In the first of his new weekly column, NME's pop addict Douglas Greenwood considers whether, with Dua Lipa's streaming numbers going stratospheric and Ariana Grande slipping into God's shoes on her new track, are we cool to worship pop entities instead of religious ones now?
I realised pop music meant more to me than religion when I was six years old. By then, I had come to terms with the fact that listening to Steps’ rendition of ‘Better the Devil You Know’ in the car on the way to church was more spiritually invigorating than the 30 minutes spent mulling over what I now know was a load of shite at Sunday school. Proudly, I haven’t shifted my stance on that since.
So when Ariana Grande unveiled ‘God is a woman’ – the sophomore single from her hotly anticipated record ‘Sweetener’ – I can’t help but think 6-year-old me would’ve been both fascinated and horrified by one pop powerhouse’s attempt to toy with religion, in a way that only now they can get away with, swerving any backlash.
But why? On that track, she twists the Biblical narrative into something so salacious that the Christian church doesn’t know what the fuck to do with it, other than scream “blasphemy” in its general direction. ‘God is a woman’, a seductive, trap-tinged hit, focuses on Ariana’s ability to make a man fall at her feet, worshipping her like a deity “when all is said and done”. Read into the song’s lyrics, and you’ll find she’s claiming that her sexual power is so strong that it transforms her into the Supreme Being.
Nowadays, pop stars have an influence greater than God himself. The Church is no longer something to fear. It’s the kind of thing that might have caused an uproar back in the day, forcing more timid musicians to apologise, but every generation has had an unapologetic pop voice – all women, it should be noted – who’ve placed their artistic integrity over worshipping at the altar of old-fashioned institutions. Who could forget when Madonna transformed religious allegory into a sordid cultural masterpiece with ‘Like a Prayer’? Or when religious groups got pissy when Lady Gaga sang about being in love with ‘Judas’.
There’s something brilliant about the way pop’s women exert their sexuality onto the facade of religion, as if that extra forbidden layer being shattered strengthens their position of power in an industry that, while dominated by women, pits them against each other or treats them like meat in tabloid spheres. The byproduct of these risks is that, when the songs transcend controversy and go on to become pop cultural relics, they literally beat the oppression of religious institutions. Pop, once again, proving to be more powerful than God.
Right now, Ariana’s seemingly unstoppable rise to the top, with ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ still doing numbers streaming-wise, means she has the clout to pull off an audacious statement track like ‘God is a woman’. In anybody else’s hands, a song this glorious might have seemed crass and self-indulgent. After all, bangers like this are relics, and they only perform well when we truly believe the people behind them are objects of immaculate conception. In pop, that status is reserved for a select few – Beyonce and Rihanna are just two of them – but it seems like Ariana is quickly ascending into that untouchable top tier too.
Today, it’s estimated that 2.2 billion people around the world practice Christianity, but Dua Lipa’s streaming numbers have already eclipsed that. The church has their followers hooked on a backward and intensely problematic book tied to a divine creator that might not even exist. Dua? She’s defo real, and her stans are still streaming the absolute shit out of New Rules.
So if you had to choose between following God’s word or Dua’s in 2018, who would you side with? I know where my loyalties lie, and I reckon it’s not long before those invested in a different, less glamorous religious follow suit.