The Record
3:39 am
Fri February 21, 2014

Hearing Devotion In Pop's Details

Originally published on Fri February 21, 2014 11:08 am

This week, the rock band Imagine Dragons set a record for the longest run on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart — 77 weeks, since it debuted in August of 2012.

In an interview with Billboard, Imagine Dragons' lead singer, Dan Reynolds, attributes the song's longevity to its mix of sounds from different genres, which helped it cross over to multiple radio formats. NPR Music's pop critic, Ann Powers, agrees with that analysis, but adds that she hears another theme running through the song's lyrics.

"It taps into one of rock's favorite subject areas, and that is religious or spiritual imagery," she tells Morning Edition's David Greene. "It's like an apocalyptic theme. It's end times. It's straight out of Revelation."

Those images might come from the fact that members of Imagine Dragons are practicing members of the Mormon church (though the band has described itself as secular), but religious music is in the very roots of rock 'n' roll. And it bursts to the surface every once in a while, as it did in the the choral introduction to The Rolling Stones' 1969 classic "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and Madonna's 1989 No. 1 single "Like A Prayer." Over that time, the sound of rock has also made its way into contemporary Christian music on the radio and in big, non-denominational churches.

"That's the power of pop music in America," Powers says. "It can absorb all of the most important influences in our lives. And certainly, for many, many people, spirituality [and] religion, specifically connected to Christian traditions, are important. It's hardly a new thing, but we always seem to crave it again."

If the lyrics of "Radioactive" connect with New Testament teachings, OneRepublic's "Counting Stars," currently lodged in the top 10, taps directly into the sound of gospel. The band's lead singer, the pop songwriter for hire Ryan Tedder, has written hits in a variety of genres, for singers like Adele, Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson. Tedder, who grew up religious, has said he didn't want to be known as just a Christian singer. But his latest hit makes the connection explicit, especially in the near the song's end, when a gospel chorus shouts a call-and-response with Tedder, and in the video, which features a revival service.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, the rock band Imagine Dragons set a pretty impressive record with this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIOACTIVE")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (singing) I'm waking up. I feel it in my bones...

The name of the song is "Radioactive" and if it sounds familiar there's a pretty good reason. It's been on the Billboard Hot 100, the top singles chart, for 77 weeks since first appearing way back in mid-2012. This is a record for the longest run of any song on the chart ever. NPR's music Ann Powers has been listening to this song alongside some others on the pop charts and she tells us she's noticed a theme.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Well, other critics have pointed out that "Radioactive" has the perfect sound to be a long-standing hit, but what I think is important is that it also taps into one of rock's favorite subject areas and that is religious or spiritual imagery and spirit. It's like an apocalyptic theme, right? It's end times. And that's straight out of Revelation.

GREENE: Nd you're saying this is not something new. I mean, this is a favorite of music to turn to Christian themes like this.

POWERS: Well, rock n' roll itself, like, soul music is rooted in gospel and religious music, but for a lot of 21st century bands, they're connected to or inspired by contemporary Christian music which, if you've been to a big church lately, a non-denominational church, you've probably heard rock music played. And a band like Imagine Dragons, their lead singer Dan Reynolds and their guitarist Wayne Sermon, are both practicing Mormons.

And though they call themselves a secular band you can really hear the influence of their religion. And that appeals to people because it's familiar to a lot of people, those religious or spiritual sentiments.

GREENE: Well, Ann, as you've been thinking about this, there's another song that you have brought to us and we want to queue it up here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTING STARS")

ONEREPUBLIC: (singing) Everything that kills me makes me feel alive...

GREENE: This is "Counting Stars" by OneRepublic, another huge hit on the charts right now. Why does that fit into the theme we're talking about?

POWERS: OneRepublic, and especially its leader, Ryan Tedder, have been a presence on the pop charts for quite a while. Ryan Tedder has written tons of songs you know, including Beyonce's "Halo," for example. But never has Ryan Tedder tapped so directly into the religious music tradition or specifically, in this case, gospel which you really start to hear in the song "Spring."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTING STARS")

ONEREPUBLIC: (singing) Take that money and watch it burn. Sing in the river the lessons I've learned. Take that money...

GREENE: You know, something I feel here, Ann, if you listen to these songs, it seems like for some people who might be religious, they might pick up on some of this and say, wow, there's a gospel feel to that. Wow, there's sort of a Christian message there. For other people, they might just hear this as good music. It really kind of hits different people in the audience differently.

POWERS: Well, that's the power of pop music in America. It can absorb all of the most important influences in our lives. And certainly, for many, many people, spirituality, religion, specifically connected to Christian traditions, are important. It's hardly a new thing, but we always seem to crave it again. And I know for me as a kid who was raised Catholic, it hits the right buttons.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR music pop critic Ann Powers. Always good to talk to you, Ann.

POWERS: Great to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTING STARS")

ONEREPUBLIC: (singing) Everything that drowns me makes me want to fly. Lately I've been, I've been losing sleep...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.