Just Like a Prayer: Does Religion Belong in Music?

The first time I listened to this song (“Awaiting on You All”, from George Harrison’s 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass), it kind of bugged me. No, scratch that. It straight up pissed me off. The whole song is very preachy, but one verse in particular made me angry.

It goes like this:

“You don’t need no passport,

You don’t need no visas.

You don’t need to designate or to emigrate

Before you can see Jesus.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love All Things Must Pass and consider it one of the best albums of the 70’s.  But I’m also Jewish, and this song rubs me the wrong way. No, George, I’m not going to see Jesus, even if I did have some kind of spiritual visa. On this song, George tries to tell us how easy it is to find God. You don’t need a church, or a priest, or any material belongings, you just need to “open up your heart”. Okay, fine. But not only does George’s mention of Jesus in this context alienate any non-Christians and make it harder for me to connect with his music, it brings up a bigger question: Does religion have a place in music?

To be clear, I’m not talking about religious music, like Christian rock (which may not actually be so Christian after all) or religious hymns, prayers, and songs. I’m referring to secular popular music. Does religion belong in this realm of music?

The answer, like other answers to complicated questions, is both yes and no.

In fact, All Things Must Pass is one of the better examples of religious sentiments coming together with music. George spends a good chunk of the album professing his love for both the Hindu and Christian gods in a way that anyone could appreciate, whether or not you believe in God. Most of the album is really just an exploration of George’s spiritual journey, with a few songs deliberately laying out Hindu precepts, as on the title track.

“Awaiting on You All” is the only song where George seems to have an agenda, and where it almost seems like he’s guilting or proselytizing his audience. But the key here is that all of the songs on All Things Must Pass have uniformly great melodies, even “Awaiting on You All”.  George’s first album is at least as good as the Beatles’ late-period work, and it showcases Gorge’s amazing songwriting ability. So I can forgive George for being a little preachy at some points.

But there are some instances where you can’t forgive an artist for his or her preachiness. Case in point: Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian period. It’s considered one of Dylan’s career low points, especially on his 1980 album Saved. The only thing amazing about Saved is just how boring and lazily-written the melodies and lyrics are. It’s self-righteous to the extreme, and it repeats the same old biblical verses that have been around for centuries without offering any new perspectives on them. Though some of Dylan’s Christian music is serviceable, his born-again phase is usually seen as a major misstep for the former folk hero.

bob dylan cross

The fact is, it’s much more acceptable and prevalent to question or oppose religion in secular music than it is to support it. There’s the satanism that runs through heavy metal culture, Johnny Rotten’s declaration of “I am an Antichrist”, or the railing against organized religion in songs like John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” or Jethro Tull’s “My God”. Pink Floyd even parodied the Lord’s Prayer on their song “Sheep”, in which an unsettling vocoder voice recites a modified version of the famous psalm to comment on the similarities between organized religion and class conformity. Grand spiritual statements like the one George Harrison made on All Things Must Pass are much less common.

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George or Jesus?

The reason for this phenomenon? Music, especially punk-oriented music, is often seen as a vehicle for rebellion against “the institution”, and religion is an institution. Much of the great music of the sixties was adopted by the hippies, and from then on, music would remain an essential aspect of the counterculture. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, right? The church isn’t associated with sex and drugs, so neither is music. In fact, they directly oppose each other more often than not.

But religion can be used to merely inform an artist’s music, rather than the artist diametrically supporting or opposing it. After all, religion is the most significant cultural force in history. It would be almost impossible to have a music career without incorporating religion into your music at some point. Take Madonna for example. Religious themes permeated her work, from her name onwards. The controversial video for her 1989 single “Like a Prayer”, a true classic of eighties pop, incorporated a postmodern take on Christianity. The name of her 1990 greatest hits compilation, The Immaculate Collection, speaks for itself. Madonna’s Catholic upbringing was an obvious influence on the music she created throughout her career. On another note, who could ignore Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God”?

god-only-knows-the-beach-boys-idea-girl-consulting-linda-randall

Lest we forget, gospel music was essential to the development of both soul and rock. Elvis, for all his hip-swiveling, was also known for his performances of gospel standards. Rock and roll artists incorporated gospel rhythms and harmonies into their music, and also used gospel hallmarks such as call-and-response sections. The difference was, rock and roll had mostly secular lyrics. But from time to time, the spirit of gospel would creep into secular rock music. One such example is The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light”, from their 1972 double album Exile on Main St., one of my favorite songs and albums of all time.

Soul music has an even stronger connection to gospel. Sam Cooke, one of the inventors of soul, started out as a gospel singer. His first pop single, “Lovable”, was a rewrite of a gospel tune called “Wonderful”. Ray Charles also rewrote a gospel hymn, “Jesus Is All the World to Me” to record his famous song “I Got a Woman”. Soul music always retained that spiritual edge, even as it became more and more pop-oriented. While popular music often defines itself as being secular rather than having a religious motivation, it’s hard to look past the religious influence therein. In 1971, Marvin Gaye released his world-shifting soul record What’s Going On, an album rife with religious themes. On the song “God Is Love”, Marvin sang:

‘Cause God is my friend, Jesus is my friend
He loves us whether or not we know it
And He’ll forgive all our sins.”

This lyric doesn’t frustrate me as much as George Harrison’s calling upon Jesus in “Awaiting on You All”. Perhaps it’s because Marvin Gaye had a real purpose for mentioning Jesus here. The point of this song is to ask people to live in peace and harmony, like Jesus intended. Because Marvin had a good reason for mentioning Jesus, I don’t feel alienated by Jesus’s presence in the song. And the song itself is excellent.

So, does religion belong in music? If it’s used to create something beautiful, then yes. If an artist actually has something new to say about religion rather than just rehashing the same old biblical themes, then by all means they should comment on religion. All I ask is that a musician doesn’t try to make me feel guilty for my religious beliefs, and doesn’t try to convert me. After all, I can appreciate Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling and sculpture of David because they’re extraordinary pieces of art. Who cares what they have to do with a really old book?

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2 Comments

  1. I enjoy some old gospel music because it’s joyous. I’m not religious, but hearing people be happy is great. But I think too that while that was religious music in one sense, in another it was just shared culture. So maybe it doesn’t come off as much of a hard sell as, say a guy like Bob who was a recent convert. Not that I know, I have given Bob Dylan’s born-again era a WIDE berth. I don’t know.

    Great post BTW- just a small nitpick- Johnny Rotten was the singer, Sid Vicious “played” bass.

    1. Oh, wow, that’s a mistake haha! I think I knew that Johnny Rotten was the singer somewhere in the back of my mind, I just wasn’t thinking when I wrote this post. Although I do need to get more into punk. And yeah, I was mainly basing my opinion of Bob Dylan’s Christian period from what I’ve read on review sites, I also haven’t listened to too much of it.

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