Pop Goes the Spiritual

or Remixing Religion in Western Pop Music

How to Cite

Pegrum, M. (2001). Pop Goes the Spiritual: or Remixing Religion in Western Pop Music. M/C Journal, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1904
Vol. 4 No. 2 (2001): Mix
Published 2001-04-01

Kylie Minogue, her interviewer tells us in the October 2000 issue of Sky Magazine, is a "fatalist": meaning she "believe[s] everything happens for a reason" (Minogue "Kylie" 20). And what kind of reason would that be? Well, the Australian singer gives us a few clues in her interview of the previous month with Attitude, which she liberally peppers with references to her personal beliefs (Minogue "Special K" 43-46). When asked why she shouldn't be on top all the time, she explains: "It's yin and yang. It's all in the balance." A Taoist – or at any rate Chinese – perspective then? Yet, when asked whether it's important to be a good person, she responds: "Do unto others." That's St. Matthew, therefore Biblical, therefore probably Christian. But hang on. When asked about karma, she replies: "Karma is my religion." That would be Hindu, or at least Buddhist, wouldn't it? Still she goes on … "I have guilt if anything isn't right." Now, far be it from us to perpetuate religious stereotypes, but that does sound rather more like a Western church than either Hinduism or Buddhism. So what gives?

Clearly there have always been religious references made by Western pop stars, the majority of them, unsurprisingly, Christian, given that this has traditionally been the major Western religion. So there's not much new about the Christian references of Tina Arena or Céline Dion, or the thankyous to God offered up by Britney Spears or Destiny's Child. There's also little that's new in references to non-Christian religions – who can forget the Beatles' flirtation with Hinduism back in the 1960s, Tina Turner's conversion to Buddhism or Cat Stevens' to Islam in the 1970s, or the Tibetan Freedom concerts of the mid- to late nineties organised by the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch, himself a Buddhist convert?

What is rather new about this phenomenon in Western pop music, above and beyond its scale, is the faintly dizzying admixture of religions to be found in the songs or words of a single artist or group, of which Kylie's interviews are a paradigmatic but hardly isolated example. The phenomenon is also evident in the title track from Affirmation, the 1999 album by Kylie's compatriots, Savage Garden, whose worldview extends from karma to a non-evangelised/ing God. In the USA, it's there in the Buddhist and Christian references which meet in Tina Turner, the Christian and neo-pagan imagery of Cyndi Lauper's recent work, and the Christian iconography which runs into buddhas on Australian beaches on REM's 1998 album Up. Of course, Madonna's album of the same year, Ray of Light, coasts on this cresting trend, its lyrics laced with terms such as angels, "aum", churches, earth [personified as female], Fate, Gospel, heaven, karma, prophet, "shanti", and sins; nor are such concerns entirely abandoned on her 2000 album Music.

In the UK, Robbie Williams' 1998 smash album I've Been Expecting You contains, in immediate succession, tracks entitled "Grace", "Jesus in a Camper Van", "Heaven from Here" … and then "Karma Killer". Scottish-born Annie Lennox's journey through Hare Krishna and Buddhism does not stop her continuing in the Eurythmics' pattern of the eighties and littering her words with Christian imagery, both in her nineties solo work and the songs written in collaboration with Dave Stewart for the Eurythmics' 1999 reunion. In 2000, just a year after her ordination in the Latin Tridentine Church, Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor releases Faith and Courage, with its overtones of Wicca and paganism in general, passing nods to Islam and Judaism, a mention of Rasta and part-dedication to Rastafarians, and considerable Christian content, including a rendition of the "Kyrié Eléison". Even U2, amongst their sometimes esoteric Christian references, find room to cross grace with karma on their 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind.

