Sundays With The Christianists: Their Satanic Majesties Request ... MORE COWBELL!
Rightwing radio preacher and homeschooling guru Kevin Swanson is starting to let us down, folks -- the penultimate chapter of his e-rant about the inevitable doom of western civilization is just about the laziest attack on the supposedly corrupting influence of popular music that we've read in quite a while. He's devoted most of his e-guide to the cultural apocalypse, Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West, to explaining why most of the "great" works of Western philosophy and literature have actually served to debase our civilization and attack Christianity, which leaves his single chapter on popular culture feeling like something of an afterthought, although he certainly bills it as a real barn-burner:
Before laying out the final episode in this terrible saga of the fall of Western civilization, I need to issue a cautionary note. For some, this will be the most frightening chapter yet because it strikes close to home. It will demonstrate how the devastation reaches into practically every village, every neighborhood, every church community, and every family in the Western world ... In the unlikely case that some of my readers may have failed to recognize what is occuring [sic], this brief review of the last fifty years will come as a dreadful shock.
Or it may just sound like a hodgepodge of attempts to link some of his previous chapters with almost randomly chosen examples of evil pop music. The whole book feels at times like a college sophomore's book report, and this chapter in particular reads like the result of a frantic all-nighter. We're pretty sure we spotted Doritos crumbs on the computer screen.
Part of the problem is that there's just so little new to say on the topic -- the heyday of finding satanic messages in heavy metal is well past, and Swanson is apparently so traumatized by the notion of rap that he largely doesn't mention it as a genre, although he does describe Eminem as a practitioner of "rape rap." When a Christian culture warrior can't even manage a good panic about gangsta rap, you know he's just phoning it in. Still, Swanson gives it the good old Bob Jones College try.
One of the weirder passages in the chapter is a note about why exactly our civilization is crumbling: turns out, it's only partly our own doing, because sin, but also, it's all part of God's plan to humble a wicked people:
But how could a handful of philosophical leaders yield such tremendous influence over the entire world? Ultimately, Western civilization comes down for the same reason that Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome came down— God brings them down [...]
God may use powerful evil forces and influential men to accomplish His will in the destruction of large empires that exalt themselves in their pride. If there are malevolent spirits working, these also are well under the sovereign hand of God (Job 1: 12).
In Swanson's view, pop culture isn't merely a business aimed at shoveling out whatever market research suggests will sell. It's part of a larger scheme to bring about mass apostasy, through a "centralization of power" in government and the culture industry. Government schools fill the kids full of Marxism and Darwinism, and then pop music tells them to go and fornicate. The forces that seek to tear humanity away from God, he says, have spent the last century
building highly centralized control mechanisms for the political state, the educational systems, and mass media. The instinct to centralize power is not new. Since the Tower of Babel, natural man has been inclined to “build a tower and make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11: 4).
Swanson, sounding a bit like a dumb rightwing Christianist version of Noam Chomsky, notes that
Powerful television and radio networks have enabled a vast degree of power centralization in the communication of ideas. Certainly, this is a new development in the history of nations and governments. To achieve uniformity of thought among the populace, these networks needed only to control the distribution of music, news, and story-telling by film and television.
We like that "uniformity of thought" bit -- we were under the impression that Americans actually argued a lot with each other, but apparently that's an illusion and we're all just mindless drones. Swanson is especially worried that the mass media has undermined the authority of the Bible-reading male head of the family, the only worthwhile source of wisdom:
The media replaced the church and the family as the dominant means by which society transfers information, inculcates worldviews, and forms the culture. For thousands of years, it was the pastors and fathers in villages and homes who shaped the culture.
He yearns for the good old days, when "pioneer girls like Laura Ingalls Wilder sat with their parents around the fireplace during the long winter evenings and danced about the living room as 'Pa' played the fiddle and sang his folk songs." Sadly, this is no longer the case, as today, every teen "has own iPod and television set" and is plugged into "the Matrix." Swanson doesn't give us his take on that movie, which undoubtedly would have been hilarious.
