Sounding Sacred
In “Sounding Sacred,” Sam explores the religious dimensions of contemporary popular music, offering critical interpretations of performances, styles, lyrics, melodies, and rhythms from multiple genres.


Pop music versions of Christmas carols are a prominent part of the acoustic ambience during the holiday season. Far from trivial, pop music teaches the true meaning of Christmas to believers and non-believers, thus negotiating peace in the so-called “war on Christmas.”

The recent assassination of the Sufi musician Amjad Sabri is a reminder that sacred music can spread messages of peace, love, and inclusivity – messages that terrify fundamentalists.

In the recent collaboration between Pharrell Williams and Missy Elliott on her single “WTF (Where They From),” it is obvious that Pharrell has some familiarity with Hermeticism, Freemasonry, and other esoteric religious traditions. Listening to the music, we can decode the meaning of his secretive symbolism.

Despite efforts of scientific and religious authorities to discredit astrological beliefs about the influence of planetary alignments on human lives, anyone paying attention to popular music can hear that astrology is alive and well, symbolizing an enchanted universe wherein planets and stars are co-conspirators in the affairs of earthly existence.

What happens when spiritual or healing techniques are replaced with virtual substitutes? Some of the techniques that spiritual practitioners and traditional healers use for working with sound are thriving in virtual environments, as can be observed in the increasingly popular world of binaural beats and ASMR.

The traditional plant medicine ayahuasca is becoming increasingly known and used worldwide, accompanying increasing knowledge and use of traditional healing songs called icaros. What promise does ayahuasca hold as it furthers the entrance of psychedelic experience and musical trance into popular culture?

Popular music can support efforts to respond to the challenges of global climate change – not with lyrics about carbon dioxide and fossil fuel, but with a religious power that calls people to change their lives and love the world.

To celebrate the memory of the psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, what follows is an account of the significance of the empathogen MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly) for the intersection of religion and popular music, with specific attention to the meaning of the MDMA references in Rihanna’s song “Diamonds.”

The popular music of the twentieth century, from blues and jazz to rock and hip hop, has roots in the music expressed in traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora. While that is relatively common knowledge, what is less commonly known is the uniquely complex kind of rhythm that predominates in the music of those traditions, and even less commonly known is the intimate association between those rhythms and spirit possession rituals. Pop music brings traditions of ritual trance into global culture.

It is widely known that Jesus was a spiritual leader and a political revolutionary. What is less appreciated is that Jesus was (and remains) a celebrity, a superstar. How does the fame of Jesus affect his theological and political messages of love and forgiveness? Do people stalk Jesus like they stalk celebrities? How different is Jesus from Britney Spears? How can musicals help us respond to these questions?

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