The National Catholic Review

One of the subthemes of reportage on Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is the extent to which he embodies what he is supposed to embody as the first "Generation X" candidate.

Some commentators have seen in Ryan's politics a reflection of the pragmatic, post-utopian, do-it-yourself, suspicion-of-institutions spirit of the generation. Others have wondered what happened to the live-and-let-live, anti-workaholic (pro-slack), spiritual-but-not-religious, pop-culture-connected spirit that seemed to animate so many of us born in the mid-1960s to late-1970s, and who came of age in Reagan's America. Still others ask whether there was ever anything to these purported generational characteristics. This weekend, the New York Times ran an article by Alex Williams, "For GenXers, a Wake-Up Call," that summarized some of the discussion so far. 

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book about Generation X, Virtual Faith, that argued that at the level of the symbolic order coming through popular culture, one could glean a constellation of characteristics that expressed and shaped the sensibilities of young adults bound up in popular media culture, but that constellation would necessarily remain a provisional hypothesis subject to deeper investigation of "GenXers" and their interpreters. Interpreting popular media culture, in short, was not optional for making theological sense of generations, but had become (since the Baby Boomers) an essential skill. 

As Williams and many others have reported, Ryan is apparently a fan of the rock/rap/metal band Rage Against the Machine. RATM has for twenty years been an activist group advocating liberal, radical, and anarchist perspectives and actions regarding racial oppression and economic disadvantage and exploitation in the United States. This interracial band, who share the politics of Pussy Riot but take a post-punk attitude toward songwriting (balancing between three-chord fury and high musicianship, especially in guitarist Tom Morello), express musically and politically one part of the spectrum of sensibilities and tastes of the generation in question. Many of their song lyrics trace the plight of immigrants, the doings of the agents of abusive governments, and the dignity of resistance to the seductions of the identities that are too small for human beings, despite and because of our constitutive vulnerability. Many of their songs are calls for the courage of self-examination and culture-examination that have been notably effective in reaching both their disprivileged hearers as well as their privileged fans. 

One Rage song in particular might be of interest to Ryan. The tune, "Maria," is an interpretation of Mary the mother of Jesus as a border-crossing garment worker, who in her suffering and deep knowledge of this hard reality becomes a patron saint: "These are her mountains and skies and she radiates / and through history's river of blood she regenerates / and like the sun disappears only to reappear / she's eternally here / her time is near / never conquered but here"

Ryan's politics, insofar as they are an expression of his faith and beliefs, seem not to have been affected very much by Rage Against the Machine. (By contrast, many religiously- or spiritually-identified people take RATM as important to their faith/beliefs.) The disconnect between Ryan and Rage is interesting and worth thinking about, because it raises the question of how pop culture, or more specifically, popular music, can or cannot influence religion/spirituality/faith. While researches on this question differ in their findings, a significant amount of cultural studies of religion and theologies of pop culture in the last twenty years emphasize the co-implication of faith/belief/spirituality/religion and pop culture practices, and I too had tried to emphasize this in Virtual Faith.

I think the theological/religious studies conversation is well beyond needing a "pure" starting or orienting point, as if "faith" starts apart from "culture" and must "guide" cultural practice, as if faith itself has no cultural history. Neither is it a matter of saying that (popular) culture "determines" what one should believe/confess/practice. The best research emphasizes the complex character of the interactions and the impossibility of finding in lived experience a pure separation between the two. 

As I mentioned above, it appears that Ryan has not been moved by RATM, and indeed Rage guitarist Tom Morello has recently criticized Ryan as representing the "machine" that the band has consistently sought to interpret and expose.

But things may not be as simple as all this. We would need to know a lot more before we could make firmer theological sense of Ryan's musical tastes, or musical sense of his theological tastes. What place does Rage music hold in his imagination? When does he listen to/view their music? How does their music sit in his personal/cultural history? What fantasies does it invite for him, what dispositions does it solicit, what practices does it allow? How does it connect up with other sources of consolation for him? Could it be that, despite the seeming "contradiction" between RATM and Ryan, his taste for metal plays some sort of psycho-spiritual balancing act for him? If so, what does that balancing serve? 