Not even the churches are resisting this barbarism. Swanson worries that a youth pastor encountering a roomful of youngsters with "bones in their noses" would simply join in and put a bone through his nose as well, so as to accommodate modern trends and meet the little savages on their level. Here's just how bad culture has declined:
The most popular song in the nation in the 1880s was My Grandfather’s Clock, a song which honored the memory of a grandfather. Today, Eminem refers to his mother as a “female dog,” and Katy Perry promotes lesbianism in her popular songs. For those who missed it, that is total cultural and social revolution in a nutshell.
We're betting that despite the quotation marks, that's not a verbatim quote of Eminem.
Swanson finally gets around to identifying Pop Music Enemy Number One, and it is of course The Beatles, who started out with innocent-seeming love ditties, but by 1968 "had moved on to more explicit nuance, as evidenced with songs like, Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?" We aren't quite sure what "explicit nuance" is supposed to be, but we're not comfortable with it. It's not a real word.
Swanson then copy-pastes a list of horribles, noting that we've degenerated from the days when Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" merely "celebrated rape, murder, and thievery in a subtle way" to the explicit Satanism of Marilyn Manson, and of course we learn along the way that Marilyn Manson's music very definitely "inspired a number of teenage murderers." (Of course, Swanson doesn't bother mentioning that Manson's schtick got tiresome awfully quickly, as The Onion captured perfectly with its 2001 headline "Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People"). It's all pretty tired ground, although we will admit that we were utterly charmed by one of Swanson's examples of the early days of saucy pop music:
Maybe Frank Sinatra came across as a little daring with Strangers in the Night in 1966, a chart-topper which left his listeners wondering if they were going to fornicate by the end of the evening.
We dare you to listen to "Strangers in the Night" without thinking "fornicate" all the way through the shooby-dooby-doos.
And so on. Swanson really does make an effort to tie his earlier chapters to pop music. For instance, we learn that Frank Sinatra's "My Way" is not only the most frequently slaughtered song in karaoke, it's also "one of the clearest representations of Sartre’s existentialism ever produced in mass culture — man will define his own existence by his own unrestrained determination." And Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life" is an ode to Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism:
Its popularity was primarily due to the core ethical argument for hedonistic, ego-centric utilitarianism contained in the lyrics. For the majority of Americans who had enlisted in the sexual revolution, this hit song offered an apologetical statement by asking the question: “How can anything be considered sinful, if it feels this good to me?”
This passage actually triggered a bit of a flashback to 1977, when my idiot brother, who was just beginning his fundamentalist enthusiasm, condemned the song for the very same reason, albeit minus the Bentham. Swanson notes with great satisfaction that the song's writer, Joe Brooks, "committed suicide in June of 2009 while he was on trial for 91 counts of sexual assault, etc." You know, pretty much like every other pop songwriter:
Apparently, he tried to live his life consistently with the message of his song. The lyrics revealed the heart of the 1970s sexual rebellion, and the songwriter’s demise is a fitting picture of what happens to a generation that embraces the wrong cultural ethic.
Yes, he's talking about that saccharine little Debbie Boone song. Thankfully, Kevin Swanson seems never to have heard "Afternoon Delight."
We then get a long discussion of The Beatles and their pernicious influence; according to Swanson, the lads were
far and away the single most important worldwide influence in the last century. This band more or less formed the Zeitgeist of the modern world ... They set the cultural direction for the Western world and the rest of the civilized world, exceeding the influence of any other musician, philosopher, politician, writer, movie producer, or preacher in the modern age.
We like the Beatles just fine, but we think maybe Kevin sounds like a bit of a fanboy here. Needless to say, the "bigger than Jesus" line gets trotted out, and there's the mandatory condemnation of Lennon's "Imagine," which Swanson inflates into "something of an 'Apostle’s Creed' for the modern apostasy in the West since its release in 1971."
