Considering how many songs fill the Mass– entrance hymns, responsorial psalms, Eucharistic hymns, and more– it is striking how rarely Catholics sing these songs in pop music. Have you ever heard a pop song version of “Pange Lingua”? Unlike Protestants, who can squeeze a couple of albums out of singing the hymnals of their childhood if they use enough reverb, Catholics cannot do that with our own hymnals. Even reverb will not help “Lord Of The Dance.”
You see, pop music, and all its subgenres, grew out of Protestant idioms and you can always return to those roots. So a hip-hop star can name check his minister, a soul singer can rewrite a gospel song with heartbroken lyrics, a rock singer can sing about redemption, and a country singer, well she has to sing about Jesus. There is not the same cultural space for Catholics to sing about the saints and the sacraments within pop music.
Where have Catholics contributed to pop music? There are a handful of publicly Catholic bands like The Innocence Mission, U2 and Aaron Neville, but the list of confessional Catholic pop stars is short. Instead, most Catholics in pop music are critical, choosing to rebel against the Church because rebellion is, after all, the coin of the realm. For Lady Gaga, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, and the Smiths, a Catholic childhood provides lyrical fodder for tales of adolescent rebellion. You can wear Catholic school uniforms, tear up pictures of the Pope, or generally characterize the faith as a hindrance, an obstacle, and a thorn. Then there are the Catholics who do not identify as practicing Catholics, like Bruce Springsteen, the Hold Steady, Bright Eyes, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jack White, Patti Smith, and Roman Candle, but allow their faith to inform their music and lyrical themes. They can discuss their distance from God, name the alienation of their age, and long for communion. These crypto Catholics can, in short, diagnose rather than prescribe. Perhaps these kinds of crypto Catholics are implicitly taking the advice of Flannery O’Connor who observed that “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”
So if you are a Catholic in pop music you have three choices– confessional, critical, and crypto– but stay away from singing the hymnal.
– by Abraham Nussbaum, illustration by Chau Nguyen