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It might seem counterintuitive, but we live in a world that Christian rock built more than rock and roll ever did. Before it became a theatrical sensation, Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock opera album that incorporated Christian themes into rock culture and music. It became an international hit in 1971, the same year that Godspell the musical was first performed. Although neither of these had intended to proselytise, media reports put them in the same milieu as the burgeoning ‘God rock’ and ‘Jesus people’ movements—just as Dennis Pryor did in his 1972 review of their Australian stage productions.
To Pryor, these musical theatre shows reeked of a flimsy white identity disconnected from the sexual body of authentic rock. His argument — that real rock got its energy from the hormonal and racial vigour of the black music at its roots — hinged on a critique of Christian-themed rock’s overwhelming whiteness. Pryor paralleled the capitalist cynicism and marketing of God-themed rock with the superficiality of the Jesus people. He disparaged both as impotent. But when Pryor teased out the link between rock, marketing, whiteness and conservative Christianity, he couldn’t yet see the strength of their alliance or the empire that would grow from it.
In 1972, Pryor must have hoped that the changes of the 1960s would last through the new decade: the rising secularism, the awareness of and sympathy for black civil rights and a young, left-leaning and countercultural generation that had fought personally and politically for human rights.
Rock had been the soundtrack of that generation and was certainly a revolutionary cultural force, but it was always inextricably tied to the economics of capitalism and the market. In the 1960s, with the rise of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the counterculture, the profits from rock music became so significant that by the early years of the 1970s companies outside the music industry were buying into it. Music became the biggest and most lucrative form of entertainment in the world. New genres emerged that catered to and built new global markets including funk, disco and Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). As a tool and driver of markets, rock could never fully evade its ties with capitalism, never be authentic in the way that rock lovers imagined it was.
Christian rock was an outgrowth of religious hippies who resurrected Jesus as the original hippy, but it also became a conscious strategy for consolidating existing followers and training them to evangelise. Jesus rock piggy-backed on the hype around Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell: the media drew attention to the growing movement of young Christians and awakened new adherents. While every other religion lost members over the 1970s, evangelical Christians increased their numbers.
By the end of the 1970s, many of the Jesus people had aged into congregation members whose financial contributions lined the foundations of new evangelical megachurches. These churches were hubs for the foot soldiers of a conservative counterrevolution that voted Ronald Reagan into the White House. Once elected, he presided over dismantling the racialised welfare state, a backlash against women and homosexuals and an escalation of militarisation.
Since then, the Christian right’s cultural and political influence has grown, even trickling down under to our own conservative cultural politics presided over by Tony Abbott with a soundtrack provided by Hillsong’s gold, platinum and ARIA chart-topping albums. Even Eldridge Cleaver, the black radical whose words begin and end Pryor’s review, became a born-again Christian after 1975, then a Mormon, and ended up a member of the Republican Party.
Like capitalism, the conservative Christian empire powerfully combined adaptability and rigidity. It showed a remarkable ability to coopt what it needed to stay current while maintaining its core form. It understood that authenticity was a performance that could change with the times even as it claimed to have the fundamentals covered via the Bible: a book, it said, that recorded the literal word of God.
Representation and the power of representation mattered. Where rock and Christian rock were not so different after all — despite the masculinist comparisons in Pryor’s review — was in their attitudes to women. Eldridge Cleaver was celebrated as an authentic voice of black radicalism both despite and because of his time in prison for rape. He justified rape as an act of rebellion against white oppression. Along with his fans Cleaver failed to consider the women who were collateral damage in his campaign.
Both rock culture and Christianity were male-dominated and positioned women as helpmeets to their causes. Groupies were critical to rock’s success but were never officially acknowledged as anything more than hangers-on. Female singer-songwriters got more traction in the popular music industry of the 1970s, but their songs about relationships and feelings fueled the distinction between rock as hard and male and pop as soft and female. Jesus Christ Superstar riffed on this context with its depiction of Mary Magdalene as a reformed groupie who sang lullabies about not knowing how to love Jesus while the men around her sang existential rock anthems.
The conservative Christian empire used rock’s forms to dress up its traditional gender roles in sexy, contemporary ways. This helped it to offer an alternative to perceived threats posed by the women’s liberation movement, which, at its most radical, sought to abolish male domination, socially imposed gender roles, and the nuclear family. Although it came out of the 1960s, women’s liberation animated the 1970s, keeping issues of rights and revolution at the forefront when the left seemed to have collapsed and rock became corporate. Feminists fought hard and well. We live the freedoms they won for us.
But while they were fighting the patriarchy, Jesus and rock kept propping it up. Pryor may have thought Christian-themed rock was a particular failure on Australian stages but in the real world it helped to refashion conservatism — and sexism — to rock on for a new millennium.
This article was originally published at Meanjin