Friday, 8 April 2011

In God We Trust

The Kings of Leon may just be the most beguiling band in contemporary pop music. It's a group that I've come to like, initially finding them too esoteric for sake of being esoteric. The band is now five albums in to a relatively young career, with its sonic trajectory navigating away from esotery to a more arena-friendly sound, and in turn, cultivated a bigger listener base. In retrospect, it seems fair to say that the band's first few albums were its most sincere, especially their sophomore effort Aha Shake Heartbreak which is arguably one of the best albums of the last 10 years.

What is most astounding about the Kings of Leon is that this quintessentially American band of Christian Pentecostals actually found a following here in the UK before anywhere else in the world, including their own country. What's more astounding is that UK has the most secular mindset imaginable; the very thought of rocking to religious rockers benumbs us. Yet the Kings of Leon totally bucked this trend, with band's last three albums charting pole position in the UK charts.

On Monday director Stephen C Mitchell unveiled the trailer for his forthcoming documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, which will premiere at this month's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The film documents the entirety of the band's career, from humble beginnings to eventual wayward rock n roll lifestyles. Mitchell told the New York Times that the film is a "fascinating insight for fans and non-fans about a group of musicians who will never forget their strict Pentecostal upbringing or rough-and-tumble back-country roots."

From watching the trailer it's obvious that the Followills' faith plays a crucial function in both their music and existentialist outlook. They are not explicitly puritanical bible-bashers (if they were then UK music aficionados would have never let them through the door), but they are, or at least seem to be, God fearing guys whose religious upbringing very much informs both their songwriting and music style.

The Kings of Leon are not the only ones with a proclivity for religion. Cage the Elephant from Bowling Green in Kentucky are also a group of Christian boys who have taken the alternative music scene by storm. The band's latest album Thank You, Happy Birthday charted at number 2 in the U.S. Billboard 200, and the first single from the album Shake me Down was heavily played on mainstream UK radio stations. Lead singer Matthew Shultz revealed in an interview that all the band members in Cage the Elephant were largely unexposed to rock music till their teens; in large part due to the fact their parents' religious views deemed such music ungodly.

Caleb Followill echoed a similar story about his upbringing, stating that it was only after his mother divorced his Pentecostal preacher father in 1997 and moved to Nashville that he and his brothers were introduced to the glory of rock n roll.

Even Armenian-American rock band System of a Down clearly demonstrate a sound that is heavily influenced by Islamic Sufi-mystical culture. The band are not Muslims, but with lead singer Serj Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan hailing from Lebanon, and guitarist Daron Malakian's parents immigrating from Iraq and Iran, the cultural trademarks of Sufi music are used to amazing effect in many of their best songs. It's important to note that Islam as a musical influence, and not necessarily a religious one, is very much embedded within the sounds created by System of a Down.

This brings us back to the role of religion in rock music, especially American rock bands who've managed to break into the UK market. Like I said, Britain does not do God: the very thought of it sends us into secular convulsions. Yet Britain has been hugely receptive to the likes of Kings of Leon who wear their Pentecostal faith with conflicted pride. We know that there are more obvious bands like Paramore and Evanescence who also allude to being of a Christian faith, though they've been clever enough to not make a big song and dance about it when promoting themselves in these shores because such a declaration is a major turnoff for British folk. You will never hear a British artist thank God when winning a Grammy award because it's not something that is a part of the mindset. The British have been largely suspicious of God and his followers.

I would argue that the principal reason why the UK market has bought into bands like Kings of Leon and Cage the Elephant is because, despite their faith-based backgrounds, they remain fundamentally flawed human beings. Cage the Elephant's Matthew Shultz was widely known to have had an addiction to methadone, not to mention some other illegal drugs too. The Followill posse have all sorts of vices that have endeared them to the decadent British public. In the case of System of a Down, well perhaps I'm clutching at straws by shoehorning them within some sort of religious paradigm, but just listen to either Memerize or Hypnotize to get a sense of the Middle Eastern Sufi splendour laced within its brilliantly produced head-banging beats.

