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The Occult and Rock Music

I recently encountered a lengthy article detailing the history of famous rock musicians’ involvement with the occult. Read it here:

Devil Music: A History of the Occult in Rock & Roll

It’s no secret that rock artists have used occult themes in their work ever since the 60’s. Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and Ozzy Osbourne have all demonstrated an interest in Aleister Crowley, a pathologically egotistical founder of Thelema, a religious order based largely on western mysticism. Metal bands in the 1980’s drew heavily from satanic rhetoric and imagery in their lyrics, stage productions and album cover art. And even the tamest pop fare uses lyrics with sinister implications, like “sold my soul,” or “devil in disguise.” I myself went through a Crowley phase, before ultimately dismissing all things mystical as no less superstitious than avoiding ladders and broken mirrors.

If we define “occult” as pertaining to mysticism, dark mythological themes (e.g. satan, demons), and ritual magic, then it seems the occult and rock are quite well-matched. Rock is a music of rebellion. Since Elvis, its propagation represents the widening of a generation gap; and the younger generations have generally been regarded as more rebellious than their predecessors. What could be more rebellious than an appeal to concepts that overtly challenge the Christian status quo?

Sex, vulgarity, drugs and other common themes in rock also defy Christian values; but because the occult is a more direct affront to the validity and superiority of Yahweh, it is the most successful of all rock tropes in raising the ire of conservative parents and church leaders. To them, the occult is more than a temptation to sin; it is a threat to the eternal souls of the youth in their care.

When I was a student in a Lutheran elementary school, I experienced a number of special classroom discussions of secular rock music, during which our teachers and pastors would cite examples of lyrics, album cover art, and anecdotes from concerts and interviews that betrayed our favorite rock artists as antithetical to our professed beliefs. The intent was to scare us away from the corrupting influence of secular society. But I suspect it may have inspired most of us to take a deeper interest in rock music, which, after being shown to include sinister elements, seemed more alluring. Darkness heightens drama, and dark music is more dramatic, sometimes epic.

At the end of the day, the occult is one part of the rock fantasy, nothing more. A few bands have claimed to take Satan seriously, but they are the exception to the rule. And even in their cases, when we consider all things mythological to be fictitious, it does not matter how sincere an artist is in his beliefs.

I suppose if one considers Satan to be real and threatening, they might be justified in their concern over whether an artist truly practices dark arts or worships Satan. But in most cases, Satan and the occult are thematic elements of rock music, to be taken no less seriously than imaginary romantic affairs and parties, or balladic heroes like Rocky Raccoon or Ziggy Stardust.

Often during the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s, parent groups rallied against songs with which they should have found favor. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley” was not an endorsement of Crowley, but a criticism. “Black Sabbath” and “Number of the Beast” portrayed dark entities as adversaries, not allies. “Hotel California” was a lament for the decadence of celebrity life, and not about a Satanic temple as rockophobes claimed.

In other instances, songs evocative of darkness and despair were theatre. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is a neo-romantic homage to timeless legends of despair in love, and clearly not a call for young listeners to commit suicide. “Sympathy for the Devil” is a portrait of one of western culture’s most compelling characters, and no more an endorsement of Satan than Paradise Lost or The Devil and Daniel Webster.

However we interpret artists’s intent, occult themes have been present in music long before the advent of rock, in pieces like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain. And as new art emerges, we can accept whatever themes contained therein as part of the landscape. Music cannot corrupt, it can only enrich. Christian rock and gospel music certainly is as unwelcome to the non-Christian as satanic metal is to the Christian for being based on myth. Let’s foster the habit of assessing a piece as the sum of its parts — music, lyrics, form, texture and social context.

You can purchase the book Here’s To My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980, by the author of the above-mentioned article, via the link below:

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