In Germany, Marius Müller-Westernhagen's controversial single "Jesus" from his 1998 chart-topping album Radio Maria, named after a Catholic Italian radio station, sees him in countless interviews elaborating on themes such as God as universal energy, the importance of prayer, the (unnamed but implicit) idea of karma and his interest in Buddhism. Over a long career, the eccentric Nina Hagen lurches through Christianity, Hinduism, Hare Krishna, and on towards her 2000 album Return of the Mother, where these influences are mixed with a strong Wiccan element. In France, Mylène Farmer's early gothic references to Catholicism and mystical overtones lead towards her "Méfie-toi" ("Be Careful"), from the 1999 album Innamoramento, with its references to God, the Virgin, Buddha and karma. In Italy, Gianna Nannini goes looking for the soul in her 1998 "Peccato originale" ("Original sin"), while on the same album, Cuore (Heart), invoking the Hindu gods Shiva and Brahma in her song "Centomila" ("One Hundred Thousand").

"The world is craving spirituality so much right now", Carlos Santana tells us in 1995. "If they could sell it at McDonald's, it would be there. But it's not something you can get like that. You can only wake up to it, and music is the best alarm" (qtd. in Obstfeld & Fitzgerald 166). It seems we're dealing here with quite a significant development occurring under the auspices of postmodernism – that catch-all term for the current mood and trends in Western culture, one of whose most conspicuous manifestations is generally considered to be a pick 'n' mix attitude towards artefacts from cultures near and distant, past, present and future. This rather controversial cultural eclecticism is often flatly equated with the superficiality and commercialism of a generation with no historical or critical perspective, no interest in obtaining one, and an obsession with shopping for lifestyle accessories. Are pop's religious references, in fact, simply signifieds untied from signifiers, symbols emptied of meaning but amusing to play with? When Annie Lennox talks of doing a "Zen hit" (Lennox & Stewart n.pag.), or Daniel Jones describes himself and Savage Garden partner Darren Hayes as being like "Yin and Yang" (Hayes & Jones n.pag.), are they merely borrowing trendy figures of speech with no reflection on what lies – or should lie – or used to lie behind them? When Madonna samples mondial religions on Ray of Light, is she just exploiting the commercial potential inherent in this Shiva-meets-Chanel spectacle? Is there, anywhere in the entire (un)holy hotchpotch, something more profound at work? To answer this question, we'll need to take a closer look at the trends within the mixture.

There isn't any answer in religion

Don't believe one who says there is

But… The voices are heard

Of all who cry

The first clear underlying pattern is evident in these words, taken from Sinéad O'Connor's "Petit Poulet" on her 1997 Gospel Oak EP, where she attacks religion, but simultaneously undermines her own attack in declaring that the voices "[o]f all who cry" will be heard. This is the same singer who, in 1992, tears up a picture of the Pope on "Saturday Night Live", but who is ordained in 1999, and fills her 2000 album Faith and Courage with religious references. Such a stance can only make sense if we assume that she is assailing, in general, the organised and dogmatised version(s) of religion expounded by many churches - as well as, in particular, certain goings-on within the Catholic Church - but not religion or the God-concept in and of themselves. Similarly, in 1987, U2's Bono states his belief that "man has ruined God" (qtd. in Obstfeld & Fitzgerald 174) – but U2 fans will know that religious, particularly Christian, allusions have far from disappeared from the band's lyrics. When Stevie Wonder admits in 1995 to being "skeptical of churches" (ibid. 175), or Savage Garden's Darren Hayes sings in "Affirmation" that he "believe[s] that God does not endorse TV evangelists", they are giving expression to pop's typical cynicism with regard to organised religion in the West – whether in its traditional or modern/evangelical forms. Religion, it seems, needs less organisation and more personalisation. Thus Madonna points out that she does not "have to visit God in a specific area" and "like[s] Him to be everywhere" (ibid.), while Icelandic singer Björk speaks for many when she comments: "Well, I think no two people have the same religion, and a lot of people would call that being un-religious [sic]. But I'm actually very religious" (n.pag.).

Secondly, there is a commonly-expressed sentiment that all faiths should be viewed as equally valid. Turning again to Sinéad O'Connor, we hear her sing on "What Doesn't Belong to Me" from Faith and Courage: "I'm Irish, I'm English, I'm Moslem, I'm Jewish, / I'm a girl, I'm a boy". Annie Lennox, her earlier involvement with Hare Krishna and later interest in Tibetan Buddhism notwithstanding, states categorically in 1992: "I've never been a follower of any one religion" (Lennox n.pag.), while Nina Hagen puts it this way: "the words and religious group one is involved with doesn't [sic] matter" (Hagen n.pag.). Whatever the concessions made by the Second Vatican Council or advanced by pluralist movements in Christian theology, such ideological tolerance still draws strong censure from certain conventional religious sources – Christian included – though not from all.

