lines “you got the whole damn thing all wrong,” of course), I introduced a congregation to a song that addressed religious and spiritual questions, but I am pretty sure the gathered didn’t rush out to buy Aqualung. Did the music itself challenge them? I hope for a moment the song itself drove them to think about questions regarding religious truth, no matter who the band was.
In the end, of course, Abrams contends that a work of art’s imitation of the universe around it, the artist’s expressiveness in the work, the beauty and utility of the work itself, and the audience’s response to the work of art function together to reveal facets of the work of art. It’s the same in music, of course, and we often miss out on beautiful music when we elevate one of these ways of reading it over the others.