Blasphemy on the airwaves
“Jesus called and said he’s sick of the disses, I told him to quit bitching, this isn’t a [explicit] hotline” are lyrics by the popular and controversial rap artist Tyler, the Creator, in his song “Yonkers.” This is the music that today’s youth is listening to.
The question is: Are these lyrics meant to arouse deep thought and conversation about religion, or are they simply an unprovoked attack?
There is a fine line between shocking an audience into discussion like Lady Gaga’s “Judas,” and shocking someone out of poor taste by casting a negative light on a religion or religious icon—much like the lyrics in the Tyler, the Creator song, “Sandwitches.”
Both artists use religion in their music, but it is clear that they have very different purposes in mind.
When Lady Gaga, an artist known for her bold and outrageous gestures in fashion and in music, released her video “Judas,”, there was a lot of backlash and controversy surrounding the music video that depicted risqué versions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The music video ends with Lady Gaga as the Virgin Mary being stoned to death in a wedding dress for loving Judas.
Gaga did not make any assertions that Judas was anything other than what the Bible says he was. However, she does say that she loves him.
Though the video and subject matter are contentious, what is said and depicted about the Christian faith or its idols is quite vanilla—at least for Lady Gaga—yet many find the video to be either blatantly offensive or a direct attack on religion.
“There is an assault on religion by pop music,” Santa Monica College Communications professor Kevin Coleman states.
“She’s [Lady Gaga] a perfect example of that.” Coleman adds.
But Lady Gaga was not the first (or the last) artist to depict Jesus Christ in a more sensual light on camera. Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” released in 1989, was also deemed very controversial.
In the video for “Like A Prayer,” we’re shown a wax figure of an African-American Jesus brought to life and freed from both a figurative and literal prison by Madonna. The video also shows Madonna experiencing stigmata as she sings in a church with a choir, wearing a provocative dress.
While it is clear that both Lady Gaga and Madonna made controversial videos, neither of the videos or songs was a “direct attack” on any religious figure or religion.
“I think they’re trying to shock their audiences into thinking and questioning,” SMC music professor Shanon Zusman says.
“It’s not purely entertainment or purely about money—they have plenty of it.”
What of artists like Tyler, the Creator, whose lyrics can be interpreted as clear, provocative assaults on religious figures? Are those lyrics meant to incite thought and discussion?
“My concern would be that his music would make listeners callous toward religion, versus opening it up to talk about.” Zusman says.
“No one cares about real music anymore, it’s all about who can get retweeted the most, who has the most shocking video or whatever. And people like Tyler, the Creator are just trying to gain fame the wrong way; he wants infamy, not fame, and so far it seems like it’s working,” said SMC student Anna Litvenko.
“I don’t listen to his music, but I have some friends who do, and they don’t even seem to like what he’s saying that much, they just like that he’s what’s cool right now,” Litvenko continued. .
Is receiving fame and notoriety the reason behind such secular and somewhat offensive music? Has insulting religion become the golden ticket to stardom?
Professor Coleman says that he doesn’t think that religion is respected anymore. He believes that the musicians are now so concerned about record sales, that religious music has gone the way of the dodo, and secular music is what’s popular.
“I believe it’s done to make their music more appealing to people—to reach a younger demographic.” Coleman says.
“Even Gospel music is less traditional sounding now,” Coleman adds.
There isn’t much room for praise or positive mention of a religion in popular music, which could be because artists are afraid it would repel audiences.
In the song “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, he states that if he raps about Jesus, his songs will not get played on the radio.
Religion is both a delicate and serious topic, and when taken to the airwaves, it seems that you can’t have it both ways as a musician. You either use religion as the lightning rod to propel your journey toward controversy like Tyler, the Creator, Lady Gaga and others, or you use religion as a tool to provoke thought and discussion.
There is a place for religion in music; it just seems to hide out in a very grey and “controversial” area.