These are not only questions about Ryan, they are questions for all of us who are aware that our faith/belief/spirituality/religion is inseparable from our musical experience. That includes all of us "GenXers" and everyone else, too. 

Comments

Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/28/2012 - 9:19am
I don't think it makes sense to expect people to adopt their favorite musical groups' political positions, anymore than to expect them to adopt their favorite clothing designers' opinions. I am a huge admirer of Wagnerian opera, but I don't approve of all of Wagner's political opinions or endorse his private lifestyle.

I understand that two months is a long time to keep readers' attention, but wouldn't it be better to have a little less focus on the candidates preferences in music, food, sports and (Frank Bruini's most recent reason why we shouldn't vote for Romney) their huggability or lack thereof?

The country is ten trillion dollars in debt, unemployment is eight percent, GDP growth is around two percent per quarter and, like it or not, we're the only power on an unstable planet capable of keeping peace. Romney and Obama aren't running for national role model, national pastor or national puppy dog. Who cares what music they like?
Thomas Rooney OFS | 8/27/2012 - 2:27pm
Tom Morello continues, according to HP:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/17/tom-morello-paul-ryan-rage-against-the-machine_n_1795607.html

''Morello compares the Congressman's appreciation of RATM to Charles Manson's love for The Beatles and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's liking for Bruce Springsteen. 

Ryan's rage is'...a rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment.'''

If RATM is Paul Ryan's favorite band as is claimed, he certainly doesn't care to listen to a band's message before loading it on his Ipod...nothing wrong with that per se, but I wonder if he reads legislation and proposals as carefully, so long as they have a snappy title and cover.
Thomas Rooney OFS | 8/28/2012 - 12:36pm
Michael and Amy -

Admittedly my remarks were a bit off the cuff.  It was an interesting article to me, knowing RATM's politics as I do (know does NOT=endorse).

As far as lyrical content, The Ramones (love'em) never presented themselves as anything other than a rock-n-roll band.  Their lyrics don't go much beyond the depth of "yeah-yeah-yeah".  Pure entertainment and a lot of fun as far as I was concerned.

Rage is something altogether different and it isn't all about lyrical content.  They've ALWAYS been loud and radical politically, from flying upside-down American flags during an SNL performance (protesting then GOP candidate and guest host Steve Forbes) , to advocating the release of former Black Panther and convicted cop killer/death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal, as well as convicted double-murderer and Native American activist Leonard Peltier. 

Do I personally think it matters in the long run?  Not really, as I'm not voting for Romney/Ryan anyway.  It just played (to me) as a "trying-desperately-to-be-hip" comment from Ryan.  Human interest article, nothing more really.
Mike Brooks | 8/28/2012 - 10:55am
Amy -

Tom Beaudoin usually writes about music and how relates to our world and our faith.  It's a nice change from the usual leftist political posts here and presents a unique perspective.


Tom - I'm a pretty musical guy, but no poet, and perhaps that's why, for me, lyrics in popular music have never been important.  That, and the fact that, generally, the only way to know what the lyrics are is to read them from some source; rarely can I understand the lyrcis from the audio.

As a youth, I loved the Ramones.  Why?  Probably because I was studying Mozart and Beethoven when I first heard them.  Lyrics like, "Hey, ho, let's go; Shoot him in the back now," which I know because I could hear them (thank you, Joey, RIP), have nothing to do with my innermost thoughts or feelings; they're just extreme and silly.  Likewise with "I wann be sedated."

My point is that music listeners are not always interested in lyrics.  I don't know many RATM songs, but the few I've heard make me sense outrage; what the outrage is about, I don't know because I can't understand the lyrics.  But there are times in my life where this kind of head-bashing music would have been appealing, not for its words, but because of the music.  Maybe that's what a busy guy like Ryan feels.