An Affront to “Good Secularism”? Interview with Exaltation (2014) author Mark Jennings on Proto-Religiosity and Popular Music Fandom

Back in 2003 I argued that the tendency for middle class academics to make comparisons between Elvis fandom and religion reflected their elitist anxieties about a Southern icon’s emergent legitimacy. Both before and since then, new scholars working in sociology and theology have made more neutral, sophisticated and empathetic comparisons between popular music and religion.

Sociology PhD Mark Jennings’book Exaltation (2014) carefully compares the use of music in a Pentecostal church (which he calls the ‘Breakfree church’) with Fremantle’s West Coast Blues & Roots rock festival in Australia. The book draws on a wide variety of theories, including phenomenological studies of spirituality (by thinkers like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto, Paul Tillich) and wider work on group sociology (Émile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Mikhail Bakhtin and Michel Foucault). It suggests that in Pentecostal worship, music is used to open a ‘portal’ to a realm of enchantment in which spiritual ecstasy is interpreted as an encounter with the divine. At the popular music festival, meanwhile, in conjunction with celebrity, music is also used to create community, move participants beyond their individual, self-conscious identities and bring the audience into a state of exaltation. Mark Jennings argues that in live settings, popular music is therefore linked to the evocation of ‘proto-religious phenomena.’

My own parents are Baptist fundamentalists. I think their ongoing faith has left a strong mark on my academic work. What is your own religious background and in what ways do you think it has helped to shape your research?
I grew up in a Pentecostal church here in Perth, Western Australia. Pentecostalism is a mix of quite conservative moral values together with some of the ecstatic experience outlined in the book, such as speaking in tongues and inspired speech. I think the encounter with moderate Evangelical theology began to open a door for me after high school to a form of Christianity that I could feel more at home in, without having to accept some of the more problematic ideas – such as a naive belief in biblical inerrancy. Further academic study in theology and sociology kicked open another door, showing me that I could be both a Christian and a critical thinker. The doctoral study was, at least in part, an attempt to understand my own religious background, and to play with the idea that “secular” and spiritual phenomena are not that far apart.

What, for you, is the difference between musical elation, ecstasy, exaltation and plain old fannish excitement – or are they the same thing?
I think this is difficult to answer. Ecstasy comes from the word ecstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. I associate with a kind of trance, in which one loses, at least for a little while, the experience of a discrete self. Of course, I don’t think one really thinks that at the time – it wouldn’t be much of an out of body trance if the person was thinking “I am currently not just me, but everyone around me.” I think it is something one is aware of after the event, upon reflection.
In terms of fandom, I think there are probably some common elements. In the book, I describe as ecstatic the experience of being in the venue when particular artists play very well known songs – for example, when Don McLean was playing “American Pie.” 

It is an interesting example, because I don’t even particularly like that song, and McLean really doesn’t go out of his way to rev up the crown or anything. But it is such an iconic song, and everyone knows most of the words, and this is actually the bloke who wrote and performed the song that you’ve heard a thousand times, and your parents heard a thousand times, and everyone around you is completely into the experience of the song – personally, I experienced what I call the ecstatic trance in there. But it took all of those elements – the fame (or celebrity, if you prefer) of the song and the artist, the ritual of the performance (it was, of course, the last song in the set) and the experience of being in a group all experiencing the same thing – that catalysed the ecstatic trance. I think fandom was probably one of the elements, but there was more involved.

I’m intrigued. Did you pursue fannish practices for McLean after that experience or was it a moment –  something that rapidly came and went?
I didn’t, really. McLean is a bit of a strange case in some ways. That song in particular, which is so iconic yet remains enigmatic, because McLean famously refuses to talk about its meaning – it is just so ubiquitous in popular culture that it didn’t really spark any interest in his other work for me. This is probably something you might be able to address because of your own work, but I also find that the very process of being an ethnographer doing the research in that setting was antithetical to those kind of “fannish” practices. In contrast, at the beginning of the book I sketch my experience of Mumford and Sons, a band I had some familiarity with but wasn’t really a fan of until seeing them live. While I wasn’t there as a researcher, but as someone attending a concert, the experience was so significant that I was able to relate it quite easily when it came to penning the introduction to the book. And, after than, I purchased everything they had produced and listened over and over again.

