Discover more from Transcendent Mixtapes
Transcendent Mixtapes launches today! Welcome (& what even is a Transcendent Mixtape, anyway?)
Our tentative first steps together...
Hey, y’all! So, a bunch of new folks signed up over the last week for this long overdue newsletter (thank you!) and received a welcome email. Reviewing said email last week, I realized it was just a tad outdated, stating that Transcendent Mixtapes would launch in January 2023. Well, here we are in May 2023, and not a single issue has gone out yet. So, that’s a bit embarrassing. Not that you all have been anxiously waiting or something, but still…
Anyway, my minor embarrassment has, thankfully, lit the necessary motivational fire to get this long-dreamt-of project off the ground. So, without further ado…
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As my outdated welcome email already mentioned, I’m Ben. I’m currently working on an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Art and Theology at St. Mary’s College of Divinity, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. My project is built around “close reading” (which, in this case, primarily involves listening to) the work of the Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave. In an extraordinarily diverse career as a songwriter, performer, writer, and visual artist, where Cave’s art and life have often pushed well past the bounds of what might be called social acceptability, I’m arguing that the surprising unifying thread for understanding Cave’s work is a consistent and at times brutally honest theological wrestling—in clear continuity with the Judeo-Christian tradition—with human suffering and what it communicates about the character of God, the character of humankind, and the relationship between the two.
This admittedly niche research project does hint some at what you can expect from Transcendent Mixtapes, inasmuch as it reflects my fascination with the liminal spaces in contemporary culture where borders between “common sense” dichotomies (“the secular” and “the religious”; “the sacred” and “the profane”; “high” and “low” art; etc.) blur. But what I’m getting after here is broader. Let me explain a bit…
Why “Transcendent Mixtapes”?
On the 28th of April, 2021, BBC 6 Radio broadcast the third in a series of six “Artist in Residence” radio programmes presented and curated by avant-garde pop artist Annie Clark—better known by her stage name, St. Vincent. These programs were presented as thematic mixtapes of sorts, accompanied by Clark’s commentary on her selections, constructed around delightfully idiosyncratic themes like “Music that reminds me of circles, squares, & triangles” and “Music I would actually dance to at a party.” This third episode in the series, simply titled “My Transcendent Mixtape”, Clark described as “all about music that makes me feel, very briefly, like an interventionist God might possibly exist.”Populated with songs by artists as stylistically diverse as Joni Mitchell, Claude Debussy, Talk Talk, John Coltrane, and Talking Heads, Clark’s reflections throughout the program used these pieces as jumping-off points to explore experiences with art that seem to carry a certain charge—an intensity of beauty or emotion that “speaks to the depth of the human experience of all the joy, and all the sorrow, and all the pain, all in one.”
Clark’s mixtape bears witness to a phenomenon common enough to be the subject of significant—and at times contentious—conversation in the world of Christian theology, philosophy, and the arts. In the academy, it’s a widely accepted truism that the contemporary world has, for some time now, been thoroughly “disenchanted,” finally allowing the Western mind to throw off the shackles of some imagined God and experience the true freedom of human responsibility and ingenuity. And yet… it remains common for purportedly secular, “disenchanted” people like Clark, with little or no conventional religious faith, yet to attest to something like an epiphanic experience of the sacred in engagement with works of art. THIS is exactly what I mean to explore with Transcendent Mixtapes, in the context of my own lifelong obsession with pop music.
At the risk of straining a metaphor, this newsletter is my own attempt at crafting “Transcendent Mixtapes”. Or—perhaps better—mixtapes on and of transcendence… exploring what might be happening when a song catches us up in something that feels like an epiphany, a coming into view of a more-than-human depth undergirding our normal human lives.
