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Consumed With Hate: Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock 'N' Roll

⛪ He's the Son of the Original G...

The Crime: Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock 'N' Roll
The Guilty Party: Eric Holmberg
Overview: Real cultural anxieties are shoehorned into a fallacious critique of pop music and youth culture that fails spectacularly to understand either. 

Why I Hate It...

Just a heads up, this is another one where I get a little more open about my complicated history with religion. Albeit, it's a little kinder than my annual nativity post. And also, don't Google the epigraph from your work computer.

The economics of Christian pop art can get really weird. There's not usually enough demand to get placement in big box retail stores outside of very niche product lines like Precious Moments that have cross-over appeal. So you end up relying on Christian bookstores (what I referred to as "Christian propaganda and paraphernalia stores" when I was working for one--good lord, I had weird sense of humor even then) to push your wares. These are not high-trafficked stores, typically, and certainly not by young people, which creates something of a stained-glass ceiling in terms of profits. So you get creative. Sometimes hilariously creative. For example, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, considered by many to be the worst movie to ever be widely distributed, was funded by the Baptist Church in order to raise money for a series of films about the Disciples.

This is not relevant to the discussion, I just think it's really funny.

And sometimes you market yourself directly to youth pastors in the hopes that they'll share it with their church youth groups. And that's how I found myself spending several nights at a minister's house with my peers watching Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock 'N' Roll. This was a 1989 direct-to-video 3-hour (!) VHS set directed by, written by, produced by, and starring Eric Holmberg. His Reel to Real Ministries (which is a terrible name) production company made these "documentaries" which were distributed through a company call Art of the Covenant (which is a kind of awesome name?). And I want to draw attention to the scare quotes around "documentaries" because as an act of journalism, this is some shoddy workmanship. Seriously, people who accuse Michael Moore of playing fast-and-loose with the facts--and they're not wrong--need to check this guy out.

It's just a catalog of deceptive reasoning. We have nonsensical juxtapositions in editing that are trying to make arguments via the Kuleshov Effect. We have multiple instances of "scientific facts" that are "demonstrated" via time-lapse and editing, but they're not true. Rock music cannot hard boil an egg. Heavy metal does not kill plants. That's just lying. We also have the time-tested "I'm just asking questions" rhetoric. There's copious amounts of argumentation from authority--that is, secular proof-texting. Sources are not provided, although there's a big disclaimer at the beginning that a full list of sources can be requested via instructions in the credits. Quotes are pulled without context from un-named scientific papers, Jimi Hendrix, Vladimir Lenin, Plato, The National Review... just... whatever sounds compelling. It doesn't matter, you're not going to follow-up on any of it, and the filmmakers are counting on that.

Holmberg, sporting an excellent mullet, is pretty broad with what constitutes rock music, too. AC/DC, Judas Priest, sure. Madonna, Michael Jackson, also sure. If it looks bad, it counts. And since it looks bad, it must be bad. And since it is bad, it must be Satan. Why does Angus Young wear devil horns on stage? Because Satan. Why does Led Zeppelin have occult symbols in their album art? Satan. Why does Madonna sing about sex and materialism? Satan. Why does Michael Jackson grab his crotch so much?... Honestly, I might have to give them that one. Oh! And if there were any doubt, the coup de grâce is a whole segment on finding hidden messages by backmasking rock records. QED, drop the mic, case closed, apparently.

*Deep, beleaguered sigh.*

The reality is much more mundane. Pop art is messy, professional artists are very messy, and music as an artform is performative. Art frequently challenges you by being shocking, and sometimes artists are just into weird things. Jimmy Page was super into the Occult, especially the symbolism. Robert Plant was super into Lord of the Rings, which is why you get references to Ringwraiths in The Battle of Nevermore. Does that make Zoso Satanic or just really Catholic? The answer is neither--artists gonna art, that's all. Sometimes it's political. Madonna sang about sex because she was advocating sexual liberation. And also because it moved product--sometimes it's about Capitalism. Sometimes it's just the zeitgeist. Material Girl is about as pure of a cultural distillation of the peak-consumerist 80s as you'll ever find anywhere.

And sometimes it really is deliberate provocation. Thrash metal bands like to tap into Christian imagery because religious symbols are viscerally reactive, and also because Gothic art sensibilities are kind of badass. Also, "Christians" was a convenient proxy for all the things that youth culture was rebelling against in the 80s: conservative political philosophy, sexual repression, outdated attitudes about race and gender, and the horrible crime of being older than thirty. The hilarious thing is that none of it is explicitly about Satan, even the stuff that pretends to be explicitly about Satan. To take an extreme example, the Satanic Bible--which Holmberg quotes at length--was a joke, literally a dark parody of the Bible designed to criticize Christianity. Hell, Tom Araya of Slayer is a practicing Catholic, but the band he fronted still used Satanic imagery because it scared people.

