Friday, November 1, 2013

Donna Weston and Andy Bennett's "Pop Pagans": Book Review

Paganism and popular music share a love of physicality. Rooting this scholarly anthology not in beliefs constructed by modern society referring to nature, but arising rather from earth's own manifestations by cultural contexts, co-editor Donna Weston introduces thirteen contributions to the study of Pagans and music now. (The capitalization is significant: convention prefers a "P" for modern followers and a "p" for pre-Christian adherents.)

This usage in turn informs how today's Pagans regard technology not in opposition to a natural construct, but as an interplay of vibrations within earth-based awareness. After a suitably spirited preface by Graham Harvey promoting a proper polyphony of primitive and progressive practices, co-editor Andy Bennett offers a brief survey of counterculture influences, e.g., Woodstock, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. While as with some entries Bennett's quick essay feels truncated, its thesis matches the scope. For progressive bands of the Aquarian Age, heavier and lighter elements mixed, demonstrating eclectic harmonies that evaded blues-dominated chords, to color darker metal themes or pastoral lyrical hues with a British folk shimmer.

Black Sabbath's own 1983 debacle at Stonehenge, confusing metric measurements for stage props with imperial feet, fueled Spinal Tap's satire. The reverberations of these immense pillars, for hippies, Goths, Guitar Hero, and neo-Druids, beckon many from the ranks of the "postmodern homeless self". Rupert Till credits the reverberations resounding in its stones. This mysterious monument reifies the yearning shared by ancient with contemporary pagans: ancestral communion and ritual celebration.

Donna Weston's chapter glances at five "exemplars" beginning with Paul McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son" and ending with XTC's "Greenman" but with only a page devoted to all five songs, her theory-laden analysis demonstrates the limits of academic publications on popular culture. When authors tend to turn to other scholars first and singers and musicians and performers a faraway second, the energy of this topic dissipates. However, Weston reminds us that paganus derives from the Latin "people of place" to designate those who clung to land, locale, and nature for their faith.

This territorial connection sustains Pagan metal. Native landscapes, with cover photos favoring icy or forested scenes, typify the imaginative realm which emerges as massive guitars mingle with hints of folk instruments and, beneath the mighty roar, lyrical flow. Especially in Scandinavia and the former Soviet bloc, Deena Weinstein discovers, within an engaging mix of sociological statistics and targeted interpretation, that the two lands share resistance (to the European Union and to the USSR respectively) which erupts as protest against cultural, linguistic, and ideological assimilation.

For Jason Pitzl-Waters, this exploration continues into three "waves" of Goth music. By the mid-'90s, British promoters used "Goth" and "Pagan" interchangeably. The older island tradition, of folk, revived with the past century's romantic, ruralist, and religious seekers combining idealism with instrumentation. While guitars by the mid-century were imported from American genres, archivists enlivened rock music with an amplified blend of back-to-nature aspirations and more danceable, or raucous, tendencies. As Rob Young's Electric Eden (2010) elucidates (see my PopMatters review), the blend of rock's marketing power and folk's sensitive aura simmered into many musical genres.

A post-folk musician, Andy Letcher, mingles his own avocation with his scholarly training to deny folk's roots in any pagan British tradition. However, keen to explain why this search for meaning has lingered so long among his colleagues, he guides us to understand how the song "John Barleycorn" or the film The Wicker Man typify from the 1970s pagan origin myths for the British counterculture. He locates the tension of allegiance to a "common man" as a durable aesthetic, contending against "irrational superstition" within folk music and its surrounding culture. For instance, even if scholar Ronald Hutton proves the Morris dance originated in Tudor court, its current association with pre-Christian mummers endures on its own terms. "Folk was never pagan," he argues, "but the twentieth century made it so".

Dance and music accompany each other often. From Australia, Douglas Ezzy applies "somatic awareness" to a "collective ritual" at Pagan gatherings. He shares his own "flow" as the music takes him and many away at such venues. This affirmation enables Pagans to leave the "broom closet" where for fear of discrimination and persecution many still lurk.

Identity solidifies in other far-off locales. Graham St. John tells of the awe of standing in the path of totality at the "sweet spot" of an solar eclipse. Globalization, cheap travel, and eco-tourism mesh with raves and New Age rituals to establish a unique convergence. Unlike other sacred spaces, the 100-mile-wide swath cast by the conjunction of sun and moon ensures each event "will rarely if ever transpire in the same space again". Within this "cosmic mandala", Pagans convene to celebrate.

They also flock to EDM raves, where shamanic ecstasy (and perhaps the chemical variety) converge to offer Pagans a "primordial religious experience" in a secularized, non-Christian setting. Alan Nixon and Adam Possamai contrast if in passing evangelical and Pentecostal predecessors with Pagan assemblies to call down spiritual transformation. "Techno-shamans" try to tap an elusive force.

Communities comprise the concluding section. History, genre, and performance while gaining their own sections earlier, here combine into electronically enhanced or enabled connections. Christopher Chase traces American "sacramental song" from Walt Whitman to Loreena McKennitt and Charlie Murphy among the eco-critical, pluralist ethos.

Celtic Pagan websites break free of genealogy or geography to encourage a membership by desire. Family trees do not matter; for a "cyber-diaspora" as Narelle McCoy surveys, the conflation of "Irish" and "Celtic" while incorrect exemplifies the marketing of such identifiers in a global marketplace. (Apropos as an unwitting indicator, a couple of Irish-derived names are misspelled and some Irish-language accents are absent in this section.)

Moving from the layered gloss of Enya to the "esoterrorism" of Genesis P-Orridge proves a leap. Christopher Partridge delves into the "occultism" perhaps coined by this crafty provocateur. His performance art, his industrial music as jolting installations and disturbing video with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV among other manifestations attests to his violent, morbid, and erotic visions. These,"designed to perplex" as the late DJ John Peel phrased them, evoke a true "Heathen Earth" not found in a meadow but a "menacing urban space". Brutal, not bucolic; "free-thinking, hard-headed".

With that jarring transition from rustic reverie to concrete chaos, Pop Pagans: Paganism and Popular Music ends suddenly. Its best entries encourage the reader to imagine the channeling of black metal vocals into words that even if inarticulate, allow the singer to dramatize his or her passion; to wonder at the moment of a total eclipse on a faraway landscape with hundreds of fellow Pagans; to dance with them at an Australian rave; to understand the appeal of the natural hum or roar beneath the city.

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