Hero Worship

I forget the number of times I've read and heard people—from adolescent misfits to suburban housewives to Reformed pastors—describe listening to Sigur Rós as a religious experience or as worshipful.

February 26 th 2010

Facebook groups:

  • "Sigur Rós is a gift from God!" (5 members)
  • "Listening To Sigur Rós Is Like Being Stabbed In the Heart By God, But In a Good Way" (14)
  • "If there was a God—he would listen to Sigur Rós!" (32)
  • "Sigur Rós is My Religion." (39)
  • "If God created a band, would it be Sigur Rós?" (62)
  • "If God made music, it would be called Sigur Rós" (907)
  • "And on the seventh day God listened to Sigur Rós" (2967)

If you're unfamiliar with Sigur Rós, I hope that, before reading on, you'll watch this (with headphones, ideally) as a primer. If you prefer just to read, then know the following: Sigur Rós is a band from Iceland. Imagine setting Iceland's landscape to music using a full orchestra, found percussion (stomped-on suitcases, for example) and guitars played with violin bows.

Now imagine a voice accompanying the music—a voice surprisingly clear and powerful, despite being absurdly high at times and in a language half invented and half Icelandic (though you wouldn't know the difference). Imagine layers of sound that make you wait as they carefully build, then punch through a wall before pulling back out so you can recover from the shock. Attempt to imagine an unimaginable marriage of complexity and minimalism. Music critics call it post-rock. This is Sigur Rós.

It's likely, though, that you know who Sigur Rós is, and you're not surprised by this list of Facebook groups devoted to the band. If you're a fan, you probably understand. I forget the number of times I've read and heard people—from adolescent misfits to suburban housewives to Reformed pastors—describe listening to Sigur Rós as a religious experience or as worshipful. I don't know if those people mean that the music itself is worshipful or that the experience they've had while listening to the music is like the feelings they've experienced when they've worshipped. Perhaps it's some combination of these factors. I'm not even sure what I mean when I say it—and I do.

I'm hesitant to discuss here the nature of true worship, partly due to the limits of my understanding and partly due to the limits of this essay. I can't and don't intend to argue whether the "worshipful" adjective can properly be applied to the music of Sigur Rós. In fact, I don't intend to discuss Sigur Rós at all; I mention them because I want to talk about their lead singer, Jónsi, and the album (Go) that he recorded under his own name. An album yet to be released. An album, save one track, I haven't heard.

How do you talk about something you haven't yet heard?

I've listened repeatedly to "Boy Lilikoi," the album's lone song that I have heard, which you can listen to on the website. Based on that one track, I'm confident that this will not be another Sigur Rós album, since Jónsi's bandmates aren't performing with him and he sings in English on this album (most of Sigur Rós's vocals are sung in Icelandic or "Hopelandic," a not-quite-language used primarily as another instrument).

But neither will it be substantially other than Sigur Rós. I can still barely make out what Jónsi is saying, and people will still claim to feel worshipful, and new Facebook pages will surely form for praise and devotion and interpretation and discussion.

We will discuss the meaning of the album's title, Go. We will analyze the song title "Boy Lilikoi," pointing out that a lilikoi is a passion fruit, and that the passion fruit is purported to have been named by Catholic missionaries, who allegorized its features. They will debate whether the song's embrace of childhood passion is useless nostalgia or inspirational reminder. There will be junk eschatology and impassioned, mix-tape proselytizing. Pastors will incorporate it into their liturgies. Evangelical bloggers will wonder why a gay, thirty-something pagan from Iceland is making more worship-worthy music than anyone in the church. Some will dance to it, some will cry during it, and some will tell everyone to pipe down, it's just music.

Some of this has already begun. Diverse communities are forming around the music. Devotees are predicting how the album will fare against their expectations. The textually inclined are right now arguing over what the lyrics are and what they mean. Some are already bemoaning the differences, pining nostalgically for the old ways and anticipating their return. Some hate that Jónsi sings in English, preferring impression over exposition. Praise, criticism and argument have begun, and this from a foretaste.

Some will take it too far. The self-professed "true fans" will alienate the casual fans for their lack of zeal. Some will listen when it pleases them. Some will turn out to have been right about some things. Some will prove to have been terribly wrong, but forgiven. A lot will have been oblivious to the raging debates and infighting. In the interim, though, this is what we do. This is how we talk about our hopes and fears. This is how we deal with shadows. This is how we wait.

Perhaps, then, this is worship.

Topics: Arts Religion
 

Jeremy Clive Huggins has a wife (Rachel), a son (Hiro), and a station wagon (Marcy). He likes movies, literary nonfiction, interior design, salvaging, and wordplay, but, to pay the bills, he teaches. He has adopted, as literary models, John McPhee, Thomas Lynch, and Walter Wangerin. He believes that Memphis is the BBQ capital of the world. Three of his heroes: Wade Bradshaw, Margie Haack, Will Shortz.

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