April 8, 2011

Spiritual pop music

No, I'm not talking about Christian rock or undiluted gospel. Something about searching for the meaning of life, and in particular wanting to connect with the supernatural -- not "finding yourself" by landing the right study-abroad program or scoring the perfect unpaid summer internship.

My hunch is that this kind of music will soar in production and popularity when the violence level is shooting up, because that's when people get more curious about the spiritual, the supernatural, the mythological, the religious... whatever you want to call it. Especially during the second half of the climb in the crime rate, since that's when things start to look apocalyptic -- there's already been half a generation or more of steadily worsening security, and the experts have thrown every social engineering program at it, yet come up with nothing powerful. For similar reasons, it will not tend to adhere to orthodox religion but be less clearly defined, since the failure of the old ways means they must try to figure it out as they go along.

Probably the best example is a #1 hit from 1986, "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood. It couldn't have been made in 1966 because society had only gone somewhat outta whack by that point -- the decay of order got a lot worse in the next 20 years. Typical of an end-times yearning for community, he levels distinctions that exist in the ordinary, falling-apart world by giving it a heavily African sound for white pop music, and I'll bet a lot of people listening to it thought he was black.

Real Life made "Send Me an Angel" in 1983, which is Pagan in tone, and whose video has a pre-Christian but still Indo-European religious feel. Toward the tail-end of wild times (1990) they released "God Tonight", which sounds like the thoughts of a cult leader mixed in with a good dance track.

Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" from 1987 is a bit more focused on the profane than the others, but its power still depends on the desire to bring the supernatural realm down onto our own. Again shades of cult / commune-like concepts of ushering in paradise in this world, although more of the naive free love type than the apocalyptic type.

Of course there was Madonna's last great hit, 1989's "Like a Prayer". The phrases "I want to take you there" and "in the midnight hour" hint at going to some other plane of existence.

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 in 1987 has a nice line that highlights the leveling of distinctions when the end comes: "I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colors will bleed into one."

Camper Van Beethoven's "She Divines Water" from 1988 shows that even college rock, typically not religious at all, could put out a catchy song with an other-worldly feel. Probably the most imaginative and original one of the bunch here.

The 1986 soundtrack for Labyrinth features David Bowie calling all the misfits of the world into joining his utopian cult in "Underground," which has a gospel section later in the song.

"Personal Jesus" from 1990 by Depeche Mode is about a lost soul seeking communion with the divine, although told not from their point-of-view. "Reach out and touch faith" means that the supernatural has become tangible.

There are other songs that are quasi-religious but that do not stress the meeting of the natural and the supernatural. "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson from 1987 is a straightforward conversion-of-the-rich-miser story. Although more difficult to interpret religiously, Madonna's 1984 hit "Like a Virgin" has that "I was lost but now am found" theme, and her conversion sounds like it sprang from some magical rather than mundane cause. In 1981 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark made not one but two hagiographic songs about the same saint -- "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans". The song and album "1999" by Prince from 1982 is apocalyptic, but his response is to retreat into a not very sacred kind of hedonism.

Nothing else in the yearning-for-the-supernatural genre comes to mind, although I could be missing some stuff from the later part of the '70s, when cults and evangelism were ramping up in popularity compared to the '60s. I'm pretty sure there's little or none from the '60s and earlier '70s, nor from the early '90s through today. And during the previous period of falling crime, the mid-'30s through the late '50s, the hit songs featured more trivial subject matter and a secular frame-of-mind, however catchy it may or may not sound (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, etc.).


  1. I'm not sure how narrow or broad your definition of "spiritual" pop is, I think but a lot of the Arcade Fire catalog has this kind of energy. "Wake Up" in particular.

  2. Other songs:

    Mister Mister did "Kyrie Elaison" in 1985.

    Enigma had "Return to Innocence" and other longish dance tracks set to Gregorian chants. Those were out around 1991.

    Joan Osborn released "What if God was one of Us" in 1995

  3. A few more from circa 1993-95:

    Anguished cries to Jesus in Alice in Chains "Man in a Box" and Tool "Sober"

    Crucifixion imagery in Nine Inch Nails "Hurt." Interestingly, that song was covered in a strongly Christian spirit ten years later by Johnny Cash in his last days.

    Mid-late 1990s had Marylin Manson, though it's safe to say that their stuff was heavier on blasphemy-chic than on spiritual longing.

  4. Foreigner "I wanna know what love is" circa 1984. The song also has a gospel chorus.

    Post-breakup Beatles in the 1970s dabbled in esoteric spirituality. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" is a mix of Christian and Eastern, and John Lennon's "#9 Dream" is very otherworldly, and has a back-story in numerology.

  5. A couple more to consider: "Oh My God" by the Police, and among recent releases, "Laughing With" by Regina Spektor and "Dear God" by Monsters of Folk.

  6. Two more that popped up - "Even in the Quietest Moments" by Supertramp, and "Where Have You Been?" by Manchester Orchestra

  7. The 60's was stacked with spiritual pop - The Beatles had a guru for Krishna's sake! George Harrison was a Hare Krishna. Hendrix. The DOORS. Dylan and his various conversions. It's harder to give an example that's NOT spiritual pop from the late 60s.

    Listen to the soundtrack of Easy Rider - and all the other groovy spiritual movies of the 60s and 70s. An era which produces chart topping band called "The Fifth Dimension" was a supernatural-spiritual pop ERA.

    It makes me question your informed opinion on everything to have such a giant cultural blindspot.

    In the 80's... Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. The Waterboys. Tears for Fears. INXS. And, like you said, Steve Winwood.

    There are numerous bands that could be quoted from the 80's having spiritual lyrics like the ones you mentioned - questioning traditional religion and calling for a new sincere spirituality.

    Admittedly this was not as chart topping as the 60's and 70's. But still a big part of the era.

    "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" is a gospel song reworked by U2, stressing the roots of spiritual pop are the roots of modern music - gospel and the blues.

    Seminal artists have been involved in cults, have manic-depression with religious and prophetic features throughout the modern era. Brian Wilson of the Beach boys being a more well documented figure.

    Who did Robert Johnson sell his soul to? It doesn't get more supernatural than that!

    Good call on MR Mister PA - I heart that song.

  8. The '60s stuff you mention isn't what I had in mind when I said a yearning for a breaking of the supernatural into the world of the natural. Not just songs about things that could be labeled "spiritual" (in which case all we're doing is debating what that word means).

    Although the psychedelic stuff does kind of go in that direction, most of what you point to is more about opening your consciousness than a conviction in a world apart and above the natural world. The Doors come pretty close.

  9. Breaking of the supernatural into the natural? What about Katy Perry's ET?



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