In a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, U2’s Bono repeated a quote that has been the hallmark of his own career: “The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God.” This is exactly the sort of music that also turns on critic Bill Friskics-Warren in his new book I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence—from the overtly God-ward ballads of folk musician Julie Miller to the defiant protests of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.
An elegant writer whose turns of phrase are as illuminating as their content, Friskics-Warren’s approach to popular music has been shaped as much by his early ecstatic encounter with the Beatles as by his Vanderbilt divinity degree. In I’ll Take You There, Friskics-Warren proposes that “pop music has for decades possessed the power, much as liturgies and sacred music have for centuries, to transport the human spirit and to serve as a vehicle for the transcendence we seek.”
Friskics-Warren is not the first to point out connections between religion and popular culture. However, his observations on the subject are revelatory, especially when he excavates the albums, lyrics, and musical structure of individual artists, many of whom have been overlooked elsewhere. With a startling intuition for what even the musicians themselves may not have known, Friskics-Warren shows his subjects to be the mystics, naysayers, and prophets of today, grounded on this earth with a hunger for heaven.
Too often mainstream reviewers dichotomize the sacred and the secular. Not only does Friskics-Warren explicitly denounce such categories, he declares that the eternal is inseparable from the everyday. For him, transcendence is no clichéd, out-of-body experience. In fact, it shares more in common with the bawdy ecstasy of Teresa of Avila than the prim austerity usually associated with spiritual enlightenment.
Indeed, the first category of musicians Friskics-Warren discusses are Teresa’s direct spiritual descendents: mystics—or as he further delineates them, “contemplatives, sensualists, and empaths.” These artists, such as Marvin Gaye and Madonna, are motivated by a quest for rapturous spiritual union. Often they dwell in the tension between body and soul, articulating a desire for “sexual and spiritual renewal that points to their common wellspring,” or enter into the suffering of others in order to achieve such renewal.
Naysayers, whom Friskics-Warren calls “dystopians and idiots,” can at first be off-putting, as they gravitate toward expressions of brokenness and despair. But his understanding of why naysaying is so vital is invigorating: “The best naysayers force us to confront things that we otherwise might not face, thereby opening the door to feelings like anger, understanding, and empathy—and, through them, to action that prevents inhumanity...to say nothing of the cathartic thrill that comes from destroying idols and tearing down walls.” Friskics-Warren does not ascribe lofty ideals to naysayers such as Iggy Pop and Eminem; to do so would be to miss the musicians’ point entirely, which is to avoid false or cheap transcendence at all costs. Rather, he delves down to rock bottom alongside them, noting that “merely by articulating this urge...not just to annihilate everything but to begin anew, they have.”
While naysayers shout “no!” to all that is wrong in the world, prophets envision what the alternative “yes!” might look like. Friskics-Warren’s exploration of the work of Johnny Cash and U2 is first-rate in terms of these well-known musical truth-tellers. But it’s when he investigates the prophetic force of less celebrated but equally influential artists that I’ll Take You There shines. For instance, the Mekons, an agro-punk collective from the United Kingdom, “assail First World greed and aggression with music so indomitable that it sounds like it might be able to obliterate those things all by itself.” When I read that line, I had to restrain myself from cheering right there in the Laundromat. Now that’s great music criticism!
Friskics-Warren does not tread cautiously around his subjects—in holding them to the light, he also exposes their foibles. For instance, while in one paragraph he extols Sinéad O’Connor’s immense capacity for empathy, he examines its underbelly in the next, noting that the singer’s compassion creates a “corresponding, almost infantile inability to suppress her feelings.” In passages like this, Friskics-Warren reveals not only a particular musician’s temperament—empathetic, sensualist, dystopian, prophet—but the very nature of the temperament itself.
Friskics-Warren has written a definitive popular culture study for the new millennium—a conclusion supported by the fact that I had a difficult time sitting still while reading it. I found myself constantly propelled toward the stereo to put on a record by one of the book’s subjects, the better to experience the author’s point—and the artist’s. Friskics-Warren’s own enthusiasm for the music fueled mine, prompting me to engage primary sources so that I might be better equipped to discern what I was hearing and more open to receiving the artist’s transcendent truth. This encouragement of active participation is a rare gift in both academic and music writing. I’ll Take You There may not become a best-seller, but those who take the time to plumb its depthswill attain just the enlightenment the book’s title promises.
Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.