Socially Acceptable Stoner-Music

As Latter-Day Saint Christians we are regularly counseled to avoid inappropriate and degrading music. The exact definition of which has been left rather vague with only the extremes easily identifiable as one or the other. However, this does not change the fact that it is important for Latter-Day Saint Christians to be sure that they are only listening to the right kind of music. The reason for this is well-known in the church, since music undoubtedly has an effect on our emotions and thoughts. But despite this, there is a great deal of controversy (albeit not exactly public controversy) amongst the members of the church over what falls into the category of appropriate, and what does not. These “Border Disputes” (as I call them since they generally pertain to borderline cases) I believe are particularly important to consider since there appears to be a double standard which many members of the church use when drawing the distinction between what is appropriate and what is not.

To illustrate this point, lets look at the Beatles. They are most likely the most successful rock band of all time, with their music being almost universally loved and adored, if not at least respected. Today, if anyone were to criticize their music as devilish or degrading, it would likely be met with scoffs and “eye-rolling”. Personally, I too am a fan of a lot of their work (although I tend to think they’re a bit overrated). However those who might find the music of the Beatles to be acceptable and wholesome, might at the same time find the music of Jimi Hendrix to be more inappropriate. Yet the themes of both of these artists are fairly similar. Both talk about life and the struggles of youth, while mixing in elements of philosophy and counter-culture, and both discuss and describe drug-use in a positive light. The only difference that exists between their music is one of tone. The Beatles did not play as loud as Hendrix did, and their music is marked by a happier and lighter tone than that of Hendrix’s music. In fact the only difference between “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” & “Purple Haze” is that the former sounds like Alice in Wonderland while the later sounds like a night in an opium den. Thematically, both bands were identical yet due to tone, the majority of the populace does not associate the Beatles with the darker side of the 60s counter culture—preferring to associate them with the Flower Children, rather than the children conceived while smoking flowers. In short, the Beatles are just Socially Acceptable Stoner Music.

While I enjoy the music of both the Beatles, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (as well as many other Psychedelic Rock acts like Pink Floyd and others) this disparity in the judgment of two very similar bands depicts a tendency to judge a band by the tone of their music or even cultural associations, rather than actual content. To further illustrate this, lets look at another case.

Once, when I was listening to my prized vinyl recording of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, a friend of mine commented that when played backwards the song sounded satanic and that supposedly satanic verses could be made out. A second friend of mine immediately expressed how that stuff really bothered him because then “you knew that the band was up to some really satanic stuff.” This struck me as interesting, since this same friend was also very fond of a song that in no uncertain (and in rather suggestive) terms describes and celebrates two people engaging in a casual “one-night stand”. I wondered if perhaps that song seemed more acceptable to him, despite its theme, because it was country music instead of rock. And then I had to ask myself, what is more destructive? A song with a bunch of very confusing lyrics, that may or may not convey a “satanic” message when played backwards, or one that unabashedly and straightforwardly lays out a satanic message about casual sex? The difference here, again: cultural associations and tone. Country music has long received a reputation as wholesome family music, whilst Rock has been tied to Satanism.

Similarly, Classical & Symphonic works are usually considered clean and wholesome by most, yet any who actually look into the meaning and inspiration of works like Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” or Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” would likely be surprised by their hedonistic themes, which they likely did not guess by only hearing the orchestral work.

Now lets consider tone. We, as members of the church, have also been counseled against music that “by its beat or tone” drive away the spirit. So obviously we can’t discount the importance of tone in the final decision over what music is appropriate and what is not. But here things get even less clear. What counts as appropriate tone, or even beat? At the same time, a similar question could be brought up about lyrical content. Is it enough for inappropriate behavior to even be mentioned in music, for it to count as inappropriate? Or does it need to go further than that, and into celebrating it? Or is that even enough? Does it have to outright encourage you to participate in it as well? And what inappropriate behavior should we be concerned about in our music? All of it? Only Sexual Transgression? Murder? Doing Drugs? Drinking Alcohol? Drinking Coffee? Drinking Tea? Theft? Lying? Anger? Pride?

I submit that the fact is, with most songs, that they may have one effect on one person, and still another effect on someone else. This is largely dictated by what experiences they have had and how they interpret the song. What all of us then must do is ask ourselves, what does this make Me think of? How does this song make Me feel? Does this song make me think about things I shouldn’t, in a way that I shouldn’t? And still, above all, we must follow the guidance of the Spirit.

Granted, this will result in different answers for different people, and often music listening does not happen privately. So we must also keep in mind what we are playing in front of other people, and what effect it might have on them. Granted, we can’t be perfect in this, and must not be offended if someone asks us to change the song — maybe it has a different effect on them than it does on us.

One final word about appropriate music. The term appropriate is ambiguous. It could mean, appropriate for a Latter-Day Saint or appropriate for the moment. Just because a song is not necessarily appropriate for the ride to the temple, does not mean it is never appropriate. Just as playing dance music in the cultural hall at church on a saturday night is appropriate, but not on sunday morning. There are times and places where one kind of music is inappropriate more because it is distracting from the task or moment at hand, but that does not mean it is inherently bad. I believe that maturity in the gospel, and the ability to make wise choices in our spiritual and temporal well-being partly depend on our ability to distinguish between appropriate music for the setting, as well as appropriate music in general. But before we make that judgement call, we should ask ourselves, why do I think this is appropriate or inappropriate? Is it a cultural knee-jerk? Or is it guided by the spirit.