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The war on pop

100 years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim was worried. He had just finished his epic study of the function of religion, which was published in 1912 as The Elementary Forms of Religion.

Religion, Durkheim decided, had a crucial role to play in society. It created spaces of ‘collective effervescence’ – mass transcendence and ecstasy – which lifted people from their separate individual selves and binded them together into a community.

But where would mass western societies find collective effervescence today, when people’s belief in Christianity was declining? Without an alternative, Durkheim worried that people in the West would end up lonely, atomised and miserable.

He looked around for new forms of religion, and wondered if the state could become a new God. 

France was a good example. It had shoved Christianity aside during the French Revolution, but established a new religion in the worship of the revolutionary state.

The historian Alexis de Tocqueville, looking back on the Revolution a few decades later, decided the French revolution ‘assumed all the aspects of a religious revival…it developed into a species of religion, albeit a singularly imperfect one’.  This new religion had its own rituals, anthems, festivals, martyrs, apostles.

The religious enthusiasm of the French Revolution

The worship of the state took a new, more toxic form in the 19th and 20th century, with the worship of strong men and women – the cult of Napoleon, the cult of Victoria, the cult of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

It became apparent that, while the Enlightenment knocked down the old God of Abrahamic faiths, it had raised up a new God in natiionalism, and this new God was just as blood-thirsty.

The ecstatic worship of the Emperor or Fuhrer was fuelled through sacrifices, wars, purges, and the exploitation or extermination of those deemed racially inferior. It was an enforced religion – if you weren’t singing along, you were a heretic.

For a while it looked like the cult of imperialism / fascism would be the new religion of the 20th century, but that ended with World War II.

Instead, two new cults emerged. Firstly, mass consumerism. People didn’t need to forget themselves in mass ecstasy anymore, because life was suddenly more comfortable. People could get TVs, cars, washing machines, go on holiday. Who wanted to throw themselves on the altar of ecstatic nationalism when you could watch I Love Lucy?

Secondly, in the late 1950s, the cult of rock & roll took off.

Rock & roll was the bastard love-child of Pentecostalism, an ecstatic form of Christianity that had flourished in America among poor whites and blacks. Pentecostalism was highly emotional and  rhythmic – congregants worked themselves into a trance (known as ‘getting happy’) by rocking back and forth, singing call-and-response rhythms over and over, and then opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. The preacher was a performer – building the audience up to a peak of ecstasy, teasing them, and then letting them loose with a scream and a wail (this was known as ‘housewrecking’). When the ecstasy came upon them, congregants were encouraged to break loose, run around, jump up or dance in a frenzy while other congregants urged them on.

It was what Aldous Huxley rather sniffily called ‘Corybantic Christianity’ – the Corybantic rites were a sort of ecstatic dance cult in ancient Greece.

The pioneers of rock & roll came, on the whole, from Pentecostalism. Little Richard sang in a Pentecostal choir (and later briefly renounced rock & roll to become a preacher). His trademark high-pitched squeals were straight out of the Pentecostal sermon. Jerry Lee Lewis was another Pentecostal worshipper, so were the Isley Brothers, James Brown, BB King, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke. Elvis and Tina Turner were Baptists, but they both learned their style of performing at Pentecostal church.

Rock & roll adapted the script of Pentecostalism

Rock & roll took the script of Pentecostalism – the music, rhythm, emotion, metaphors and mannerisms – and adapted it. It took the sexuality bubbling under the surface of Pentecostalism – and brought it to the surface. Ray Charles, for example, turned the gospel anthem ‘I got a friend in Jesus’, and turned it into ‘I got a woman’. Jerry Lee Lewis took an image of the Pentecost – Great Balls of Fire – and turned it into a celebration of sexual delirium. Elvis took the shaking and jittering of Pentecostal ecstasy, and turned it into a highly sexual wiggle.

This ‘secular ecstasy’, as the writer Peter Guralnick calls it, set the world on fire. No one could have predicted the impact from those early scratchy recordings by dirt-poor Southerners in tiny recording studios in Memphis and Nashville. But it would sweep across the world through the new technology of radio, TV and cinema, and infect the world’s youth like a medieval dancing plague.

Rock & roll was a strange cocktail – blending the spiritual and the sexual (think of Prince), celebrating male sexual conquest, but also male gender-bending and female empowerment. It expressed a yearning for escape and transcendence, but was also deeply consumerist. It offered a collective transcendence through singing and dancing, but was also utterly individualist – be whoever you want to be, it said, as long as you’re entertaining.

