Tom Waits’ Carnivalesque

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

Julie Hamilton’s piece is well-paired with Joe Kickasola’s piece published last week. 


“Boney’s high on china white, Shorty found a punk,
Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk,
Well this stuff will probably kill you,
Let’s do another line, what you say we meet down on Heartattack and Vine.” —”Heartattack and Vine”

Tom Waits, a preacher of the “dysangelion” (bad news), rhapsodizes the depravity of the world as normative, showing us not to take for granted the surprise of something not going wrong. As a beatnik, Waits’s lyrics testify to a life from skid row in form of a brawling psalter. His musical genres evolve alongside his own vagabond drifting from nightclub jazz and growling blues in vaudeville theatres and seedy dive bars, continually innovating and reinventing harmony and rhythm. From early barfly tales of heartbreak to his guttural nightmares of apocalyptic doom, Waits uses transgression and disruption to unmask societal hierarchies and pretentious bourgeoisie charades.

If Kerouac’s On the Road could narrate the biography of one American musician, it would be Tom Waits. As Kerouac’s biographer Ann Charters writes, the Beat genre that defined a cultural era meant more than “a state of exalted exhaustion”, it also referenced the ‘Beatific Vision’ which Catholics describe as the celestial vision of God by the saints and the blessed.[1] Both terms could arguably characterize the persona and the music of Waits—the itinerant, vagabond drifter, stumbling down seedy alleys to the back door of heaven.

Born in the back of a taxicab in 1949, Tom began early as a nomadic traveler, leaving high school at fifteen. Living between his car and the Live Tropicana Motel in Santa Monica (with the likes of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin), his early albums Closing Time (1973) and Heart of a Saturday Night (1974) portray a lonely barfly, drowning his sorrows in whiskey, while chain-smoking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes. His drunken cabaret combines blues with jazz in wistful and tender melodies narrating his meandering jaunt from gig to gig. Often occupying nightclub stage corners as the evening storytelling bard with his piano and jazz set, in his early music, Waits is a troubadour of hangovers and one-night stands. His alcoholic ode to loneliness is perhaps best captured in his nod to American painter Edward Hopper in the title of his live third album Nighthawks at the Diner (1977), the namesake of Hopper’s seminal work from 1942. Hopper’s iconic portrait of noir Americana captures loneliness and desolation within the urban landscape that parallels Waits musically in his early career.

"Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942" by Edward Hopper - email. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg#/media/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

“Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942” by Edward Hopper Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Throughout Weaits’ discography, his proletariat characters evolve, but so does his musical innovation as he turns common, household objects into rhythmically complex sounds. From folksy singer-songwriter melodies and lyrics, to his experimental junkyard orchestra of bagpipes and toilet seats, Waits’ rhythms and textures mature, creating an imaginative mood and tangible atmosphere, sculpting sound with unorthodox materials.

However, the entrance of Kathleen Brennan into his life affected Waits in a two-fold manner: not only did he marry her, but she also became the precursor to Waits’ significant aesthetic transformation, breaking with his producers and record label to reinvent his artistic persona. He credits her for not only saving his career from cliché and stagnation, but also from meeting the same fate of his many miserable drunken characters. Meeting onset in Francis Ford Coppella’s film One From the Heart and marrying shortly after, Brennan introduced Waits to experimental European avant-garde music and collaborated with him as a songwriter and producer, leading to his seminal musical trilogy: Swordfishtrombone (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987). The theatrical trilogy establishes Waits’ working class portraits that are enslaved to their circumstances, incorporating memoirs of the dark and damaged—lives that are smoked down to the filter before they are discarded. His methodological and thematic metamorphosis leads him to play with opposites, pairing gothic lyrics with familiar melodies (such as the waltz or nursery rhyme), creatively reconfiguring his deconstructed, global sounds into cemetery polkas and obituary mambos. Transitioning from Beatnik Americana to grotesque avant-garde, a recurring carnival motif structures Waits’ storytelling, both as a central theme and his form of narration.

Tom’s Carnivalesque: Bakhtin and the World of the Grotesque

The 20th century philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin helps consider the thematic significance of the carnival as a rhetorical and political hermeneutic through his complex analysis of polyphony and dialogical techniques–a mode of symbolic storytelling that employs perspectives from a variety of characters–utilized by Waits. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argues the medieval marketplace and folk culture’s carnival are the ideal socio-political assembly for subverting normative hierarchical systems of power through means of anarchy.[2] The carnival was a seasonal festival where parodies of Christmas and Pascal laughter were allowed—namely, the Feast of Fools, where hyperbole and chaos sought to unmask societal mores by means of transgression and disruption (e.g. Mardi Gras).

Bakhtin explains: “During the carnival, there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life”, the emperor becomes the “slave” or jester and vice versa.[3] The carnival functions to create freedom in society by violating the architecture of established normative politics through parody and caricature, opening the door to a fresh vision and new order of the world.[4] Here the odd, the freak, and the misfit have an egalitarian place in this temporary, utopian counter-society, hospitable to the outcasts and underdogs. This paradigmatically alters the normative standards of the healthy, wealthy, and beautiful. The carnival vision is unsettling and destabilizing in its reorienting perspective and eschatological vision for humanity.

Bakhtin’s world-upside-down ‘carnivalesque’ trope of inversion is drawn from classical satire, specifically Menippean satire and the Socratic dialogues. Menippean satire is the form of the ‘carnivalesque’ as a genre or world, allowing a unique perspective on reality through an inverted, fantastic, and unconventional viewpoint. Working with an organized chaos of moving viewpoints and different voices, mocking various ideologies, modern examples of Menippean satire include Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Voltaire’s Candide, Groucho Marx, and Monty Python. It often employs the grotesque as a trope of inversion and paradox in its’ allegorical narratives, where characters communally perform towards a utopic reality.



The ‘carnivalesque’ form within Menippean satire, utilizes Socratic dialogism, where the function of the speaker and listener change places. Differing from monologism’s single voice, Socratic dialogism is truth born between two or more voices collectively searching for it.[5] This occurs between Waits’ many characters collectively, and between Waits’ characters and his audience. Bakhtin helps us to understand the polyphony of Waits’ characters as distinct voices from Waits the songwriter. Utilizing polyphony as his rhetorical trope of “many voices,” Waits ensures distance between the tarnished portraits he creates and his own autobiographical realism (save perhaps the drunken piano player from his early career). Rather, his anarchical claptrap of characters exist within his crafted world of the ‘carnivalesque,’ a world more concerned with the narrative and rhythmic authenticity of his character’s stories and his ability to incarnate these stories through performances. Waits has noted that the process of starring in nearly thirty film roles has allowed him the freedom to embody fictional characters without them being mimetic of his own life. Thus, Waits as both writer and performer, reveals and conceals himself within and through his polyphonic lyrics.

In his theatrical play-turned-album The Black Rider (1993), Waits collaborated with William S. Burroughs in the 19th century German-Expressionist influenced Faustus legend, where a file clerk makes a pact with the devil, cloaked in the guise of a parasitic carnival ringmaster: “Lay down in the web of the black spider/I’ll drink your blood like wine.” Funnel cake pageantries and cotton candy confections have no place in the dark imagination of the German play, but rather the grotesque carnival, with its “chamber of horrors” and “morbid curiosity” subverting moral standards through the world of a circus.[6] Waits heightens the effect of the circus by playing the steam engine run calliope, in all its farcical and noisy, yet whimsical atmosphere. The circus barker in the opening track “Lucky Day (Overture)” roars into a megaphone announcing “Harry’s Harbor Bizarre for Human Oddities,” including the Three Headed Baby, Hitler’s brain, the German midget, the monkey woman, the dog face boy, and the mule-faced woman. We are given a strange cast of clowns, people that are rejects in a world of privilege, education, and pedigree. They are spectacles, selling their skills as malformed monsters to willing gawkers. There is a place for every voice in the polyphony of the ‘carnivalesque’ – a counter-community, a society of outcasts, a family of freaks. Waits shows us the irony, or rather disparity between the place of amusements— Midway Ferris wheels, balloon-popping, prize-winning, corndog frenzy— is actually a mask hiding the suffering of the overlooked and disposed.

Bakhtin considers the employment of the medieval carnival’s grotesque realism in order to conflate and unsettle bourgeoisie standards of decorum, chivalry and symmetry, especially in their equivocation with piety and godliness. Folk culture championed folly, subverting and lowering lofty, spiritual and abstract dynamics to the body, in all its’ humanity and physicality. We might be reminded of the bawdy and the crude characterization of the Miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with “his mouth like a furnace door/ He was a jester and could poetize, /
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.”[7]

Bakhtin contends that the grotesque offers us paradoxical imagery, utilizing a kind of exaggerated, disproportionate symbolism to illustrate humanity’s incompleteness, subject to transformation. Likewise, Waits employs hyperbole as a critical descriptive trope, aggrandizing details for illustrative purposes, depicting an expansive landscape in which his characters inhabit. The short story author and novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose writing genre was paradigmatic of the grotesque, understood the intrinsic need for embellishment, admitting that one has to scream at deaf people: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”[8] We might say that Waits is attempting something similar in both his mythmaking lyrics and visceral rhythms.

