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Correcting Categories, Part 7 – The Nature of Pop

My goal in this series is to help believers apply the Bible to their musical choices in life and worship. My contention is, however, that believers today approach the issue of musical choices with certain errant foundational presuppositions that need to be corrected before they can rightly apply the Bible in this area. So my task in this paper is to address a few categories of thought that inform our approach when applying the Bible to music and suggest a few ways that we may need to correct our thinking.

The nature of Pop

People are drawn to Dionysian art because it creates enjoyable physical feelings that are immediate. No work or effort is required to enjoy the feeling. No mental or spiritual engagement is necessary. It is immediate because it is shallow; it has no depth. However, because of the inherent shallowness of the medium, greater doses are needed to create the same effects as a person becomes more desensitized. Therefore, Dionysian art is intrinsically addictive.

With the creation of mass media as a result of the Industrial Revolution, savvy businessmen soon saw the potential of taking advantage of the power of Dionysian music in order to make money. Certain music, for instance, because it created immediate results and was intrinsically addictive, provided the perfect medium for making a considerable amount of money. They found that it was not difficult to hook the masses on Dionysian forms of music. Then, when the masses inevitably desensitized themselves to the immediate affects of such music, the entrepreneurs were always ready with more novelty and more stimulating forms. Such was the birth of pop music.

Kenneth Myers, in his very influential book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, provides a very helpful description of the nature of pop music, including a table that compares pop culture to traditional folk or high culture. In essence, this chart compares Dionysian and Appollonian forms of art:

Table 1:
Myers’ Comparison of Popular Culture with Traditional/High Culture1

Popular Culture Traditional and High Culture
Focuses on the new Focuses on the timeless
Discourages reflection Encoruages reflection
Prusued casually to “kill time” Pursued with deliberation
Gives us what we want, tells us
what we already know
Offers us what we could not have
Relies on instant accessibility;
encourages impatience
Requires training; encourages
Emphasizes information and trivia Emphasizes knowledge and wisdom
Encourages quantitative concerns Encourages qualitative concerns
Celebrates fame Celebrates ability
Appeals to sentimentality Appeals to appropriate,
proportioned emotions
Context and form governed by
requirements of the market
Content and form governed by
requirements of created order
Formulas are the substancw Formulas are the tools
Relies on spectacle, tending to
violence and prurience
Relies on formal dynamics and
the power of symbols (including language)
Aesthetic power in reminding of
something else
Aesthetic power in instrisic
Individualistic Communal
Leaves us where it found us Transforms sensibilities
Incapable of deep or sustained
Capable of repeated, careful
Lacks ambiguity Allusive, suggests the
No discontinuity between life
and art
Relies on “secondary World”
Reflects the desires of the slef Encourages understanding of
Tends toward relativism Tends toward submission to
Used Received

Conservatives have done themselves a disservice by defining pop music as sex. Certainly some pop music does express sexual passion, but pop music is a broader category encompassing all Dionysian music. Conservatives often describe pop music by certain musical elements such as back beat, vocal sliding, and breathy singing technique. Certainly music characterized by such elements is most likely Dionysian, but there is a whole lot more music that is Dionysian that does not have those elements. This reductionistic description of pop music by many conservatives, I believe, has led to a rejection of some forms of newer pop music that possess such elements while at the same time grasping onto other forms of pop music that don’t express sexual passion, but nevertheless are emotionally manipulative in other ways.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989), 120. []