Where ecstatic imperialism had celebrated the superiority of a particular race (Anglo-Saxon, German, Japanese), rock & roll, like Pentecostalism, was joyfully mixed-race and internationalist. Instead of worshipping the Emperor or Fuhrer, we worshipped the King, Queen, Prince, Madonna, the Godfather, the Thin White Duke.

Instead of worshipping the Emperor, we worshipped the King, Queen, Prince or Madonna

The new cult was quickly condemned by governments and churches. But by the time of Beatlemania in the early 60s, it had more or less been accepted, part of the new freedoms, the new consumerism. Rock and roll helped created the new democratic hedonic state which we’re in now, which is so abhorrent to religious puritans. 

David Byrne, lead-singer of Talking Heads and a keen anthropologist of ecstasy, says he thinks rock & roll saved the West from arid Enlightenment rationalism. It ‘changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture…The groove is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit.’

His friend and collaborator, Brian Eno – another keen student of ecstasy – thinks rock & roll gives people the experience of ecstatic surrender, without the dogma of religion.

At times, in the last 50 years, it’s seemed like rock & roll became a religion itself – or rather, a bewildering array of different cults, from soul to country to disco to punk to metal to grime, each with its churches and acolytes. Concerts and festivals have become one of our favoured places for collective effervescence.

This is why the Islamic State targets pop concerts. It’s why the Taliban banned pop music. It’s why fundamentalist muslim terrorists attack Sufism, a type of Islam that celebrates singing and dancing as a way to divine ecstasy. 

Islamic fundamentalists are Puritans, and Puritans want everyone to follow their avenue to ecstasy.  They want to police how people find ecstasy, so seek to control and shut down alternative sources – theatre, cinema, sport, sexuality, intoxicants, alternative religions. There is something noble in Puritanism – reverence, a seriousness about the spiritual life – but it easily turns into a resentment of anyone having more fun than you, and a fanatic insistence that everyone follows your ascetic path. 

For Islamic fundamentalists – as for early Christians – music is particularly dangerous because it encourages women to let go, to let their hair down, to  forget their place and celebrate their sexuality.  Sexuality reduces us to beasts, and women are the tempters – the ‘slags’. This is not so far from the misogynist views of early Christian saints like St Kevin, the patron saint of domestic violence – a woman flirted with him when he was praying on a cliff, and he pushed her off the cliff.

Actually, let’s be clear. ISIS is not against male sexuality  – they have no problem forcing women into sex slavery. They’re against female sexual freedom, the freedom for women to make their own life-choices and sex-choices.

Some of the victims of the Manchester bombing

Pop music, as a cult, is so much better than Puritanism, or the worship of empire (and Islamic State is a toxic mixture of those two things). It’s joyful, it’s integrative, it’s inclusive, it celebrates sexuality rather than abhorring it, and – on a good day – it celebrates gender and racial equality.

But it’s not perfect as a religion. Not by any means. As Timothy Leary noted, it turns pop stars into the new priests. And they’re utterly unqualified to play that role, as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger all insisted in the 1960s. Look at Dylan’s bewilderment when he was being treated as the ‘voice of a generation’. Looking back, he comments: ‘the press thought performers had the answers to all the problems of society. What can you say to something like that? It’s just absurd.’

The rock star becomes the new God. That’s deeply unhealthy for the artist – Chris Cornell is just the latest in a long line of rock and roll self-destruction – and it’s not very good for the audience either. ‘Don’t expect John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to do it for you’, Lennon said in his final interview. ‘I can’t cure you. You can cure you.’

Rock & roll can offer genuine moments of transcendence and togetherness. But it’s often basically a celebration of the self, of the cult of expressive individualism. And the self is a dead end. As the Arcade Fire put it: ‘thought you were praying to the resurrector, turned out to be just a reflector’.

Let’s face it, it was never appropriate to try and make rock & roll a substitute for Christianity. It’s insufficient on its own. But for a while it was an expression of the human spirit on its continual evolution – a breaking free, a cry, a yearning.                                                   

A transcendent future

Today, rock & roll is a fading cult. It’s been undercut and overtaken by the internet. Before the net, pop music was how young people asserted our tribal identities, how we expressed our emotions, how we re-invented ourselves through the masks of the pop star.

In the internet age, we don’t need the band as a medium. We can re-invent ourselves endlessly through Facebook and Snapchat, we can express our emotions directly, we can assert our tribal identities through online groups. And yet, even more than rock and roll, the new cult of the internet turns out to be a hall of reflecting mirrors. We’re even more stuck in our selves.

We’re waiting for something new to bring us transcendence.

