The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane, by Christopher Partridge. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 368 pp. $24.95.
“Transgressive edge-work,” “liminal boundaries,” and “rejected-peripheries”—these are the words Christopher Partridge uses to describe the significance of popular music within culture and society. As a professor at Lancaster University with expertise in religious studies, popular music studies, alternative spiritualities, and paranormal cultures, Partridge’s book deconstructs stereotypical understandings of popular music as a banal, consumer-driven product that erodes aesthetics, intellect, and morals. Rather, Partridge’s research reveals provocative ideas about the affective and transgressive appeal of popular music and how this in turn shapes our understanding of the “sacred” and the “profane.”
Partridge begins his study with the assumption that music, apart from lyrics, is meaningful. This is dealt with in the first two chapters, where popular music is analyzed according to the various definitions of culture and society. Here, Partridge first introduces the concept of “affective space.” The sound of music, particularly popular music, is fundamentally connected to the individual’s “lifeworld” (38.) It shapes core beliefs about who we are, how we understand the world, and how we fit into this world. Music has the ability to move and manipulate, and can, therefore, create environments that stretch what is typical to the body and mind.
After laying this initial groundwork, Partridge delves into the transgressive world of heavy metal, paganism, performance art, and occultism. His goal in chapters three and four is to study various transgressive genres of music, performance art, television, and film to determine how affective space is created and what sacred and profane meanings the listener derives from this space. What Partridge discovers is that western society’s understandings of the sacred and profane are not stable and fixed. They are, in fact, far more complex than a binary, good-versus-evil construction. What is sacred to some, may, because of life experiences and cultural “baggage,” be profane to others. This is especially evident in the way people create music and art. Partridge offers one of his best illustrations in his discussion of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson. Here he is able to synthesize the complexity of his research into a single historical figure who has achieved mythic status in popular culture and black culture alike. Johnson, a romantic/demonic figure, embraces the complexity of the sacred and the profane in that he challenges the sacred forms that white society imposes on black culture while, at the same time, uniting and empowering American black culture to make sense of their oppression. As Partridge states, “the closer he was to the profane, the greater his sacred significance” (76).
A host of concepts and terms are introduced throughout these chapters and some provocative questions are raised. Could society truly appreciate what is upright and pure without first being confronted with heinous evil? If society is to become truly redeemed, should it not have to fully examine its own depravity? What are the true purposes of boundaries? Are they there for society’s good or simply to prevent unwanted change? How would society know unless the boundary itself is transgressed?
In the final chapter Partridge discusses rock music as a religious discourse and the fetishized appeal of rock and pop musicians. Although not the central focus of this chapter, Partridge does allow some discussion on how Christianity has dealt with popular music. He applies popular music to the different Christian views of culture, particularly “religion against popular music” and “religion as transformer of popular music.” Partridge concludes that since the sonic elements of transgressive music can never be fully severed from their inherent meanings, it is impossible for Christians to use this kind of music in worship without creating certain unintended affective spaces. Partridge believes this can have a positive effect in that Christians have carved out a profane niche within their genre through which the appeal of transgression can be placated without any actual “sin” occurring. However, Partridge is also convinced that, in these instances, the “religious text [will] from the outset [be] under the jurisdiction” of the music itself (215).
While The Lyre of Orpheus is intended to be a study of popular music, in actuality it is a study of transgressive music and transgressive culture. Partridge maintains his argument thread concerning affective space throughout the study. However, he assumes too much of the reader that he or she will be able to find his or her way back to the original thesis through his various intellectual tangents. The book often becomes laborious in its digressions on heavy metal bands, genres, and sub-genres. Even those with sufficient knowledge of popular music will be unfamiliar with the majority of bands discussed. When a popular musician is finally introduced, it is truly an oasis in a heavily analytical, academic desert.
Despite this lack of coherency, certain insights that may be helpful to those interested in culture, popular music, and Christian worship. First, Partridge successfully refutes the view that popular music is a trite genre, and, therefore, unworthy of serious inquiry. Early in the book he disproves this view, pointing to accomplished artists who work within the genre. More importantly, Partridge effectively articulates the liminal and transgressive appeal of popular music and the power of the genre that goes far beyond anything that could be described as trite or banal. Any Christian worship leader would need to seriously consider the transgressive nature of this music and what affective space it is creating within his or her worship service. Second, through this study, worship leaders may have a greater understanding as to why church members hold so strongly to their preferred genres of music. Not only does music hold a great deal of liminal appeal for the listener, but, Partridge believes, it is also one of the primary grids by which people create meaning out of the world around them. All laity approach Christian worship with a certain amount of cultural “baggage.” Those who have listened to popular music their entire lives will have a difficult time making sense out of the elements of worship without the presence of this music grid. Those who have listened to classical or traditional hymnody will require a classical grid for worship. To abruptly remove or change these is to disrupt the whole meaning-making process. This opens up an entirely new avenue of discussion that may not have been the original intention of the author. However, The Lyre of Orpheus, with all its conceptual interpolations, provides so much material that anyone with an inquiring mind and interest in cultural studies will discover a wealth of information for continued research and discussion.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX