Sacred Symbols with a Secular Beat? A Content Analysis of Religious and Sexual Imagery in Modern Rock, Hip Hop, Christian, and Country Music Videos

By Morgan, Tanja N.; Hampton, Cheryl A. et al. | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Sacred Symbols with a Secular Beat? A Content Analysis of Religious and Sexual Imagery in Modern Rock, Hip Hop, Christian, and Country Music Videos


Morgan, Tanja N., Hampton, Cheryl A., Davenport, Shanise, Young, Ellen, Badzinski, Diane M., Richardson, Kathy Brittain, Woods, Robert H., Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Since the introduction of the music video by the twenty-four-hour music video cable network Music Television (MTV) some thirty years ago, the music video has become a staple of musicians, their fans, and the curious. The videos provide artists with a platform to display their creative talents by assembling short films to accompany their songs, allowing fans and other viewers to experience more than just the sound of a musical performance (Cummins 2007; Taylor 2007). The distinguishing aspects of music videos--which are not found in sound recordings or in live musical performances--are the visual images and symbols contained within the dramas of the scripted videos, chosen by artists and producers to communicate ideas or emotions in ways that deliberately or inadvertently persuade, convince, or inform viewers. Along with the rise in popularity of music videos comes the accusation that they promote controversial messages of sex and violence, enticing viewers to engage in negative and risky behaviours (Kistler and Lee 2009). Yet, sexual images are not presented in isolation; in fact, Pardun and McKee (1995) found that religious and sexual images often co-occur within the same video, raising questions about the purposes and interpretations of the juxtaposed images for viewers and rhetorical critics.

Accordingly, increased attention from scholars, critics, and audiences has been paid to the merging of the sacred and the secular. McAvan (2010) described the rise of what he terms "the modern sacred," where the separation of sacred and profane has collapsed. Gormly (2003, 257) argued, "Popular appropriation of religion is expanding as the Evangelical material culture is flowing more freely into the mainstream, especially given that American religiosity today is popular, material, and commodity based." Such an appropriation and "collapse" is evident in the work of mainstream pop artists such as Creed, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, U2, Carlos Santana, Lauryn Hill, Nirvana, and Sting, who have regularly employed religious imagery and lyrics in their performances (Harmon 2000; Molokotos-Liederman 2004). In addition, many of Country music's top-selling artists, including Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Carrie Underwood, and Brooks & Dunn, boldly present imagery that captures the genre's rich tradition of religiosity and faith (Fillingim 2003). There has been a concomitant increase in Christian "crossover" artists--Switchfoot, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, Lifehouse, POD (Payable on Death), and Mat Kearney--who enter the mainstream music industry and unapologetically bring their religious imagery and lyrics with them (Howard and Streck 1999; Powell 2002; Radwan 2006). Livengood and Ledoux Book (2004) identified an additional trend in which mainstream bands may be signed to a traditionally Christian recording label, which can result in further crossover of mainstream artists into that genre and further blending of sacred and secular images.

Another reason that the attention is warranted is because of the growth in the Christian merchandising marketplace in the past decade that has brought Christian music--and books, films, and games--into the mainstream. No longer are Christian symbols seen only by devotees; they are found on goods sold online and in major retail outlets. According to Howell, writing for DSN Retailing Today: "A spiritual revival appears to be taking hold in retail. After quietly operating on the fringe as a niche market for years, Christian bookstores are increasingly competing against mainstream retailers--largely due to the success of top-selling religious titles and the blockbuster film 'The Passion of the Christ'" (Howell, 2004). Similarly, Business Week reported:

Twenty years ago, contemporary Christian music was a cottage industry with annual sales of $85 million. Thanks to sophisticated production, marketing, and distribution, sales totalled $720 million last year. 'Today, we're bigger than classical and jazz combined,' says John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Assn. …

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