Guest Post by Lincoln Ballard: And Your Pope Can Sing

February 27, 2010 at 9:46 am

In case you missed it, the Vatican’s official literary organ, L’Osservatore Romano (The Roman Observer) recently published its choices for the ten best albums in pop music history, a self-described “modest guide [that] can point you on the road to good music.”  This latest offering continues a string of commentary by the Holy See’s newspaper on such pop culture phenomena as Harry Potter, the Twilight series, James Cameron’s Avatar, and The Simpsons. L’Osservatore Romano‘s sudden engagement with contemporary Western culture and its often polemical judgments in these editorials has sparked considerable debate, and while this top ten list seems designed to provoke further controversy – as such lists are prone to do (Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists of all time, anyone?) – this compilation of undisputed classics merely treads a safe middle ground.  Yet its inclusion does raise interesting questions about the motives of the newspaper’s editors and the values that they endorse.

Staff writers Guiseppe Fiorentino and Gaetano Vallini assembled the list of desert island discs, which they claimed provided an antidote for the “rigors of winter” as well as alternatives to the cloying, formulaic ditties slated for such perennial events as the Sanremo music festival in Liguria, Italy.  The approved albums span over thirty years and, in order of release, are as follows:

(1) The Beatles, Revolver (1966)

(2) David Crosby, If Only I Could Remember My Name (1971)

(3) Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

(4) Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1976)

(5) Donald Fagen, The Nightfly (1982)

(6) Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

(7) Paul Simon, Graceland (1986)

(8) U2, Achtung Baby (1991)

(9) Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (1995)

(10) Carlos Santana, Supernatural (1999)

What message(s) does such a list project, or intend to project, to the public about the reigning Papacy?  Are we supposed to envision His Eminence opting to sing along to his trusty iPod instead of diligently practicing his beloved Mozart at the piano?  Better still, who will heed the advice of this newspaper – whose relationship to the Vatican has been compared in the past to Pravda of the Soviet-era Kremlin – on which films to watch, books to read, or music to listen to?  Judging by the attention that L’Osservatore Romano has been generating, it turns out that quite a few readers are taking notice.

The newspaper’s revised focus in recent years reflects the appointment in October 2007 of church historian Gian Maria Vian as its editor-in-chief.  With newspapers quickly becoming an obsolete medium, Vian is determined to revitalize L’Osservatore Romano.  Indeed, with over 100 staff members on his payroll, a meager circulation of less than 100,000 copies, and an estimated deficit of 4.5 million Euros, Vian certainly has his work cut out for him.   Sensationalist journalism is one such tactic, and judging from the publicity that L’Osservatore Romano has attracted since Vian assumed leadership a few years ago, his approach appears to be working.  So too, these editorials seek to overturn public perception of the Vatican as out-of-touch with contemporary culture and society as well as renovate the tarnished image of the Catholic Church, which has absorbed major scandals in recent years.   Appealing to a younger readership seems to represent a step in the right direction.

However, such a vested interest in popular currents seems in conflict with the standards set forth by current Pope Benedict XVI Joseph Ratzinger, who in 1996 (then as Cardinal) declared rock music the “instrument of the devil” and contemporary pop culture a morass of depravity.  Consider L’Osservatore Romano’s dismissal of Avatar’s pantheism as “sentimental and facile, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist,” while Twilight amounted to a “moral vacuum with a deviant message.”  Last year, the newspaper praised Harry Potter for its depiction of the “eternal battle between good and evil,” overturning its decision from a year prior that J. K. Rowling’s writings promoted witchcraft and the occult, and contradicting Ratzinger’s condemnation of the series in 2003 as “subtle seductions [that] deeply distort Christianity in the soul.”  Considering Ratzinger’s stance, how did drug-addled soundtracks like Revolver or Dark Side make the cut?

It helps that several albums rank among the best sellers of all time, including Thriller (26 million copies), Rumours (18 million), and Dark Side (15 million).  Other selections feature all-star ensembles that arguably symbolize either an artistic communion (Graceland, If Only I Could Remember My Name) or utopian existence (Nightfly), while other acts received more explicit endorsements.  In a November 2008 article, Vallini hailed Bono as a “true crusader for Christianity,” while a November 2008 article recognized the White Album’s 40th anniversary by declaring the Fab Four as vastly more creative than the “standardized and stereotyped” bands of today.  Santana’s Supernatural proved that the Latin axe-slinger was “the only member of the Woodstock generation still at the top” (I guess Vian missed The Who’s rousing halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl).  The Gallagher brothers, those “enfants terribles of the working class,” gave the world a “jewel produced by torment” with Morning Glory, while more than one writer has raised eyebrows at the Vatican’s advocacy of Michael Jackson’s music.

Moreover, L’Osservatore Romano’s staff writers have also developed a knack for creating just enough ambiguity to allow the Pope to retain plausible deniability.  After panning Avatar for suggesting that the worship of nature can replace religion, Vatican Radio waffled by deeming the film a “rather harmless” portrayal beleaguered by “sappiness.”  Likewise, Fiorentino and Vallini qualified their top ten album list as only a “semi-serious” appraisal that was inevitably “partial.”  Robert Mickens, a Vatican correspondent for a Catholic weekly The Tablet, supported this view in his contention that “the topics [discussed in L’Osservatore Romano] hardly ever deal with Catholic doctrinal questions, so it was never considered a high-risk strategy.”  It seems as if the risks that Vian and his staff are calculated ones with big payoffs. Then again, maybe the albums on this top ten list are simply guilty pleasures without all of the heavy-handed social commentary.  Who’s to say?  Any deeper symbolism into this issue I happily leave for Dan Brown to unravel.

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