The National Catholic Review
David E. Nantais

BILLY JOEL ONCE SAID in an interview on "60 Minutes" that he thinks of his songs as his children. He remarked that some of them go on to become doctors and lawyers (presumably the Top 40 Hits), while others grow up to be bums. I wonder if Billy believes that any of his "kids" could ever grow up to be mass murderers or terrorists.

Ever since the horrible shootings in Littleton, Colo., many groups around the country have been engaged in quasi-psychological ranting about the negative effects pop music has on teenagers. I believe that much of this finger-pointing is unwarranted, although hardly surprising. Pop music, which is a blanket term referring to rock, alternative, Top 40, metal, hip-hop, rap, goth and industrial music, has not caused the downfall of Western civilization as predicted by many critics since the mid-1950’s; but Americans like quick-fix answers to tough, murky questions, and pop music is an easy scapegoat.

I vividly remember my mom warning me as a young and impressionable second grader that I should not listen to the music of KISS and I should likewise stay away from the kids who carried lunch boxes pasted with this group’s frightening clown-like visages. At the time, I had no idea what or who KISS was, but the urgency of my mother’s voice served as a warning that I was facing something more evil than I could imagine. KISS went on to achieve immense fame, fortune and misfortune, and recently reunited, with middle-aged paunches and all, as lampoons of their former selveshardly the type of aural monster Hercules would have encountered on one of his mythic journeys.

Why did my mother feel so strongly about warning me against the dangers of pop music? Perhaps her mother and father had given her the same speech about Elvis. For three generations, parents have felt the impetus to point their critical fingers at pop music and blame it for every vice St. Paul warned about, with a few more thrown in for good measure. Parents should be concerned about the well-being of their children, but they are fooling themselves if they believe that little Billy will develop more normally if he renounces pop music and instead listens to country and western.

America has been involved in a tense relationship with pop music for at least four decades. In the late 1960’s Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson and his group of deranged followers. As this story was being investigated, the press picked up and ran with a phrase that had been written in blood on a wall in Tate’s home: "Helter Skelter." Taken from a song on the Beatles’ highly praised "White Album," it all at once became the anthem of the Four Horsemen. Similarly, in the mid-80’s the heavy metal artists Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were put on trial for supposedly influencing teenagers to kill themselves.

In the wake of the recent high school shootings, pop music again has become a culprit. Shock-rockers Marilyn Manson, and especially this band’s namesake front man, were lambasted for inspiring the evil intentions and menacing "goth" lifestyle of the two gun-wielding teenagers. In addition to the fact that Marilyn Manson and goth have nothing to do with each other (mistakenly connecting them betrays the stereotypical musical illiteracy of the older generation), the juxtaposition of pop music with horrible crimes is sad for other reasons as well.

I have been involved in a love affair with pop music ever since I purchased my first album, Def Leppard’s "Pyromania," in 1983. This affair has continued into my four years as a Jesuit, during which time I have played drums in a rock band and written numerous rock CD reviews for a student magazine in Chicago. I do not see a dichotomy between religious life and my musical interests. In fact, through my ministerial experiences as a Jesuit, I have witnessed the hand of God at work through the interaction of teenagers and popular music. In response to the negative press pop music has recently received, I would like to highlight three positive ways popular music can affect teenagers.

 Community-Building

The teen-age years are a time of transition from childhood to adulthood, and teenagers need to find their own identity apart from their parents and family. This is very normal and healthy, and those readers who are parents should take the time to recall just how difficult it was to gain a foothold on independence during their adolescent years. A very popular way for teenagers to establish independence is by identifying with a group of other teenagers who share their musical interests. Very often, this musical interest is combined with fashion and lifestyle changes that allow the teenagers to feel they are forging their own way toward adulthood without assistance from Mom and Dad. Parents may be disturbed by the musical tastes of their teenagers, but this is to be expected. The music most teenagers listen to in the late 90’s is not going to be well received by parents any more than it was in the late 60’s. But it serves the same purpose, allowing teenagers to form friendships with peers who share a common interest in a particular music artist or group.

 Therapeutic Release

Many times, while giving retreats to high school students, I have heard them remark that they will listen to different types of music depending upon their mood. When they are depressed, R.E.M. has just the right song that speaks to them; Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos know what to say to the angry teen-age girl whose boyfriend has just dumped her; Lauryn Hill’s infectious grooves are just what the doctor ordered to lighten the spirit on a lonely Friday night; listening to Limp Bizkit after a fight with their parents gives teenagers permission to be angry in a non-destructive way. It is very heartening to witness teenagers turning to music to touch their souls and help them deal with strong emotions because they feel that the music speaks to them in a way that parents, priests or teachers cannot at that moment. teenagers often associate pop music with special events in their lives, as manifested by the numerous compilation "mix" tapes many teenagers make by collecting the music that meant a lot to them during a particularly enjoyable summer or while they were involved in a special relationship. teenagers can use these musical souvenirs to help them recall these enjoyable experiences.

