1998. A man in black walks along a dark street on the outskirts of a metropolis. The spotlight follows him. He stops and recites a mantra, over a steady house beat:
This is my church,
This is where I heal my hurts.
It’s in natural grace,
Or watching young life shape.
It’s in minor keys,
Solutions and remedies,
Enemies becoming friends,
When bitterness ends.
This is my church.
The monochrome cityscape falls away to a Technicolor crowd of hundreds, hands outstretched, jumping and clapping to the same steady rhythm. He repeats the mantra and then the final word: For tonight / God is a DJ. The crowd thumps along. This is my church.
2003. Pink, styled as a glam-rock blonde Bowie, turns Faithless’s recitation into a conditional: “If God is a DJ, / Life is a dance floor, / Love is a rhythm, / You are the music.” Pink has described herself as an “Irish-German-Lithuanian-Jew,” professing a fondness for “Native American spirituality” and an aversion to “organized religion.” Here, however, she saves herself from sacrilege with a supposition: if.
If, indeed, as Pink says, “God wants you to shake your ass,” the dance floor must be the house of worship. God is a DJ, the church is a dance floor, that dance floor is life. Church is life.
This is profane. And yet, churches of all kinds have been the gateway to sinful music since the dawn of religion. Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, Lou Rawls, Diana Ross, Jessica Simpson, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Faith Evans, Kristin Chenoweth, Beyoncé, Ethel Merman, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake: all of them started in the church, in choir, on keyboard, as a soloist, each in their own way. All have been touched by the sacred. But few chose to stay when it came time to decide how to bring their voices forth into the world. How much and in what ways the church—as a physical place, as a memory, as a method—shaped their sound we may never know for sure, but if you listen carefully you can hear it. All good secularisms hold a bit of the sacred inside. And sometimes the sacred breaks free.