I know you have written on this elsewhere on Pentecostalism and the rock’n’roll era. To what extent do you think that Pentecostal worship has formed an ‘energetic’ model for the live experience of rock’n’roll? What, too, were the differences?
So many of the early rockers, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles – not remotely an exhaustive list – either grew up Pentecostal or were deeply influenced by Pentecostal music and worship. I’m not the only one to make that connection. I think for the early rockers, they were often uncomfortable with that relationship, but probably for a different reason we might be today. For someone like Lewis in particular, he thought of rock n roll as the devil’s music – he just loved it, was really good at it and wasn’t about to stop performing it. So the distinction was more of a moral one, whereas I think many of us, as good secularists, might be uncomfortable with a seemingly “naive” belief in the existence of spirits and devils. But that’s pretty much conjectural.
More directly to your question, and not unrelated to my point above, the early rockers I think perceived in Pentecostal music a way to excite the spirit – or even the “spirits” – and connect people to the ecstatic trance. As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems that some of the big Pentecostal music franchises, such as Hillsong United and Planetshakers here in Australia, have started co-opting rock, pop and hip-hop into contemporary worship music. So it seems to have come full circle. But, from the Pentecostal side of things, the moral distinction still seems to be there. In interviews, participants were uncomfortable with the idea that non-Christian rock or pop music could connect people to God or the divine, because the author did not intend the song as worship to God. So, the differences seem to be there, but they are fuzzy.

What are the benefits and problems of turning a popular metaphor or stereotype (eg. the idea of ‘idol worship’ or Jim Morrison as ‘shaman’) into an academic theory?
It can be difficult in late-modernity, because some of these ideas are from a pre-modern or perhaps early modern world. As I’ve said above, even the early rockers (in the 1950s, only 60 or so years ago) had a different understanding in relation to the existence of the spiritual world than many of us do. Secularism, as Charles Taylor (among many others) has described it, leads to the possibility of belief in no god or divine realm, for the first time in human history. So, first of all, to import an idea like shamanism, which depends on the a priori acceptance of the reality of the divine or spiritual world, can be problematic. However, as long as we remain alive to the problems, it can be useful as an a metaphor or an analogy for helping us understand experience. What I have tried to do is what Andre Droogers might call “methodological ludism” – that is, to take a playful approach and not eliminate possible readings or interpretations of experience. That way, we can engage both spiritual and non-spiritual understandings of experience, without having to choose between them. This is, it seems to me, also most reflective of the way late-modern people “make sense” of the world, with myriad different ideas (some of which may be, on reflection, incompatible) rolling around together. Sometimes we have to pause and untangle the threads, but that wasn’t my role as a sociologist. Mine was to thickly describe, to use Geertz’ language, the ways that people understand experience, and then offer a number of lenses through which to understand these narratives.

As you carefully explain it, Durkheim is only interested in the ‘social facts’: religious experience as an inter-personal activity. He argues that in religious experiences, when individuals unconsciously feel a connection to their group it increases their level of excitement (effervescence). You observe that the performance of live music can be a catalyst. In my own work, I’ve used one mechanism from Durkheim’s study (totemism / effervescence) to understand Elvis fans’ notions of collectivity (in the fan base), personal feelings of elation and group behaviour. I think that loading on further religious interpretations is potentially both romanticizing, a bit circular, and ethically questionable (disrepecting the roles of both fan and Christian). At worst it can pathologize fans as subservient, blind loyalists. What do you see as the benefits of applying further theories of religious experience to participation in music events?
As I said above, there are times when people themselves use this kind of religious or spiritual language. There are times when they are being metaphorical, but also times when they seem to be directly describing experiences as religious or spiritual. One example from the book is the multi-instrumentalist Xavier Rudd, who credits “spirits” as the source of his music. So, firstly to discard from the quiver a range of theories from religious studies would do exactly what your question indicates we should avoid – disrespecting the fan or the performer’s own interpretation of what is happening.
Secondly, the fact that we often use religious language, even metaphorically or analogically, to describe experiences indicates to me (and I am certainly not the only one making this argument) how thin the layer of sand is in which we have covered over our religious past in order to construct secular societies. Durkheim predicted that in the secular future, we would need secular forms of effervescence, and perhaps concerts are examples of this. However, the fact that we still so often turn to religious or spiritual imagery or even interpretations to understand or describe what we experience indicates to me that religious studies is as important as sociology or cultural studies in exploring the significance of these experiences.

