"God is the Third Rail of Rock Music"—Billy Corgan


As a longtime believer that Christian rock is neither, I was interested in this snippet of an interview with Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan frontman Billy Corgan. I saw it on Matt Lewis' Twitter feed (subscribe here) and Daily Caller blog.

Corgan notes that the Romantic notion of the suffering artist—a staple of rock and roll, which may well be where 19th-century aesthetic imperatives have gone to die—is only worth a couple of albums' worth of music.

He also talks about how "God is the third rail of rock music" and that that's a shame, given how many people believe in god.

He also advises Christian bands to "make better music" if they want to succeed and notes that U2, which soft-pedals its religious bona fides these days, created the template for much of contemporary Christian rock. That's true, though all pop music fans always do well to remember Bob Dylan's absolutely awesome, fire-and-brimstone-huffing masterpiece, Slow Train Coming (1979), which among other things, asked "so-called friends…to imagine  the darkness that will fall from on high/when they will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die."

Anyhoo, Corgan is an interesting character and it's worth listening to his thoughts on rock/pop.

For those interested in the often-tormented relationship between rock music and Christian theology, make a point to read Peter Bagge's great 2002 cartoon essay on the matter.

And if you're in DC on Friday, September 13, come to Reason's HQ to have lunch with Bagge.

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    1. Damn, beat me to it.

    2. That just means the people who are doing it are no talent hacks. It doesn’t mean a better musician couldn’t do it better.

      1. King’s X, for example.

        Although they always tried to avoid the christian rock label, even though their music was carried by christian bookstores until the lead singer came out.

        1. squirrels ate this post. Now its here. But they now have eaten the post whining because they ate this post.

        2. Wow, I’ve been listening to King’s X since Out of the Silent Planet and I didn’t even know that Doug came out 15 years ago. Their music is great and they put on some rocking shows. I’ve seen them live 5 or 6 times in various bars as rock should be experienced.

          People making good music about whatever inspires them is great. People making a product to hit a particular market which is what most “Christian” rock music strikes me as being is fine, but it isn’t art.

          You don’t have to be a cannibalistic satanist to make great metal, sure it helps, but it certainly isn’t required.

          1. Ive seen them live once.

            Tried a second time but show got cancelled.

            1. I’ve seen them about three, four times. One funny incident: when they were singing “Goldilox” one time, Doug sang the line “…I’m not looking for a one night stand,” then grinned and nodded and silently mouthed “YES I AM”.

          2. Me, too. No idea – I just like they’re smokin’ guitars and the singer’s great voice.



            1. Really? “they’re” guitars = “their” guitars.

              Stupid brain

            2. X-ian….TOO BAD I CAN’T LISTEN TO THEM ANY MOAR….

              I know you are kidding and all, but when you have album titles like “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Faith Hope Love”, you arent being too subtle.

              Not to mention the lyrics to King.

              1. I don’t pay much attention to lyrics – I think the lonly ones I know the lyrics to are “Lost in Germany” and “Over My Head” (which kicks the most ass of all their songs)

                “She was singin’, singin’….
                Just like yesterday.”

                [MASSIVE POWER CHORD]


            Just saw this bouncing around youtube. “A Box” was already one of my favorites, but this version is amazing.

          4. People making a product to hit a particular market which is what most “Christian” rock music strikes me as being is fine, but it isn’t art.

            This. Same thing happens with ideology-driven art of any kind. You can’t make a good song/painting/movie/anything when you start from the agenda and then try to bang it into the art.

        3. I saw them open for AC/DC, which is kind of hilarious, a Christian band opening for a group that has an inflatable Satan.

          But the fascinating thing is somehow they managed to be louder than AC/DC

      2. David Eugene Edwards, of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, is Christian rock done right.

        1. Oh yeah, I forgot about 16 Horsepower. I loved them when I was listening to them 10 years ago.

        2. Many thumbs up. I’ll see him at Denver Riotfest in 2 weeks.

  1. They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
    That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
    But if I talk about God my record won’t get played Huh?