This brings us to the third and perhaps most crucial pattern. Not surprisingly, it is to our own Christian heritage that singers turn most often for ideas and images. When it comes to cross-cultural borrowings, however, this much is clear: equal all faiths may be, but equally mentioned they are not. Common appropriations include terms such as karma (Robbie Williams' 1998 "Karma Killer", Mylène Farmer's 1999 "Méfie-toi", U2's 2000 "Grace") and yin and yang (see the above-quoted Kylie and Savage Garden interviews), concepts like reincarnation (Tina Tuner's 1999/2000 "Whatever You Need") and non-attachment (Madonna's 1998 "To Have and Not to Hold"), and practices such as yoga (from Madonna through to Sting) and even tantrism (Sting, again). Significantly, all of these are drawn from the Eastern faiths, notably Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, though they also bear a strong relation to ideas found in various neo-pagan religions such as Wicca, as well as in many mystical traditions.

Eastern religions, neo-paganism, mysticism: these are of course the chief sources of inspiration for the so-called New Age, which constitutes an ill-defined, shape-shifting conglomeration of beliefs standing outside the mainstream Middle Eastern/Western monotheistic religious pantheon. As traditional organised religion comes under attack, opening up the possibility of a personal spirituality where we can pick and choose, and as we simultaneously seek to redress the imbalance of religious understanding by extending tolerance to other faiths, it is unsurprising that we are looking for alternatives to the typical dogmatism of Christianity, Islam and even Judaism, to what German singer Westernhagen sees as the "punishing God" of the West ("Rock-Star" n.pag.). Instead, we find ourselves drawn to those distant faiths whose principles seem, suddenly, to have so much to offer us, including a path out of the self-imposed narrow-mindedness with which, all too often, the major Western religions seem to have become overlaid.

Despite certain differences, the Eastern faiths and their New Age Western counterparts typically speak of a life force grounding all the particular manifestations we see about us, a balance between male and female principles, and a reverence for nature, while avoiding hierarchies, dogma, and evangelism, and respecting the equal legitimacy of all religions. The last of these points has already been mentioned as a central issue in pop spirituality, and it is not difficult to see that the others dovetail with contemporary Western cultural ideals and concerns: defending human rights, promoting freedom, equality and tolerance, establishing international peace, and protecting the environment. However limited our understanding of Eastern religions may be, however convenient that may prove, and however questionable some of our cultural ideals might seem, whether because of their naïveté or their implicit imperialism, the message is coming through loud and clear in the world of pop: we are all part of one world, and we'd better work together. Madonna expresses it this way in "Impressive Instant" on her 2000 album, Music:

Cosmic systems intertwine

Astral bodies drip like wine

All of nature ebbs and flows

Comets shoot across the sky

Can't explain the reasons why

This is how creation goes

Her words echo what others have said. In "Jag är gud" ("I am god") from her 1991 En blekt blondins hjärta (A Bleached Blonde's Heart), the Swedish Eva Dahlgren sings: "varje själ / är en del / jag är / jag är gud" ("every soul / is a part / I am / I am god"); in a 1995 interview Sting observes: "The Godhead, or whatever you want to call it - it's better not to give it a name, is encoded in our being" (n.pag.); while Westernhagen remarks in 1998: "I believe in God as universal energy. God is omnipresent. Everyone can be Jesus. And in everyone there is divine energy. I am convinced that every action on the part of an individual influences the whole universe" ("Jesus" n.pag.; my transl.).