From your study of Durkheim, do you think there is a minimum audience size below which totemic processes cannot work?
Nothing I’ve read in Durkheim indicates this. I don’t think he was aiming for any kind of analysis whereby which an ecstatic critical mass is achieved. After all, he was an “armchair anthropologist”: in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he didn’t actually visit the field himself.

For me, the imperative to treat fans with dignity and respect has generally led away from interpretations of their activities as ‘sacred.’ Do you see any pressing ethical issues and boundaries arising in your research – whether in the area of methodology, investigation or argument – and if so how have you addressed them?
I don’t think that there is anything in my research that does anything other than treat fans with dignity and respect. The imperative is upon all of us as social science academics to be reflexive and not force our data into a Procrustean bed, making it fit with our preconceptions. That, of course, cuts both ways (to extend the Procrustes metaphor), and some of the literature in religious studies has drawn attention to the ways that a secularist a priori positions can exclude or marginalise the interpretations religious people apply to their own experiences.
But perhaps I am misunderstanding – I don’t really understand why it would diminish the dignity of music fans to describe their activity as sacred, either to them or others?

That needs a complex answer, because obviously it depends who is doing the labelling and in what register they are using the language. I don’t recall many fans actually using the term ‘sacred’ myself. Notions of sacredness have, however, been used by artists, marketers and critics in their efforts to recognize or perhaps ‘elevate’ music as something that is profoundly touching. Some academics that discuss popular music phenomena draw on religiosity ideas when they want to describe fandom as activity that is out of the ordinary – at best the placeholder for a series of wonderful experiences, at worst something tainted with irrationality, obsession, cultishness and subservience… To put that another way, popular critiques have often dismissed particular fandoms as types of benign or dangerous madness. They have used religion as a metaphor to do that. Back in 1964 Paul Johnson said of Beatles fandom, for instance, that it was “a collective grovelling to gods who are blind and empty.” Today the language can be subtle, but the assumptions often remain. They form part of a gap between fans and non-fans that we all negotiate, often by displaying a sense of knowingness. Since academics are widely framed as experts who have something to say about the meaning of fandom – something that is relatively researched, objective, and therefore significant – those who use notions of sacredness or religiosity to talk about fandom are in danger or playing into a widely held, negative frame of interpretation. I should add, though, that what I am talking about depends on the specific artist, research and context… Those are the key issues as I see them, but I’m willing to listen to different viewpoints.
I see. That makes more sense to me. I suppose one interview I conducted with a fan of the Australian artist Missy Higgins helped convey to me how seriously fans take the relationship between themselves and the artists they follow. This informant expressed a sense in which she had “followed” Higgins from her emergence on one of our national radio stations (Triple J) to her national fame, and felt she had in a way accompanied her on that journey. I had a sense of how many stories there are like that, of the profound connection that live performance in particular can forge between fans and musicians, both because of the common experience of music itself and the fact that, unlike other forms of mass popular culture – such as film or fiction – fans take the opportunity to attend the performances of musicians, and value these more highly than recordings and music in digital form. I had a similar experience myself – I am a massive Bob Dylan fan, and he played at a music festival here a few years ago. Some of my friends expressed disappointment with his performance. I was actually somewhat affronted! I even may have said the words “You don’t get to have an opinion on Dylan!” An odd thing for someone who has spent a lot of time writing about music to say, I am the first to admit. However, I felt some of what I read you as conveying here – a sense that my deep appreciation of this musician whose work was so important to me was being marginalised as a kind of slavish and myopic devotion to an almost mythical figure.
I think, as a person of religious faith myself, I have had similar feelings when my faith is ridiculed. So, it is certainly not my intention to do anything like that to either fans of the music in the book, or the Pentecostals who attend churches like Breakfree all over the world. It seems to me that at times, both those groups of people have been dismissed as irrational. I was hoping to deepen the appreciation of and insight into the essential sanity of those who participate in these forms of music.