To promote one's religion in music is absolutely fine as far as British are concerned just as long as it is complimented with an absolutely contradictory lifestyle that's rife with misdemeanours and fuck-ups. It is this acceptance that has perhaps encouraged bands like Cage the Elephant, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Scissor Sisters to abandon their U.S. homeland in favour of the fog and drizzle of the British Isles. Just look at T.S. Elliot and Jimi Hendrix for historical proof of liberal American artists relocating to Britain because of its unique cultural temperament.

Furthermore, while some American bands may bandy chastity rings with pride and extol a wholesome upbringing by pastor parents, that kind of discourse has never sat comfortably with the sex-loving and hedonistic British populace. American artists have learnt not to make a big thing of it when touring here because it often works to their detriment.

Maybe Britain affords an individual to be themselves. It doesn't ask profligate rock stars be role models. For example, when Glee creator Ryan Murphy became agitated at the Kings of Leon for refusing their song Use Somebody to feature in his television show, Murphy became aggressive and called the band a bunch of "self-centered assholes." Drummer Nathan Followill retorted by telling Murphy: "See a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra. Zip your lip and focus on educating 7yr olds how to say fuck." Murphy accused the drummer of homophobia and Followill was pressured into making a swift apology via his Twitter account. It's hard to think that Murphy could get away with that kind of homophobia accusation here in the UK.

Christ, Noel Gallagher of Oasis once wished that Blur members Damon Albarn and Alex James would die of AIDS, but he was never cajoled into apologising for his statement. Morrissey waited 20 years before feeling the need to repudiate his ostensibly racist musings in the N.M.E.

The British expect their rock stars to be bad and to say nasty things without fearing the threat of consumers boycotting their records. (Dixie Chicks, anyone?)

To be fair, Americans pretty much invented all the major music trends of the 20thcentury, including punk, house and gangsta rap. I guess the concept of rock n roll excess married with some form of religious following perhaps suggests that the U.S. is a more complex society than we acknowledge.

Still, doctrinal self-righteousness from musicians may be a cool personal trait in America, but self-destruction has always gone down better with British listeners. Amen to that brother.


  1. I didn't know KINGS OF LEON weren't British :) It's interesting that unlike British films and shows, which I usually adore, I generally don't like their rock music. And in their pop music I don't like the way it's always kinda retro.

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog :) I really like Kings of Leon.

  3. I wish Americans were more like the Brits in our views. I don't mind religion influencing someone's music, as long as it stays within the music and I don't have to hear about it via their public persona. And this whole idea of a purity ring just brings to mind images of these people partaking in secret underground orgies in the church basement.

    System of a Down is a band that I have to like a lot recently so thanks for the insight into their background.

  4. Oh wow I didn't know Kings of Leon had five albums out already! I only just heard of them a year or two ago. Now I want to check out their earlier music. :)

  5. This was an informative post. I'm a Kings of Leon fan and didn't know all this about them.

  6. It’s surprising how many people thought that the KINGS OF LEON were a brand new band hailing from rainy Britain. Alas, it is not the case.

    Melissa Bradley, I hope that this post of mine didn’t read too jingoistic. Britain is a fine place but it is by no means all milk and honey. While religion is not a big deal here, class most certainly is. The gulf between rich and poor is rapidly increasing, and the widespread nationalistic view that poor people are feckless parasites has become uncomfortably acceptable conjecture in both our press and politics. The very few times I’ve been to America I have always found it to be relatively classless and egalitarian country (I’m sure there are many who’ll tell me I’m wrong). I think that America’s sense of Christian values means that one can reinvent themselves with greater ease than what they can in dear old Blighty. Hence, a band like KoL can go from being Christians to drug-fuelled rockers and back to Christians again more easily than what they could if they were a British band.

    Forgiveness and redemption are not intrinsically British values, though I sense that they are very much American ideals.

  7. You highlight some good points but you totally bypass the daddy of Christian rock - Cliff Richard. I've heard Calen Follohill cite 'Devil Woman' as a key influence on KOL's sound and 'Wired for sound' clearly provided the inspiration for 'Sex on Fire'...

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