Thu. September 5
Billy Corgan and the Pursuit of Quality Religious Art
Billy Corgan is responsible for some of the most popular music recorded in the 1990s. His rock band from Chicago – The Smashing Pumpkins – provided the soundtrack to the lives of millions of adolescents born after 1970. While he may not be the shining celebrity star he once was, Corgan remains a relevant voice in the music world and a refreshingly thoughtful artist amidst a sea of vapid entertainers.
In a recent interview he gave to CNN, Corgan offered up his thoughts on the state of modern rock music and God as a subject matter for songwriters to tackle.
“There’s a long-established concept that gets bandied about, which is misery makes for great art. If you were asking a Shinto monk, I think they would laugh at this idea. You’re basically saying suffering is good for business, and I don’t think suffering is good for business. Crazy’s good for business, suffering isn’t.”
When asked what he was now exploring in his music, Corgan, 46, said bluntly, “God.”
The Illinois native said he believes God is the future of rock and roll, although that concept might not be readily welcomed.
“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,’” Corgan said, relating a comment he made to a magazine that failed to print his remarks. “I think God is the most unexplored territory in rock and roll music.”
In response to the question, “What advice do you have for Christian rockers?” Corgan replied, “Make better music.”
And there it is. Make better music. It seems so simple and obvious to most, but given the lackluster quality of most Christian rock music I was encouraged to listen to as child growing up in the evangelical church, I’m not sure it is always the top priority.
I must pause here and make a few important disclaimers. First, there is plenty of quality Christian music for Believers who want to hear God-honoring songs of worship and praise. Second, there is plenty of secular music that is little more than hot garbage. Something isn’t automatically crap because the people making it love Jesus, and something isn’t inherently cool because the artist sings about sex, drugs or how much they drink at “da’ club.” Third, the defensive reaction that many people of faith have anytime they perceive a shot has been fired across the bow of their religion or values is not always helpful. Billy Corgan doesn’t have to attend your church to make a valuable point worth listening to and considering.
Famed Christian author and theologian Francis Schaeffer was a prominent, vocal advocate for the study (and production) of “better art.” In his book Art & the Bible, Schaeffer made the following statements on the subject:
“We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents, and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, the pastors, and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected with scorn and ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man….
How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.”
It is no longer enough for churches and Christian entertainment companies to put their thumbs up in the air and try to gauge which ways the cultural winds are blowing. By the time this strategy has put together the “Christian version of…”, consumers of pop-culture have already seen or listened to the cooler versions of it. To make matters worse, well-intentioned Christian parents arrive even later on the scene and start buying the young people in their lives these already-dated and inferior copies of the stuff the rest of the country has recently finished chewing up and spitting out.
Ultimately, however, the burden falls on the shoulders of those who create the art. Parents who are busy running businesses, working long hours, and raising kids in an increasingly hostile-to-traditional-values society can’t be faulted for trying their best to connect their children to edifying entertainment. It is a harrowing tight-rope for parents to walk. They don’t want to raise culturally-illiterate kids, but they know how powerful and persuasive secular pop-culture can be.
In a free market of ideas, there is plenty of room for openly and decidedly Christian entertainment. But Corgan is right – if Christians have any interest in being taken seriously in an industry like rock music, we’re going to have to create better art. Stamping “Jesus Freak” on sub-par music doesn’t make it listenable.
If the biblical intention of a Christian artist is to be “in, not of” the culture, the current “neither in, nor of” standard needs to be elevated to a higher plane of quality.