Grotesque as sermon of the ‘Dysangelion’

The grotesque portrays the spiritualized and contradictory, ranging in Waits’ music from gypsy folk caravans to demonic nightmares, in the voices of his circus ringmasters, outlaws, chain gang hollerins’, apocalyptic prophets, and unjust Pharisaical magistrates. His handicapped, freakish humans (e.g. “Tabletop Joe”, “Eyeball Kid”, “Scar-faced Ron”, the Camel Girl) are token “grotesque” caricatures, seasoning his surrealist storytelling. Taking on the role of the joker or jester from the carnival, Waits employs the grotesque thematically as a dialogical rhetorical technique to invert our perception of the world and its scumbag humdrum creatures. We might call him the preacher of the dysangelion, or the “bad news”, a prophet of doom, which should signal our connection to Menippean satire, since the very concept of preaching a Gospel seems counterintuitive to be “bad news.” For Waits, however, the grotesque is a normative attribute, if not liturgical formation, of the carnival.

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

The grotesque reaches toxic levels in his 1992 album Bone Machine, a Kafkaesque surrealist nightmare. A seminal record of bone-shaking rhythms, demonic cackles and bellowing roar portrays characters that range from the end time preacher on the side corner, the desperado and the macabre. “The Earth Died Screaming” employs absurd and incredulous wonders for apocalyptic dimensions of eschatology. Waits’ allusion to the biblical plagues of Exodus (“it rained mackerel, it rained trout”) imply the connection between the Scripture’s narrative scope of the fantastic, and the mythological aspects of the condemned being swallowed by Tartarus.

Blood Money (2002) is the music accompanying the tragic play of Woyzeck, a perverse true tale of jealousy-enraged murder told in stomp-and-growl marches, interspersed by soothing carnivalesque lullabies, such as “Coney Island Baby.“God’s Away on Business” was aptly included on the soundtrack to Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, where Waits’ lacerated vocal cords bark about the injustice of bureaucratic exploitation and oppression of “the poor, the lame, the blind.” His misanthropic fatalism sees the world going to hell in a handbasket from the authorities and corrosive powers left in charge— “killers, thieves, and lawyers,” to be precise. In a miasma of Hobbesian self-preservation, Waits concludes that this systemic damage is too great: God must be away on business because the atrocities are too deafening for God to remain silent. Who will save those that cannot help themselves from the exploitation of the powerful?

“Misery’s the River of the World” is a metronomic chant of humanity’s enslavement to perversity and self-interest, and the devil’s half-step behind God in cunning masquerades: “if there’s one thing you can say about mankind, /there’s nothing kind about man/…God builds the church, the devil builds a chapel/…the devil knows the world like the back of his hand.” Waits’ laryngitis croaks as he preaches on human culpability—we all have blood on our hands. “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” is nihilistic resignation to the tune of Halloween horror: “Life’s a mistake all day long. /Tell me, who gives a good goddamn, /you never get out alive/…If you live in hope you are dancing to a terrible tune.” This Jonah-themed descent into the inferno of humanity’s hellish realities, are a contemporary nod to Dante’s inscription above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” In what might be considered his darkest album, Tom’s descent into hell does not end with the macabre as his last word, as he employs a gospel of inversion to get our attention.

Nevertheless, how precisely is Waits’ grotesque actually the shock of grace? Since Waits has given us a normative where there is no docile God and no Deus ex machina to save his characters from the damage they inflicted on each other, the rare occurrences of grace appear as a disruption—a shock. Illogical in the enclosed system that Waits has provided for his audience, the presence of grace emerges de profundis (out of the depths)— as a trope of the carnivalesque. Theologian Ben Myer has suggested that grace itself is part of the grotesque in Tom Waits’s dysangelion:

“One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.’ Or on another occasion he wonders: ‘Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?’ In such songs, God burst onto the stage not as the benevolent projection of our wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of what ‘God’ should be.[9]

Grace, in Myers’ interpretation of Waits, is a perversion of the world’s depravity. Its extravagance is excessive in the context of impoverished and broken systems. This unnecessary and undeserved gift of reprieve from suffering is strangely offered to all who desire it, regardless of the crimes they have committed—heinous or minor. Waits engages the grotesque to distort our own expectations of a just God through his rhetorical trope of conversion.

Joker Turned Unlikely Saint: The ‘Holy Fool’ of Inversion

Beyond the jester, joker and clown in the ‘carnivalesque,’ there is the ‘Holy Fool.’ Drawing from Dostoevsky and Orthodox theology, Bakhtin considers this marginal holy figure who utilizes inversion and reversal in order to lead the community to conversion or salvation. The Holy Fool reconstructs our vision to see the saint concealed in rags. As a marginal prophet shouting from the sidelines, the Holy Fool acts in odd ways to get our attention, by inverting societal norms. Bakhtin scholar Harriet Murav states: “They are understood by the hagiographers to be practitioners of asceticism, yet their behavior, even to hagiographers, is anti-ascetic.”[10]Holy Fools are considered saints whose unholy and impious actions unveil deeper truths.


This trope of the Holy Fool allows the degenerate figures to transcend themselves, revealing “man to man” as Bakhtin relates. By affirming the divine image in the human, the Holy Fool seeks to convey and reestablish the divinity of the human in all their brokenness, lack of education and depravity. We are misled if we judge Tom Waits as a frequenter of strip clubs and trashy bars to advocate their objectification and consumption. Rather, Waits risks being scandalized by his association with these places, seeking to humanize its occupants, rather than exploit them. Like one of Georges Rouault’s clowns in a Fellini circus, he hopes to unmask our pious criticisms and holier-than-thou sense of self-righteousness by telling their stories (e.g. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” “Heartattack and Vine”). In this way, Waits is an exorcist of our own prejudice, showing the listeners back to ourselves in the dialogical engagement with his cabaret of characters. An unlikely saint, Waits illuminates a path of suffering to sainthood, attending to the beauty in the gutter over whitewashed sepulchers, disarming our securities by making us uncomfortable through the foreign and unfamiliar.

For Tom Waits, narrative strategies and rhetorical structures of dialogical polyphony are theology. Waits’ theatricality represents both God and the most unholy humans. By taking on folly, he represents the human that is furthest away from God, like the Holy Fool takes on homelessness and wandering like Jesus. As Murav notes:

“Polyphony is understood to be a Christ-like self-effacement. Bakhtin’s reading of Christ as a figure in whom dialogue and carnival are central are from two Russian traditions of venerating Christ as a human being and venerating holy fools who perform disgusting and frequently obscene acts as Christ-like.”[11]

We catch glimpses of this hope in a handful of Waits’ rare, but poignant tunes. Despite the hellish universe and despicable crimes that his characters have committed, Waits gives us “Down There By the Train” and “Come On Up to the House.” As his earlier lyrics depict the lowest common denominator for every human is death, this depiction of hope and radical grace transfigures Waits’s grotesque. Off his Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006) collection, “Down There By The Train” describes a kind of universal redemption open to the likes of Cain, Judas Iscariot, John Wilkes Booth, and even the soldier that pierced Christ’s side—murderers of the most innocent victims. Giving the recipe for a maximally damaged life, Waits assures that salvation is spendthrift, available for even those unable to believe:

“There’s a place I know where the train goes slow/
where sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb/
there’s a river by the trestle down by sinner’s grove/
down where the willow and the dogwood grow/
you can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell/
from the halls of heaven to the gates of hell/
and sinner there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time. / You’ll be washed of all your sins and all your crimes…

If you’ve lost all your hope and if you’ve lost all your faith.
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe.”

It is a hymn of profligate grace, for those crawling to the train track crossroads in life’s final moments.

Waits continues in “Come on Up to the House” from Mule Variations (1999). No fuller act of mercy or magnanimity can be shown than the hospitality of welcoming every sinner through the door, a homecoming to all the wandering nomads we find littering Waits’ music. Waits acts like the Prodigal father, receiving his sons and daughters with open arms in their long-awaited nostos. The pilgrims are invited to come down off their crosses, their suffering is over at long last, and the wood will be put to better use. Waits insists that Hobbes’s view of nature is worth leaving behind: “does life seem nasty, brutish and short?/…The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ thru/ You gotta come up to the house.” As the Holy Fool, the maximal inversion and world-upside-down action possible is offering mercy and grace in place of judgment and condemnation. If Christ, the archetype of holy fools does this for prostitutes and thieves, who is beyond the fold of grace’s reach? Are we not called to do the same?

Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet

In the 1970s, Gavin Bryers was shooting footage for a documentary on the homeless in the city of London. Providentially, he unintentionally captured a recording of a homeless man, feebly, yet hopefully singing a simple tune: “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” After looping the tune to play over 74 long minutes, Bryers overlade the tramp’s humble hymn with a gradual accompaniment of strings, culminating in a full orchestra. Tom Waits happened to hear this song playing on the radio one night on Kathleen’s birthday, and it became one of his favorite tapes. In 1993, Bryers asked if Waits would record the tune to create a duet of sorts. Waits’ gravelly, whisky-aged leathered voice enters alongside the unnamed man, undergirds him in their harmony—and carries him home. For Waits, it is type of confession. He sees himself among the homeless wanderers from his early life and the lives he continues to pen stories about and the end he might have had. Music critic Stephen Webb pushes the symbolism of the overlaid harmony further:

“Waits is the acoustical shape of the Son, lifting the tramp with his low voice, and thus showing us how Jesus can take our discordant souls and make them whole… Bryar’s composition, like all great music, I suppose, gives us a sonic foretaste of what it might mean to enter—with the dispossessed at our side—into heaven.[12]

This last irony of the world-upside-down from the carnivalesque is that the low will be brought high, and the homeless will be brought home: “Jesus’s love never failed me yet,/ Jesus love never failed me yet, Jesus love never failed me yet; /its one thing I know, he loves me so.”



[1]Kerouac, Jack, and Ann Charters. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 2003.
[2]Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1968.
[3] Ibid, 15.
[4] Ibid, 34.
[5]Ibid, 107.
[6] Kessel, Corinne. The Words and Music of Tom Waits. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
[7] Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Nevill Coghill. The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin, 2003, 559-561.
[8] O’Connor, Flannery, and Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being: Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.
[9] Myer, Ben. “Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion.” Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion. 31 Dec. 2007. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
[10] Murav, 21.
[11] Ibid, 13.
[12] Webb, Stephen H. “A Sonic Foretaste of Heaven.” First Things. First Things, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015

The Scar in the Sound

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

Apart from the many ways Tom Waits is a spiritually-steeped artist—his lyrics brimming with religious and biblical references, his reveling in ritualistic forms (re-forming or productively deforming them), and his posturing as a post-modern, post-religious and post-secular prophet—apart from and underneath and before all of that…there is a voice.

Hearing it for the first time is like getting slapped with a large, raw steak. The overwhelming–even punishing–quality of the voice itself poses the first challenge. It is incredible, in the purest sense of the word. It surpasses any reasonable expectation of what a human singing voice should sound like.

My ten year-old daughter’s reaction: “Oh Dad… not that guy again… I mean, I like the music, but his singing is just so… awful.” David Dark tells me his son waxed a bit more poetic: “He sounds like he’s already dead.” Or, consider the critic Daniel Durchholz: “[Waits’ voice sounds] like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

But therein lies its mysterious power. Like a car crash, the repulsion/attraction dynamic of it has long intrigued me, but that’s a weak analogy, as I’ve always sensed something more than spectacle and morbid curiosity at work in Waits’ voice. Aesthetically, perceptually, and theologically, this voice uniquely matters.

Scars and Sound

I think my daughter’s primary obstacles with Waits are two-fold: she hasn’t listened enough to see the nuances of what he is doing, and she hasn’t stumbled, regretted, or suffered enough. As for Waits’ sufferings, it seems his crosses have been largely of his own making, and he’s sometimes seemed a little too eager to hang on them. But, what redeems so many of those self-inflicted wounds is a brute honesty about how they came about.

A large part of the early albums were about wine, women, song, and a great deal of loneliness. With each successive recording his sound got rougher by his own choice. One only need contrast two early numbers: the lovely ballad “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (from the album Closing Time, 1973) which tells the story of a near romantic miss in a bar, with the “old shirt stained with blood and whiskey” referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” just three years later (from Small Change, 1976). In the latter song, the lament “I’ve lost my St. Christopher, now that I’ve kissed her, and the one-armed bandit knows….” You can see the shift toward consequence in the lyrics, but it’s really more important to hear, and engage, the damage in the voice itself. The man is desperately shoving wind through his shredded vocal folds, and they seem reluctant to move, like old, tattered, velvet curtains. The subsequent resonance is unearthly: shaking the bones, searing the viscera, embodying relentless tensions and a tortured history. Enormous symbolic and experiential freight gets hauled into the musical equation in a way that absolutely commands our attention, or forces us to turn away. There is something desperate, and prophetic, in that. You can scorn the scar in the sound, but you cannot ignore it.


So, while he certainly romanticized the alcohol-soaked, vagabond musician image in those early years, he was generally truthful about where it could so often leave you. As he grew older, Waits typically leapfrogged the description of the party to the bitter, desolate after-party. The lyrics—in their themes, stories, and tone—continued to evolve, less concerned with late Friday nights as with the myriad hopes, disappointments, injustices, and indignities (many self-inflicted), of the everyday grind. Ballads of wanderers, real and mythic, mark his stories. He balances prophetic tirades against the abuse of power, hypocrisy, and injustice with humble refrains of confession, weakness, and regret. Between the dark clouds and cold irony, you might find a hymn to beauty, hope, forgiveness. His songs are about us for the most part, but references to God, angels, prophets, saints, apostles, martyrs, demons and devils all hang around, like a low deep fog of witness.

Voice and Grain

Voices are no ordinary sound. They are at once, and always, cultural, biological, semiotic, communicative, and relational phenomena. They demand responses from us that other sounds in the world do not, and their complexities give them an allusive quality of significance distinct from the words they deliver. It was this dimension that the critic Roland Barthes was chasing in his essay “The Grain of the Voice.”[1] Therein, he criticizes the famous tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as being part of the “pheno-text” tradition, where the voice is fully in submission to communication, aspiring to express something of the soul (leaving the body behind), and this annoys him. He contrasts this romantic aesthetic with the “geno-text,” to be found in other singers who don’t elide the trappings of the body:

It is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that signifiance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance. With FD [Fischer-Dieskau], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.

Well, as specious as Barthes’ understanding of singing technique may be, Tom fits the bill. All that fleshy stuff rattles loudly in Waits, to the point of almost extreme theatricality. Likewise, pitch, duration, intensity/dynamics, timbre—all the stuff of sound—become his playthings, as he willfully abandons anything like “perfection.” He will bend a note or sing off-key, refuse to tune his piano, beat his body into submission and drag his vocal chords through all manner of manipulation to maximize expressivity. He truly is a performance artist this way, trafficking in hyper-affectivity.

Sound as Meaningful

According to the philosopher of sound, Donald Ihde,[2] the story of Enlightenment philosophy is to stress “visualism” as the dominant sensory paradigm, as it suits itself to the sort of “objectivity” and “truth” (i.e., seeing is believing) that Enlightenment thinkers held to be central to their project. The quest to make everything subservient to human reason led to the questioning of all sensory experience, forever placing the “real” in an inaccessible realm, as Democritus presaged it long ago.[3] Ihde argues that the world, in the wake of visualism (that distancing sense, encouraging “objectivism,” autonomy, control and possessiveness), has been “de-vocalized.”[4] Visualism has reduced our relation with the world to subject – object, rather than the natural communion that sound encouraged for so many millennia, when oral cultures were the norm.


Waits, we might argue, through the pronounced quality of his voice, re-vocalizes the world by force. He grabs us by the lapels, and grounds us back into the earth. This is due, in no small part, to the power of sound as meaning, in itself. Again, Ihde argues:

The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful…[A]nd the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.[5]

What he means is that the sound itself should not be undervalued in the meaning equation. We should not treat sound as merely an “envelope” in which the meaning (the words) is delivered. Sound is a tool, but not merely a tool. Words are meaningful, but not the only meaning. Together, with meaningful sound, they create an aggregate meaning, often complex and rich.

Ihde agrees with the great communication theorist Walter Ong that sound is naturally internal, immersive, and communal.[6] By virtue of the way we experience it, sound is deeply personal because resonates within our bodies (as opposed to the “distanced” sense of sight), though it nearly always necessitates a source of sound outside ourselves.

