Render unto Caesar or to God, it makes no odds
- Momus, `Lucky Like St. Sebastian'
God and the Devil struggle for ascendancy in music as in all else. They were there at the birth of contemporary popular music, fighting battles over the soul of Robert Johnson, the shaping force of the Blues, whose life and death are shrouded in the mystery of a legendary pact with the Devil. Conversely, the best cuts of soul and reggae are often songs of praise to the Creator. Al Green sings on `Belle' that `it's you I want but it's Him that I need', and the whole of Culture's `2 Sevens Clash' is a warning to humanity to listen to the ways of Jah. There is also a form of guitar pop that appeals to purity - pure sound, pure thoughts or at least the confession of impure thoughts, and it has its attractions. The Cowboy Junkies and Spain have most recently tended in this direction, the former capturing their `The Trinity Session' live at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, and the latter ending `The Blue Moods Of Spain' with `Spiritual', a plea to Jesus for deliverance from a lonely death.
Faced with a situation where only 5% (and it's falling) of the white European population of the U.K. regularly attend organised religious ceremonies, the Church in this country makes periodic attempts to appeal to the church-goers of tomorrow by incorporating contemporary music into its services. Saturday nights in Sheffield have seen places of worship turned into clubs in an attempt to capitalise on what is currently relevant to the unholy younger generations. No doubt Gallagher-esque versions of `We plough the fields and scatter' are ringing out shortly after the bells on Sunday in a number of dioceses.
Truly progressive pop can never be assimilated into religion (which is why Oasis might be and the Smiths, say, never could have been); however hard it tries to modernise, the only souls the Church can capture are those who have a genetic propensity to Believe. The times are moving way too fast for the Church. It cannot throw away the baggage of centuries, the very weight of which is what gives religion its substance. It has long since been left behind in favour of atheistic certainty, scepticism, personalised forms of religion, and most prominent of all, the idolatry of celebrity that the Church feels is cause of its downfall when in reality it is an effect. In a media- filled world, multinational capitalism no longer needs religion's helping hand, so it has quite unceremoniously dumped it. Yet personalisations of good and evil continue to pervade our culture with their symbolic resonance.
It is strange that outside of the ritualistic musics of Satan that are heavy and death metal, few musicians have consciously assumed the mantle of the Devil. Robert Johnson certainly bemoaned his fate and wished it were otherwise. The music of those who have really seemed as though they were possessed - Phil Spector, Tim Buckley, Lee Perry - sounds as holy as it does unholy. What scares the leaders and the foot soldiers of organised religion - it scares hardly anyone else - is the secularity of pop music. Love, money and fame are all you need (and a pair of handcuffs, if you're Mark Morrison). Pop music's perceived evil is its indication that God is no longer required, yet, when asked, a surprising number of people still state that they Believe in Something. Their vagueness is only to be expected, when their beliefs are rarely discussed. Mind, when you pin them down about it, sceptics' arguments against the Omnipotent are also pretty shaky.
There are, however, two combatants in the field of pop who are prepared to get their hands dirty on behalf of the Devil. They voice the manipulation, perversion, and violence of human nature in what is seemingly a stable society, but it is understanding and even deliverance rather than advantageous confusion that is their end. Momus and Tricky epitomise in their music the struggle between good and evil and all the shades in between. They share a variety of approaches, and recognise the increasing plurality of perspectives in the world. If this can be grasped more widely, then it may just be possible to see that hell is no longer (the views of) other people.