Europe desperately needs a transcendent vision of the future, otherwise we’re basically just a frightened retirement home, surrounded by dusty antiques, looking fearfully through our lace curtains at the brown people who moved in next door. Europe has tried to make ‘well-being’ its transcendent goal, but that’s not enough, because this century is going to be rocky and not always happy. When you have a transcendent vision of the future to work towards, you can bear the inevitable trouble and suffering that life brings. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so we need to spiritually strengthen ourselves and focus on a vision of the future. 

What should this transcendent future be? The revival of Christianity? The triumph of Islam? The victory of atheist materialism? Psychedelic pantheism? What strange new cult is being born in a manger somewhere in the world?

Personally, I think the future of religion is not secularism or monotheism but an intelligent spiritual pluralism. And I think liberal democracy is the best form for that. I believe there are many routes to God, not one, and we should have sympathy and respect for other people’s and other cultures’ avenues to transcendence.

I used to think spiritual pluralism was wishy-washy, but it’s not – it’s the humane, intelligent, cultured position. God is greater than all our religions, and to think your formulation is the only right answer is arrogant, ignorant and idolatrous.

I hope – and pray – that the future of religion in the West is not the body-hating, sexuality-hating, enforced Puritanism of ISIS. I hope we can discover a better form of spirituality, which celebrates human freedom, human rights, animal rights, sexuality, racial and gender equality, joy and pleasure  – in other words, all that is holy about liberal democracy – as well as celebrating the freedom to sin and be forgiven, the freedom to choose higher joy over addictions and compulsions, the freedom to discover our souls in self-transcendence, the freedom to connect to the infinite love within us. 

Liberal democracy + transcendence, that’s what I hope the future holds. That for me is a future worth suffering for and dying for. 

Twin Peaks, the uncanny, and the re-enchanted West

26 years ago, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was a 13-year old boy, in my first year at an all-male boarding school. I was coming up on testosterone, discovering booze, porn and drugs, yearning for escapism. And I found it in Twin Peaks. I remember racing to the TV room after Sunday lunch, slamming in the VHS cassette with the previous night’s episode, lying on the floor (the seats were reserved for older boys) and slipping blissfully out of boarding school and into another world at the first note of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune.

I became a fully paid-up Peak Freak. I bought the soundtrack, I bought Laura Palmer’s diary, I watched the movie, I watched all his movies. In 2003, I bought the DVD and watched and re-watched the show. In the last few years, I went to Twin Peaks-themed cabaret nights and won second place in a Twin Peaks fancy dress competition.

That’s me as Dr Jacobi and my friend Maria as Audrey. OK, the log-lady deserved to win.

What was it that so possessed me about Twin Peaks? Well, it was at least in part the hotness of the actresses. The town of Twin Peaks was peopled by a lot of incredibly hot 20-something women, many of them playing high-school girls. This was a frank celebration of high-school sexuality – teenage busts under 50s jumpers. Like Hitchock and Fellini, there’s something a bit pervy and creepy about David Lynch, and his propensity to use his camera to explore his sexual kicks (hot women, velvet curtains). In the original script for Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper hooks up with schoolgirl Audrey (this was deemed too Humbert Humbert by Kyle Machachlan).

Yet plenty of shows in the 1990s had a parade of hot women – Baywatch, above all. Twin Peaks really gripped me because it was my first taste of independent or arthouse cinema. 80s cinema was often a neo-1950s celebration of teenage suburbia – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, Adventures in Baby-Sitting, Back to the Future. David Lynch both celebrated that small-town high-school America, and explored the darkness that lay beneath it – drugs, incest, murder, demons.

Twin Peaks, like Blue Velvet, was all about the teenage journey beyond childhood innocence to a terrible knowledge of the evil and suffering in the world. In Blue Velvet, the hero Jeffrey is a teenage Hamlet figure, driven by the death of his father to play the amateur detective, only to be confronted by terrifying daemonic forces both outside him and within himself. In Twin Peaks, we see the photo of Laura Palmer, the smiling high-school prom queen, then gradually uncover the darkness behind that smile.

We discover the sex and violence lurking within the American nuclear family. That’s something Alfred Hitchcock explored in films like Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt – both he and Lynch loved the shot of the staircase in the suburban household, suddenly loaded with dread. The homely is made un-homely and threatening.

Upward short of the stairs from Psycho
Upwards shot of the stairs in Shadow of a Doubt, leading to scary killer-uncle


Upstairs shot of Laura Palmer’s house in Twin Peaks, leading to scary killer

We’re taken into a dreamworld beneath everyday reality. I think David Lynch is unrivalled in its ability to summon up the world of dreams. He’s a master at creating the Uncanny, the un-homely.