So, in the typical constitution of our sense of self, and others in relation to us, sound is critical. But beyond the relational dimension, sound also fundamentally defines our world in ways we don’t always recognize. For instance, sound gives us a sense of surfaces (think of the sound of chalk on a chalkboard). It also reveals the “invisible,” through appeal to our imaginative capacities: think of children guessing their birthday presents by shaking boxes and attentively listening.[7] Through sounds…

…the melon reveals its ripeness; the ice its thinness; the cup its half-full contents; the water reservoir, though enclosed, reveals exactly the level of the water inside in the sounding of interiors…. We hear hollows and solids as the interior spatiality of things. We hear the penetration of sound into the very depths of things, and we hear again the wisdom of Heraclitus, ‘The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.’[8]

The term “auscultation” refers to the listening of the inner workings of the throat, heart, and lungs via stethoscope, to identify illness.[9] A more radical instrument is the anechoic chamber, an acoustically manipulated room where noise is almost completely absent.[10] Here, the normally hidden noises of our body – the rasp of the breath, the “buzzing of our nervous system, the interrupted heartbeat”–are made loud. Given the tremors and impediments of the body, so prominent in Waits’ sound, we might see Waits functioning as a type of auscultation, an anechoic chamber wherein we hear the materiality of the human frame, in concert or at war with the breath.


In this light, one of my favorite Waits quotes reveals a deeper meaning: “Ya know, songs are just really interesting things to be doing with the air….”

The creative power of the Hebrew God is word, which is spoken forth as power: from word comes the world. And although God may hide himself from the eyes, he reveals himself in word, which is also event in spite of the invisibility of his being. Human life, too, as the word-breath that unites the human with others and the gods is a life in sound. But if the world is devocalized, then what becomes of listening? Such has been a theological question that has also pervaded our culture.[11]

The Hebrew word for spirit, Ruach, is also the word for breath. If the spirit is breath, Waits is, very often, the death rattle, the last gasp as the body begins to collapse in on the breath. And yet–by sheer will–Waits forces it out, defiantly. In this way, he is like a warrior for messy, authentic life; for real, bodily experience in the world, amid many forces that would package and commodify it, simulate and sell it online.

He also functions in the prophetic mode, like Ezekiel wasting away on his side in the middle of square, hollering, out of his enormous discomfort, how everyone ought to turn around before it’s too late. Waits gives us the whole body, and the fragility of Being, by accentuating and foregrounding the grain of the sound, and it is by sound that he asserts material Being in an age tempted to skip the body altogether.

Just like we can rattle a box to comprehend the dimensions of the “invisible” object inside, so Waits gives us himself, but, in a mimetic/mirroring fashion, he also gives us ourselves in a type of material communion. There is nothing ethereal about this. Waits strong-arms his guts to the surface. Through listening, we absorb those sounds, and achieve a type of material recognizance of the forces (and impediments) at work in making them.

This honesty, prophetic truth, and communion in struggle make his moments of sentiment, reflection, hope and beauty all the more potent when they do appear. For me, Waits is primarily about beauty, a type of ironic, diamond-in-the-rough treasure revealed. When he sings “Ever Since I put your Picture in a Frame,” we hear his scratchy growl in counterpoint with the sweetness of the melody and the lyrical sentiment, creating an endearing portrait of a man in need of reform, who may have found redemption in love:

Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Ever since I put your picture
In a frame.

I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
Every since I put your picture
In a frame

And here, at the best moment of the song (the bridge), he desperately strains upward with all that he has and soars:

I’m gonna love you ‘til the wheels come off.

His voice is pressed and foundering, his pitch is messy, his breath support dying away—his wings are mangled, but, by God, he’s flying—and I really can’t imagine it any other way. Something like a miracle occurs there…materiality and ethereality mingle, like earth and heaven. This is the language, and the sound, of the imperfect vital machine: the human body pushed to the brink, to the edge of the world, existence, the body’s limit, for love, only to arrive at a most improbable grace.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic

For those who dare to set foot on the road of faith, all this talk of materiality, weakness, and the bodily locus of so many meanings points to the Incarnation, the uniquely Christian idea that the Divine Word has taken vulnerable flesh. It also embodies within it, historically, metaphorically, semiotically, the notion that Christ humbled himself; that there was nothing in his appearance to draw us to him. His life was hard, his death was harder, and he was brimming with sympathy for the downcast, the forgotten, the castaway. He came to commiserate, yes, but also to save.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.

(Isaiah 53:2, 11)

“The incarnation changes everything,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an agnostic and pre-eminent philosopher who unexpectedly found himself arguing for the relevance of Christian thought.[12] In the politically charged climate of 1950s Paris, he served as a great champion of the human body as a perceptual agent, and the locus of human meaning. As his own Marxist confidence waned and his rift with Jean-Paul Sartre widened, he saw the Incarnation in a new light: a doctrine of great power, on numerous levels, culminating in the political essay “Faith and Good Faith.” Though he was not embracing the whole of the faith, he was understanding how his love of the body and his quest for meaning, relation, and knowledge could be summed up in that image of the God-man.

But how does the Incarnation help us understand or love that god-awful sound coming out of Tom Waits? The answer, in part, runs through a redemptive ugliness; an ugliness that finds use and meaning as part of larger redemptive story. In this, Waits is in a time-honored tradition.

There is a church in Bavaria, and above the altar is this crude sculpture:

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

It is generally acknowledged that this image is not only poor craftsmanship, aesthetically, but more than a bit revolting in its horrific and gross corporeal detail: bruises, blood, scars and gaping wounds. Over the centuries, the church guides tell me, there have been numerous attempts to remove this sculpture and replace it with a more sanitary alternative, but the peasants kept revolting and forcibly hauling it back. At one point, tears had been seen upon it, and it became a pilgrimage site. It’s ugly, it’s wounded, it’s broken, it’s dilapidated, and it cries for them. In other words, it’s imperfectly perfect—a material echo of Christ’s divine life and work.

Now, the Apostle Thomas doubted, like the rest of us, and Thomas Waits is no exception: “Unless I put my fingers in his hands, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” But in Waits’ own scars, we sense he has been doing just that:

Cold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
Lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out
On the street.

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for
Georgia Lee?

Sometimes, it all seems very hopeless in Tom Waits’ world, but the astute observer will note that the first lines of this song–“Dark was the night, cold was the ground”–is actually an intertextual reference, a dialogue with a very famous, blind, abused and poor bluesman: Blind Willie Johnson.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson

As a poor, blind black man in the 1930s, Johnson really had suffered in unimaginable ways, and yet managed to hold the faith. His song – which was a version of a well known spiritual–went like this:

Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.

”Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.

Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.

Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.

What makes Johnson’s version so special: his voice rivals Waits in its gravelly, shredded quality, and he speaks not a word of this well known spiritual. The lyrics (known and embodied in the oral culture of the African-American community) were already there, hanging in the air. As the they gesture toward the unspeakable, Johnson hums, groans, and incarnates the truths behind the words in remarkable musical interchange with his guitar. Any doubts that Tom Waits expresses in “Georgia Lee” need also to be seen in conversation with the sainted bluesmen who have gone before. In this light, Waits does not simply voice doubt, anger, and struggle, but quests for understanding through evocation of those who struggled before him. “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” Cornel West once said. I’m trying to convince my daughter that what I love in Tom Waits is connected to that Bavarian statue and the groans of Blind Willie Johnson.

Do we see resurrection in Tom Waits? Not quite, it seems, but we do see hope. Even the resurrected Christ–healed, perfect, victorious–bears the scars.



[1] Found in Image-Music-Text (Stephen Heath, trans.). London: HarperCollins, 1977.

[2] Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 7-7, 14.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 61, 68.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Rice, Tom. “Sounding Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 299.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] “Faith and Good Faith,” in Sense-and Non-Sense (Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Get Free

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

In a 1999 cover story for Rolling Stone, Lauryn Hill said about her exit from the Fugees, “But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.”[1] Over the next couple of years, however, she would experience liberation of a different nature–a deep spiritual renewal. Hints of Hill’s spiritual transformation were present in her post-solo album interviews[2] and award acceptance speeches,[3] but she clearly unfolded her journey of faith in an unexpected place, via an unassuming solo acoustic guitar performance on MTV’s Time Square Studios. Her 2001 MTV Unplugged No. 2 performance was received by much of the music press at the time as a public breakdown. In an interview with Essence after the performance, the journalist indicated, “a growing concern for her vulnerability. I worry about the 27-year-old’s willingness to speak from the heart about how passionately she has rededicated her life to God.”[4] Other publications were not as gracious calling the performance a “nervous breakdown” filled with “psychobabble, self-help happy talk, ranting, and preaching”[5] and touting “a philosophy tailor-made for the tantrum-throwing, I-don’t-do-stairs world of soul divas and supermodels.”[6]

Near the beginning of the performance Hill tells her audience, “Fantasy’s what people want but reality is what they need. And I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” According to Hill, reality begins with refusing to dress up her body or voice in the way that the music industry expects her to do. In her performance, she wears jeans and a NY Mets hat while singing with a hoarse, tired and cracking voice. Furthermore, Hill uses performative techniques akin to leading a church service with the understated vulnerability of her unaccompanied acoustic guitar. She utilizes testimony, preaching and singing songs of worship, all in a hip-hop folk style to witness to her audience a message of liberation through the gospel. A gospel she believes, in the words of Jesus, proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and the oppressed, and recovers the sight of those blinded by the system.

