Arcade Fire: Popular Music and the Desire for the Transcendent

Music, particularly live music, can be an immensely transportive experience, and musical groups, particularly rock groups, can inspire an incredible amount of devotion amongst their admirers. One particular example of the way in which bands can inspire their followers to quasi-religious levels of fervency and fidelity is the band Arcade Fire, whose live shows have become renowned for leading their crowds into waves of intense emotion. The question I would like to pose today is to what extent this sort of experience (either in concert or even in the experience of sitting at home listening to music through headphones) is tending to displace religion, and furthermore, to what extent does that point to a lens through which people now view religion as fundamentally experiential.

There is a sense within the music of Arcade Fire of a progressive building, and not just of emotion, but of portent – that our mundane activities and our daily choices are made in the context of a grand and bewildering mystery that cannot be comprehended but only pointed to. The grandiose and emotive nature of their music is indicative of the things in our existence that cannot be spoken of but only felt, and, to a certain extent, let out, through a process of excessive but tightly held passion. I am only using the example of Arcade Fire because they represent a particularly clear example of what so much in popular music seems to strive towards – transcendence. The question is, what sort of transcendence are they/we reaching for? What, in a thoroughly secular age, are we lacking, and do we feel the need to reach out towards?

It seems to me that here we are seeing a primal instinct towards the divine, but one that is reluctant to tie itself down to any one particular confessional statement or dogmatic formulation – in the exuberant outwardlookingness of much that is best in modern music, we see an elemental instinct towards what is most basic in life (i.e.; the feeling that our intuitions are grounded in something more original than they can explain or clearly apprehend) but one that cannot, with much of the modern spirit, commit to a distinct and finished elaboration of what life really is all about. This seems to me to characterise much of the modern mood, and is therefore very important to recognise in any discussion of where we are as a culture and how those of us who are connected to particular statements of faith are able to connect with that wider culture.

There is something, seen against the context in which we live, that is, admirable about what bands like Arcade Fire are doing – they are exercising their God-given creative spirit, opening themselves up to transcendent experience, and re-presenting it for their audience. But at the same time, there is an insufficiency about it, in the sense that although there is a reaching beyond (which is authentic and proper to the human spirit) it is a reaching that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere concrete, but only to another place of questioning and yearning. This incompleteness – the feeling that we can grasp at the mystery, but can never quite capture it; that there is always more we can say – is central to the artist’s project. Art is about uncovering what is beyond and underneath the everyday, and holding up the intractable strangeness of life for others to see.

The way that the arts can do this, and what they can remind us about the part of us that is geared towards transcendence, as well as about the need for us to expose ourselves to it, is remarkably similar to what the Christian tradition has said about our being and purpose, about the gulf between Creator and creation, and the essential mysteriousness of existence. However, Christianity has also talked a great deal about the possibility of redemption, of reconciling ourselves to the God we have distanced ourselves from, and this is something that, whilst often hinted at in popular music, is never quite resolved (Bruce Springsteen is a good example of this). The music of Arcade Fire for example, also contains recurrent threads of anxiety, which are weaved so closely with the yearning for transcendence that it is hard to uncouple the two.

This is perhaps the key to understanding something of the attraction of bands like Arcade Fire, and the extent to which they seem to have displaced religion as a way for modern people to make sense of their existence or find a context where their dislocation can be placed and (albeit imperfectly) made sense of. If there is something innate about the desire to go out and meet the transcendent, there is something incurably romantic about affirming our need for salvation without ever having to accept the offer of a solution to our existential problems – it is a metaphysical version of the unrequited love, the sense that there is more comfort in wallowing in sadness than taking the hand that offers us a way out.

There is something then, in the music of bands like Arcade Fire that smacks of an ‘anthem for doomed youth’, and which attracts those who, like their Romantic forebears of the 19th Century, delight in travelling but never arriving, yearning but never gaining any satisfaction for desire. The theme that connects all these feelings is their open-endedness – one can exult in a desire for transcendence, even a desire for redemption, without ever having to reckon with the difficulties that might arise if our Redeemer really does live. This seems to correlate with people’s views of religion – that the majority of people in the West prefer to view themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ also speaks of a reluctance to engage with traditions that offer a clearly defined view of God, mankind, salvation, etc, as opposed to the open-ended, infinitely malleable charms of ‘spirituality’.

Those who are turning to Christianity also seem to be doing so in great numbers within denominations that offer a form of the Faith that is fundamentally experiential – Pentecostalism and the various forms of mega-church style evangelicalism (who also routinely employ rock bands in their worship) are experiencing great growth, and the great Anglican cathedrals have apparently experienced uptakes in visitors, come not to join the congregation, but to experience the rich tradition of beautiful choral music on offer. What though, can historic forms of Christianity do about this and/or learn from it?

The temptation to ape wholly or completely experiential forms of worship is not, I think, a wise one, as the attraction towards such forms seems to have little to do with a desire to actually be changed, but rather has more to do with making the worshipper feel good and/or an affirmation of a sense of community that is divorced from genuine unity in the Faith. However, it should be possible for the Church to, in recognising the extent to which people are drawn to the transcendent but are looking for it in other places, to reach out to those people and show them that, whilst their basic instincts are good, they are misdirecting them.

The romanticised version of spiritual experience (whether it be at a rock concert or in a mega-church) is essentially ego-centric, taking the natural human yearning for God and muddling it with aesthetics, which, because aesthetics and emotion are about what I am experiencing or feeling, inevitably turn inwards and depend upon the repetition of such experiences or feelings. The Church must find a way of showing people that their basic intuitions are right, but that they have been improperly channelled, and that true joy can only come when those desires meet their proper object – God. Communicating this will be difficult in a highly individualistic and distracted culture, but a good start would be the rejuvenation of the liturgy.

At too many churches today, the Mass offered is a bland and uninspiring thing that offers nothing beyond the horizontal – the meeting together of people in community, the sharing of a meal – and there is often little that really raises the heart and mind up to God as He truly is (He who is revealed to us as One who dwells in unsurpassable transcendent glory, but who, out of Love, comes to meet us in our finitude, in the mystery of the Incarnation). Restoring the transcendence-conveying dignity and beauty that was once widespread across parishes could certainly be a way for modern people to, once they had been drawn in, ask a few questions about the content and purpose of the Mass, and then connect their desires to the One in whom all desires find their true end.

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One thought on “Arcade Fire: Popular Music and the Desire for the Transcendent

  1. Pingback: Karl Barth on Mozart and the Harmony of Creation | Journey Towards Easter

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