“The day I first happened upon the album Humans by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn proved to be a turning point for me in terms of my encounters with music and spirituality,” remembers Dr. Timothy Epp, associate professor of applied social sciences. “What was most significant to me was the place in which I encountered it: a Bible bookstore.”
That moment was the start of a decades-long pursuit. “The fact that this album was being sold in a Bible bookstore transgressed my binary opposition between Christian and secular music,” Epp continues. “The location was ‘sacred’ but this was mainstream ‘secular’ music.” Since then, Epp has made a pastime of finding artists at mainstream labels who identify as Christian and listening for themes of spirituality in popular secular music.
Inspired by his own musical faith journey, Epp published an article in the fall 2018 edition of the Journal of Sociology and Christianity titled “‘You Don’t Get Away That Easy:’ Rethinking the ‘Secular’ in Secular Music.”
In 2017, Dr. Epp brought this long-time interest into academia, undertaking a conceptual content analysis that would look for the spirituality in song lyrics from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, New Musical Express and Billboard‘s best albums of 2017.
For his review of the year’s successful songs, Epp drew on the theory of Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University. Taylor suggests that secularism is now our society’s general condition. “While individuals may reject their parents’ established paths in organized religion,” Epp explains, “their lives are not characterized so much by abandoning faith but by new forms of faith.” In the secular age, then, we have become disenchanted with organized religion and we look instead for our own responses to the transcendent.
With this in mind, Epp created the crux of his research. “Artists draw on a cultural vocabulary with readily recognizable and accessible phrases and images,” he says. “Musical artists often demonstrate a more in-depth approach to spirituality. Their songs critique and challenge organized religion. Their work shares their spiritual searching and questioning. Or musicians may affirm spirituality through the prayers and blessings that they include in their songs.”
Epp reviewed 2,080 songs from 152 albums searching for lyrics that fell into one of four categories. He looked for cultural vocabulary, that is, words or phrases taken from the sacred sphere into common use, like “God only knows” or “It’s a miracle.” He also included challenges or critiques to spirituality. In his final two categories, he considered lyrics that described a search for spirituality and lyrics that affirmed spirituality. While categorizing lyrics, he also noted the genre — and to the best of his ability — the religious background of each artist.
The results of Epp’s analysis showed that, of the 2,080 songs reviewed in the study, 405 songs on 110 albums referenced spirituality as a part of our cultural vocabulary, such as Angel Down by Lady Gaga. There were 59 songs on 26 albums whose lyrics, like Wow by Beck, challenged or critiqued spirituality. Epp found that 105 songs on 60 albums described the seeking of spirituality. Jay-Z for example, looks for the spiritual in Legacy, where he raps about his grandfather, a “preacher man.” In the final category, 183 songs on 60 albums used language that affirmed spirituality. Take Drake’s Since Way Back, in which the Canadian artist says, “Thank God I’m Christian.”
Epp also found that some “secular” songs pay homage to the sacred in their form. Some songs, like DJ Khaled’s Unchanging Love, are written as a prayer. Others take the form of a blessing, like the echoing of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12 in U2’s American Soul. Songs with spiritual content, Epp discovered, spanned musical genres and came from artists of a variety of religious backgrounds.
Overall, Epp’s study shows that content about the spiritual and the transcendent can be found throughout popular music. “In contrast to my own presumptions about the antagonistic approach popular musicians would take to matters of faith, I have found that the greater percentage of songs represent either a quest for spiritual fulfilment or an affirmation of spirituality,” Epp reflects.
When we view music in binary terms, as songs in either the sacred or secular category, we overlook the ways that our culture today is still interested in and still talking about faith and the transcendent. Research like Epp’s, then, can help us to better relate to our neighbours and recognize the desire for spiritual fulfilment that is inside each of us.