Almost Heaven: Religion, Popular Music, and the Politics of Possibility

Thursday, September 16 at 1:00pm

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Virtual Event

Popular music is animated by religious citations both obvious and subtle. Secular and pious artists alike draw from scripture to craft their lyrics, album art, fashion, and public images. Sounds of pipe organs and gospel choirs fill concert halls as routinely as churches. Rituals of call-and-response and singing from a dais are staples of pop spectacle, and listeners rejoice in music that allows us momentarily to transcend our everyday lives. Yet, the political implications of this important relationship are difficult to grasp. In any instance, pop music religiosity signals a range of possibilities: a commodification of faith; a conservative return within the culture of permissive liberalism; a collapse of the distinction between the religious and the secular, suggesting a corresponding collapse of the separation of church and state; or an emancipatory resource to which people gravitate spontaneously in their longing for another world.

In recent years, the connection between pop music and religion has become an intensified site of creativity and experimentation. From #BeyoncéMass to Amenra’s Mass albums, from Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” to the global sensation of Master KC’s “Jerusalema,” from Pussy Riot protesting on the stage of Moscow’s largest church to Justin Bieber sharing the Staples Center stage with his pastor, this experimentation crosses musical genres and national borders. How should we understand the political potential of this broad area of intervention? Panelists analyze relevant events, objects, and patterns for their peril and their promise.  

  • KATHRYN LOFTON is the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Professor of History and Divinity at Yale University, where she currently serves as Dean of Humanities. A historian of religions, she is the author of two books, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) and Consuming Religion (2017), and one co-edited (with Laurie Maffly-Kipp) collection, Women’s Work: An Anthology of African-American Women’s Historical Writings (2010).  
  • ANGELA M. NELSON is Associate Professor in the Department of Popular Culture and Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University. She has published extensively on 20th and 21st century African American popular culture and is the editor of several books and special issues, including “Black Popular Culture,” Popular Culture Studies Journal (2020), “Religions in African American Popular Culture” Religions (2019), and “This Is How We Flow”: Rhythm in Black Cultures (1999).  
  • CLARE O'CONNOR is a PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation research is situated at the intersection of popular music, religion, and political consciousness. Her publications include the co-edited collections Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (AK Press, 2016) and “Unsettled Debts: 1968 and the Problem of Historical Memory,” a special issue of the International Journal of Communication (forthcoming 2022).  
  • VARUN SONI (Chair) is the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, where he is also Vice Provost of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention, Adjunct Professor of Religion, and University Fellow at the Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy. He is the author of Natural Mystics: The Prophetic Lives of Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Figueroa Press, 2014) and he contributed to the edited volumes My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis Books, 2012), Peyote: History, Tradition, and Conservation (Praeger, 2016) and Words to Live by: Sacred Sources for Interreligious Engagement (Orbis Books, 2018).  

This event is generously co-sponsored by the Levan Institute for the Humanities, the USC School of Communication, and the USC School of Religion. RSVP for Zoom link. 

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Conference/Symposia, Arts, Lecture / Talk / Workshop, Event Highlights


Students, Faculty/Staff


University Park Campus




Campus Humanities
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