Name one good song that’s not about love, death, or God. Can’t be done, right? Shhh, nope, can’t be done. Well fine, but at least MANY of the great pop music tracks are about one of the above, and plenty of them have to do with the universal search for a higher power.
Here are five of the best inspired by either the love of god, anger at the man upstairs, or the deep and abiding mysteries of the religious world.
5: mewithoutYou – The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate
Aaron Weiss has, religious speaking, been around. He was raised by a Muslim mother and Jewish father, and was arrested with a bunch of Catholic nuns in an anti-war protest on the Pentagon lawn. On mewithoutYou’s ‘It’s All Crazy! It’s All False…’ album Weiss borrowed heavily from Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen’s book ‘My Love You My Children: 101 Stories for Children’, a sort of Aesop’s Fables for Muslim kids. ‘The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate’ is a parable and an injunction to devote oneself fully to god. It’s also a cool story about beetles.
The lyrics of ‘The King Beetle…’ tell of a society of insects who think that a pile of burning leaves is god. Idiot beetles… Continued failed attempts to investigate the burning bush enrage the truth-seeking Beetle King, ‘We didn’t ask what it seems like, we asked what it is!’, who comes to realize that the only way to know god is to be ‘utterly changed into fire’ and fly into the flames himself.
This idea of achieving religious understanding through complete immersion and submission is common in Weiss’ work and Protestant theology, and there is an added dimension of religious history to ‘The King Beetle…’
The first volunteer to investigate the fire is a professor beetle, who is conceited and proud. He returns singed and with plenty to say about the fire, but ‘there was neither a light nor a heat in his words’. The professor is akin to over-intellectualizing religious scholars who analyze the passion out of faith. Pedantic medieval Catholic scholars come to mind, or Torah-scouring legalistic sophists.
The second beetle to attempt an examination of the flames is a soldier, ambitious and brave but ultimately also defeated, ‘I had no choice, please believe, but retreat. It was bright as the sun but with ten times the heat’. Muscle and bravado are no use in coming to know god, and the analogy here may be to the Crusades or military Islam.
The King comes to see that complete oneness with god is the only path to religious enlightenment, ‘Just as the flower and its fragrance are one, so must each of you and your Father become’, though it is unclear whether he achieves anything by flying into the flames. The beetles throw a party for their enlightened king but he was, after all, just an idiot beetle who immolated himself in a pile of dead leaves.
4: Tori Amos – God
Woody Allen believes that the worst you can say about God is that ‘basically he’s an underachiever’. Tori Amos seems to share this view, and asks of the Christian God, ‘Do you need a woman to look after you?’ A fine question and a fine sentiment made more biting by the addition of a feminist slant to the conversation.
Amos quotes the Book of Proverbs, ‘Give not thy strength unto women nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings’. Explicitly religious justification has been (and is still) used to diminish the role of women, and Amos points the finger up at the man himself, ‘You make pretty daisies…I’ve gotta find, find, find what you’re doing about things here’. What good are the beautiful little things in God’s creation when the bigger picture is so rough for so many?
The critique extends to religious leaders too, who drag God to ‘go when the wind blows’. Having been raised in a strict Methodist household, Amos may have had first-hand experience of the subsidiary role women play in many churches. She has spoken since of having come ‘to see Christianity as another myth’, and the lyrics of ‘God’ give several compelling reasons to have done just that.
3: Nick Cave – Into My Arms
Nick Cave’s troubled relationship with faith is notable enough to have inspired scholarly articles. While he often veers towards apocalyptic madness or frantic pleas for mercy, ‘Into My Arms’ is a measured and quite sweet ballad. Cave famously performed the song at INXS front man Michael Hutchence’s funeral on the condition that the moment not be filmed. Bummer for the rest of us.
This time around Cave isn’t interested in the mysteries of religious mythology or in placing blame at God’s feet. All he wants is for God, if there at all, to guide his lover back to him. ‘Oh not to touch a hair on your head, to leave you as you are, and he if he felt he had to direct you, then direct you into my arms’. The soft piano and gentle vocal melody give the song a hymn-like quality that has made it a common choice at funerals.
Cave’s God is not the source of division but a gatekeeper that one might appeal to. Cave’s faithful lover (‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but I know you do’) might be gone for now, but may come back ‘always and ever more’ with the help of God. The notion of appealing to God just in case he exists is touching. The sentiment is reminiscent of actor Peter Cushing’s confession that, although not particularly religious, he was sustained by the mere possibility that he might be reunited with his wife in an afterlife. Heavy stuff, but such is the bond between lovers, ‘But I believe in love, and I know that you do too. And I believe in some kind of path that we can walk down, me and you’.
2: George Harrison – My Sweet Lord
One of George Harrison’s main interests at the tail end of The Beatles’ run (besides growing sweet beards) was religion, specifically the search for universal truths that might be found by blending elements of various religions. ‘My Sweet Lord’ was Harrison’s clearest expression of this ideal, a coming together of the Hebrew ‘hallelujah’ and Hindu mantras. The song became the first number one for an ex-Beatle and remains a go-to as a pop song of praise.
Harrison’s lyrics are much more prosaic than those in other songs on this list, ‘I really want to see you Lord, but it takes so long my Lord. My sweet Lord’. Vedic prayer chants roll over Harrison’s signature slide guitar, translated as ‘I offer homage to my guru, who is as great as the creator Brahma, the maintainer Vishnu, the destroyer Shiva, and who is the very energy of God’.
The simplicity and major key optimism of the song led to it being taken up in Christian services despite its references to Hindu deities. John Lennon remarked that the song was so popular, ‘I’m beginning to think there is a God!’ While ‘My Sweet Lord’ is most famous for appearing on George Harrison’s debut solo album, it was first released by friend and collaborator Billy Preston, who also gave one of the greatest religiously-inspired performances ever captured on film.
1: Billy Preston – That’s the Way God Planned It (Concert for Bangladesh)
Evangelical church services are, in the best case, ‘one long whoop of exaltation’. The thrill of feeling loved and saved and as one with your community ought to shake the walls and have the congregation out of their seats. Billy Preston’s performance of his gospel hit at the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh did exactly that, and the footage is monumental.
Preston often framed his career in the language of providence, “I never auditioned…I never worked any job but music and people would call me to work with them…What I don’t have now I believe will come. Why? I have to say it’s God, the God in me”. It was this openness (and bucket loads of talent on the keys) that lead Preston to perform with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, to be the only musician besides the Fab Four themselves to be credited on a Beatles track, and to be high on George Harrison’s call list for his and Ravi Shankar’s all-star benefit concert.
The somewhat ramshackle production of the concert lends an electric air of spontaneity and mess missing from studio versions of ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’. Preston’s keyboard runs earn hoots and cheers from the 25 or so musicians on stage, and he belts the lyrics as though in possession of an urgent truth, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, let mourning and sobbing cease…If we all just be humble like the good Lord said, he’s promised to exalt us!’
By the final chorus the tempo has picked up and it’s Billy the bandleader rallying the choir and whipping the crowd into roaring action; we might as well be watching a charismatic preacher closing out a service. With a cry of faith and absolute trust, ‘That’s the way that my God planned it, that’s the way God wants to be!’, Preston springs up from behind his organ and dances across the stage. If songs of praise are meant to provoke ecstasy in those who feel the power of their words, there is simply no better performance.