  2. He’s no Michael W. Smith.

  3. As a long believer that Nick doesn’t understand art, this post doesn’t surprise me. Religion, be it Christian Muslim or whatever, is probably the oldest and most fertile subject of great art. There is nothing special about rock and roll or popular music that would prevent it from being used to produce religious art. Soul music is nothing but secularized black gospel. We don’t produce good “Christian Rock” because as a society, we don’t produce good religious art period and haven’t for about 50 years or more now. If a talented enough artist decides to do so, we could again.

    Coregan is probably onto something. The well of using Rock as a way to shock people and be vulgar is pretty much tapped out. There is nothing shocking that can be done in rock and roll that hasn’t already been done. And every time someone tries to be shocking, the art just gets a little bit worse. Marlyn Manson was a lot worse than his artistic godfather Alice Cooper and so forth. Given that, there probably is some decent art to be made going the other way. If for no other reason that it would be so refreshing and different from what is being done. It is about due for the pendulum to swing back. So, it wouldn’t shock me at all if someone were able to make some good religious based music and sell some records doing it.

    1. So, it wouldn’t shock me at all if someone were able to make some good religious based music and sell some records doing it.

      Like Elvis did.

      1. Or U2 did. Or Aretha Franklin did. The world is ripe for something different. The idiotic idea that came out of the 1960s that art has to be dangerous to be good and worse still is good merely by being dangerous or offensive has to die.

      2. Or Clapton channeling Robert Johnson.

    2. You don’t fool me. You own at least one Stryper record, don’t you? Don’t lie.

      1. You got me Warty.

        1. Now I have that fucking song in my head. Curses! Hoist by my own petard!

      1. That is probably my favorite South Part episode ever. And the best part was that Cartman was right. If you are just a hack musician trying to make a living by any means you can, go into Christian rock. It is about the easiest buck there is to be made.

      2. “Sent down from heaven. The power and the glorah!”

        One of my all time favorite episodes.

        1. ” I wanna get down on my knees and start pleasing Jesus!

          I wanna feel his salvation all over my face!”

          1. Dammit!

          2. Whenever I see Jesus up on that cross, I can’t help but think that he looks kind of hot.

            1. “you’re once…twice…three times my Savior.”

          3. Makes me laugh every fucking time, even if I just read the line.

        2. “I want to get down on my knees and please Jesus”

    3. I agree with this, in general. I don’t think genres need to be attached to specific ideas, and a talented artist could certainly produce works that explore ideas not traditionally engaged by that genre.

      I say this as an agnostic who enjoys some religious art for its own sake, apart from any religious meaning.

      1. Great art is great art. You don’t have to be a Greek Pagan to appreciate the Acropolis or a Muslim to appreciate something like Grenada or the 1001 Arabian Nights.

        1. You don’t have to be a Greek Pagan to appreciate the Acropolis

          I find it helps tremendously.

        2. Nearly all of Bach’s work was reverential. But he also did secular works as well, including this edgy piece about a drug addict.

          1. Anyone who doesn’t think religious music can be brilliant hasn’t listened to The Sixteen. Listen to the Salve Regina or a Mass in Four Voices sometime.

        3. I totally agree. Even such overtly religious things as readings (chants? not sure what to call them) from the Qur’an can be quite beautiful, despite my lack of belief in any of it.

    4. “we don’t produce good religious art period and haven’t for about 50 years or more now.”

      The theme of Franky Schaeffer’s “Addicted to Mediocrity.”

      Having said that, I’d still say that some of Larry Norman’s stuff was every bit as edgy as non-Christian music (regardless of what you think of Norman himself).

      1. Norman was a flawed man but a great song writer. It’s a shame that he’s gone.

        I wonder if he was thinking of WARTY when he wrote:

        Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
        You drown your sorrows till you can’t get up,
        Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
        Why don’t you put the bottle back on she shelf,
        Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
        Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
        Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
        Gonorrhea on Valentines Day,
        And you’re still looking for the perfect lay,
        You think rock and roll will set you free,
        You’ll be deaf before your thirty three,
        Shooting junk till your half insane,
        Broken needle in your purple vein,

        Why don’t you look into Jesus, he’s got the answer.