 Spirituality

The first two points touched upon aspects of teenagers’ spirituality, but I refer here to the use of pop music in a specifically spiritual context, such as a retreat. My experience conducting retreats for teenagers has helped me to understand what a powerful tool pop music can be for tapping into spiritual themes such as darkness/light, death/resurrection and love in a way teenagers can understand and to which they can relate. Pop music can be used at the beginning and end of a retreat talk to provide the proper punctuation to the spiritual matter being conveyed. I am not referring solely to acoustic guitar, bubble-gum lyric pop music, but all types. Since teenagers do invest a lot of time listening to music, building community around music and associating strong emotions with particular music, it is not difficult to bring God into their experience of music. Communicating the power of God’s love and companionship by theoretical means to a group of teenagers is not a simple task, but when they can listen to music in a group setting and feel the deep emotions associated with the music, teenagers can be helped to connect their desires and passions with God; and, I hope, God can become more of a real presence in their lives.

Teenagers who are troubled are going to listen to pop music just as much as teenagers who are not, so attempting to make a direct correlation between teen-age violence and music is problematic at best. Pop music is not predicted as an agent of mass destruction in the Book of Revelation, and Marilyn Manson is no more responsible for the Littleton shootings than Joan Osbourne’s sappy oeuvre "(What if God was) One of Us" is responsible for effecting mass conversions to deism. teenagers are going through difficult transitions and definitely need guidance from their elders, but demonizing the music they listen to is not a constructive way to provide support.

David E. Nantais, S.J., is studying philosophy and theology at Loyola University Chicago.

David E. Nantais, S.J., is studying philosophy and theology at Loyola University Chicago.

Comments

Christopher Dodson | 1/17/2007 - 9:26am
As someone who enjoys popular music, I appreciated the defense by David Nantais, S.J., of pop music against those who wish to find a quick blame for our society’s ills (1/1). Nevertheless, the fact that pop music can, as Nantais puts it, build community, provide therapeutic release and contribute to spiritual life, does not mean that some pop music is not without its dangers.

Nantais makes the all too common argument that concern about the likes of Marilyn Manson is due to a generational lack of understanding. This may be true, but it does not mean that we should dismiss concerns about some of the music to which our youth are listening. The fact that my grandfather did not understand or like my mother’s Elvis, and my mother did not understand or like my Cheap Trick tells us something only about generational differences, but nothing about the music itself. The music can still be dangerous.

Moreover, if, as Nantais admits, pop music can emotionally move teenagers toward the good, it is also possible that it can emotionally move teenagers toward the bad. There may not be a “direct correlation” between pop music and problems in our society. However, we should acknowledge that sometimes some music, like many other aspects of our society, can be a contributing factor behind some violent, racist and self-destructive acts.

Cynthia Collie Fackler | 1/17/2007 - 11:04am
The first issue (1/1) of a friend’s gift subscription to America arrived at my home recently. I read it from cover to cover in order to determine objectively if my friend’s evaluation of it as a “moderate” Catholic magazine was accurate. You see, I’m a traditionalist curmudgeon, and the magazine subscription was meant to change my religious perspective.

As is my custom when reading any periodical, I immediately turned to the letters to the editor. I find they generally provide a clue to the publication’s point of view. The presence of some articulate letters challenging the liberal position posited by an article in a previous issue concerning the ordination of women was encouraging, but the necessity of that challenge raised some doubts about my friend’s characterization of your magazine.

Once I read the essay by David S. Toolan, S.J., on the inside cover, however, the warning bells really started clanging in my head. The last few words in the fifth paragraph (dialogue, mediation, compromise and gradualism) validated the concern in one letter about the latest feminist screed insisting on women deacons as the “first step” to achieving their agenda. Since the Holy See has spoken definitively on this subject, I find the continuing dissent expressed in so many Catholic (?) publications to be very disturbing, which two of the letters indicated was the tenor of the aforementioned article. What about the authority of the Holy Father? Isn’t his official teaching one of the primary foundations of Catholicism to which we all should assent?

The coup de grace was the article by David Nantais, S.J., denying the destructive nature of pop music on teenagers. Evidence to the contrary abounds for all but the obdurate, progressive liberal. Is Nantais’s thinking what David Toolan meant by liberal Catholicism “affirming the positive values of the culture”?

I must conclude that my friend, though a good person, is misguided.

(Rev.) John Koelsch<BR>Sacred Heart Church | 1/17/2007 - 9:27am
Kudos and thanks to David Nantais, S.J., for articulating the meaning of popular music for our young people, long a baffling mystery for us “older folks” (1/1). As I read along, I realized I’ve used music as a “therapeutic release” since childhood, allowing it to speak to me “in a way...parents, priests or teachers...” could not have done at the time, or even now.

