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School Of Communications

Finding Spiritual Meaning in Popular Music: Winter 2024 Beckham Lecture

School of Communications Professors Quint Randle and Steve Thomsen Discuss Religious Themes in Music by The Killers

How can popular music have a spiritual impact on audiences? Professors from the School of Communications, Quint Randle and Steve Thomsen, aimed to answer this question during the winter 2024 Beckham Lecture.

Randle and Thomsen have been conducting research for several years regarding “secular hymns” which the pair defines as “a form of pop music that is not intended by its creators to have religious meaning but is nonetheless interpreted and used that way by certain audiences.”

“There is something more going on here than just churches playing popular music,” said Randle. “There’s something deeper going on with this target audience.”

From Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” secular hymns have the ability to reach not only the ears but the hearts of audiences both religious and non-religious. “It is a part of our human nature to seek the numinous,” said Thomsen. He later defined numinous as “an aspect of the state of being that parallels a spiritual state of mind.”

During their research, Randle and Thomsen found that a particular band, The Killers, stood out among others writers of secular hymns.

The Killers, famous for their hit song “Mr. Brightside,” are led by singer songwriter Brandon Flowers who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the genre of the band strays from the typical spiritual or religious sound, redemption is a common theme found in their music.

“Many of the protagonists in the lyrics of Flower’s songs, because of the challenges they face in their journeys, are seeking ontological security or redemption,” said Thomsen. “One of the appeals of Flower’s lyrics is the progress of both secular and spiritual redemption.”

Randle and Thomsen closed the lecture with an in-depth metaphorical analysis of the band’s 2021 album “Pressure Machine.” This analysis opened the audience’s eyes to the deeper meaning found within the album: redemption and the hero’s journey.

“The album serves as a thought provoking exploration of the intersections between religion, culture and personal choice in the pursuit of deliverance in a small town,” said Randle. “[Thomsen] and I hope we’ve all learned something from this lecture about our own lives and the choices we make along our own hero's journey.”