The aesthetics of the Uncanny were first laid out by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche – an essay that deeply inspired Stanley Kubrick while he was making The Shining. Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices by which 19th-century Gothic writers produced uncanny feelings in us  – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”, as in a dream.

You can see how important these techniques are in both Kubrick and Lynch’s work, at summoning up dreamworlds which hint at hidden meanings or correspondences, without ever fully explaining them 

Mirrors, for example (from left, Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and The Shining)

Weird patterns (from left, Eraserhead, The Shining and Twin Peaks)

Numbers (from The Shining and Twin Peaks…There are loads of portentous number references in the new Twin Peaks, by the way – the giant tells Dale to remember 340, we see an addict intoning 199, we see a magic phone-box with the number 3 on it…what does it all amount to? Almost certainly nothing). 

Weird symbols, like the dancing lady wearing the blue rose in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me (the blue rose apparently symbolizes an FBI case involving the supernatural)

Events from the past happening again.

Dopplegangers (or, in the new series of Twin Peaks, Tripplegangers – yes there are three versions of Dale Cooper running around).

There are also inanimate machines that seem oddly animate – electric wires, radiators, phones and plug sockets that seem to channel spirits….It’s all very unheimliche.

And then, in Twin Peaks, there are the spiritual visions and dream-sequences, which were so utterly weird in 1991 but which have become more normal in TV drama since, through shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or Stranger Things.

Lynch, like Kubrick and Hitckcock, brought the weird world of surrealism into mainstream American culture. Like the 1920s surrealists, he used techniques of ecstasy to take himself into trance states and plumb his subconscious for creativity. The surrealists of the 1920s used techniques like auto-hypnosis, drugs and automatic writing, while Lynch uses Transcendental Meditation and also an openness to the random, spontaneous and accidental – he cast Frank Silva as the daemonic villain Bob in Twin Peaks when he happened to witness him working on the set as a carpenter.

Above all, I love Twin Peaks because it summons up an enchanted place in a disenchanted age.

Freud wrote that the Uncanny works on us emotionally because it reconnects us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to

the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.

Freud can’t write about animism without distaste – it’s infantile and regressive in his view. Kubrick and Lynch, by contrast, are more optimistic in their exploration of the spirit world. The Shining and Twin Peaks are actually optimistic. How? Because they suggest we’re not just matter, we’re also spirit. They suggest we’re in a world filled with demons and darkness, but also with transcendent forces of goodness and light. We’re not alone – there are greater forces out there, which can possess us for good or ill. And we’re in a universe where the soul doesn’t necessarily end at death – the journey is longer and stranger, as Agent Cooper discovers on his journey through various bardos. It’s not a flattened world. It’s a world thick with spirit.

That is a hopeful vision, to me, and a more exciting vision than the End of History we supposedly arrived at in the 1990s (when Twin Peaks first aired), with the triumph of secular neoliberal democracy. I love liberal democracy – I would die for it – but it can feel technocratic, self-absorbed, hyper-individualist, trivial, materialist, consumerist, spiritually flat, and utterly lacking in transcendence.  In some ways, our culture is anti-transcendent – our highest value is the individual, and death is definitely the end. Compared to that, the world of Twin Peaks was Romantic, exciting, mysterious, transpersonal. The self is porous, the owls are not what they seem. A small town in America could be a portal to multiple universes.

Now of course, a world of demons, angels and magic can easily be infantile, dangerous, completely irrational. ISIS terrorists live in a more enchanted world, in which they are the God-fuelled superheroes, and anyone who opposes them is a demon who needs to be exterminated. Sub-Saharan African villagers live in a more enchanted world, and are not above sacrificing the occasional child to placate the nature spirits. The more stupid supporters of Trump live in an enchanted world – the conspiracy-nut world of X Files, where a shadowy cabal headed by Hilary Clinton and the Illuminati run the world from behind the scenes

I think there is a third choice, between a culture of mad fundamentalist transcendence, and a culture that is anti-transcendent. And that’s a culture of mature, skeptical transcendence.

A society with a mature vision of transcendence helps us to go beyond our ego while recognizing the darkness in our subconscious, so we don’t project our darkness outwards onto outsiders. A culture of mature transcendence has resources – the arts, religion, spirituality, psychology – that help us consciously navigate the dreamworld within us, and to confront and integrate the darkness in our souls on our journey to wholeness. They help us find transcendence without insisting their route is the only route, and any one else’s route is evil. David Lynch’s work has that psychological and spiritual maturity. We need more art like that, if we’re to evolve from an anti-transcendent culture into a culture of mature transcendence.