Rock ‘n’ roll is innately religious and expresses a desire for the infinite, according to one of Ireland’s leading music journalists.
“This music is generated in the heart of man and is therefore fundamentally of the religious need, which is the fundamental original need of man; to know who made him, who he is, where he is bound,” said John Waters in an Aug. 21 interview with EWTN News.
Waters is the creator of a new exhibition entitled “Three chords and a longing for the truth; rock ‘n’ roll as a seeking for the infinite.” The display is proving to be hugely popular at the 33rd Rimini Meeting, an international gathering organized by the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation.
“The media always present rock ‘n’ roll simply as some kind of extravaganza of sensation and noise and stardom and narcissism and ego mania. But we are saying that within this shell of superficiality there is a hard core of fundamental content which is really the cry of man expressed in a modern idiom.”
Beyond the 800,000 visitors to this year’s Rimini Meeting, Waters wanted to offer his hi-tech, interactive exhibition to one person in particular – Pope Benedict XVI.
“When he was elected in 2005, all the hostile journalists dug back through all of his articles and speeches and tried to find things that would discredit him,” Waters said, recalling how the media finally unearthed a 1996 article in which Cardinal Ratzinger had opined, in the words of Waters, that “rock ‘n’ roll only appeals to the lower emotions of man and was therefore dangerous.”
Waters believes that Pope Benedict “is right in a certain sense,” that our modern culture only wants rock ‘n’ roll to be about “exaggerated sexuality, self-indulgence and narcissism.”
But he also wanted to show the pontiff a deeper reality.
“I wanted in a way to take the Pope by the elbow and lead him into this music and say, ‘come, there’s more, look at these artists, look at Bob Dylan, listen to what he is saying, listen to Leonard Cohen, listen to U2, see the sincerity of these people with the great questions that face man. And don’t be taken in by the exterior, by the noise, by the sensation, by the headlines.’”
At 57 years-old, Waters has been writing about rock ‘n’ roll for over 30 years, having started out in journalism in Dublin with the Irish political-music magazine Hot Press in 1981. At the same time and in the same city, the band U2 was beginning its ascent to rock stardom. Waters believes that the Irish group, fronted by lead singer Bono, is a classic example of, what he calls, a cultural “Trojan horse.”
“When U2 began they were a very overtly Christian band but they got hammered by the critics, particularly in the U.K., and after several albums they began to realize that they couldn’t survive in this medium if they didn’t change.”
What changed, however, was only their exterior. “They became more ironic, they dressed differently, they moved differently, but their music remained the same.”
Thus U2 managed to win over the same critics, he said, which then “allowed them to bring their music even further into the center of the public square.”
Waters contests that there is an “Atlantic divide” when it comes to the “credent (credible) pillars of modern pop and rock ‘n’ roll,” with a “British model” that is more ideological and destructive, standing in contrast to its American counterpart.
The British model, as exemplified by the 1970s punk movement, “always seemed to believe that rock ‘n’ roll should be a political form of rebellion which implicitly became socially left-wing,” Waters said. But the American model has “always had a far more existential dimension, a far broader dimension,” a characteristic that he traces to its “relationship with the primal music of the Blues and Gospel.”
So while the British model has tended to inform the analysis of music critics, it is “not necessarily the impulse that is to be found in the music,” he said, holding up legendary American artists such as Sam Cooke, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen as examples.
“They play the game of the modern culture, speaking to the communications media in a certain language, and yet in their songs they speak an entirely different language.”
As for that visit by Pope Benedict XVI to his exhibition in Rimini? “The Pope hasn’t yet arrived but maybe he will get to hear something of what we’ve done here,” Waters quipped with a smile.