Mortality and Music

Popular Music and the Awareness of Death

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Christopher Partridge
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781350026896.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mortality and Music: Popular Music and the Awareness of Death offers a sustained examination of how contemporary popular music gives room for listeners to meaningfully negotiate the sometimes contradictory implications of modernity’s denial of an afterlife. On the one hand, the denial of an afterlife frees the modern subject to embrace this world fully. On the other hand, it raises the stakes of mortality to the point that the denial of death shifts from an eschatological expectation for future fulfillment to the cultural erasure of death tout court. Popular music can either celebrate this shift, as with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” or provide a space for exploration of the negativity of death, as with the genre of Death Metal. Author Christopher Partridge structures his analysis of the ways in which popular music negotiates modernity’s understanding of death around five themes: (1) Mortality and Immortality; (2) Death, Transgression, and the Sacred; (3) The Undead and the Uncanny; (4) Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide; and (5) Transfiguration, Devotion and Immortality. Partridge’s love for the music under consideration is apparent, and his familiarity with a wide range of popular music styles allows him a great deal of flexibility in bringing together disparate styles to explore common themes. Partridge positions his work within a sociological perspective, in which the philosophy of Zygmunt Bauman holds a central place. Despite this positioning, Partridge hopes that theologians will be able to use his work profitably (6). He has succeeded in providing a full-blown account of meaning-making in modernity that will serve as well for theological reflection as for being a notable contribution to the sociological assessment of modernity. 

Mortality and Music’s virtues are somewhat offset by two weaknesses: insufficient awareness of social location and inattention to the fact that music is a sonic medium. In general, the social location the book explores—an English cultural secularism one can trace from Matthew Arnold to Philip Larkin—is far more parochial than “the West” in which it situates itself. His use of popular music to explore the subjectivities of “the West” ignores the well-documented legacy of African spirituality embedded in popular music, attention to which would undermine the construct of Western secularity. Partridge’s confidence in the truth of modernist secularity shows up in a stark juxtaposition to his examples of exorcism (78). First, he discusses Brian Eno and David Byrne’s “The Jezebel Spirit,” which incorporates a recording of an exorcism. After describing the song, Partridge asserts that “of course, nowadays, few would find the bizarre beliefs informing such rituals credible,” but then immediately describes the impact that witnessing possessions and exorcisms had on the hugely popular artist Rihanna, trivializing her experience even as he recognizes its importance to her vastly popular music. Partridge also explores a thoroughly masculine understanding of death without noticing its gendered quality. He positions the denial of afterlife within a secularity that bypasses the heritage of the critique of personal eschatology in a great deal of feminist spiritual writing. This exclusion of feminist spirituality is mirrored in the fact that only 4 of the 133 bands listed in Partridge’s discography are fronted by women. Partridge’s social location is as valid a space from which to theorize as any other—but more attention needed to be paid to the boundaries of that location. 

The other problem that Mortality and Music has is that itlargely reduces music to a text-delivery system. He refers the reader to an earlier book of his (The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane, Oxford University Press, 2014) where he goes into music’s creation of affective space, but does not give proportionate attention to accounts of the affective spaces that music adds to the lyrics that he is discussing. The moments where the present book considers music as sound are few and far between. However, Lady Gaga does not sound like Metallica, which does not sound like 2Pac Shakur, Dead Can Dance, or Tori Amos. The depth to which choice of musical genre predetermines interpretative possibilities disappears in the thematic grouping of songs by lyrics. Furthermore, where sound is evoked, it is insufficiently described to make its point. For example, Partridge describes how “the atmosphere of loss and longing [Terry Jack’s cover of Jacques Brel’s “Seasons of the Sun,”] evokes, both musically and lyrically, is almost palpable” (24). I have experienced this song as an occasional earworm and have found in the relentless upward modulations of the refrain an aggressive, unforgiving cheerfulness, not a sense of loss and longing. Given that listeners often hear different things in music, both perspectives can be true, but without a description of where Partridge locates loss and longing, I am simply left with an incongruous reading of the song. Nor have I ever heard the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” in terms of “growing anxiety and unease” (33, emphasis added); a refusal of a teleological sense of time is one of the band’s sonic hallmarks. Not only is sound insufficiently described for a book with “music” in its title, but important insights derived from sonic experience are left undeveloped. For example, Partridges’ observations that “to a large extent, the evanescence of postmodern life, composed of a series of deaths and resurrections, is something that listening to music perfectly illustrates” (32), or “just as sound terminates in silence, so being ends in nothingness” (76) could have easily been the bases of entire chapters rather than passing thoughts. While sound remains largely marginalized in the book, there are some moments in which it breaks through illuminatingly. Among these moments, Partridge’s discussion of his experience with Black Sabbath’s song “Black Sabbath” stands out as particularly attentive as to what music brings to his argument. Not only does he delve into the effects and intertextual connections of the sounds in question, but he plunges into the total experience of record listening with great sensitivity. Had this level of attention to musical experience and rhetoric been sustained through the book, the text itself would have sung.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary's University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Partridge, professor of religious studies, department of politics, philosophy and religion, Lancaster University.

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