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Mumford & Sons and the Death of Church Music

Christian rock and hipster folk-pop pull the same emotional levers.

Ann Powers discusses the similarities between neo-folk darlings Mumford and Sons and megachurch worship music:

Mumford and his band connect with a different lineage, an approach that honors music’s ability to unite and create an aura of ennoblement. It’s long proven powerful with audiences and highly problematic for certain music listeners I’d cautiously call elites — people like me, who write about music for a living, or others who’ve built lives around a particular rock ‘n’ roll code.

… to deny that widely shared notions of being good and strong and fulfilled — the things Marcus Mumford sings about — don’t have power is to dismiss a lot of what lives in people’s hearts. Some might cringe at the banality of it all; others will celebrate the common chord this band strikes and call it extraordinary. Neither response fully recognizes that the prosaic nature of this music is the point. Mumford & Sons aren’t changing the world that much, but they’re living loud in their little corner.

It’s an extremely good essay and a provocative theory, but Powers misses a few things. First, it’s a mistake to leave out the obvious disjuncture between Mumford and Sons’ down-home earnestness–which is a sham anyway, Marcus Mumford went to Kings College School–and the fact that the band tours the world and sells millions of albums distributed by Sony (in this country). It’s a Marxist-style critique, but who cares. Playing a banjo onstage at the Grammys is different than playing it on a porch in Kentucky.

Second, there’s a word that ought to appear that doesn’t. That word is Protestant. Mumford and Sons’ soul-baring emotionalism is quintessentially Protestant, and to me it seems like the strongest link between the two things Powers is talking about.

There’s a danger in arguments like this one to elevate certain music simply because it tickles the heartstrings of the people who listen to it. I’m of the mind that it’s better to be an outright elitist than to patronizingly defend bad music on the grounds that some people just don’t know any better. Vice has advanced the thesis that Mumford & Sons is mediocre music for mediocre people, which is at least consistent. But there’s no reason why ordinary people should be attracted to “prosaic” music, to claim that this is somehow natural is extremely unfair. Nor has folk music always been banal–in fact it used to be a lot more fun. What Mumford has discovered, along with his masters at Universal, is that this goopy, self-serious emotionalism sells like crazy. And since he apparently has no interest in new musical ideas, you end up with a relentlessly monotonous body of work that amounts to more of a brand than an oeuvre.

Many contemporary Christian musicians have discovered a similar formula. Consider how differently Christian rock functions from church music in the past. Megastars today supply a corpus of interchangeable–with both secular pop and other church music–worship songs. Bach thought he was exploring the mind of God. There was once a sense of aspiration or striving, through which God was glorified; this stuff is so incredibly lazy it almost seems idolatrous. My favorite example is the promiscuous key changes that arrangers sometimes insert for a cheap thrill that, in more expressive congregations, gets people to raise their hands. I think that’s a pretty good synecdoche for the music as a whole. There’s a risk that it rests entirely on a set of musical and lyrical techniques that are nothing but levers to elicit a certain feeling or response. It’s all heart and no head.

As a listener I can only speak for myself, but I find that more challenging music can better communicate the sense of wonder and awe appropriate to a religious setting. If I want to sing a bunch of stale, bland pop songs, I’ll have a campfire, not go to church. That probably puts me in the minority, but there must be others. And I worry about the cumulative impact of always choosing the lowest common denominator of music as a medium of worship. It drives people like me to get their kicks elsewhere, and it sets your average churchgoer into a pattern of expecting emotional feedback from worship, which isn’t the point.



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