You note that the Breakfree Pentecostal congregation and popular music fans not only share the same creation of a separate space (realm creation) and instrumentation (rock); to an extent, they also share a similar experience (enchantment, limit experiences of the self, emotional uplift, healing), and use similar language to describe it. Would it therefore be appropriate to call the Pentecostal congregation music fans? Can religiosity researchers use learnings from pop to illuminate established religious practice?
It seems there was much more of an emphasis among the congregations to regard music as a tool of transcendence, rather than something to be appreciated in and for itself. I suspect fans appreciate not only the music, but to the musicians who make it. This kind of devotion to the lyricists and performers themselves certainly exists in Pentecostal music – having attended Planetshakers conferences in Australia I can attest to this – but it is regarded as problematic. One set of concepts that I have found helpful for understanding this is Weber’s ideal types of prophets, priests and wizards. In the exercise of charismatic power, Weber isolates these three ideal types as bearers of charisma. The priests are closest to the ideal that Pentecostals would regard as appropriate for musicians who write and perform in churches – they are not producers of the charisma because of innate ability, but catalyse charisma through means of the authority of their office. This means that being a fan of a Pentecostal musician or performer might be problematic, because they are not supposed to be the source of the charisma – this comes from their connection to the church and ultimately to God. Similarly the music itself or enjoyment of it is not an end, it is a means. For other musicians, who might be regarded as the source of charisma themselves – the wellspring of the music which may catalyse ecstasy – the devotion of fandom is more appropriate. However, in my interactions with people who attend live music events, the music and the presence of the artist and performer is often one of many things that are part of the experience. I think “worship” might be stretching things a bit far – perhaps those of us who attend live music events have a sense of gratitude to the performers, and perhaps an admiration for their talent.

In that sense, if we look at the performance of the music in a Pentecostal church – what I call the “horizontal” aspects, bracketing the possibility of the divine – I certainly think religious scholars can learn from popular music research more concerning the significance of the experience of music, whether religious or otherwise.

In the book you mention Durkheim’s notion of ‘conscience collective’ – can you explain more about that idea and how it applies to popular music?
For Durkheim, following the French usage, “conscience” has both the meaning we associate with it in the Anglophone world – connected to morality – and also “consciousness.” In the coming together of many consciousnesses, something greater than the sum of the parts exists, something with a sui generis existence – it exists apart from the sum of its parts. This is what he refers to as the “conscience collective.” For Durkheim, it is the source of the moral life of a community, but more than that – the existence of the possibility of society as we know it at all depends on this collective consciousness. As I’ve argued, something like this seems to be happening when people come together to participate in a live music event. There is a shared set of norms in that context, that doesn’t necessarily make any sense outside of it.

Exaltation is written with an awareness of writers from theology, the social sciences, critical theory and cultural studies. You also carefully explain that you are not a musicologist. Apart from Tia De Nora and Graham St John, there were very few writers (at least from Simon Frith onwards) from popular music studies – what was the reason for this?
That is true, and I would say De Nora does not write only in relation to popular music, but all music in her wonderful ethnographic work Music and Everyday Life. Graham St John is primarily an anthropologist of religion, not popular music, and has explored techno-shamanism more so than popular music per se. So, even less from popular music than you indicate! I have no adequate excuse for this. It is an area for future collaboration, perhaps.