Swanson rather mystifyingly leaves out any discussion of the Rolling Stones, whom you'd think he'd at least mention, what with all that Sympathy for the Devil. He also dismisses Elvis with a brief mention of hip gyrations, and even Michael Jackson only gets a short paragraph, with no mention of his alleged child molestation -- but Swanson is careful to highlight Jackson's religious deviancy:
As a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness adherent who dabbled in Islam and Kabbalah, Michael Jackson serves as a supreme example of American apostasy at its worst.
By the time he gets to Madonna, Swanson overtly states that he's now just listing pop musicians in order of overall record sales, although of course he finds plenty to condemn in her music and videos, which celebrate "premarital sex, homosexuality, sadomasochism, and feminist sexual domination" yadda yadda yadda, oh and also she "publicly promoted lesbianism with Britney Spears." Fifth on the list is Elton John, who of course is damned for being gay, although Swanson can't even be bothered to say a word about his music. This is, we think, a great shame, since surely there is something demonic about the way he swallows most of the syllables of "crocodile rock."
There's also a long, tedious look at the number-six all-time seller, Led Zepplin, which of course was satanic because Heavy Metal, and also because Jimmy Page was big on Aleister Crowley. Swanson does at least acknowledge the possibility that heavy metal's flirtation with satanic imagery could all be showmanship for the sake of shocking parents, although of course that ultimately doesn't matter because of how terrible even playing around with the Devil is:
part of the demonic nature is confusion and contradictions. Shock rock wasn’t supposed to take itself seriously, or perhaps it didn’t know if it was taking itself seriously. After all, there was no point in trying to glorify Satan if they were calling into question the existence of Satan and God and the supernatural. The business of apostasy is obfuscation, always trading one lie for another.
Also good for a laugh: Swanson refers to William S. Burroughs as a "rock correspondent" who wrote about Led Zepplin, apparently unaware that the guy ever did anything else. Ever on the lookout for actual demons at work, Swanson also breathlessly reports that Jimmy Page believed that when he wrote "Stairway to Heaven," the lyrics flowed easily because "It was like someone was guiding his hand.” He reports that Page bought Aleister Crowley's former home, "which was believed to be habited by demons," and that when David Bowie visited Page's home, David Bowie was convinced it was "overrun with satanic demons whom Crowley’s disciples had summoned straight from hell." And of course, all that messing around with Satanism is what finally made Led Zeppelin break up, as "what they perceived to be demonic attacks contributed to the dissolution of the band in the 1980s."
Swanson manages a nod or two to more recent acts -- Nirvana, of course, because of Kurt Cobain's suicide, and Lady Gaga because of her lie that gay people are "Born This Way" -- but he is hopeful that the cynicism and emptiness of pop music is finally turning in on itself as secularism finally recognizes its own emptiness:
Almost every popular song now celebrates decadence but mocks the celebration in the very same breath. The use of a vile word denoting an act of violent rape is ubiquitous on the top-40 charts in the present day. All of these things are indications that our mainstream social and cultural systems are perpetually transitioning from a continuum decadence to suicide. There is nowhere else to go -- except repentance, which was unthinkable for both Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche.
We are at the very end of an era. Elvis is dead. John Lennon is dead. Michael Jackson is dead. Elton John is almost senile. Where does popular culture go next? After decadence and self-immolation, then what? It is hard to imagine that the mass culture will stay on the present course for much longer; splintering is inevitable.
But does he give any credit to the band Pop Will Eat Itself? He does not. After a bit of tut-tutting about what a shame it is that some churches countenance "Christian Rock," which is the equivalent of inviting Satan himself into the sanctuary, the chapter peters out without even quoting Hank Hill: "Can't you see you're not making Christianity any better, you're just making rock 'n roll worse." Swanson frets that unless Christians re-dedicate themselves to a "firm grasp of Old and New Testament law, the church is doomed as well:
Christians will slowly adopt the pagan ways of the apostasy, whether it be homosexuality, vampirism, witchcraft, body mutilation, or the hundreds of forms of idolatry found in the society around us.
Happily, Kevin Swanson has a vision for a bright future where all this apostasy will finally be defeated, and his book's final chapter will reveal how that's going to work. As long as it doesn't involve Stryper or Amy Grant, we're willing to listen.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.