There has been much written about the spiritual depth and meaning of much of popular culture. As people began to take popular culture seriously and as it matured and grew more complex over time, people–both artists and audiences–were not content merely with entertrainment value. They sought Higher Truth from the entertainment that gave them so much pleasure.
John Coltrane and many others were ‘spiritual’ artists, and a persuasive case can be made that popular culture came to express and embody the noble and beautiful themes of great religions, profound philosophical ideas, or spiritual searching.
BUT, we can also argue that a work of art should be judged by its form than by any professed intent by the artist. John Woo insists that his shoot-em up movies are deeply Christian, but aren’t they really nihilistic bloodbaths? And, though some people involved in the making of The Wild Bunch said that its purpose was to show us the horrors of violence, didn’t Sam Peckinpah’s movie romanticize and glamourize violence instead–if we were to judge it by what’s actually on the screen?
Heavy Metal Christian rock bands insist they are rocking for Jesus, but rock music is essentially pagan and nakedly sexual and aggressive. Form in content despite whatever or however the artist may explain himself.
If some guy screams BE QUIET while banging a drum in a library for several hrs, is he for quietude or for noise? Should we judge him by what he exclaims or what he does?
It’s true that Jazz became more complex and Jazz artists incorporated elements from ‘serious’ music and Big Ideas, but the essence of Jazz was always urban, cynical, hipsterish, sensual-sexual, slickity slack, wild, shifty, conmanish, narcissistic, and/or uninhibited.
Also, even ‘spiritual’ Jazz artists had gotten into Jazz the old-fashioned way: seduced by the fame, money, glamour, women, drugs, etc. Only after wallowing in sin did they try to turn to higher meaning–albeit still through an artform which favored the joys of sin than sincere and earnest penance before God. The essence of Christianity is quietude and earnestness, yet I cannot imagine another artform as far removed from earnestness as Jazz is. If Jesus(or Buddha)had been Jazzy, he would have been a wild and crazy pagan hedonist, not an individual capable of silent meditation over 40 days and deep spiritual thought.
Many rock artists walked the same path as Jazz artists: indulging in the excesses of rock culture, self-destructing, and then trying to use the rock medium for ‘higher’ or ‘moral’ purposes. Their intention may have been sincere, but rock and Jazz have always been essentially hedonistic, narcissistic, irreverent, aggressive, rebellious, and anarchic artforms. As such, they have more in common with the ‘seven deadly sins’ than with the 10 commandments. Of course, the Devil is a crucial player in all great works of art. Even the most sincere artist who devotes his life to God or Mankind is motivated by vanity and a degree of megalomania. Every wanna-be-great-artist is a little Hitler.
I suppose even a heroin addict could rationalize his drug habit as a means to get nearer to God. And, PT Anderson said about his (godawful) movie BOOGIE NIGHTS that his characters are looking for a little dignity. Looking for dignity in the porn industry? Well, people are strange that way. If some people seek dignity through porn, it’s not surprising that John Woo preaches Christian values through blood-soaked gun battles and some Jazz artists sought ‘spirituality’ through their music. (Rock may be more amenable to spiritual themes in the sense that it’s less well defined–as it can be anything from pop music to honkytonk–and not necessarily anti-thethical to earnestness. “Hey Jude” and “Imagine” are very earnest songs.)
I must say there is great power, passion, and force in Coltrane’s music, and one does sense his grappling with matters of Faith and Higher Meaning, but then the chaos and wild passions suggest he would rather have God play his music than vice versa.
Pagan gods may go for Jazz, but it’s not the music of Jehovah or Jesus. Same is true of gospel. Sure, it’s good music and lots of fun, but it has little to do with the essence of Christian faith. Why did so many gospel singers turn to secular music? Because they realized while they were jumping up and down and screaming and sweating that “I aint singing about God. I’m really singing and grooving about how nice it would be to git down with that hot mama.”
FORM IS CONTENT.
This is why anti-drug and anti-sex rock songs and videos are ridiculous as hell. It doesn’t matter what the lyrics say; the style and thrust of rock is LET’S PARTY AND BE WILD ALL NIGHT LONG.