Raising hell: Is rock & roll really the devil’s music?

The villagers have once again come with their pitchforks to storm the castle, asking for the monster’s head.

Being a musician and performer myself, the things that were going on outside the MOA Arena were as interesting as the show inside. Several questions were careening through my head as Lady Gaga rode onstage looking like the fifth horseman/woman of the Apocalypse.

Is rock & roll (or any variation thereof) really the devil’s music? Does the devil even exist? What kind of behavior does one consider “devilish” anyway?

In “The Exorcist,” the devil was a potty-mouthed (and butt-ugly) trespasser who liked to play mind games. Frankly I have heard worse from five-year-olds. Speaking of which, Damien, the hellspawn in “The Omen,” always seemed to be present when awful accidents happen. Did that make him the devil? Aren’t we all somehow around when anything happens?

Roots music

Rock & roll was created in the American South, where rhythm & blues, country and gospel had taken root in the first half of the twentieth century.

Blues, the music that exposed the soul of the marginalized and downtrodden, was dark and gave rock & roll its initial musical vocabulary with its simple six-bar chord progression and minor scales.

The flip-side was country, which, although similarly worldly, was lighter in tone.

The South was also steeped in gospel music. Individuals who would pioneer the rock & roll sound (i.e., Elvis) were largely shaped by childhood afternoons with the congregation, singing, praising God, dancing, yearning for transcendence.

The music would often take hold of the minister as well as his flock, many of whom achieve a trancelike state, consumed with the spirit of the moment.

Not unlike a rock concert.

Elvis did God’s work

In 1956 pop music saw its first ever controversial figure in—you guessed it—the King.

His gyrations, tame by today’s standards, struck a lot of people as lewd and scandalous.

Presley, then a devout Christian, pleaded not guilty. He couldn’t help himself; it was the way the music moved him. As far as he was concerned, he was doing God’s work.

Others saw differently.

Something definitely got lost in translation. This disconnect between the observer and observed has been going on for ages, by the way. Witness how races are deemed “savages” for not being fully clothed. Recall how the Inquisition burned women at the stake for being open-minded.

The desire for truth

The Sixties brought even more sophistication to pop music.

With the Beatles, Stones, Velvet Underground and Dylan, it wasn’t just about having a good time anymore. These artists took the medium into heretofore unmapped territory.

One thing remained unchanged, however: youth’s expressed desire for truth and transcendence.

Rebellion against a deceptive and oppressive world.

This is the theme that guided the work of every rocker from the 50s to the present. Some achieved it through sheer attitude (Sex Pistols) and some through dark riffs and theatricality (Black Sabbath).

The old rebelling against the new

When Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne bit off the head of a bat onstage, he didn’t do it because he liked it. It was the opposite, in fact. He was conquering his fear. He was rebelling against it. The best way to do it? Have fun with it. Mock it. Be creative.

Music is an easy target, that’s why it has a lot of snipers. Because of its purity, its primordial effect on human beings, the powers that be, who were once young and rebellious themselves, will always rail against anything that can undermine their authority and influence.

The old rebelling against the new. The enslaved throwing rocks at the free. Now that’s devilish behavior.

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