This article originally appeared on pages 88-90 of the Spring 2023 issue of Coulture Magazine.
One thorough listen to Ethel Cain’s “Preacher’s Daughter” would be enough to convince anyone, regardless of adherence to ideology, of the extraordinary effects religion can have on one’s psyche, art and life. To borrow from writer Flannery O’Connor, the best term to describe the work is ‘Christ-haunted.’ Religion has been explored in music throughout history, but not so interestingly as women are doing now. In a time when artists have the ability and bravery to delve into how their religious upbringing and experiences have negatively influenced their identities, singers such as Cain weave stories of abuse, femininity and queerness into narratives marred with trauma and struggle. At the same time, others are striving to create spaces of grace and peace.
“Walk a mile on these coals, busy cleansing my soul. Getting ready for the night. Damned for eternity, but you’re coming with me. Into the afterlife (Wow, that’s hot)” – “This Hell” by Rina Sawayama
In her 2022 album, “Hold the Girl,” Rina Sawayama freely renounces her Christian upbringing while searching for forgiveness and acceptance. Similarly, Beyoncé’s collaboration with legendary gospel group The Clark Sisters on the song “Church Girl” for her album “Renaissance” emphasizes the empowerment of Black women both within and outside of the church. Women in music are beginning to explore their personal relationships with religion and identity, and they are unafraid to highlight the ugly aspects of this interaction. What makes this pattern of religious questioning so provocative is the wide range of creative purposes and emotions the music holds, sometimes within a single song or album.
“’Cause I’m losing my mind. Sometimes I blame you, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it flips so fast I don’t know. I’m looking for signs, for some kind of highway to letting it go, but forgiveness is a winding road.” – “Forgiveness” by Rina Sawayama
Sawayama’s journey through anger, defiance and repose on “Hold the Girl” recounts the singer’s Christian upbringing and subsequent struggle to reconcile with how her past interacts with her current identity. Reflections on the predatory nature a godlike figure can have in a young person’s mind transition to Sawayama’s proud acceptance of her queer identity in the face of a culture, family and religion that rejects her. In this case, the artist finds space to look for peace in songs like “Forgiveness,” where she subverts a core Christian value in her search for her own acceptance of her past. While Christianity preaches forgiveness of the sins of others, Sawayama is desperate to forgive the religion for the pain it has caused her. Ultimately, Sawayama’s story is one of individual triumph.
“And Jesus, if you’re there. Why do I feel alone in this room with you?” – “American Teenager” by Ethel Cain
“Preacher’s Daughter” is a sharp contrast to Sawayama’s happier ending. Cain’s conceptual album follows a girl through imperfect relationships, desperation and her own murder at the hands of someone she once loved. Whereas “Hold the Girl” overcomes the adverse impacts Sawayama’s religious past has had on her sense of self, Cain falls victim to them. Despite the abuse they inflict on her, the men in the character’s life take on a god status, until the ultimate betrayal leads to her death and what comes after.
“Baby, if it feels good then it can’t be bad. Where I can be immoral in a stranger’s lap” – “Gibson Girl” by Ethel Cain
As if taking on the unfiltered version of what it is to be a transgender woman in the Christian South was not enough, Cain weaves in themes of what femininity means in the context of being religious and queer. Exploring these ideas does little in her attempt to escape them, as the album’s closer, “Strangers,” paints a gruesome picture of the girl’s dead body in her former lover’s freezer. Despite the deterioration Cain sings about, “Preacher’s Daughter” is a revelation of how profoundly religion can penetrate one’s identity, with a shameless portrayal unlike much else that has tried to do the same.
“I’m warning everybody, soon as I get in this party. I’m gon’ let go of this body, I’m gonna love on me”. Nobody can judge me but me, I was born free” – “Church Girl” by Beyoncé
As a proud Christian, Beyoncé’s combination of femininity and religion takes a much different approach than Cain’s story of mistreatment and desperation. Among the no-skip album “Renaissance,” lies the track “Church Girl” which features a sample of the Clark Sisters’ “Center of Thy Will,” a 1981 gospel song that asks God to ground them in “thy holy will.” Beyoncé abandons this narrative immediately, letting the listener know that it’s okay to go to church while still owning your femininity.
The lyrics and the liberating tone of the song speak to the repression Black Christian women often face in their faith, expected to be demure and obedient to be closer to God. “Church Girl” is a celebration of freedom within religion, and Beyoncé acknowledges the challenges women must overcome in the church while instructing them on exactly what they need to do to break free. The song is purposefully bordering on ridiculous and nonsensical as Beyoncé encourages other Black women of faith to be as liberated as she is, without taking themselves too seriously.
With so many women in music feeling liberated in their art, these songs are only scratching the surface of the stories being told about religion and the way it plays into artists’ past and present. Narratives that have not previously been explored are being played out for audiences to hear, undoubtedly relating to many people who have not heard their experiences in lyrics before now. The struggles and celebrations of finding individuality within something as structured and historically oppressive as religion is a story all women need- and deserve- to hear.