I’ve said before that religion has utilitarian value. On further consideration, I think this might be even truer than I previously thought. Here’s a theory which, if even only partially correct, represents an argument for Christianity so strong as to swamp everything else. It’s:
The decline of religion is responsible (in part) for the existence of Simon Cowell.
When we stopped going to church, we lost something valuable – the ability to sing. Going to church every week from an early age gave us regular singing practice. It also gave us a collective body of music which was transmitted from generation to generation, which allowed parents to teach children singing and musicianship. And religion was a major reason why countless families, in the UK and US, had pianos, fiddles and guitars and family sing-songs.
Having lost religion, then, we’ve lost musical skills. As Wikipedia’s remarkable entry on folk music points out, this is evident in Superbowls (and I’d add Cup finals); a few years ago, the crowd would sing the national anthem and Abide With Me. Today, some “star” is hired to do so.
Iris Dement is exceptional in countless ways, but she’s probably typical of millions when she writes in the liner notes to this album of gospel songs:
These songs go way back for me. They are among the first songs I heard and the first I sang….When I was growing up and things would get too much for my mother, she would run, sometimes in tears, to the upright piano crammed between her and dad’s bed and the wall and pound out some old church song…These songs aren’t about religion. At least for me they aren’t. They’re about something bigger than that.
This tradition is what we’ve lost with the decline in religion.
The result of this that music is no longer something we do, but something we consume. Music has become commodified. What’s more, because singing is a skill we’ve lost, we are disproportionately impressed by those who have retained it. So we turn people who would once have been averagely good choir singers into pop stars – a process greatly aided by recording technology.
So, the decline of religion has given us Simon Cowell.
What’s more, once this process began, a vicious circle set in. When we regard music as something we consume rather than produce, it’s hard to rebuild musicianship; listening to a song as a consumer, and listening to it with the intention of playing it yourself are two very different things, as I’ve been discovering recently. And if we are impressed by the “talent” (a pernicious concept, in my view) of professional singers, we’ll feel our own efforts are inadequate and so won’t be motivated to practice. Through these mechanisms, even church singing is in decline. That accelerates the commodification of music.
So, every time you moan about the plastic inauthentic second-rate pop peddled by the likes of Simon Cowell, just remember the role the decline of religion has played in its emergence.
Another thing: these thoughts occurred to me after a night at Sharp’s folk club, where the tradition of unaccompanied singing is kept alive. (And Greene King IPA is £1.50 a pint).