My tastes tend to classical music, but I can remember irritated looks from my parents seeing me “freaking out” with some loudly played symphony, wishing I’d get off the couch and do something “useful.” (Part of the problem was we didn’t have earphones in those days.) Mahler’s Fourth, a favorite in college years, can still bring tearful emotional release, although I’ve never fully understood why!

Even in my seminary years, the new (50’s) rock-and-roll songs provided valuable comic relief, and in student shows we reveled in shaking up the old folks (faculty) as we aped the songs of Elvis, Bill Haley, etc. Chords were struck that we never dreamed of and still don’t completely comprehend; but we had fun and it helped “community building” among us.

Later, working with young people, I made use of songs like John Denver’s to bring out spiritual feelings, and I hope some day a revival could continue his powerful messages.

An added point—the world we have made for our young people gives them many things to feel insecure and even angry about. If the seemingly out-rage-ousness of some modern music can give them some emotional relief, then we should be grateful.

Christopher Dodson | 1/17/2007 - 9:26am
As someone who enjoys popular music, I appreciated the defense by David Nantais, S.J., of pop music against those who wish to find a quick blame for our society’s ills (1/1). Nevertheless, the fact that pop music can, as Nantais puts it, build community, provide therapeutic release and contribute to spiritual life, does not mean that some pop music is not without its dangers.

Nantais makes the all too common argument that concern about the likes of Marilyn Manson is due to a generational lack of understanding. This may be true, but it does not mean that we should dismiss concerns about some of the music to which our youth are listening. The fact that my grandfather did not understand or like my mother’s Elvis, and my mother did not understand or like my Cheap Trick tells us something only about generational differences, but nothing about the music itself. The music can still be dangerous.

Moreover, if, as Nantais admits, pop music can emotionally move teenagers toward the good, it is also possible that it can emotionally move teenagers toward the bad. There may not be a “direct correlation” between pop music and problems in our society. However, we should acknowledge that sometimes some music, like many other aspects of our society, can be a contributing factor behind some violent, racist and self-destructive acts.

Cynthia Collie Fackler | 1/17/2007 - 11:04am
The first issue (1/1) of a friend’s gift subscription to America arrived at my home recently. I read it from cover to cover in order to determine objectively if my friend’s evaluation of it as a “moderate” Catholic magazine was accurate. You see, I’m a traditionalist curmudgeon, and the magazine subscription was meant to change my religious perspective.

As is my custom when reading any periodical, I immediately turned to the letters to the editor. I find they generally provide a clue to the publication’s point of view. The presence of some articulate letters challenging the liberal position posited by an article in a previous issue concerning the ordination of women was encouraging, but the necessity of that challenge raised some doubts about my friend’s characterization of your magazine.

Once I read the essay by David S. Toolan, S.J., on the inside cover, however, the warning bells really started clanging in my head. The last few words in the fifth paragraph (dialogue, mediation, compromise and gradualism) validated the concern in one letter about the latest feminist screed insisting on women deacons as the “first step” to achieving their agenda. Since the Holy See has spoken definitively on this subject, I find the continuing dissent expressed in so many Catholic (?) publications to be very disturbing, which two of the letters indicated was the tenor of the aforementioned article. What about the authority of the Holy Father? Isn’t his official teaching one of the primary foundations of Catholicism to which we all should assent?

The coup de grace was the article by David Nantais, S.J., denying the destructive nature of pop music on teenagers. Evidence to the contrary abounds for all but the obdurate, progressive liberal. Is Nantais’s thinking what David Toolan meant by liberal Catholicism “affirming the positive values of the culture”?

I must conclude that my friend, though a good person, is misguided.

(Rev.) John Koelsch<BR>Sacred Heart Church | 1/17/2007 - 9:27am
Kudos and thanks to David Nantais, S.J., for articulating the meaning of popular music for our young people, long a baffling mystery for us “older folks” (1/1). As I read along, I realized I’ve used music as a “therapeutic release” since childhood, allowing it to speak to me “in a way...parents, priests or teachers...” could not have done at the time, or even now.

My tastes tend to classical music, but I can remember irritated looks from my parents seeing me “freaking out” with some loudly played symphony, wishing I’d get off the couch and do something “useful.” (Part of the problem was we didn’t have earphones in those days.) Mahler’s Fourth, a favorite in college years, can still bring tearful emotional release, although I’ve never fully understood why!

Even in my seminary years, the new (50’s) rock-and-roll songs provided valuable comic relief, and in student shows we reveled in shaking up the old folks (faculty) as we aped the songs of Elvis, Bill Haley, etc. Chords were struck that we never dreamed of and still don’t completely comprehend; but we had fun and it helped “community building” among us.

Later, working with young people, I made use of songs like John Denver’s to bring out spiritual feelings, and I hope some day a revival could continue his powerful messages.

An added point—the world we have made for our young people gives them many things to feel insecure and even angry about. If the seemingly out-rage-ousness of some modern music can give them some emotional relief, then we should be grateful.