Back in the days when the earth’s crust was still hardening, I was a big fan of The Smashing Pumpkins. They were in the thick of the grunge scene–which was a whole new departure in rock music and which was all the rage for most of the 1990’s. After the grunge fad faded, the band broke up in 2000. Following a seven year hiatus, they got back together and have been trying to make a comeback.
Lead singer Billy Corgan recently sat down for an interview with CNN, and he makes the astonishing claim that God is the “third rail” of rock-n-roll. He also gives a brief and trenchant critique of “Christian” rock music. You can watch the video of the interview above, or you can read the transcript below. Several thoughts come to mind in response to Corgan’s remarks:
1. Corgan thinks that God is the “third rail” of rock music. This statement is revealing. It reveals the truth that human beings bear the image of God, and there will always be a yearning and unsettledness that tends toward transcendence. Nevertheless, meditations on suffering and angst won’t scratch the human itch. How else do you explain that fact that a decade that began so boldly with Nirvana ended with Britney Spears and ‘N Sync? In the absence of truth, people will turn back to the popular pabulum. God remains a “third rail” because people characteristically will not retain God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28). This intolerance is woven into the warp and woof of rock-n-roll culture, and it is why the third rail is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
2. Corgan thinks that “Christian” rock is unoriginal. I don’t think that anyone could argue with the fact that much of so-called “Christian” music is highly derivative of whatever the flavor of the month is among secular pop music. This is not a new critique, and indeed many Christians have been saying the same thing for decades. We can agree that there is something unseemly about Christian artists living off the fumes of their secular counterparts. Christianity has a history of being more vigorous than that (think Bach or Shakespeare). Why has so much of Christian artistic expression dissipated into pabulum of pop culture? We can do better.
3. So-called “Christian” artists are not the only ones whose work tends toward imitation. Current popular music is no different. Top 40 radio is rife with material that is highly imitative of other artists. One recent example: Did anyone happen to hear Katy Perry’s highly anticipated single just released last week? She didn’t sample Matt Kearney, but I think she may still owe him some royalties. (Others have noted a similarity to Sara Bareilles.)
4. Although Corgan criticizes “Christian” music for ripping-off secular acts, surely he paints with too broad a brush. There are in fact some Christians out there who are plying their trade with excellence and not as knock-off artists. I’m thinking of Andrew Peterson and everyone in his “Rabbit Room” circle. I don’t think they can be credibly indicted under Corgan’s censure. Matt Kearney is another who has carved out his own path and who is making great music. We might mention The Fray among many others who are doing good work, some of which has broken through the din. All I’m saying is that we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There really are some baby’s in there.
CORGAN: There’s a long established concept that gets bandied about, which is “Misery makes for great art”. And I actually think this is – if we were asking a Shinto Monk, I think they would laugh at this idea.
CORGAN: Because you’re basically saying, “Suffering’s good for business”. And I don’t think suffering’s good for business. Crazy’s good for business, suffering isn’t. I think suffering or the gestalt of, “Here I am, ripping my heart open” – I think that lasts for about two or three albums.
CORGAN: At some point, you have to mature into the deeper work. Most people are living lives of sort of survival. And constantly posing an existential crisis, either through fantasy or oblivion, really has been pretty much explored in rock and roll. At least in the western version of rock and roll. Maybe not over here in Asia, but we’ve sort of, kind of, been through all that.
RAJPAL: So what are you exploring now?
CORGAN: God. I once did – a big American magazine was doing a thing called, “The Future of Rock”.
CORGAN: And, you know, they asked 50 artists, “What’s the future of rock?” And my answer was, “God”. And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, God’s the third rail of -” What is it? “Social security is the third rail of politics in America”. Well, God is the third rail in rock and roll. You’re not supposed to talk about God. Even though most of the world believes in God. It’s sort of like, “Don’t go there”.
I think God’s the great, unexplored territory in rock and roll music. And I actually said that. I thought it was perfectly poised. And, of course, they didn’t put it in the interview.
RAJPAL: What would you say to Christian rockers, then?
CORGAN: Make better music.
CORGAN: Personally, my opinion – I think Jesus would like better bands, you know?
CORGAN: Now I’m going to get a bunch of Christian rock hate mail.
RAJPAL: But that’s interesting –
CORGAN: Just wait, here’s a better quote –
CORGAN: Hey, Christian rock, if you want to be good, stop copying U2. U2 already did it. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of U2-esque Christian rock.
CORGAN: Bono and company created the template for modern Christian rock. And I like to think Jesus would want us all to evolve.
(HT: Derek Webb)