Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mormons and Music

This post will probably apply to Mormons and any field of the arts, but for now I'll just focus on music.

To refresh my memory on the church's specific stance on music, I've been referring to the For the Strength of Youth PDF. Here's an excerpt:
Choose carefully the music you listen to. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening. Don't listen to music that drives away the Spirit, encourages immorality, glorifies violence, or uses foul or offensive language, or promotes Satanism or other evil practices.
That's actually not too bad, at least on the surface. But let me attempt to break those criteria down, in ascending order of how much they piss me off.

1. Glorifying Violence
I assume this was probably targeting rap music. I don't know that the General Authorities are aware of Cannibal Corpse, Anal Cunt, and all those other grindcore/horrorcore/gorecore/rapecore/whatevercore crazy offshoot death metal bands out there. But I can totally agree with this. I don't believe violence is a good thing. I don't listen to music that tells me to kill people. But there is plenty of violence in music that does not glorify it. And even a lot of those weird grindcore songs are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and funny. It doesn't match my sense of humor, but the musicians don't actually think that "Domestic Violence is Really, Really, Really Funny." (That's an actual song title, yes.)

2. Promoting Satanism or "Other Evil Practices"
I doubt the First Presidency is a fan of the band Deicide. And I don't think I've ever even heard any overtly Satanic music. But I do think that there are many music scenes that are extremely misunderstood and quickly judged by outsiders. When people see a guy with a guitar, long hair, and that weird black metal facepaint style, I guess they just assume that he worships the devil.

What worries me more is this "other evil practices" thing. Does that mean Mormons shouldn't listen to "Renegade" by Styx? The protagonist leads a life of crime and then goes on the run from law enforcement...those are evil practices. I'm not into violence and I'm not into Satanism, but trying to keep people from listening to anything that has something bad that's not cast in a negative light is absurd.

3. Encouraging Immorality
This one's easy to joke about. "Well, that means they can't listen to Kesha, so they're really not missing out on anything, amirite?"

I don't really have any stock in the artistic value of, say, Kesha. The seemingly innumerable pop songs about finding love (or finding sex) bore me. And the sexual content of some of these songs is probably not suitable for younger listeners. However, if you've taught your children as well as you think you have, you shouldn't have to stop them from enjoying a good tune even if it contains lyrics you disagree with. I've sung along to Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime album dozens of times even though I don't agree with the political themes behind the premise.

4. Using Foul or Offensive Language
This is just stupid. I understand that some people (including Mormons) find swearing to be offensive. But swearing is a way to convey strong emotion. There are some fantastic pieces of music that contain swearing...because the best music contains strong emotion. This emotion doesn't always have to be expressed with swearing, but sometimes it's just the best way to do it.

Swans' God Damn the Sun curses the sun as a perfect conclusion to a song of deep sadness. It's a heartbreaking portrait of depression in which the narrator's blasphemous swearing intimates the depth of his suffering. It's a song that has made me cry and allows me to see my own problems as comparatively minor. It's bittersweet and cathartic, but Mormons will never feel that catharsis because Michael Gira says "god damn."

Pain of Salvation's Cribcaged drops 20 F-bombs to express the desperate rage against people who neglect their children in favor of greed and materialism. The sheer number of F-words in such a short time drives the point home and illustrates how much damage these parents can do. It's a good point and an important message that Mormons would agree with...but they'll never hear it because they disagree with the way the point is being presented.

If I had more time, I could find countless more examples. Disregarding music because of swearing is can miss out on some truly beautiful, artistic, and inspiring pieces of music.

5. Driving Away the Spirit
This is kind of another catch-all for a wide variety of music that the church leadership disapproves of. I think is geared toward loud, heavy or energetic music that doesn't allow you to hear the "still, small voice" of the spirit.

I remember a family home evening lesson I had in high school in which my dad counseled me not to listen to any music that "excites" me. He wasn't talking about sexual excitement. He was talking about normal, "hey, this is pretty awesome!" excitement. At the time, I was starting to stray away from my musical roots (hymns, Disney songs and a little family-friendly country music) and discover popular music and hard rock. I'd been listening to some 3 Doors Down and some Nickelback and I'd recently gotten hooked on a few songs by Breaking Benjamin. I think he was worried that Breaking Benjamin was too loud, too heavy, and too fast to allow me to hear the promptings of the holy ghost. So he made sure to warn me against hard rock without ever telling me a specific genre to steer clear of.

Boy, am I glad I didn't listen to him. Breaking Benjamin became an obsession of mine for a while. It led me to heavier music, a realm in which I discovered Dream Theater. Dream Theater opened the door to the world of progressive music, which I have been exploring ever since. It's world which I consider to contain a huge amount of great music, on musical, lyrical, emotional, and inspirational levels. Listening to only calm, quiet music is like eating only grains: there's a lot of good stuff in there, but you're not realizing your diet's potential to be well-rounded and healthy.

On a closing note: there's a lot of good entertainment out there and there's a lot of bad entertainment. But by excluding these five different kinds of music, the church is failing in its aim to shut out the bad. Just as much good has become off-limits with the bad, and there's still plenty of crappy music left that meets their criteria of acceptable listening. I think an open mind and a good head on your shoulders is a much better guide to finding good music than the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.

And that doesn't seem right to me.

(Oddly enough, I've had "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" stuck in my head for the last five or six paragraphs.)

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