Sunday, February 19, 2006

God's Got a Sick Sense of Humour (hopefully)

About 15 years ago I started writing a book of essays about the UK electro-pop band, Depeche Mode. I am finally in the final-final edit of the book and while doing the final read-through I found an essay which I feel is germaine to the whole Danish-anti-Muslim-comic-strip flap. In 1984, Depeche Mode released a single in the UK called "Blasphemous Rumours." The single was a flop but it caused a bit of controversy and the BBC refused to play it due to it's supposedly anti-Christian message. Interestingly enough, the JACK-FM format in the US rotates the song A LOT and I do hear it on college radio "flash-back" hours from time to time. It is a great tune, sonically speaking, and, though perhaps a bit over-wrought, asks some difficult questions about the nature of faith. So, here's the essay in its entirety.


from "Depeche Mode: Your Favorite Darkness" © 2006 by David Fulton.

‘Blasphemous Rumours’
- The enduring power of this song is best embodied in the effect it has on long-time fans when the band perform it live. In the film of 101 there is a moving and somewhat disturbing scene in which the camera captures a young woman in the throes of hysterics as she sings along with Gahan. She is given over to total emotional abandon like nothing short of Beatlemania. This moment manages to encapsulate in one stunning visual everything that needs to be understood about the relationship between Depeche Mode and its audience. The words and the music create a dialog for a voiceless and often ignored, generation of middle-class kids who have big thoughts and important concerns but lack the language and the public platform that a pop act can provide. ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ (‘BR’), though it has ceased to be featured in the band's live set since that historic Pasadena show in 1988, exemplifies the sort of song that Depeche Mode does better than any other pop act outside of U2 or REM: a song of ideas and consequence.

Musically, ‘BR’ is the band's most complex and challenging track to date. It manages to walk the line between the dark minimalism of ‘Pipeline’ and the thickly-layered sounds found on Black Celebration Indeed, ‘Pipeline’, with its sparse instrumentation blending eastern drum patterns with industrial sterility, offers an ersatz sonic template for the production crew on ‘BR’. Tension builds in both songs from the onset with enigmatic percussion signifying an almost religious solemnity. While ‘Pipeline’ is a quasi-work song, ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ suggests something no less dire than a funeral procession. In this case, the death of the god of Martin Gore's youth.

Gore presents us with two superficially similar situations involving young women. The first, a sixteen year old girl in the midst of adolescence attempts suicide because she is “bored with life.” The attempt is a failure and there is a strange, dark sarcasm from Gore who “thanks” God for the “small mercies” of “allowing” her to fall short of her intended goal of self-annihilation. The second verse deals with the girl's mother and her reaction to the events. The suicide note is read while “16 candles burn in her mind,” and the guilt and a sense of responsibility is assuaged “once again” by prayer. The chorus then kicks in; a black nursery rhyme, not unlike the one heard on ‘Everything Counts’, infuses the song with acid irony as God is giving, in the words of one critic (Neil Tennant), “a severe ticking off.” To be sure, Gore does not mince words in his accusing the Almighty of a sort of spiritual hubris. By declaring that God has a less than empathetic attitude toward the suffering of mankind, Gore is also calling into question the whole franchise of Christianity. The songwriter does not cull from the headlines, as he does later on ‘New Dress’, stories of famine and war. Instead, he chooses to focus on a home-grown microcosm of domestic, middle-class suffering. The second young woman dies after being hit by a car despite her finding “new life in Jesus Christ.” Although Gore does not explicitly say so, he is obviously outraged by the absurd irony of, on the one hand, a girl who wants to die being made to live by the grace of God while another, who was ostensibly “in love with everything” dies senselessly at the hands of a capricious fate. The world which Gore chooses to ground his discontent is assuredly the world of a decidedly English form of Christianity which buttresses the meager spiritual lives of its island-bound population with fatalism and a clock-work sensibility about the workings of the universe. It is easier, in the case of the sixteen year old suicide and the eighteen year old car crash victim, to accept the nature of “God's will” rather than to look at the underlying and often difficult questions: what drives a young girl to attempt suicide? What sort of God allows such a tragic and senseless death as the one the befalls “one of His own?” The latter is obviously the more dangerous of the two questions. To investigate the problem of why God allows suffering would mean an acceptance of three uncomfortable and disturbing possibilities - a) that of an absentee deity; a god that created and then subsequently retired, b) Gore's God of the “sick sense of humour;” a malevolent, even evil god that actually enjoys watching the travails of humankind, or c) the utter lack of God.

It is telling that the discourse that ensued upon the release of the ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ single focuses almost exclusively on the accusation of irreligion and not the difficult questions raised by Gore. The songwriter was attacked for his lack of piety and sensitivity and the debate soon became one of censorship versus free speech. Gore's inability to properly frame the debate in the press when it was his turn to speak did little to further the discussion. Eventually, the controversy wore off once the single's brief, four week stay on the singles chart ended. Sadly, little if any attention has ever been given to the significant problems raised by the song. Discussions in the modern era on the subject of God are themselves not modern and seem to begin and end with the tired dialectic of evolution and creationism. The thorny topic of the place of God in a postmodern, highly mobile, multicultural society (and I am referring specifically to the so-called “global west,” encompassing Western Europe and North America) is seldom broached with any depth on any media. The occasional ten minute back-and-forth on the BBC simply begins the approach.

What Gore is hoping to do with ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ is to express a very real, though seldom articulated, frustration with the God of Christianity. Can it offer anything other than the most rudimentary comfort, like that sought by the praying mother over her suicidal daughter, or is the faith found hollow and lacking in the late twentieth century? For Gore, the trappings and ceremonies of conventional religion are simply relics of a bygone era and what is required is a new, more relevant way into God. He will not find it on Some Great Reward, and the next album will sink him deeper into an agnostic darkness where a desperate hedonism is invoked to combat feelings of imminent doom and despair. It will nearly 20 years before Gore can imagine a God suitable to his temperment and needs. Until then, it is a long road of struggle and searching.


Suzanne said...

When this album--as in vinyl--first came out, I played it incessantly... and my step mom once confronted me about this song, not because of the God thing, but because the "music" at the end sounds like someone sniffing coke... that thought hadn't even crossed my innocent mind.

"Lie to Me" is my all time fave... and Dave, oh, Dave! in those leather pants!

I remember the Rose Bowl... the rain that fell only during BR... and lightning... a religious experience, to say the least.

I've got to have this book... let me know how.

Chat Mal said...

I imagine this could be expanded upon to include Personal Jesus," which I would have thought would also cause controversy, but I don't recall any.

Are you a fan or a mere critic/expert? Curious if you have opinions on the new album SOTU. I lucked out and saw them in Hollywood last week. Made my year!

I looked for your book but never found it. Did it get published?

Chat Mal said...
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