For me, your reading of the Pentecostal church seemed appropriate, because you applied theoretical interpretations of spiritual experience to a worship environment. To an extent, to me at least, the second part of the book seemed to impose that framework on a popular music event with mixed success. Two places where I thought Exaltation made assumptions were in framing the festival as a separated (sacred) space and describing crowd excitement as ‘proto-religious phenomena.’ So I’ll ask a couple of questions to clarify this…
First, it seemed to me that talking about the separation and preparation of spaces theoretically imposed a kind of ‘sacredness’ on the rock festival. I mean, just because I engage in different activities in my study and living room it doesn’t make either any more holy. It struck me that communally paying attention to music is part of a spectrum of ordinary activities, rather than something strange or holy, and that – even as they have a thrilling experience – the music listeners are still in daily life despite efforts made to demarcate the space of the festival. Am I off beam there?
Sacred means something separated from the ordinary – what Durkheim would call the profane – for special purposes. So, in a very simple sense, a live music event such as the Blues n’ Roots here in Fremantle is sacred – it is a special event, something that is different from the ordinary week of work or home life. This is particularly the case at a festival, which is not just one day or evening, but usually an all day or even all weekend event. To use a non-religious concept, which I do in the book, these spaces could be seen as “heterotopias” – other places. This is Michel Foucault’s concept – a place other than the everyday, where something else happens. I guess that sounds a bit banal, but it is purposefully quite an open concept for Foucault, although he does provide a few examples which help explain it a bit better.
So, the analogy of the living room and the study doesn’t really work here. One doesn’t typically dress up to go to the living room, any difference is basically functional (unless you live like me, in which case your whole house is a study). Preparing for a festival is different, it is expensive, it takes actual preparation – transport, clothes, sleeping arrangements, enough money for alcohol and drugs, etc. – it is an “other place” or heterotopia. In a way, a church has a much more difficult task to try and create this kind of other place, because not only is it something that people tend to do regularly, but churches like Breakfree don’t even have the advantage of the kind of architecture that more traditional church buildings might have – any flying buttresses are an occupational health and safety issue, not an aid to creating an other space.
So if you want to make a point about the experience of music in everyday life – I’m listening to music as I write this as it happens, and that isn’t anything I would refer to as a sacred experience – than I might agree. But live music events such as festivals, I think, do count at the very least as “other places.”

Second, as you say, ‘proto-religious phenomena’ is a term of your own coinage. It suggests that popular music enjoyment is not parallel to, or a substitute for religious practice, but instead a kind of potential starting point. That goes further than Schleiermacher, who considered some moments, like the exciting experiencing of a shared kiss, as “intuitions of the [sublime] universe.” Why did you feel justified in making the advance, when musical pleasure is currently either a secular pleasure or religious outreach tool? To put that another way, although I can see that music could more easily become part of religion than, say, filling in taxation forms, isn’t it – in the final instance – the social practice of music in its actual empirical instances that determines its meaning?
That is, in a way, pretty much my point. The experience of music, in any context, could develop into a religious experience, or not. What is it that might lead one way or the other? The way the one having the experience interprets or understands what is happening. It is what happens at the hermeneutic level that renders something a religious experience for me, and not for someone else. If I have an ecstatic experience of music in a church, I am more likely to connect that experience to religious faith. If I have a similar experience in the mud of Splendour in the Grass or Bluesfest, I might come to a similar conclusion. Or, I might think it has more to do with the excellent ale I have been imbibing, or the result of drugs, or just because I really had a flash of identification with something in that song or performance. Therefore, that ecstatic experience leads either to religious expression and faith, or not. This is not to say that all experience is religious. I guess you could argue that every ecstatic experience could be religious, but equally not. This really is down to the interpretation of the one having the experience, and how they may be guided by the context they find themselves in, among other factors.