What Holmberg fails to do is systematically build an argument by structuring facts into a cohesive narrative. The different threads of reasoning don't really have anything to do with each other or work towards a general thesis. It's just a string of things that Holmberg doesn't like, followed by the implicit or explicit claim that it's all evidence of demonic intervention. And, as his definition of "rock" is expansive, so also is his definition of what constitutes Satanism. George Harrison was outspokenly spiritual and practiced a form of Universalism. Prince was a devoted Jehovah's Witness, but he was also very sexual on stage. XTC's Dear God is a critique of Christianity a la "The Problem of Evil." Jimi Hendrix died of a drug overdose. The Bangles were horny. George Michael advocated monogamy because of the AIDS crisis--and not because it was morally upright. All of these fail to adhere to Holmberg's interpretation of the scriptures, so they all get lumped into Satanism.

Any time an artist uses metaphor to describe making an unspoken connection to their audience? Clearly, Satan. Any time an artist describes losing themselves in the music as "something else is taking control," that is an admission of being demonically possessed. Even if they don't explicitly say that! The film opens with John McVie walking around on stage during a Fleetwood Mac concert looking wild-eyed and asks the question: is it the music, or is it something more sinister? Clearly, we're meant to surmise that McVie has been possessed, but in all truth, it was something more sinister. If we're talking Fleetwood Mac in the 80s, then it's cocaine. It's not demons--not literal ones anyway--just cocaine. Mounds and mounds of it. And I'm only half joking here; they did a lot of drugs in that era.

But, the thing is, it's totally reasonable that a parent would find this objectionable in the media their children are consuming. The anxieties at the heart of this "documentary" are very real. Pop music in general, and rock and roll in particular, aren't exactly swimming in wholesomeness. And for all I'm willing to go to bat for artists' rights, let's also be very honest about the product that was being sold. A lot of the art in this era celebrated excess and championed behaviors--intentionally or not--that were self-destructive. A lot of artists were deliberately attacking religious institutions. And kids do sometimes fixate on these figures to an unhealthy degree; teens are rebellious and often prone to hero-worship. I totally get how someone with conservative values might feel threatened by all of this, or by the stuff that is more in line with their values because it's artistically challenging. Not everyone does a deep read on everything. Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 isn't anti-education so much as it's a condemnation of the way education was used to enforce conformity on lower-class Britons during the post-war era, but if all you clock is the opening line "We don't need no education," then it's hard to fault you for coming away with the wrong impression. The real problem here isn't that those anxieties are misguided or overwrought, it's that Eric Holmberg is tapping into them in order to push his flagrantly dishonest and dangerous agenda. One might even call it... evil.

Let me explain.

Remember up at the top where I stumbled onto this video? It was marketed to youth ministers. This not a video aimed at converting non-believers. The target audience is Christian teens, and the message is that all of pop culture is secretly trying to harm you. The point is to drive a wedge between Christian youths and their peers, and this is straight out of the authoritarian handbook. How do you control a population? By isolating them, and by convincing them that the rest of the world is out to get them. And this is not unique to Christianity or even to religion. This is evident in the border controls of North Korea and China, or the Cold War ideology of Russia--or, if we're being honest, the Cold War ideology of the US. But religions don't have the same kind of borders, so they get creative. Why do Mormon men go on a mission trip? Because spending two of your formative years having doors slammed in your face is a good way to learn that the world outside of your church will never accept you and reinforce the idea that if you ever have doubts about your faith, you will have no place to turn.

So things like this that are meant to sew division... it gets my hackles up. I remember in the 90s when the Southern Baptist Convention declared a boycott of Disney because one of their theme parks didn't actively discourage an unofficial "Gay Days" event. At least, that's the "official" reason. In reality, it helps build a wall between Christian youth and their peers. See also the religious backlash against Harry Potter that came some years later. But Holmberg goes an extra step. This film is meant to traumatize Christians. He mines the deepest, darkest depths of shock art for the most disturbing shit he can find and presents it as though it were being played on the muzak at the dentist's office. This litany of profane obscurity is juxtaposed alongside an apocryphal tale of John Lennon urinating on nuns--the man was outspokenly atheist and prone to drug use, but come on!--in order to falsely portray it all has having the same cultural weight. The Beatles and Venom might as well be the same band. It's all Satan all the way down, and listening to rock and roll will turn you into a hedonistic, suicidal, drug-addicted, serial murderer.

Fortunately, Holmberg's ploy did not work. There wasn't an entire cadre of 90s kids listening to classical, jazz, and Carman. Instead the early 90s saw a movement towards publishing Christian music as an alternative to... well... alternative rock. If you're going to have your brain hard-boiled, at least hard-boil it with a wholesome message, right? And it kind of exploded in 1995 when dc Talk's Jesus Freak came out and was actually a really solid rock record. But throughout the 90s and into the early 00s, there were lots Christian records being marketed to youth pastors and no small amount of Christian artists having mainstream hits--everyone from Amy Grant to Jars of Clay. There were also secular bands with Christian backgrounds and influences like Evanescence, Collective Soul, and (for better or worse) Creed. And when SoundScan was adopted to track point-of-sale music purchases, and the world learned very quickly that nobody really buys hair metal, but actually a lot of people buy country, it was validation that pop music with conservative and/or Christian values was not going to be leaving the mainstream any time soon.

But hey, if you have three hours to kill and want to experience "Loose Change, but for 80s music," I'm not gonna stop you.

Next week, we look at a truly terrible videogame adaptation of Ghostbusters...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.