As someone who came of age in the 1990s—before the era of algorithmically curated personal playlists on streaming services, when one of the primary ways we discovered the music that would help us make sense of the world was through personal recommendations from trusted listeners like ourselves—I would humbly submit that the expertly crafted mixtape is an art form in itself. At its most basic level, a mixtape is a curated group of songs, typically organized around a particular theme. At its most elevated, the compilation is built and organised in such a way as to allow a plurality of voices to hold a musical conversation—a conversation that, in its structure and flow, actually acts as its own contribution to the conversation it enables. Further, if a true master is crafting the mixtape, they may even find ways to create elaborate transitions from song to song; highlighting the porous boundaries between these different ways of musically “wording” the theme; uniting the diverse particulars of each individual element into a cohesive whole, as if by some strange alchemy. In bringing these disparate—sometimes even contradictory—voices together, the curator might illuminate the complexities of their chosen theme in ways that no single song, musician, or group could when considered in isolation. This may provide the listener with a moment of epiphany, a deeper understanding that moves them to a new way of seeing—and perhaps a new way of being in the world.
I make no claims to mastery of the form. Still, my approach to this newsletter—as you’ve undoubtedly gathered already, clever reader—will attempt to conjure some of the magic of this lately neglected format. To a certain extent, I will be figuring this out as I go along, but the basic premise is this: I’ll be building you mixtapes, song-by-song, over the course of each published newsletter. Each song will be paired with an extended essay—a sort of “close reading” of my selections, teasing out their significance and, over time, bringing the songs into conversation with one another. Think of me as your personal curator. I can’t promise you’ll love EVERY song I choose, but I hope I can help you appreciate their richness. But even more than that, I hope that some of them might become for you the kind of gift that they have been to me, drawing me into the beauty, mystery, and ultimate meaning of life.
A final note and the plan.
The tagline description that I wrote for this newsletter months ago when I first dreamt it up and secured my Substack page was “an unreliably regular newsletter about pop music and glimpsing God in the everyday.” As a Christian and cultural theologian, I am operating under the assumption that the experiences I’ve stumblingly attempted to describe above—born out of the humble and ordinary experience of listening closely to music—point beyond themselves, providing us a true glimpse, even if “as through a glass darkly”, of God, the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth. I will have lots more to say about this, but I hope that even if you find that suggestion ludicrous you’ll stick around for a bit, and as George Michael wisely suggested, listen without prejudice. If you’re a music lover, I will do my best to make it worth your while.
My goal/intent is to publish roughly fortnightly (every other Friday), but I’m a married father of two with a Ph.D. thesis to write, so there will be times when that pace might ebb and flow a little—thus the unreliably regular newsletter bit. I’ll keep you updated if things are going to be knocked off schedule for any significant amount of time.
So buckle in. I’m glad you are here.
See you in 2 weeks for the first song of “Transcendent Mixtapes, Vol. 1”.
These fantastic programs are, sadly, no longer available for listening at the BBC 6 radio website. Clark’s reference to “an interventionist God” who “might possibly exist” is itself a call out to Nick Cave’s song “Into My Arms”, which he famously begins with the line “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”, before spending the rest of the song seriously complicating his own claim to disbelief. Another Cave tune, “Bright Horses”, was featured on Clark’s Transcendent Mixtape, and, as the subject of my current PhD research, he will undoubtedly be making regular appearances here as well. ‘Vol. 3: My Transcendent Mixtape’, 6 Music Artist in Residence - St. Vincent (London: BBC Radio 6, 28 April 2021), https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000vhry.
I’m working with the widest possible definition of pop music here, having nothing to do with genre. Basically, if it was made with a primary audience OTHER than the concert hall in mind, it counts.
I am DEAD serious when I tell you a good mixtape can change your life. If this is not a phenomenon you have experienced… well, I’m a little bit heartbroken for you. 💔😢 While I no longer have the means to make them myself, and you likely don’t have the means to listen to them even if I did, I hope this newsletter might—in some small way—approximate the experience for you.
I appreciate that calling myself a “cultural theologian” may all sound just a little bit grand, but all I really mean is that I spend a lot of time thinking about contemporary Western culture in relation to the fundamental claims of the Christian tradition about the meaning of existence and the nature of reality. Again…much more will be said about this as our time together unfolds.
Why, yes… you can expect the occasional bad music pun/dad joke from your devoted personal curator here at Transcendent Mixtapes. Here I stand. I can do no other.
Also… “Freedom! ‘90” is simply an all-time jam.