IDOLATRY IN MUSIC
(c) 2008 by Michael Riversong
Idolatry exists in many forms. Bowing before strange statues is only one. Whenever something takes over a person's mind and excludes any concept of the One who created the universe, the definition of idolatry is fulfilled. Many things in this world have this effect on varying numbers of people. One of those things is music.
It is possible for music to completely dominate one's mind, to the exclusion of everything else. It happens to both musicians and fans. Given the beauty, diversity, and intricacy available within music, it's easy to see how this could happen. Throughout the history of this world, this has been observed to varying degrees. Some cultures, such as ancient Rome and 19th century China, have included large numbers of people who were in this condition.
Contemporary America, and to some degree Western Europe, have seen a similar thing happen. Giant music companies have been aware of this, and have cultivated it systematically for many years now. Purposes and functions of music have thus become grossly distorted in our society. Several phenomena have contributed, including the development of recording technology, the influence of criminal elements in some boardrooms of the music industry, sophisticated marketing techniques used by recording companies, and huge differences in income levels among musicians worldwide.
Adoration of musical personalities, which has for many years been actively fostered by recording companies as a marketing tool, creates an atmosphere of idolatry: feelings of religious worship directed at ordinary humans. Aside from causing unnatural personality distortions in both musicians and fans, the consequences of making people into gods can be clearly seen to be negative on entire cultures. The most tragic consequence is that many in such an idol-focused culture have little opportunity to form healthy focus on a central concept of one true God.
A consequence of the worship of musical personalities is that, thinking it necessary to be totally dedicated to nothing but music in order to attain success, many working musicians have adopted a "front" over their personalities. Striving for that success crowds out all other concerns, including godliness, family, morality, and interacting with members of the audience. Musicians can become extremely arrogant, cold, impersonal, driven, and generally not within reach of normal citizens. If they actually attain success while posing in this manner, of course the distortion of personality gets worse, as anyone who has been around Aspen or Hollywood for very long can attest.
Another form of idolatry that infests the ranks of both professional and aspiring musicians is a tendency to make music itself into a matter of ultimate concern, of more value than anything else in life. Even some Christian musicians have done this. The process is insidious, often taking place gradually over many years until ultimately a musician has to decide between music and other areas of life such as family.
There is an alternative to this madness.
First, musicians and listeners need to back away from this tendency toward idolatry by recognizing certain patterns. This is especially important with children. They must be reminded at every appropriate opportunity, and in concrete ways, that musicians are just plain folk dependent on an awesome god, like the rest of us.
We can look back into history before the recording industry captured so many consumers. Music was, at most times and places, just another part of life. It was often performed casually for whoever happened to be around, including ordinary family members and friends. Anyone who has some musical ability should be willing to share that at any time, even if one does not sound like some major star. Music-making among amateurs must become as normal and enjoyable as dinner parties or meeting at the playground.
If it is only nervousness about your ability that prevents you from making music with friends, consider this: Young gypsy and Irish children are often given real instruments and allowed to play with a group of a dozen or more mature musicmakers, with little or no training beforehand. At first they sound awful, but because of the other musicians, nobody notices. Eventually, they improve, without direct instruction, to the point where they are one of the good musicmakers drowning out incompetent children.
You may also notice how some major music stars, if you stand back and listen objectively, really aren't all that good anyway. People are buying the atmosphere created by marketing as much as they buy the work of an artist in these cases. It is sadly true that many people who are not recognized as artists can perform much better than major stars.
Many people personally know musicians who have not become successful. Work with these folks! They are the vast majority of musicians in our world, due to economic factors driving the recording industry. Recording companies long ago learned that keeping a minimum number of artists on their rosters would do much to increase profits and cut promotional expenses. Instead of feeding into this sick game, any of us can invite the musicians we know over to our homes or to events and allow them to simply provide pleasant music. It is amazing how much even mediocre live music can add to any occasion. Getting in the habit of informally cultivating live performances can do much to go against the unhealthy musical trends that dominate our society.
Another way to work with live local musicians is to create a musicmakers circle. Invite one or two good musicians and friends who are interested in learning to create song at home for casual enjoyment. Anyone can ask questions, you can jam and improvise together, and you'll be able to overcome any fear of performing in a safe and instructive environment. Just once a month will make a huge difference to local culture. Make it clear it is not a group for musicians, but just for people who enjoy playing with song in their homes.
Musicians may need to change. Constantly pursuing fame and fortune can wear a person down to the extent that he or she is of no value to a community or even one's own family. It's a shame to waste your time and talent on that when most of us will never see the ink on a recording contract. Even if such a contract is offered, it may contain terms that will severely limit one's career in the long run. Rather, a musician should focus on the people around him/her, who may not be able to provide the sort of cash apparently enjoyed by major artists, but are still people who need and deserve live music. Help them to bring the arts back down from the stars. Learn to make your music local and interactive. For many of us that means being willing to do background music in a home or church rather than in a bar, or choosing to be on a street corner rather than being the focal point of a stage show. Once a musician does these things, it is surprising how much service can be provided, and how enjoyable it can be.
Bards can serve in many ways to enhance this movement. A broad outlook that includes health and history provides both inspiration and practical methods to make music a vital part of any community.
-- Michael Riversong
Written 2001, revised 2008
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