Exaltation describes a similar use of language in the different environments it compares. I suspect that Pentecostal worshippers and rock fans do not use religious language for the same reasons or in the same register. Specifically, I think that – beyond emergent descriptions of effervescence – religious terms are used to authenticate, romanticize or just plain sell the pleasures of participation in popular music, specifically because spiritual ecstasy inevitably trumps mere consumerism. In other words, we can buy a ticket to the festival, but a blinding spiritual experience is something that we just can’t buy. On the evidence that you collected from the festival, would that reading make sense, or is there anything missing from it?
That is certainly possible. As I have argued already, I think it has more to do with the fact that we draw upon religious language to describe experience that seems to transcend everyday phenomena, because until quite recently we connected that kind of experience with the divine, and in the secular age we haven’t really developed a new vocabulary for that. But I agree that the language is being used differently by people in different settings, at least quite a lot of the time.

Xavier Rudd’s aboriginal music festival appearance sounded fascinating. I gather a ‘corroboree’ is an aboriginal shamanic event. As you note, Rudd’s performance is relevant because he emphasizes its spiritual dimension. Was he using entertainment to evoke spiritual forces, or using spirituality to entertain? Or are both readings too simplistic?

I was hoping to interview Rudd personally, and ask him some of those questions. I couldn’t – I had to rely on interviews published in music magazines. Was he primarily a shaman – a word he, admittedly, never used – or a performer? Would that be a real line for him? His music also has an overt political element, one that seemed to make his audience uncomfortable at times, so perhaps there is no separation of these elements for him. Perhaps I will get to ask him myself one day.

Your notion of music as a ‘portal’ to a different world reminded me of two theories: Adorno’s notion of popular music as music as a kind of designer drug (regressive listening) and the Christian Right ‘blame the devil’ argument that rock can be a gateway to evil spirits. Can the ‘portal to enchantment’ notion be claimed in more positive ways?
Of course – the “father” of my discipline, Max Weber, laments modernity is a process of “disenchantment.” I wrote a paper where I called live music events “realms of re-enchantment” – politically, this could be a space where the “Better Way” that Ben Harper sang so passionately about at the Blues n’ Roots become, for a time and space, a lived reality. Whether that can extend beyond that time and space, to re-enchant everyday life, is another story. Adorno doesn’t seem to have been sanguine about the capacity of popular music to make any real dent on false consciousness, and perhaps he is right. I would like to say it offers a prophetic vision of the way that life, the world, and society should be – an egalitarian vision, where music and pleasure are the highest goods – but, maybe that seems a bit preachy.

It seems to me that religions centrally need ideas. Why do you think there has been an academic effort to frame popular music as a proto-religion, when (a) it seems to function more as a tool to emotionally move people, and (b) other areas of pop culture, like science fiction, have leant themselves more readily to the propagation of new theological meanings?
Has there really been such an academic effort?

I mean books by Robin Sylvan, Erika Doss, Rupert Till, Christopher Partridge and others, all making the comparison in detail, but no whole books that I can think of challenging the religiosity interpretation of music fandom at length.
Yes, I am familiar with Sylvan and Till, and a little with Partridge. It has been awhile since I have read Sylvan, but I think he identifies music and religion much more closely than I am comfortable with. I don’t think of popular music as religion. I don’t even think of music as proto-religion, but as a possible catalyst of proto-religious experience – and remember, that is nothing more than the raw materials from which religious faith can be either constructed or connected to. But to return to your question – music has for a long time been considered an important topic in theology and religious studies, precisely because, as with poetic speech, it is a way of communicating that transcends the ordinary meaning of words. Music lends itself to the experience of the sublime, or perhaps the divine, because these are two phenomena that we think of as surpassing our capacity to capture in ordinary language. We turn to poetic metaphor, or to musical notes and phrases, or both (as in popular music) to try and connect to this experience. Science fiction certainly is an interesting example – authors such as Frank Herbert seem to have borrowed quite substantially from sacred mythology to write their fiction – and similar in a way, because it allows us to talk not of what is, but of what could be or might be, or might never be. 

Thanks for your time, Mark.