        1. Yeah. And some of his “protest” stuff was every bit as acidic as the secular music. “Six O’Clock New” and “The Great American Novel,” for example:

          “Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence,
          You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?
          Well you try to make my way of life a little less like jail,
          If I promise to make tapes and slides and send them through the mail.”

          I saw him in concert a couple of times and it was always a great night.

          1. Both of those songs are awesome, and given our rapidly expanding surveillance state, the “Great American Novel” is still relevant even after about 40 years. I saw him twice, way back when Carter was sitting in the oval office in his stupid sweater and a couple of years before he died.

    5. I agree with pretty much everything you say.

      I’m glad you mentioned Marilyn Manson. He arrived on the scene just a hair late to be the shocker that he so wanted to be.

      You don’t get one of the finest Onion articles of all time written about you if you’re that shocking.…..-shoc,459/

      1. I agree with pretty much everything you say.

        With one caveat, the 70s had some pretty good Jesus-based mainstream rock.

        1. Norman Greenbaum man!!!

          And we have hit rock bottom with people trying to be shocking. The reason why people were so offended by Miley Cyrus is not because it was new or shocking. It is because she is a horrible artist. When you put the vulgar part with some decent art, the vulgarity is fun. When it is paired with such a no talent hack, the vulgarity really grates.

          As bad as Madonna was, Cyrus manages to have even less talent.

          1. “Spirit in the Sky” was in 1969.

            1. Close enough.

            2. Jesus is just alright with me.

              Jesus is just alright – oh yeah.

          2. “I’m supposed to be shocked and I’m supposed to be scandalized. Honey, I’m none of those. I and most of America are now officially bored. We are bored with people like you incessantly feeling the need to shock us squares.”

            Dennis Miller on Miley Cyrus

        2. “With one caveat, the 70s had some pretty good Jesus-based mainstream rock.”

          As did the 90’s

    6. “””As a long believer that Nick doesn’t understand art, this post doesn’t surprise me. Religion, be it Christian Muslim or whatever, is probably the oldest and most fertile subject of great art.”””

      Yeah, but “religion” ain’t what it used to be. Philosophical systems based on 2000 year old metaphysics fail modern artistic sensibilities, for obvious reasons. The language is outdated, as are the imagery, the ritual, etc. It’s been outdated for hundreds of years, but science has pushed the envelope more recently. The problem is most religious people don’t understand their own religion, and haven’t for a long time (if ever), so they get stuck on metaphors developed for different people in a different time, breaking those metaphors’ credibility. Or they mistake peripheral or contextual elements for the fundamental, because they don’t understand the fundamental themselves. Declarations against homosexuality may have made sense to iron age nomads for whom population was critical (or maybe it didn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter), but they have no place in a modern world. All of religion like that, it has to be understood in it’s context, like everything. But nobody even tries to understand it or cares about the context, so what’s the point? They think religion is intelligent design. Whatever. Either you get it or don’t, and most people don’t.

      1. As far as artistic value, art can’t move you if you don’t buy in, and only the most credulous can buy into what passes as religion these days. So it’s boring and empty.

        That being said, there’s a lot of religiousness in art. It just has nothing to do with the institutions or ideological structures most people associate with the word religion.

        1. As far as artistic value, art can’t move you if you don’t buy in

          So something like Rapheal or pretty much all of Baroque doesn’t move any one these days? Are you fucking kidding me?

          Rethink that and try again. That art moves people like modern art doesn’t. That is why it is still popular and known and appreciated by billions of people and nearly all of modern art is relegated to realm of irrelevant hipster snobbery.

          1. I think the fact that you have to appeal to timeless works of art strengthens my point, rather than refutes it. Also, I didn’t think we were discussing the relevant merit of modern art vs classic, I thought we were discussing why modern art is so hollow. That’s what I was trying to get at, at least.

