Friday, January 20, 2006

Now THIS is Some Quality Cultural Introspection...

Happy 100th Post!!

I hope that all of you fine folks have been enjoying my blog for the past 11 months, as I quickly approach my one-year anniversary. It's been a vast, yet somehow connected, smattering of journal entries, poetry, political writings, essays on creativity, commentary in general, and music/cinema items important to me. THUS, in honor of this historic event, I'm borrowing this essay from Pitchfork Media because I think that he's asking a good question about a community that I'm tied to, and he does so with depth. I give all credit for THIS essay to Christ Dahlen, the author of this essay, but I include it because his writing is similar in style and content to mine.


Get That Out of Your Mouth #21
Get Behind Me Jesus
by Chris Dahlen (Pitchfork Media)

I don't know why hipsters hate Jesus. I'm not here to explain how the guy behind the Sermon on the Mount turned into a symbol of our blue- and red-state divide, or to narrow down why it's desperately unhip to admit you're a Christian and then get on stage at a rock club. Almost no strain of music is as secular as indie rock: It's quaint when old men on 78s sing spirituals, and a rugged legend like Johnny Cash can pray however he wants, but if you're a scrawny songwriter with a 4-track, siding with Jesus makes you a leper.

A couple of years ago, you couldn't even find many indie rockers who identified themselves as religious. The Danielson Famile were always far out anyway, and 16 Horsepower almost count as a country band. But then came Sufjan Stevens. After Seven Swans' moving piety and his breakthrough with Illinois, Stevens became "the Jesus guy." New fans shared stories about how they learned to get past his faith and enjoy his music, while bloggers like Pitchperfect cracked that she likes "a little less God in [her] rock." And the journalists couldn't get enough of the God angle, until, as Nick Sylvester reported on his blog, Stevens' publicist started asking reporters not to bring it up.

The genre of Christian rock long ago split off of regular, Satan-friendly rock, so you could argue that dyed-in-the-wool faith rockers have segregated themselves. Yet the secular bands that pick up those themes run the risk of getting thrown into the same ghetto. It happened to Page France's Michael Nau, when critics-- including our Brian Howe-- focused on the religious symbolism in his album Hello, Dear Wind. The song "Jesus" celebrates a Lord who's all too mortal, clawing his way from the dirt to come back to us instead of hovering in the sky in a clean, white robe. And the album's blissful tone never sounds mushy or dreamy: It's confidently ecstatic, as if Nau has been tipped off to how it's all going to end.

It looked like Page France would be dumped in the "Christian band" bin-- but once again, a publicist stepped in to save the day, writing to tell us that Nau's not comfortable being pegged as a religious performer. So I contacted him to get his take on it.

If you get past the first impression of his music, Nau's take on religion is conflicted. "My immediate family, as well as the majority of my surrounding family, was always spiritual-- not necessarily conservatively religious, but everyone possessed strong beliefs," says Nau. "I was raised in the midst of it all, so I was able to view the positive as well as the corrupt aspects from more of an 'insider's perspective,' so to speak. I've since chosen an outside, unattached perspective. I see myself as a seeker, but I doubt more than I seek."

Religion "is definitely a theme in the record, but I don't feel like it is the record," says Nau. "People would be missing out on much more if that's the main focus. At the same time, I realize that there's a lot of spiritual imagery in there. But a lot of times, that spiritual imagery represents unspiritual things."

And, ironically, "Jesus" has earned Nau criticism from both sides of the fence. "I've gotten letters from Christian folks or Christian radio stations who were just like, 'What in the hell are you talking about, this is complete blasphemy.' And then at the same time, other folks will be like, "Why did you say 'Jesus', it really detaches me from the song." Today, he shies away from saying that it's strictly a song about the Messiah. "That song was just about an untouchable thing or being-- something that I couldn't relate to, but severely wanted to be able to. I used Jesus as the subject, simply because it was the first thing that came to mind. Maybe I should have used one of my close friends instead."

But the shame here isn't that people made the wrong assumptions about Page France, but that they would ever have dismissed him over his beliefs in the first place. Even a religious performer can convey doubt and conflict. Sure, the bands that rocked the Christian festival at your local speedway stick to celebration and sin, but consider the work of people who are described as "thinking Christians"-- a term that's about as patronizing as "intelligent dance music," but let's go with it for now. Take the quest for spirituality on Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, or the piety and humility of Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans, or to widen the circle, the furious morality of the abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, or the scene in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me in which the reverend asks Mark Ruffalo's drifter if he considers his life important. If we shun the religious content of these works, we're missing their emotional and intellectual power.

You can disagree with the church of your choice, but to dismiss religion altogether-- and to write off the best ideas, the best people and of course, the best indie rockers-- that come out of it, seems pointless. Why shoot the messenger just because you're scared he has a message?


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