In a 2012 paper titled, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill,” La Marr Jurelle Bruce argues that Hill purposely aligns herself with the trope of mad, black woman in the vein of other female vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.[7] Hillis not trying to destabilize her audience’s gendered and racial expectations but works in a performance mode perceived by listeners as someone who has gone crazy, when, in fact, she has not. Though she refers to herself throughout this performance as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable”[8], she is operating in a different mode, as a modern day prophet. Hill is prophetically speaking against “the system.”

She identifies enslavement to materialism, celebrity worship and self-centeredness as aspects of this system, which she names as part of late-capitalist American culture and people’s inner lives. But most notably, she opposes the historic and present racial discrimination against African Americans and uses her personal gospel transformation as a guide to speak up for those oppressed by the American justice system. The liberation Hill sings of is both physical and spiritual. Through this comprehensive sense of the gospel, Hill addresses the issues that lie at the center of both the oppressors and oppressed, a sinful heart in need of grace.

The beginning song tryptic of “Adam Lives in Theory,” “Oh Jerusalem” and “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” outlines Hill’s belief on the source of personal and cultural oppression. Hill drops her strongest critique of the sinful world in “War in the Mind (Freedom Time).”

According to Hill, in her extended forceful raps, reminiscent of the delivery of African-American preachers, people’s minds are splintered realities in Western post-modernist cultures. She deconstructs any and all -isms–religions, televangelists, and academia–in broad strokes. These systems Hill describes as depraved and sinfully disordered but also acknowledges that individual human hearts are implicated. All of humanity is so wrapped up in these realities, Hill sings, that when “Truth comes, we can’t hear it/When you’ve been programmed to fear it.” At this point, a tonal shift occurs which becomes the foundation for the rest of the performance. Hill in her gritty, sandpaper-toned preaching rap tells her audience, “Where there’s no repentance there can be no admission/And that sentence, more serious than Vietnam/The atom bomb and Saddam and Minister Farrakhan.” The audience applauds in response to Hill’s call for repentance and then she goes on to explain, “His word has nailed/Everything to the tree/Severing all of me/From all I used to be.” Referencing the transformative power of the gospel on her life and as the vehicle through which freedom is obtained.

Thus far in the performance, Hill has spoken against oppressive systems and hinted at the gospel as a liberating force. These themes are then injected into real world struggles experienced by African-Americans in “The Mystery of Iniquity”, “So Much Things to Say” and “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel).” In “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel),” Hill humanizes the problem of systemic racism by retelling the story of the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, by four plainclothes NYPD officers with forty-one bullets. At trial it was discovered that Amadou was reaching for his wallet in his pocket (and not a gun as the officers believed) when he was shot[9]. Prefacing the song, Hill explains the difficulty she encountered writing this song and how God intervened, providing her a direction: “Now I realize that this song is about freedom. You see. We can look at one human being but it’s about the spirit of freedom being taken out. And how it’s taken out in all of us.”[10] Tragically set using flowing arpeggiated minor chords in the lower register of her acoustic guitar, she sings about how black lives are thought of as “cheap,” “easy to be wasted” and views the shooting as history repeating itself. In her devastation over Amadou’s death, she finds comfort in Psalm 37:1, “Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man” and subscribes what Pilate said in response to the Jews at Jesus’ trial to Amadou, “His blood is on their hands.” Singing desperately and pleadingly she loses her voice asking her audience to wake up from their sleep regarding tragic deaths like these and from now on to “choose well,” “rebel,” and repent.

Prophetically uncovering sinful hearts, which create and sustain these unjust systems, Hill reveals God’s heart for liberation of the oppressed but then in “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” she identifies as one of the oppressed, vulnerably singing about her own need for gospel liberation.

In the simple narrative, Hill details her internal struggle between Satan, who tells her peace of mind is not possible, and God, who says it is impossible without him. She sincerely seeks God’s truth, loving embrace, and longs to repent of her past, leaving her old self behind. Shifting from smoothly strummed chords to a heavy-laden reggae beat, Hill repeats over and over again that it is possible to find peace of mind with God’s gift of freedom. Here justice and peace are intrinsically linked by Hill, in the sense that justice will bring about a peace that “means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.”[11] In that space of acceptance of God’s freedom and rest she can sing softly, “What a joy it is to be alive/To get another chance,” and then overwhelmed by God’s grace in her life she tearfully sings about the peace she has found.

Following this emotional unloading is a twelve minute interlude, that functions like a sermon on sin, total depravity, materialism, pursuing God-given passion, gospel transformation, spiritual warfare, and marriage, with the goal of weaving into her audience a picture of personal and societal peace. Within this sermon, she also provides the framework for her performance and the gospel of liberation:

And that’s what all these songs about. Problem, cause and solution. Free your mind. Yeah. It’s like we all think that the gospel is join a church building and that’s deception. You know, the real gospel is repent. Which means let go of all that crap that’s killing you. Life is supposed be a pleasurable experience not this torment.[12]

Hill’s powerful prophetic words for gospel justice within a broken system were not well received beyond MTV’s Time Square studio by critics or consumers. She still continues to be viewed, as she testified to in this performance, as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable” and is comfortable with accepting those labels. Her intent as a musical prophet is to wake up her audience from the slumber of consumerism, self-centeredness and racism of late-capitalist American culture. As Dr. Claudette Carr writes in a January 2014 post at Afritorial, “Lauryn Hill, is positioning herself in the tradition of Old Testament Prophets, as an outcast… a Concious [sic] Pariah.”[13] Like Jeremiah, she weeps over the injustices in this world and like John the Baptist, she is preparing the way for her audience to see and accept the liberating freedom of the gospel. Hill’s performance, then, captures the love of God for each individual sinner and his love of justice, in this case, particularly for African-Americans suffering under systemic racism. And her prophetic call is for all of humanity to respond by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. Hill’s final words echo what the Apostle Paul wrote in the Book of Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” she proclaims:

God is saying, “Get free. Confess, man. Understand that. Look everybody is going through the same stuff. Same issues it’s just a bunch of repression.” And I’m sayin’, “Man, life it’s too, too valuable, man, for us to sit here in these boxes all repressed, you know, afraid to admit what we really going through.” You know what I’m sayin’? I’m tired of that.[14]


[1] Touré. “Lady Soul”, Rolling Stone. February 18, 1999. Accessed February 3, 2015.

[2] See Ibid. and Pearl Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, Essence, July 1, 2002, 89-94.

[3] See Lauryn Hill, “Album of the Year Acceptance Speech”, 41st Annual Grammy Awards, CBS, aired February 24, 1999 and Lauryn Hill, “Essence Award Acceptance Speech“, 13th Annual Essence Awards, Turner Classic Movies, aired June 2, 1999.

[4] Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, 90.

[5] Nathan Rabin, “Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged Version 2.0”, The A.V. Club, May 21, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[6] Alex Petridis, “Songs from La-La Land”, The Guardian, April 26, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[7] La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill”, African American Review (45, no. 3, Fall 2012), 371-89.

[8] Lauryn Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, with Lauryn Hill, Colombia Records, 2002.

[9] Jane Fritsch, “The Diallo Verdict: The Overview; 4 Officers in Diallo Shooting Are Acquitted of All Charges”, The New York Times, February 26, 2000. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[10] Hill, “Interlude 3” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[11] Tim Keller, “Justice”, (sermon, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, NY, October 23, 2005)

[12] Hill, “Interlude 5” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[13] Claudette Carr, “Locating Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism.” Afritorial. January 14, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[14] Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

Till I Collapse: From Tupac to Lecrae

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.


Imagine Green Day releasing a country album, or Taylor Swift releasing 1990’s emo. Imagine the sound of Johnny Cash singing with Sigor Rós. Imagine the lyrics of Coldplay in the diminished fifth of Nine Inch Nails. Imagine Lil-Wayne writing gospel. Imagine a black metal hymnal.

Unless you are “Weird Al” Yankovic, these absurd artistic decisions are unthinkable. Even before there are categories or genres, we know that music works when form and content meet. Form and content need to be in tune with one another or the audience cannot concentrate on what’s going on. Whether the rhythm of My Brightest Diamond or the a-rhythm of Math Music, the aura of Sigor Rós or the dirge of Blut Aus Nord, they make sense because, whatever the music is trying to be, it is being that clearly: a sign of clarity is being able to recognize principles holding the music together. This is as true for Bach as for John Cage. Even Cage wants his un-music to make sense as un-music. Whenever form and content coalesce, and they have a near infinite capacity for this, and there is something there to listen to.