            1. But if people couldn’t get the aesthetics of ancient religions, it wouldn’t still be popular. It still resonates.

          2. He very clearly said “these days”, John. Learn to read please.

      2. Philosophical systems based on 2000 year old metaphysics fail modern artistic sensibilities, for obvious reasons.

        Yeah, that is why no one likes Michelangelo’s Piata or Sistein Chappel anymore or listens to Bach. No one gets Christian art anymore or Jewish art for that matter. They just line up outside museums for hours and put seeing this or that piece of art on their bucket list out of some weird sense of duty or something.

        Just because they no longer make great art, doesn’t mean the great art that is there doesn’t appeal to them. If anything, great religious art is more widely popular today than when it was made in many ways.

        1. Sistein Chappel

          “The Jewish Dave Chappelle!”

          You’re thinking of the Sistine Chapel, John 🙂

          1. I know. I confuse that with the comedy show all of the time.

            Your being a pedantic prick Almanian!. 😉

  4. Jesus has no place in the Devil’s music.

    Well, maybe here

    and and here

    1. Rock and Roll is popular music like any other popular music. It can be done well about any subject or at any age. The idea that it is somehow restricted to being youthful and subversive to be any good is just bunk.

      1. The idea that it is somehow restricted to being youthful and subversive to be any good is just bunk.

        I don’t know who is arguing that other than your straw man. All I know is that I don’t listen to music so I can be preached at. If I want that I’ll call my mom.

        1. That is not a strawman. That is exactly what Nick argues in the article he links about Christian Rock being neither rather than just being bad music.

          And of course you don’t want to be preached at. No one does. That is why good art doesn’t do that. That is what makes it art. It is clever. Bad art is just preaching.

          1. And of course you don’t want to be preached at. No one does. That is why good art doesn’t do that. That is what makes it art. It is clever. Bad art is just preaching.

            tell that to all the worshipers of Shepard Fairey.

            1. Bad art can have fans too.

            2. tell that to all the worshipers of Shepard Fairey.

              The best selling painter of all time is Thomas Kinkade. BEHOLD HIS MASTERPIECE!

              Being terrible is not necessarily a barrier to success.

              1. Kinkade’s success is the reflection of the total failure of the contemporary art world. Kinkade sells because he is the only artist who respects his audience and tries to give them something they can understand and immediately relate to. Sure it is pretty lousy. But you can at least make sense of it and it appeals to some kind of aesthetic sensibility.

                The rest of modern art does none of that. It is all about telling the audience to take their aesthetic sensibilities and go fuck themselves. Only the cool can appreciate this.

                1. . Sure it is pretty lousy.

                  Not lousy. Just derivative. There’s not an original stroke on the canvas. But well executed, nonetheless.

            3. Mashing up Andre the Giant and They Live was neat and interesting. Living off that for 20 years was not.

              1. He has one move: Make art that looks like old time Soviet propaganda.

                Since a lot of Fairey’s work essentially is old time Soviet propaganda, this isn’t as ironic as Shepard Fairey thinks it is.

                1. That appears to be an AK with an AR front sight and handguard, with a Krinkov muzzle brake. What the fuck? I’m more taken aback by his laziness than his shitty opinion.

          2. You get really weird when it comes to Nick’s articles. I think you’ve got a man-crush on him. Seriously.

            1. And The Jacket claims another broken heart…

  5. One word and I bet it could send Epi into a psychotic rage:


    1. Damnit, I had actually managed to forget them. Seriously forgot them for at least 5 years, maybe more.

    2. I used to work with this redneck who, whenever that song would come on the radio would sing along in his best Creed voice, only he changed the lyrics to say “with leeeeegs wide open…”. And he’d slap you on the chest before he said it so to make sure you heard how funny he was.

    1. Jesus is just alright with me!
      Jesus is just alright, oh yeah!

  6. That’s true, though all pop music fans always do well to remember Bob Dylan’s absolutely awesome, fire-and-brimstone-huffing masterpiece, Slow Train Coming (1979)

    Will someone please wake me when the Boomer/Hipsters stop worshiping at the altar of this wildly overrated Idol?

    1. Let’s have a discussion about Dylan going electric!

      1. Only if it involves Dylan, his fans, a giant bathtub and a big-ass toaster.

        1. I say this as a Dylan fan, a whole lot of Dylan’s career has been him trolling his dimwitted boomer fans. He writes stream of consciousness lyrics that are not meant to mean really much of anything. But he does so knowing his boomer fans are going to project all of their hopes and dreams onto them.

