There is No Secular Music

John J. Thompson

I’ve said it before and I imagine I’ll keep saying it until the day I die: I don’t believe in “secular” music.

It’s not that I don’t agree with it or listen to it. I don’t believe in secular music the same way I don’t believe in mind readers or alien abductions. It doesn’t exist.

Ever since I was a little kid there was something about music that captured me—as a fan first, then as a participant. Music is spiritual. I believe, in fact, that it is essentially spiritual. It is its spirituality that makes it so powerful. In the Bible, music soothed an angry King Saul. It led Joshua’s troops into battle. It encouraged the early church, ushering partakers into the presence of God. Today, music still helps us celebrate and mourn.

Of course, music can also sell cheeseburgers, spread political lies, and embed the telephone number of a carpet company deep into the recesses of our brains. So we should be just a little afraid of music.

It is the spiritual essence of music, I would suggest, that gives it its power. While artists attempt to harness that power in the service of thought and feeling, propagandists harness it in the pursuit of crass and nefarious ends. As “secular” as a burger ad may seem, it is the spiritual nature of music that makes that ad so effective.

In The New York Times Magazine, interviewer Wyatt Mason spoke to three very different musicians about artistic creation. Their thoughts revealed something about the spiritual quality of music. In separate conversations with Kendrick Lamar, Tom Waits, and Beck, Mason instigates the kind of hype-free, non-commercial, creative reflection that is like water to someone like me.

It is the spiritual essence of music that gives it its power.

Mason opens the article with words from the late Leonard Cohen, shared just a few days before his death. When asked by a Japanese reporter about one of his Hebrew-inflected lyrics—“Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” which appears in Cohen’s chilling song “You Want It Darker”—Cohen turned theological: “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve.”

As I let this sink in a for a few days, I was reminded of Moses. Full of weakness and fear, when he knew God’s call would be more than he could possibly accomplish, he said, “Here I am.” Hineni. There is not only a deeply sacred element to our consumption of music, but to our creation of it. Are we, as artists, here to serve, or to be served?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is when it comes to music, the Times article will be enlightening. It will help you understand why people like me obsess over this stuff so much. If, on the other hand, music affects you deeply but you struggle to understand why, this piece might help you find the words. And it will do that by sharing the words of some of today's most influential artists. Here's Kendrick Lamar, as quoted by Mason:

We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.

Lamar describes his attempts to synthesize his Christian faith with the reality of the struggles he sees in the African-American community. His words gripped me and rebuked me in love. The spiritual underpinnings of both those struggles and the ultimate answer to them are being ignored both by the pious and the profane.

Waits, whom I have long suspected of being more spirit than flesh, speaks winsomely in the article about being “in the meadow”—completely in sync with your fellow musicians—and I instantly longed for heaven. For him, music is about our search for “meaning,” and that sounds a lot like a desire for faith. Here is more from Waits:

Everything is somewhat political. As humans, we are always trying to make meaning out of something. Whether it’s tracks in the snow or a voice that you can barely hear or a song that you only half-remember, we are all trying to make meaning out of it. And then operate from that meaning.

As I continue to witness the decay of Christendom in the West and I am grieved by the devolution of the gospel into something crass, commercial, and oppressive, I am reminded of the power of music. We can deny its essence all we want, we can whistle tunelessly past the graveyard, but it will have its way with us in the end. I would rather find the tune and sing along now, while there is breath in my lungs.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure