Religion and Blasphemy in Popular Music

Call for papers
French Association for American Studies Conference
23-25 May 2013
Angers, France
General Topic: Religion and Spirituality
Popular Music Panel Topic: Religion and Blasphemy in Popular Music

Though American popular music is more celebrated for its iconoclastic tendencies than its spiritual leanings, it welcomes the profane as much as the religious, the mundane as much as the transcendental, the flesh as much as the spirit. While heavy metal, rock, and gangsta rap have been famously accused by over-eager media of Satanism and immorality, other genres such as gospel, folk, and more recently Christian rock, New Age, or taqwacore have glorified God, and allowed their followers to access new forms of spirituality. The whole family of popular music, which includes the Carter Family, Madonna, Mahalia Jackson, Marilyn Manson, Little Richard, or Bob Dylan, reflects – sometimes magnifies – the relationship we may entertain with the divine. Some celebrate the Gospel, others tell us of their struggles with their inner demons. Even when it explicitly celebrates rebellion and transgression – or playfully and ironically conjures up some satanic majesty – popular music remains connected to the spiritual.

Institutional religion has been the target of many protest singers, but conversely, many rock bands have been targeted by religious groups for their lyrics and attitudes, perceived as pernicious and demoralizing. Some relished the criticism, though, and played with it, such as Marilyn Manson with his 1996 Antichrist Superstar, a variation on violence and the sacred.

In addition to being symbolic systems that artists either tap into or try to topple, religion and spirituality may be used as a prism through which one can analyze and understand popular music. Researchers have underlined the proximity between religious rituals and rock concerts, and explored the tensions between communitarianism and individualism that the latter reveal. They read interviewers as confessors, critics as exegetes, fans as worshippers. Beyond the celebration of specific creeds and faiths, religiosity in popular music has been understood as providing shelter to bewildered postmodern crowds, puzzled by the loss of meaning and the fragmentation of contemporary societies.

It would be appropriate to describe in details the current situation, and make a historical assessment of the connections between popular music and spirituality, beyond mere intuitions and truisms. More modestly, this panel will focus on the American specificity of this relationship.

We will pay particular attention to how its religious significance can help distinguish American music from others, but also at how the religious presence in popular music can be articulated within the larger framework of North American art and culture. Music may provide new insights on the conflicts between religious traditions and the profane, which might be more tense in America than in other Western countries. We will address the question the true function of religiosity in the music, as what first appears like a true expression of belief might in the end only be a mere aesthetic sheen. Are religious displays complementary to, or contradictory with a spiritual dimension? We will look at how the various actors of popular music (audiences, artists, media and industry people) perceive this religious and/or spiritual dimension and at how their experiences might differ. Lastly, an analysis of religion and popular music would not be complete without a study of the role that the various institutions and Churches have played in conjunction with musical forms.

Papers, preferably in English, can be either case studies on specific genres or artists, from contemporary scenes, or past eras. They can also be more theoretical questioning of the issues mentioned above.

Send your proposals (300 words + a short biography) to both Claude Chastagner ( and Elsa Grassy ( before 31 December 2012.