          1. The Beatles did a similar thing. Also, people forget (or chose not to pay attention) but George Harrison spent a large part of his career exploring God.

            1. I saw interview one time with Harrison where he said one of the things that he liked most about the Beatles and frustrated him about their fans was how funny they were and how the fans consistently never got the jokes.

              1. Related sidenote: that “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit was such bullshit.

            2. Ripping off Motown songs counts as “exploring God”?

              1. Wow, talk about your serendipitous posting.

                Brett, are you serious right now? Why would George Harrison need to rip off Motown?

                1. Because he was a talented, but not super-creative guitarist.

                  1. Pfft. He wrote or co-wrote some of the greatest Beatles songs there are. The lawsuit was specious at best. “My Sweet Lord” doesn’t even sound remotely close to “He’s So Fine”.

                    1. What are you talking about? They line up measure for measure.

                    2. What are you talking about? They line up measure for measure.

                      You need to read up on this. That isn’t true:


                      both of the songs have a three-syllable title refrain (“My sweet Lord”, “He’s so fine”) followed by a 5-3-2 descent of the major scale in the tonic key (E major for “My Sweet Lord” and G major for “He’s So Fine”); respective tempos are similar: 121 and 145 beats per minute. In the respective B sections (“I really want to see you” and “I dunno how I’m gonna do it”), there is a similar ascent through 5-6-8, but the Chiffons distinctively retain the G tonic for four bars and, on the repeat of the motif, uniquely go to an A-note 9th embellishment over the first syllable of “gonna”.

                      Harrison, on the other hand, introduces the more complex harmony of a relative minor (C#m), as well as the fundamental and distinctly original slide-guitar motif.

                      Oh three-syllable title with differing tempos and different emphases in different places? Come on man.

                    3. I agree with Neoliberal. It doesn’t sound that close to “He’s So Fine”. And besides, if Motown wants to start suing for ripping off songs, there are a few 19th Century Gospel hymn composers who would like to have a word with them.

                    4. I mean, yeah, it’s totally plausible that George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Billy Ham and Ringo Starr all managed to miss what an “obvious” rip-off “My Sweet Lord” was.


                    5. You sound like Vanilla Ice defending his ripoff of Under Pressure. “Ours go duh-duh-duh-du-NA-nuh, there’s goes duh-DUH-duh-du-na-nuh.”

                    6. Totally possible. Just like they didn’t realize Come Together was a complete rip off of Mabeline and change the bass line as a result.

              2. Ripping off Motown songs counts as “exploring God”?

                What’s why I added “or chose not to pay attention”.

    2. Dylan saved the Galactica man! He rocks!

  7. Everyone who can should watch the video. Corgan is a smart guy.

    1. I think I’m going to utilize my time to do something other than watch a guy who praised Piers Morgan and his show.

  8. Just take any pop song, change “baby” to Jesus and you have a Xian Rock Hit

    1. Jesus, I’m gonna leave you.
      I’m leaving when the summer comes along.
      Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…

      1. “…but I killed my Jesus, with my switchblade knife.”

        Actually, I do kind of like the idea of switching “baby” for “Jesus” in some songs – makes them a lot more controversial.

  9. OT: But the new McDonalds “Mighty Wings” are fairly decent. I mean, not in a league with Popeye’s but better than McNuggets by a long shot.

  10. Corgan is an interesting character and it’s worth listening to his thoughts on rock/pop.

    I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

  11. An interesting trend I’ve noticed is more people getting into instrumental music or minimal lyrics, or songs where they don’t really matter. This is already seen this with the rise in electronica (dubstep, dance, etc) and industrial (see also the German bands). But aside from an increase in individually sold game music albums, there are many artists selling modern soundtrack and trailer type music which ranges the gamut of genres from orchestral to metal and electronic, to a fusion of them. This was impossible to find a couple years ago, only available through pirated songs online, as previously these were reserved only for licensing.

