In my last article I argued that Christians excelling at their various vocations provides the benefit of expanding the Christian plausibility framework which in turn makes things a little easier for the apologist. I concluded the article with a token example: metalcore band Times of Grace and their 2011 album Hymn of a Broken Man. While the example was incidental to the wider argument, I realized it was one that might push a few buttons given the relatively extreme flavor of the genre.
I have to say the most interesting reply came from Bilbo who wrote:
“Does “metalcore” refer to that kind of “singing” where one tries to sound like a demon-possessed person? You know, that loud screaming in a deep voice?”
I replied with what I intended to be some well-placed ironic humor:
Singing like you’re demon-possessed? That’s called yodelling.
“What is your name demon?”
“Yodel ay hee hoo!”
Alas, my attempt at ironic humor seemed to go over like a lead balloon as Bilbo followed up incredulously:
Yodeling? You tell me which one her voice is closer to in this clip, metalcore or yodeling:
Bilbo then provided a link to a clip from “The Exorcist” and concluded:
I seriously suggest that whatever this thing is that “singers” do in this type of music, that it was inspired by a desire to imitate demon possession as it was portrayed in “The Excorcist” and other films.
Bilbo has presented a historical thesis here which we can state like this:
Bilbo’s Thesis: the screaming/shouting vocalizations that characterize the metalcore subgenre were originally inspired by Hollywood depictions of demon possession.
Let’s step in our time machine back to the early days of Southern California thrash metal (one of the granddaddy’s of contemporary metalcore), circa 1985. Somewhere in a garage in Santa Monica, a band is practicing:
Drummer to lead singer: “Dude, that was awesome. But this time why don’t you try to sound like Regan?”
“What? Dude, I’m a registered democrat.”
“No Dude, not the president. Like that girl from The Exorcist. You know. Regan.”
“Oh, awesome Dude!”
Bass player interjects, puzzled: “Dude, does that mean you want him to sing in Latin too?”
Click here for punchline drum roll: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zXDo4dL7SU&feature=related
Okay, that’s enough levity for now. The problem with Bilbo’s Thesis is that it requires supporting historical evidence in order to be credible, evidence that something like what I just described actually occurred and provides the genetic link for the vocalization style in contemporary metalcore.
Of course, even if Bilbo could establish Bilbo’s Thesis, it would be quite irrelevant to the moral assessment of metalcore or its distinctive vocalization style. Consider a parallel to Bilbo’s Thesis:
Christmas Tree Thesis: the Christmas tree derives originally from a pagan origin.
Now this is actually a contentious thesis, but its historical credentials are not relevant to our purposes. What is relevant to observe is that even if the Christmas tree has pagan origins, most Christians would consider that quite irrelevant to the question of whether it is perfectly fine for them to have a Christmas tree.
And so it is for a particular vocal style. Even if there were evidence that some thrash band in Southern California pioneered screaming/shouting based on inspiration from Hollywood depictions of exorcism, that is quite irrelevant to the question of whether it is okay for a Christian to participate in the metalcore sub-genre today.
When I read Bilbo’s association between metalcore and demons I recalled all the controversy back in the seventies and eighties over rock music as being inspired by the demonically fueled drum beats of Africa. That common belief is captured in this passage from the novel The Hallelujah Side which tells the story of Roxanne Fish growing up in a Pentecostal home in 1950s Iowa:
“As Zelda passed the house of Jason, the boy with black hair from school, Roxanne blushed and fiddled with the radio, careful not to linger on rock and roll, which was the devil’s drum beat from Africa.” (The Hallelujah Side (Mariner, 2000), 30).
That’s what I grew up hearing in my evangelical-fundamentalist subculture: rock music was the devil’s drum beat from Africa. Now as I look back I shiver at the racist undertones of that claim. I am not suggesting that Bilbo is claiming metalcore is demonic or that Bilbo’s Thesis is in any way racist. Obviously not. But I do worry about the broadbrush association between a type of music and the demonic which will, practically speaking, tend to function as a way to marginalize the music as somehow morally suspect or problematic.
As I thought about all this I recalled a Christian youth retreat back in 1987 when I asked the youth pastor if I could do an airband of pioneering Christian rapper Michael Peace’s song “RRRock it Right“. (Be sure you click the link to get the full effect!) To my shock the youth pastor, a fellow who I had always assumed was laid back about pop culture, responded gently but firmly: “I’m sorry brother Randy, but I don’t think rap can be Christian.”
Now in retrospect, I am glad I wasn’t allowed to perform that rap. Listen to how cheezy it is when Michael Peace does it. And then imagine a pimply faced fourteen year old white kid pretending to be the rapper and you might wonder how I could ever have lived down the humiliation. So I am thankful for the youth pastor’s decision.
Nonetheless, even today I remain mystified by his reasoning. What’s un-Christian about rapping? Ultimately he allowed me to do another airband performing a song by Christian blues singer Larry Howard instead. But I guarantee that some Christian somewhere thinks that Christians shouldn’t sing the blues either.
Let me close by returning to the distinctive vocalization style of metalcore for the moment. It helps if we think of all singers on a scale which I’ll call the “husky singing scale”. This ten point scale ranks the husky, raspy level of singing. On this scale Barry Manilow is a 0, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith sings at a 2, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister at a 3, Bruce Springsteen a 4, and Kim Carnes at a 5. Further up in the higher echelons of the scale you enter into the ranks of metalcore with our friend Jesse Leach from Times of Grace hitting a solid 7. And Tim Lambesis, the Christian lead singer from As I Lay Dying, scores a lofty 9.
Forget about hypothesized demonically-inspired origins. The simple question is this: how raspy, gravelly, huskily should a Christian sing?
When you think about it like that, I hope we can find ourselves in agreement that whether a Christian sings like Barry Manilow or Bruce Springsteen or Tim Lambesis is quite irrelevant to their Christian convictions. And those who would say otherwise reveal more about their own personal tastes than the ethical nature of the Christian life or the artistic merit of a particular kind of music.
Needless to say, the same lesson applies to the yodelling scale. If you’re like me you prefer a 0 on that scale, but that’s not to say those who yodel loud enough to make hardy alpine flowers wilt cannot be praising God while they do it.