Satan Sounds

The Ontology and Efficacy of the Sonic in Evangelical Anti-Rock Literature


  • Philip Bixby Yale University


In 1985, the United States Senate held a hearing to discuss the potentially deleterious effects of the decade’s most popular rock songs. The hearing was convened at the behest of the Parents’ Music Resource Center, an organization that sought to affix “parental advisory” labels to offensive albums. Over the course of five hours, the committee heard testimony from members of the PMRC and other sources. The PMRC’s discursive position was clear from its testimonies: because rock lyrics discussed violence, sex, and drugs, they encouraged children to engage in these activities. Therefore, parents needed to be warned about these explicit messages before allowing their children to purchase these records.

                Any deliberation on the sound of rock is conspicuously absent from this official congressional discussion. However, the contemporaneous discourse of evangelical Christians concerned itself with the music’s sonic qualities in addition to its lyrical content. Evangelical anti-rock literature from the 1980s critiqued rock’s uniquely sonic dimensions and described how those sounds could adversely affect the physical, psychological, and spiritual condition of human beings.

Through an analysis of several anti-rock texts, I argue that while both secular and religious criticisms of rock attack the genre’s lyrics for promoting immoral messages, the evangelical Christian discourse tends to implicate the sound of the music as a message in itself, investing sound with the capacity to convey negative spiritual forces and to traverse the boundary between the physical and the spiritual. Sound possesses a dual ontology in this literature, as a simultaneously physical and spiritual medium.