Friday, December 11, 2009

Mix-and-match religion: the "playlist effect"

Buried in yet another news report about the mix-and-don't-worry-about-matching approach contemporary Americans take to religion is a nifty metaphor.

The report itself, "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths," repeats what we've seen before.  When polled, Americans tend to report an eclectic approach to religious belief and practice, for example, a sizeable minority of Christians also believe in reincarnation.   (Some scepticism might be in order, as certain points made by these poll results may not bear the message given by the report.  The percentage of yoga-practitioners, for example, is higher than the Hindu population might warrant, but that may have little to do with a religious belief, maybe the 9:30 pilates class just filled first.)

So what's new?  As a non-multiple faith mixer, I was struck, in the MSNBC/AP news report on the poll, by the metaphor sociologist Michael Lindsay used to describe the reported phenomenon:  the "playlist effect."  Hmmmm.

I recall, of course, the days of record albums and turn-tables (recently back in fashion, FYI, just keeping you blog readers au courant).  You'd buy an album -- say, Springsteen's dry and haunting "Nebraska" -- because it had a song or two that had hit the charts, in this case, "Johnny 99" and maybe the title track.  You'd lock yourself in your bedroom and ... say what? .... listen to the whole thing.  You had to, or go batty trying to drop the needle on track 4 over and over.  So, like it or not, the entire architecture, the grand narrative of this album got imprinted on your adolescent brain.  As the story spiraled down, "Johnny 99" had its proper place, creation and fall etched into the landscape of failure and despair, inching toward the shards of redemption offered "at the end of every hard-earned day."

But the album era is over, it's all post-modern pastiche now. Consider how a playlist is generated, via the pandora/musical genome approach -- throw in "Johnny 99" and a few other of your faves, and you won't get suggestions of other Springsteen hits, or the Cornhusker fight song.  No, this is much more intuitive. With the playlist software, you'll get connected to music of all sorts that you might like because of your demonstrated affinity for an underlying chord progression or a rhythmic motif.  Suggestions might range from a standard folk ballad to an indy hip-hop artist from Cameroon.  You might never have run across, much less chosen these on your own, but you hear them now and somehow they sound so right, so very  you.  The huge advantage to this is breadth, the exposure to an amazing world of artists and musical styles and raw human emotion, all chosen because of their potential to speak, with eloquence, to your heart.  This is a gift. 

The downside, of course, is the loss of the alpha-to-omega, the elevating narrative of the album; the slow schooling of the mind and soul that happens only when you learn to love the music that connects your immediate faves, and grounds them in a deeper, and given, wisdom.  In the playlist approach, the connecting factor is you; in the album, the connecting factor is a vision -- not yours -- to which you are slowly converted.

The religion point is obvious, eh?

[Update:  Notice the Gibson report in Today's Reading.  Rick Warren has put out a "video epistle" urging Christians in Uganda to reject the anti-homosexuality bill.  This is very important, his voice is taken seriously among evangelicals and his silence was viewed, whether he liked it or not, as tacit support.]