    1. A thing that sucks about that kind of music is that you can’t find it online by typing some of the lyrics into google, because there are no lyrics to type!

    2. The digital age has produced a great fracturing of music. There are so few big acts anymore because people have so many choices. They have fragmented down to their own little niches. I call that freedom and view it as a good thing.

      The only exception is hip hop. Hip hop fans are like cult members. A very large percentage of them listen to the same acts. And this is why such acts dominate the top 40 lists and have for years. It is the last genre of music where tastes are somewhat uniform.

    3. Yep, my favorite genre is some strange variant of ambient and downtempo electronica. I don’t think that would be accessible to me were it not for the internet.

  12. I suppose it depends on how one defines the terms, but the idea that Christian rock can’t be both is about as stupid as his list of up and coming libertarians.

  13. I’ve always thought Christian rockers would do well to follow Nick Cave, where his music is not exactly devotional, but it’s clearly informed by religion. And here’s a lecture he did on Christ.

    1. The problem is that Cave is a smart guy and produces music that makes you think a bit. That is great and all. But it is not really a ticket to top 40 success.

      1. Sure, but it’s the ticket to a lasting career. Another band that never made it big but has been around for years is Clutch, my favorite band in the world. They have plenty of the Bible in their lyrics, too.

        The rib of Adam, the eyes Of Eve
        The sons of cain receive no reprieve

        And I love the fact that Nick Cave’s one smash hit song was about him murdering Kylie Minogue by bashing her head in with a rock.

        1. I will have to look into Clutch. I have never heard them.

          1. They’re from Gaithersburg or some other town in suburban DC, and I think they all still live around there. You should make friends with them.

            1. I will look them up. Maybe they still play around here.

              1. Looks like they’re playing a festival for old people in Baltimore this Saturday.

                1. Damn. I have to work this weekend. And that is a festival for old people. NTTAWWT

    2. Nick Cave is pretty much one of a kind. I love the guy, but it’s sort of a niche style of music.

      He also is almost unbelievably talented. The guy has written great musical scores for movies, including the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition. He’s capable of writing music in pretty much any style. He’s written orchestral pieces, punk, gospel, folk, and…I don’t even know what to call this.

      I don’t think anyone can really follow his lead because there’s no one really like him.

      1. I’m not saying they should attempt to copy him, but rather that they’d do better making Christian art rather than preaching. But in any case, they’d do better becoming shitty copies of Nick Cave than doing what most Christian rockers do.

  14. One word: Creed.

    1. Exactly. That proves the point I was trying to make to John. Creed is what happens when modern people try pry meaning out of religion. Yuck.

  15. Matt the Electrician. “Black Blackness.”

  16. Interesting article. I get so tired of the same themes in rock over and over again. The sound is the most important thing, but bad or cliched lyrics will make me resent the song even if the tune is otherwise good.

    My favorite songs hint at deeper meaning than just the lame overdone romantic or sexual overtones.

    I think a great Christian rock band would do something like this (one of my favorite 80s songs)
    Second Skin by The Chameleons

    It’s meaningful without being sappy or overwrought. It’s subtle and has an interesting song structure.

    1. I forgot to mention, the song is supposedly about near death experiences.

  17. After Dan Peek left America, he began singing a new version of the band’s hit, “Lonely People,” which included this modified line:

    “Don’t give up until you
    Drink from the Silver Cup,
    And give your life to Jesus Christ.”

    With all due respect to the late and talented Mr. Peek — and admitting that the song still sounds good, despite the changes — this struck me as something that Eric Cartman might have done.

  18. Serpent Jesus
    Snake of Christ
    Nailed to a cross
    Of a holy design
    Blood to water
    Water to wine
    Whip the soul ’til a mother cries
    Bring it down, baby
    Pierce the side
    Start the legend with a funeral rite
    Serpent Jesus
    Snake of Christ
    Gonna build you
    A world of lies


  19. If anything, he should be thinking about the state of rock music in general.

    For all intents and purposes, it’s dead. When the best you can come up with is Nicelback and crap like Arcade Fire, well, time to put it down.

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