October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
January 12, 2004
The Polyphonic Spree is nothing if not unique—or perhaps that should be unique? This is the band, after all, with 24 members (or so), the band that wears long white robes on stage, the band that includes a ten piece choir, a harpist, a flautist, and a cellist. This is the band that owns a kettle drum.
Tim DeLaughter (rhymes with ‘daughter’), once a member of Tripping Daisy, now fronts the Polyphonic Spree and belts out lead vocals to their symphonic and trippy pop music. He describes the group’s appeal this way: “When we play a show together, we all kind of express and absorb that same jubilant feeling. I think that’s the one thing we’ve all got in common. A lot of us are the same, and some of us are completely different, but yet, we all get together. We all get to celebrate that same feeling. For an hour and a half, we’re pretty much on the same page. That’s pretty amazing. I’ve never experienced that before.”
What feeling is it that this music celebrates? Well, it’s clearly a Good Feeling, good enough that Apple and Volkswagen chose a peppy Spree song as background to their ad campaign, ‘Pods Unite.’ It’s a warm and uplifting feeling (the New York Sun called it “Teletubbies for adults”). And it is, apparently, a religious feeling.
Consider these quotes from a random handful of critics. DeLaughter, says the Sun, has an almost “messianic appeal.” New Musical Express says, “whatever your worldview, this music is divine.” The Observer describes a concert at which DeLaughter “jumps onto a monitor at the foot of the stage, spreading his arms wide in a Christ-like pose. It’s not too far off from how the audience and his band view him.” The All Music Guide opens its review with the line, “Talk about your teenage symphonies to God.”
The first album from the Polyphonic Spree, The Beginning Stages of…, is a glorious collection of symphonic pop and bubbly melodies. Comparisons to both Brian Wilson and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips are obvious and unsurprising, but what is surprising is the near-unanimity of the judgement that this is ‘religious’ music. That’s due in part to the robes, of course, and DeLaughter’s occasional Kool-Aid jokes. The band cultivates the onstage image of a benign cult. It’s due also to the songs and their emphasis on sunshine and daylight and celebration. It’s a rare track that does not contain the word ‘day’ or ‘sun’ or ‘reach’ and the music is upbeat, in a major key, and unashamed of its joy. It is happy music, and happy music about sunshine seems perfectly religious, right? (What religion this might be is never spelled out; the Sun comes closest when it says, “If the Polyphonic Spree is a religion, it’s one founded on musical ecstasy.”)
The simplicity of the lyrics has something indefinably religious about it as well, something redolent of hippies and pot and bright flowers. Consider the lyrics to two of the tracks on the album, neither more than three lines (and neither making too much sense, which might make them even more “religious”).
I found my soldier girl
She’s so far away
She makes my head spin around. (Soldier Girl)
Have a day, celebrate, soon you’ll find the answer
Holiday, hide away, soon you’ll finally wonder,
You’ll wonder to me. (Have a Day / Celebratory)
So what we seem to have are simple good feelings, willful naïveté, and, of course, the robes (which you can buy for $40 a pop at their concerts). But if this is what it means for music to be religious, then it says some interesting things about our culture’s expectations for religion and religious art. It implies, for one thing, that religious expression can be characterized by simplicity and naivete, by words like “love” and “sunshine.” Religion is good feelings and universal harmony.
A second problem with reading the Spree as a “religious” band is that their brand of joy and sunshine has little to offer those who don’t feel the same way already. The Beginning Stages of… is wonderful music to celebrate a beautiful day and a life that’s going well; it’s less well suited to elevating someone from a depressed or anxious state. It’s fine and good to say “Follow the day and reach for the sun,” but the record can’t answer the question, “How?” On those days when universal harmony feels elusive, more than this is needed. Watching other happy people feels great when you feel happy; it can feel sickening when you don’t.
Third, this type of “religious” art has so little cognitive content that it can’t answer any of the truly interesting questions. If religion is about good feelings, following the sun, and feeling empowered and at peace, it also needs to be able to address the deep questions of human existence. What is the good life? What happens after death? Is there a God and if so, what is he/she/it like and what would this mean for my life? To be fair, the Polyphonic Spree do not claim to be addressing such questions, but the “religious” label that has grown up around the band and its music shows a tragically withered popular conception of the nature and scope of religion. The term “religion” becomes so vague as to mean nothing. The Spree make great music, but to label it religious is to empty the word religion of content. What religion does the music espouse? What does this religion have to say about our purpose on earth, morality, salvation, and ethics? A song with the words “Days like this keep me warm, keep me warm, keep us warm / And love like this means more” can only be religious in the broadest, “can’t-we-all-just-love-each-other-and-not-think-too-much-about-how-hard-that-is?” sense of the term.
So how does the band itself view this “religious” label? Tim DeLaughter sums it up this way to the Dallas Observer: “As far as religion, I think the people in this group are all over the map. There’s nothing we’ve embraced. What we do embrace is the band.”
Ah, yes. The band.
It’s a sad commentary on our culture and our artists that critics have seen so little religious art that carries both power and artistic integrity. If such art were more visible, perhaps bands like the Polyphonic Spree would not be so quickly loaded down with the “religious” label and they could perform their wonderful music without the added pressure of delivering true spiritual enlightenment.