In short, as Janet Jackson puts it in "Special" from her 1997 The Velvet Rope: "You have to learn to water your spiritual garden". Secularism is on its way out – perhaps playing the material girl or getting sorted for E's & wizz wasn't enough after all – and religion, it seems, is on its way back in. Naturally, there is no denying that pop is also variously about entertainment, relaxation, rebellion, vanity or commercialism, and that it can, from time to time and place to place, descend into hatred and bigotry. Moreover, pop singers are as guilty as everyone else of, at least some of the time, choosing words carelessly, perhaps merely picking up on something that is in the air. But by and large, pop is a good barometer of wider society, whose trends it, in turn, influences and reinforces: in other words, that something in the air really is in the air.

Then again, it's all very well for pop stars to dish up a liberal religious smorgasbord, assuring us that "All is Full of Love" (Björk) or praising the "Circle of Life" (Elton John), but what purpose does this fulfil? Do we really need to hear this? Is it going to change anything? We've long known, thanks to John Lennon, that you can imagine a liberal agenda, supporting human rights or peace initiatives, without religion – so where does religion fit in?

It has been suggested that the emphasis of religion is gradually changing, moving away from the traditional Western focus on transcendence, the soul and the afterlife. Derrida has claimed that religion is equally, or even more importantly, about hospitality, about human beings experiencing and acting out of a sense of the communal responsibility of each to all others. This is a view of God as, essentially, the idealised sum of humanity's humanity. And Derrida is not alone in giving voice to such musings. The Dalai Lama has implied that the key to spirituality in our time is "a sense of universal responsibility" (n.pag.), while Vaclav Havel has described transcendence as "a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe" (n.pag.).

It may well be that those who are attempting to verbalise a liberal agenda and clothe it in expressive metaphors are discovering that there are - and have always been - many useful tools among the global religions, and many sources of inspiration among the tolerant, pluralistic faiths of the East. John Lennon's imaginings aside, then, let us briefly revisit the world of pop. Nina Hagen's 1986 message "Love your world", from "World Now", a plea for peace repeated in varying forms throughout her career, finds this formulation in 2000 on the title track of Return of the Mother: "My revelation is a revolution / Establish justice for all in my world". In 1997, Sinéad points out in "4 My Love" from her Gospel Oak EP: "God's children deserve to / sleep safe in the night now love", while in the same year, in "Alarm Call" from Homogenic, Björk speaks of her desire to "free the human race from suffering" with the help of music and goes on: "I'm no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment". In 1999, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince tells an interviewer that "either we can get in here now and fix [our problems] and do the best we can to help God fix [them], or we can... [y]ou know, punch the clock in" (4). So, then, instead of encouraging the punching in of clocks, here is pop being used as a clarion-call to the faith-full.

Yet pop - think Band Aid, Live Aid and Net Aid - is not just about words. When, in the 2000 song "Peace on Earth", Bono sings "Heaven on Earth / We need it now" or when, in "Grace", he begs for grace to be allowed to cancel out karma, he is already playing his part in fronting the Drop the Debt campaign for Jubilee 2000, while U2 supports organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and War Child. It is no coincidence that the Eurythmics choose to entitle their 1999 comeback album Peace, or give one of its tracks a name with a strong Biblical allusion, "Power to the Meek": not only has Annie Lennox been a prominent supporter of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause, but she and Dave Stewart have divided the proceeds of their album and accompanying world tour between Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Religion, it appears, can offer more than hackneyed rhymes: it can form a convenient metaphorical basis for solidarity and unity for those who are, so to speak, prepared to put their money - and time and effort - where their mouths are.

Annie Lennox tells an interviewer in 1992: "I hate to disappoint you, but I don't have any answers, I'm afraid. I've only written about the questions." (n.pag). If a cursory glance at contemporary Western pop tells us anything, it is that religion, in its broadest and most encompassing sense, while not necessarily offering all the important answers, is at any rate no longer seen to lie beyond the parameters of the important questions. This is, perhaps, the crux of today's increasing trend towards religious eclecticism. When Buddha meets Christ, or karma intersects with grace, or the Earth Goddess bumps into Shiva, those who've engineered these encounters are - moving beyond secularism but also beyond devotion to any one religion - asking questions, seeking a path forward, and hoping that at the points of intersection, new possibilities, new answers - and perhaps even new questions - will be found.

Author Biography

Mark Pegrum