All of this helps re-situate a question that Lecrae and others are asked without end: “How can such a thing as Christian rap exist?” This is asked in many ways, but that’s the gist. Somehow, for some reason, the intersection of Christian themes and hip-hop raises a concern over form and content.

I was fortunate to interview Lecrae, and was determined not to ask him that question. But the question began to reverse itself. So in the middle of our conversation, I asked  “So, what’s up with hip-hop? How can hip-hop sustain the company of Tupac, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, and Lecrae? How is it so flexible a genre?” After thinking it over a moment, Lecrae replied. “Hip-hop has always been about the disenfranchised.”

I want to clarify what Lecrae and hip-hop mean by “disenfranchised,” even reconsidering the term. I’ll do that indirectly by way of the two formal distinctions that set hip-hop apart from other genres, moving from Tupac to Eminem. In part, this is an historical assessment.

What does Lecrae mean by disenfranchised? First one has to think about the voice that hip-hop speaks from, the distinct grammatical person, as in first-,  second-, or third-person it uses. Lyrics use all three personal vantages, and genres prefer one or another: first-person in pop-music; second-person in Civil War spirituals; and third-person in ballads and Arcade Fire.

With the first-person perspective, it’s significant who the person is. Think of The National’s “I need my girl.” Who is the “I” who needs his girl? Even if the The National, when writing the song, were missing their girl, the “I” is crucially distinct from Matt Berninger. The songs are not about him. But here and elsewhere, the first-person “I” works cathartically. We can all possess the “I.” An entire stadium of fans can sing along with “I need my girl,” or Coldplay’s “I will fix you,” even if at the moment they have their girl right next to them, or have already fixed the the problem. They can own the song by taking on the lyrical vantage point of “I.”


In hip-hop, the “I” is not sharable or primarily cathartic. The voice that hip-hop takes on is historical. Tupac writes about himself. He is the “I.” It is not an artistic attache through whom the listener can sing along with, having a sense of owning the song himself. Tupac is writing about himself, not so that you can sing with him, but so that you can listen to him. The first-person of hip-hop conveys a sense of the artist being a witness, telling you what he saw.You’re not meant to think that you were there as well when Tupac’s friend got shot, when Wu-Tang went to war or when Jay-Z became king. And you’re certainly not meant to think you are them. It was Tupac’s friend who got shot. Don’t pretend to be Tupac. Listen to Tupac.

Though Tupac speaks about himself, he speaks as a young black male, as in his first album’s first song, “Young Black Male.” He represents the experience of that community. But instead of the choral, plural “we,” Tupac, and hip-hop after him, decided to stand in-front and represent personally that neighborhood, ghetto, city (; e.g., Jay-Z’s Brooklyn’s Finest). Because of this, the listener often gets confused.  Should the listener sing along or is the listener being sung to/about? Hip-hop is not quick to clarify.

The second part of hip-hop is how the writer, the first-person “I,” defines himself. This is not just self-expression, and it is certainly not an impersonal, abstract “self” defining. It is fundamentally auto-biographical; it is auto-nomous, self-naming. Sometimes it looks like masculine preening. Jay-Z: “I’m the new Sinatra.” In his first album, Tupac spells out the acronym Nigga: Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished. Wu-Tang is nothing to fuck with. They’re all still # 1, still on top. In part, this names the community that the artist writes from, as when Eminem represents the 311. And sometimes this is definition by negation. Tupac writes: “Made to feel inferior, but we’re superior … Honour a man that who refuses to respect us.”

Tupac began certain self-definitions that hip-hop cannot get away from: “I’m a nightmare,” “I’m what you made me,” “They call me violent…the violent’s what I gotta be” and “You’re watching the makings of a psychopath.” In just his first album, and then in Me Against the World, he makes himself something to fear; he digs into a gun fight with police, sees brothers get shot, loves and protects his mother and threatens anyone who talks back. And like his mother taught him, he better be respected. After a while, a character develops which later hip-hop artists have taken as their prototype.


Tupac’s character is picked up by the Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang Clan is Tupac’s violence engorged. What is Wu-Tang all about? A friend of mine, who has studied Wu-Tang far more than I, has answered, “I – I think they are trying to say that they are nothing to mess with.” Their songs repeat this over and again. The violence that Wu-Tang describes is intricate and almost juvenile in its extravagance, aspiring for avant-garde. Tupac made threats; Wu-Tang carried out the hits.

Following the lyrical wars of Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan, a new character evolves. A new king ascends to the throne. No longer content to be a modern Billy the Kid, he’s the new Rockefeller. He’s Jay-Z. His threats are brief and subtle; he protects La Familia. Concern for mothers and hatred toward fathers has been around since Tupac. Jay-Z, however, has daughters. This introduces a new tension between family and hip-hop. He also continues to have visions of empire, even divine metamorphosis: “You in the presence of a king/Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.”


These lyrics, and the tension between them, re-occur endlessly in Eminem. “Mockingbird” is a testament to both familial sorrow and visions of empire: “Cause all I ever wanted to do was just make you proud/Now I’m sitting in this empty house, just reminiscing” and “Why be a king, when you can be a god?”

Eminem writes about being a rap god with all the usual superlatives, but to all these self-definitions he gives a twist. Eminem is ambiguous about who he is talking about; for from early on, he gave an independent existence to his hip-hop personae, Slim Shady. Dating  back to Africa Bambaataa, Tupac and the rest have always had MC pseudonyms. But whenever Sean Carter spoke about Jay-Z, he was talking about himself, under a different name. The DJ handle was a mask, a fake ID, a title.

Eminem’s Slim Shady had a personality. Slim Shady speaks to Eminem and Eminem speaks back, a routine where two persons are played by one artist. Slim Shady is a separate bag of motivations, vices and threats. He is a self-sufficient ego. At times Eminem and Slim seem to converge, as in the song “Real Slim Shady.” But even there, the question is who Slim Shady is. And it ends with Eminem admitting, “Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us.”

In every case, Slim Shady is the enemy. “Eminem” and “Slim Shady” stand in-twine like a wretch and a tyrant. In the 1998 EP of “Slim Shady,” (not the LP), there’s an opening skit where Eminem wakes up to Slim Shady’s demonic voice telling him to look into the mirror. “You’re nothing without me,” the voice laughs. The scene approaches the disturbing mood of horror. Music screeches. Eminem screams “get out.” Slim Shady is a ghoul, a demon. Eminem finds in himself the mature schizophrenia that Tupac first confessed to in “Death around the Corner:”

“I see death around the- corner, anyday

Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway

Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die

Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes

I can’t give up although I’m hopeless/I think my mind’s gone.”

Before Eminem introduced Slim Shady, he wrote songs that spoke of rapping forever. His first album was all about him being infinite. After Slim, he writes about going in and out of rehab, in and out of relationships and on and off the stage. He threatens to quit once and for all, then promises to come back smart and cocky and then apologizes to his mom and his daughter. Phrases repeat like “I ain’t halting/Till I die of exhaustion” and “I can’t stop / Till I drop.” Somehow, he knows that what he’s doing is fatal. He wavers. Slim is the “the nightmare [in which he] fell asleep and then woke up still in.” And though the nightmare is an infinitely creative expanse, it begs to be escaped from.

Eminem (or Slim?) writes:

“Tragic portrait of an artist tortured

Trapped in his own drawings

Tap into thoughts

Blacker and darker than anything imaginable

Here goes a wild stab in the dark”

What hip-hop artist escapes this assessment? What more can rap do now, except offer darker and darker thoughts? We ask Lecrae how can you be a Christian and a hip-hop artist. Eminem asks how he can be a hip-hop artist and sane.

A sense of “disenfranchised” emerges from these lyrics. It is about far more than universal suffrage or economic poverty, though certainly those come up. There is distress over mothers & daughters, neighborhoods and empires, victory and death. With its economic tone, disenfranchised might technically be incorrect. The themes suggest dis-ease or dis-integration.

What’s more – and this theme has followed us from the start – the disenfranchised artist keeps reaching, through his auto-nomous, for enfranchisement. He fights his way out, breaks the arm of injustice, battles his own demons. And when he’s made it to the top, he realizes that somewhere along the way, he dropped his crown, forgot his family, or lost his mind. These are threads as old as Antigone, the psalter, spirituals. The beggar in tension with becoming king.

If being the victim that breaks his own chains and forges his own crown, captures the aspiration of hip-hop, the prospect for Christian hip-hop grows slender. Theologically, breaking one’s own chains is just another act of inexcusable violence, and becoming a god is the promise of the serpent. Is Christian hip-hop just another understandably charitable attempt to bring all sounds to Christ? A Christian artist has to appreciate something very complex: if, for the time being, the formal structures of a field reject the content of gospel.

