The brilliance, optimism, and spiritual power of American popular music

Sometimes heaven punches through to our everyday reality. We suddenly feel as though we no longer need to struggle or strive or fight. We feel God. It happens when we fall in love or when a child is born or when we are seized by a mystical piece of music. 

It happened when I heard “Nothing Compares to You.” Not the Sinead O’Connor classic, but the recent single by New Orleans singer Britti.

It’s a beautiful song from Hello, I’m Britti, my favorite album of the year so far. It’s also a reminder that while conservatives bemoan the collapse of culture, if you step outside, fantastic music is being made. A lot of it is coming from the Easy Eye Sound label, owned and run by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Auerbach has a deep love for America’s roots music, particularly blues and early soul. 

As music writers such as Stanley Crouch and Ralph Ellison have noted, the American black music tradition isn’t one of pessimism and despair but of affirmation, love, and hope. The blues, as Crouch observed, is about “dealing with adversity with grace.” Of course, there can be great tragedy, anger, and depression in America’s native music forms. Yet there is always hope and a deep faith in God. 

Indeed, the black American music tradition has always celebrated the power of love — both erotic and spiritual. In her book Hole in Our Soul, scholar Martha Bayes argues that in the 1960s, this tradition was corrupted by “perverse modernism,” including bands such as the Rolling Stones that started singing about drugs and violence. Gangster rap was a particularly bad period of perversity.

It’s 2024, and rock music has been usurped by dance, pop, and even jazz. Beyoncé made a hugely successful country album. Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift deliver euphoric songs influenced by 1980s synth-pop optimism and love. Critics could argue that popular music isn’t about “social justice” anymore, but there’s nothing more serious and challenging in this world than love, faith, everyday life, and relationships. It’s also hard to imagine any protest song with lyrics as lovely as this from Britti:

Silent movies, foreign beauties

Doesn’t truly matter what comes my way 

Old love letters lost forever 

Guilty pleasures even those dreams they fade

Because nothing compares to you 

One of the most famous pieces of music criticism is the review by the legendary Detroit critic Lester Bangs of the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. Morrison is an man from Northern Ireland whose music is completely informed by American black soul and jazz. When Astral Weeks came out in 1968, Bangs wrote, he was deeply depressed, “nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming across the mind.” Then Bangs said this: “In the condition I was in, [Astral Weeks] assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” 

In Astral Weeks, he continued, “there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.” This was a tonic, wrote Bangs, because “the self-destructive undertow that always accompanied the great ‘60s party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw and was pulling straight down.” 

The undertow of the disastrous 1960s party is indeed dragging a lot of people down. But American popular music has largely escaped.

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Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American StasiHe is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators, and A Tremor of Bliss.

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