Through self-definition, the artist raises himself up from disenfranchised to enfranchised. From having no father to being a father; from nothing to the kingdom; from being a wretch to being a god. This is the direction of hip-hop.


And then we have from Lecrae’s title song, “Anomaly”:

“I didn’t know who was inside me either

Striving to be the captain, […]

Tryna get me a throne of my own so I can put my feet up

Thank God my kingdom was overthrown by The Soul Redeemer”

One cannot suppress the reaction to laugh. The overthrow of Lecrae by God is an all but comedic turn in hip-hop, an utter paradox. This happens nowhere in hip-hop; someone is rescued by being overthrown and taken captive, not by his own strength, but by another’s.

Recall the ambition of hip-hop. That through speaking about himself, and defining himself – through his auto-nomy – he may escape from, say, 8 mile and become a rap god. And here we have language that verges on a cliche of Christian evangelism.

But Lecrae keeps to the first person, and to the motif of self-definition. Though, like Eminem having to define two persons, Lecrae attributes his freedom by defining another, not himself. if Lecrae’s music sounds apologetic at times, it’s because when Lecrae defines himself, he knows that he has to define Christ. Another comedic turn: the schizophrenia of Eminem (and Slim) is re-written by Lecrae as the Christological motif of war between the Old and the New Adam.

“I’m gone get back out that dirt mayne

Not yet what I’m

Gonna be but not what I used to be

Bless his name forever who would

Chose me and start using me

Used to love my sinning fulla greed fulla




Be lustin for ya cousin if it wasn’t for his Grace

Yeah he took me outta

Nothin and he made ya boy a saint”

What does this do to hip-hop? Lecrae has changed, actually changed. There is no empty boast or materialistic hubris. Lecrae confesses that he is no longer nothing, no longer “disenfranchised.” But how long can the the theme of disenfranchisement continue when dis-enfranchisement becomes secondary, past, accidental to a real en-franchisement? If disenfranchisement principally held hip-hop together, what happens when an artist releases it? Eminem only re-situated the disenfranchisement. But from Real Talk to Gravity, and on occasion in Anomaly, Lecrae accepts disenfranchisement, accepts his fallenness and is raised up to where he can break open a new motif in hip-hop: worship. Nothing could be more heterodox to Tupac or Eminem than to have nothing to be angry at or afraid of.

Does this not, therefore, snap a necessary tension; doesn’t this end the music? Should we have been asking not how Lecrae survives in hip-hop, but “How does hip-hop survive Lecrae?” For it seems to me that when Lecrae introduces confession and worship into the genre, it must either fall into confusion or undergo a rending transformation. For while Eminem expresses the nightmare of hip-hop most exquisitely, and Kendrick Lamar wallows in the nightmare with an eerie post-violent passivity, Lecrae has woken up from the nightmare. And to those still asleep he must sound very strange.

Holy Rock and Rollers

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.


It is a fascinating, quintessentially American story.

A group of white and black Americans got together and crashed the racial boundaries of the time. They held ecstatic celebrations with the wildest of music. Their language was unintelligible to “outsiders.” Indeed, outsiders truly believed that these people had lost their minds.

If you think this describes the story of rock music in America, you would, of course, be right. But if you think I have just described the story of the modern Pentecostal movement in America, you would also be right.

Any short list of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll that best exemplify the crazy, and frankly, unhinged approach–both the wildest and the most joyous–to making this music starts with Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Aside from being three of rock’s most crucial and most electrifying artists, each was raised and musically formed in the Pentecostal churches of the South.

Pentecostals are sometimes known by the pejorative nickname “holy rollers,” due to parishioners being “slain in the Spirit” and literally writhing and rolling in the church aisles. The actual tenets of Pentecostalism are taken from Acts 2. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came “like the rush of a mighty wind,” bringing charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues, or glossolia, faith healing, and visions (Act 2:17).

Glossolia, as theologian Harvey Cox describes it, is the stream of consciousness verbalizing of “clearly discernable but incomprehensible syllables.” It is a spontaneous occurrence, sometimes frightening to the uninitiated. As he further explains, it sometimes includes “music, a polyphony of tones and vocables but with no recognizable words.” Speaking in tongues is said to be a spiritual, universal language, but one which even the speaker does not know the exact meaning of what is being said.

The Biblical passages on glossolia were generally ignored over the years, but this changed with the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement in the 20th century. In 1898, former Methodist preacher and Kansan Charles Fox Parham sparked the movement. An African-American Holiness preacher, William Joseph Seymour, heard Parham’s sermons and took the cause to Los Angeles where he started his own congregation on Azusa Street in 1905. Seymour’s first congregants were poor blacks and white domestic servants. In fact, Pentecostalism would long be known as a movement of the poor, and today it enjoys a large, worldwide following.

To the Pentecostal, charismatic experiences facilitated something beyond a rote, theoretical understanding of the Holy Spirit and represented how salvation was more than a heavenly destination. Instead, each individual could experience a deep and personal connection with God and feel this Holy Spirit in the here and now. This spirituality provided a link between the spiritual and physical.

And physically their worship did seem to be unhinged in both word and sound. There was the “polyphony of tones” that composed acts of glossolia and their music including the use of secular instrumentation such as drums and guitars and, equally shocking, strong blues and jazz influences. This would open the door so that the reverse would be true, as the secular rock and rollers would clearly be influenced by the Pentecostal experience. Yet both groups shared more than instrumentation and music, both met with similar shock and disdain.

From the beginning, fundamentalist Protestants looked down on the Pentecostals, seeing them as an embarrassment, while Pentecostals spurred the dogma and the stifling doctrines of “text driven” fundamentalists, instead focusing on a personal experience of God. Pentecostals spontaneously spoke out, sang, spoke in tongues and were otherwise “slain in Spirit.” As writer Arthur Cox put it, they were “[n]o longer praying for a revival; they were the revival.” Outsiders, however, including the Los Angeles press, called them a “Weird Babel of Tongues” and labeled them “Fanatics.”

As to rock, the 1950s establishment could not make heads nor tails of Richards’ screaming, Presley’s gyrating, nor Lewis’ banging out a wild beat on his piano. To this, The New York Times quoted a psychiatrist that branded rock and roll as “cannibalistic and tribalistic,” while pop star Frank Sinatra described “imbecilic reiterations” delivered by “cretinous goons” (this was still a few years before he embraced rock and roll and covered Beatles’ and others rock songs). America’s youth were the revival, as well.

The Pentecostal performer most responsible for this link, for bringing the “reeling and rocking” of the Pentecostal church to rock ‘n’ roll is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was tremendously popular in the 1940s as a gospel/R&B crossover star, though she oddly remained essentially unknown until her biography was published in 2008 and a segment on PBS’s American Masters, last year. PBS even started a petition to get Tharpe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As a child, Tharpe traveled performing with her evangelizing mother for COGIC (Church of God in Christ). Tharpe had strong blues and jazz influences, an independent streak, and pushed the sacred-secular line her entire career. Tharpe had hits with bouncing, up-tempo takes on gospel standards, and performed with the likes of Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman’s popular jazz orchestras. Early on, her deep and moving ability to cross and blur the boundaries of gospel, blues and jazz was unlike anything anyone had heard. Tharpe confounded the press who didn’t know how to classify her; variously describing her as a “swingcopated manipulator of loud blue tones” and a “Hymn swinging evangelist.”

Viewing videos of Tharpe’s performances today is jarring. In one black-and-white clip, a 47-year-old black woman is seen wearing a conservative, ankle-length dress playing an electric guitar in a church setting. Yet Tharpe is not simply singing the gospel, she is rocking the gospel. The footage is actually from a television show in 1962, but the black-and-white stock and the conservative dress make it seem much older.

When the rock revolution came in the mid-50s, however, the youth were looking for one of their own to lead the way—not a 47-year-old with strong ties to the church. As Tharpe had already lost much of her church-going fan base, sadly her name and music faded from the story. Yet Tharpe embodies the link between the sacred and the secular, and she was indeed a profound influence on the first wave of rock icons.

She was, in fact, both Richard and Johnny Cash’s all-time favorite singer. Carl Perkins learned the guitar on a Tharpe’s “Strange Things (Are Happening Every Day).” Perkins said of the song, “It was rockabilly, that was it—it was.” Lewis sung a Tharpe song as part of his first audition for Sam Phillips, the legendary owner of Sun Studio in Memphis. After seeing Tharpe perform live in 1957, Lewis commented, “I said, ‘Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock ‘n’ roll.’ I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock ‘n’ roll. She’s… shakin’, man…She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Through Tharpe, the Pentecostal influence is an undeniable part of rock’s genesis.

Like rock music, Pentecostalism tapped into something—a Holy Spirit—a human spirit? Whatever it was, it was deep. Pentecostalism was an antidote to rigid and stifling fundamentalist practices, while rock was bucking an oppressive life as a “square,” resisting the “rat race” in an age of anxiety. Cox, described the charismatic experience as “so total it shatters the cognitive packaging,” while rock musician Bobbie Gillespie described the “global psychic jailbreak” that was the onset of rock and roll. Both phenomena existed beyond any  known social or cultural reference points. Whatever this Holy/human spirit is, if it is something, it was exactly what many needed. The Pentecostal-rock connection is a wonder of sacred-secular relations, and nothing could be more American than that.



Altschuler, G. (2003). All shook up: How rock ‘n’ roll changed America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cox, Harvey (2001). Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century. DaCapo. Faupel.
Gillespie, Bobbie (2010). “Chuck Berry: hail. hail, rock ‘n’ roll.” The Guardian. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Wald, Gayle F. (2008) Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Beacon Press, Boston.
WEBWIRE, (2008) “Pennsylvania Governor Rendell Proclaims Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day on January 11, 2008 to Honor the Gospel Music Legend.” 1/2/2008. Retrieved from http://www.webwire.com/ViewPressRel.asp?aId=56002.#.VAfTbvldV8E.

The Politics of Consumption

Editor’s Note: Through a partnership with Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music, The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective. 

Contrary to what you might think or assume, you are an explicit, crucial and fundamental participant in the music industry. Whether or not you play, create or work in music, you are a crucial component in the complex web of its creation. Passive participation is a myth; such understandings are either outdated or entirely illusory. Certain values and ideologies at play in our involvement with music, even at the most basic levels of our system (i.e. supply and demand) reveal that passive involvement does not exist, especially in 2015.

In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson points to these realities, writing, “Record labels are using new sources of data about our preferences to find the next stars. Every time you download a song or search for a band on Wikipedia, you help steer the music industry.” Labels themselves are looking to newly formed, vast pools of meta data reflecting our consumption of music: who are we listening to, where are we listening, how often, and when. And these labels are trying to respond accordingly; their business decisions reflect the myriad of logistics in our consumption. You and I, through our listening, consumption, curiosity, and spending, are determining what music gets made.

The manner in which we consume music is a political reality. It is political in the most basic sense of the term; our consumption is part of learning how to properly organize and conduct ourselves in the midst of life together, a life where we have ethical responsibilities to the others bodies who help constitute and determine our own subjectivities. This should serve as no real surprise, but our mode of analysis and critique has not caught up with our our politicized role in consumption. We need to shift our language and understanding to account for that political reality.

In light of those political realities (i.e. the role of connection we play in the production of music through our consumption of it), we need to shift how we analyze music and the music industry, moving away from negative/positive critiques and analyses of the content and artists in music alone. I am not saying we neglect the top-down critique or analysis. Perhaps now more than ever, the all-pervading reality of structural issues require analysis. Yet our current context requires that we implicate ourselves in the analysis of the music industry, rounding out a structural critique of music with a certain examination of the demands of the people, of the masses determining the trajectory of the music itself.

This form of analysis opens up the conversation and critiques to the values buried beneath our demands and participation in the music industry. A common example from the cultural context that tends to aim for ‘cultural engagement’ commonly criticizes certain hip-hop artists, songs, movements and the genre itself because of its ‘immoral content.’ Be it the vulgar language, the sexualized content, or the misogynistic tendencies, the critique itself deals with the production of inappropriate material. Talking through and critiquing misogyny or inappropriately sexualized ideas is crucially necessary. That being said, any criticism that aims to dismantle the production of an item or set of ideas without properly examining the telos, the cultural and economic demand that enables the production of the object in the first place, has obviously missed the point.

Another factor important for us to consider here is that this sort of critique—one that analyzes the artist alone—fails to make sense of the historical formation of music in general. Take hip-hop as an example, which exists a fundamental discourse of resistance. Any critique that fails to account for these realities in light of the plight of black bodies at the hands of systems and power in the name of whiteness is, in my opinion, a-historical and unrealistic. Hip-hop serves to meet a concrete demand, the demand for a language of protest in light of America’s historic, oppressive tendencies on black bodies. Hip-hop is no different, then, than jazz or blues. As Cornel West writes, “The black musical tradition—from the spirituals and blues to jazz and hip-hop—embodies a desire for freedom and a search for joy in the face of death-dealing forces in America.” An investigation of the black musical tradition helps to shed light on the cultural, economic and racial histories/myths that demanded the production of the music in the first place.

Imani Perry, the author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, has touched on something similar. She argues that popular hip-hop has recently become a fetishized product. Hip-hop is not procured, bought, listened to, or attended by a majority black audience any more. What does it mean, then, that a massively white crowd is demanding and consuming at alarming rates, according to this political, economic schema, the fantasy of ghettoization through popular hip-hop? Shouldn’t this provide the questions of our critiques? These themes are being demanded from somewhere. And why? Such a critique is itself the inversion, the reversal of the all-too-common discomfort with inappropriate content. Rather than projecting some sort of lack of moral standing onto those producing the content, this artistic criticism turns in on itself, ultimately probing our own imaginations in a way that makes possible the admission of our own culpability and weakness.

Another way of getting at all of this is to ask: for whom are these songs being created? And are they performing well in the marketplace, if our money truly is the reflection of our values in the capitalistic system? Any critique of Tyler the Creator that does not account for his rampant success at the age of 18 is moving in the wrong direction. Rather than addressing the surely alarming, fascinating, values-laden process by which he narrates his own hatred of and violent fantasies toward Bruno Mars, what would happen if we were to ask ourselves what it means for us to have made Tyler a commercial success, particularly because of his outlandish persona and lyrics? In a fascinating interview with Larry King, Tyler speaks to his road to success through internet uploads. People simply liked it, and it spread through word of mouth. We created Tyler the Creator, both you and I.

Take, for example, the possibility of SLAYER’s (a hugely popular thrash metal band out of California that rose to rampant success in the early 80s) commercial success. All of this from the Wiki page: SLAYER has sold 3.5 million albums in the U.S. alone. Ten studio albums, two live albums, a box set, six music videos, to extended plays and a cover album. Four of those studio albums went gold. The band has received five Grammy nominations, winning Grammys in 2007 for “Eyes of the Insane” and another in 2008 for “Final Six”.

The point of bringing SLAYER up is not to vilify them or to pick the most heinous of bands. Rather, they are an extremely successful band and easily fit into this ‘inappropriate content’ trope. Commonly touching on issues of serial killers, necrophilia, Satanism, warfare, etc., many conservative groups have responded with outrage and disgust, ultimately resulting in bans, delays and lawsuits. However, instead of simply critiquing whatever unhealthy tendencies we see in the lyrics of SLAYER, what might we begin to learn about culture, about ourselves, when we realize that 3.5 million individuals bought this music? 3.5 million people demanded it, made it monetarily possible, successful even? What is it in the social consciousness, the diseased social imagination that demands the production of these things? Isn’t that a more interesting conversation and critique?

At the end of the day, a shift that analyzes the commercial demand and makes sense of our politicized participation in the industry itself is better than the top-down approach for the very fact that it implicates us as listeners. It doesn’t allow for a removed, vacuous approach in which our hands are clean.

One of the creedal affirmations, the formalized mission of the Christian church itself, is to search for life, to highlight and foster the resurrection of the dead, which only happens through the concrete behavior and actions of the redeemed community; the church is the means through which the kingdom of God is materializing. This is precisely why Wendell Berry calls for us to “practice resurrection,” to enact that which we are believing and hoping. As active participants, then, the primary mode of questioning our involvement in the music industry becomes, “What does it mean for a redeemed people to participate in the consumption of music?” Perhaps, then, we can begin to frame our consumption around the process of ‘searching for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’

This new mode of analysis and participation renders our money into our vote, our vote in the system as it currently stands. And we need to vote for that which is life giving, for that which bears witness to the grand scope of human being in the wake of the phenomenon and reality of Jesus–music that speaks honestly about being human, that fosters the fullness of life, which is to say music which operates according to the values put forward by the life-affirming, resurrection powers of Jesus. These modes of participation and analysis–this newly formed critique–are most clearly exemplified in the pop-culture criticism of David Dark and Taylor Worley. Their criticism is constantly on the search for ‘cosmic-plainspeak’–the resurrection and fulness of life breaking into the here and now through popular culture, through the truth-telling process of music itself.

Within this broader framework, our values and monetary contributions begin to align with the narratives we are aiming to participate in as people of faith, as a redeemed people. Only then can we begin to identify ourselves, as the late Will Grey brilliantly observed, as ‘the modern Medici,’ a people dedicated to the cultivation of skill, talent and art through monetary contribution in light of understanding themselves as patrons. Such a form of consumption would involve the integration of our beliefs, values, economics and practices. It is through this highly politicized form of participation in the music industry that we need to be looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.