Little by little, I have come to a realization that (as a commentator on Youtube articulated it) “Holy shit, I think I’m a Miley Cyrus fan.” It’s been a long time coming, and certainly does not imply an interest in everything she’s ever done. But if you think this sounds absurd, click on this link, which is what put me decisively over the top into Team Miley—a cover of “Zombie” that is the complete antithesis of half-hearted or saccharine pop music, sung with amazing power and virtuosity.
Miley deserves a longer reflection than what follows, focused more on her key recent work including “Zombie.” However, since we are in the business of thinking about culture and sacred matters, let’s consider another recent song: a duet between Miley and her sister Noah, who is the songwriter.
It is called “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus.”
That sounds like a snarky or ironic joke, but as you will see if you click, I’m fairly sure it is not any more ironic than an average country song about Jesus—and I’m 99% sure we don’t necessarily have to read it as ironic at all.
It comes across as dead serious and sincere: I was in despair. I got high, not figuratively but literally. I had what I honestly felt was a conversation with Jesus. He told me—as a revelation, not a joke—that everything would be okay. I just need him in my heart, plus Tennessee whiskey and love. I believed him. I wrote this song about it. Period.
Miley and the Ironies of Country Music Spirituality
Obviously, this is supposed to be slightly provocative and is not designed to be sung by an average church choir. Yet I submit that, at those levels of irony, it is around par for the course in country music. (As social critique it is far stronger than average, addressing global warming and the loss of jobs to machines). For example, check out this recent hit, “Worship You.” (“Your kisses have a higher power…I want to glorify every part of you so bad.”) Over and over, country artists use a Christian vocabulary to express whatever they want to say, however pious or blasphemous. Sometimes it is playful banter like “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” or bad jokes like “Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life.” Sometimes it is playing gospel standards like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or “Amazing Grace” with vanishingly low interest in whether the performers or fractions of the audience have any piety worth mentioning, in whatever senses this may be relevant.
Often there are layers of irony within ironies. In Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” the protagonist, in retrospect, sings about his regret that he earlier had been proud to be a sinner instead of listening to his mother’s “Sunday learning.” Such neglect has landed him in prison. This seems to include some ironic defiance, tinged with masculine reprobate pride. Still, some listeners may assume that his regret is sincere… but then these same listeners may go on to cover “Mama Tried” intending an ironic joke about that… but then their listeners may take Merle’s mother’s advice (not the cover’s snarkiness) to heart… ad infinitum.
In another classic case, the Grateful Dead covered Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee…we like living right and being free”). Even if we leave the Dead out of it, Haggard supposedly composed this song while high. Also, the song overtly celebrates illegal moonshine.
Nevertheless, such songs do presuppose a recognizably Christian language and common sense, even if they imagine stretching it or rebelling against it—and of course a sizable fraction of the performers and audiences do presuppose sincere piety, even if they also worship hot sex with their partners inside or outside of church-sanctioned nuclear families. (On this latter front, Miley has been in a straight marriage—albeit during the most drug-addled stage of her life—but she is also outspoken about her gender-fluidity.)
In this context, there is not anything too remarkable about “I Got So High that I Saw Jesus,” even as country music. I watched Willie Nelson on a CNN special just last night, reminiscing about how he got busted the day before he performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House.
From Country to Pop and Rock: Miley and Our Common Wisdom About Secular Transgressive Rock Stars
In the case of Miley, we need to think not only about the “country” parts of her personae—and how this song works in relation to “normal” spiritual discourses there—but also about her work as a pop star and increasingly as a rocker. “I Got So High” is in continuity with her country roots, but while these are certainly not disavowed in her recent work, neither are they squarely at the center of it. Thus, we need to consider the song on deck today in relation to the wider emerging sound palette she is developing, which brings us into dialogue with a politics of memory leading to 1980s musicians like Joan Jett and Madonna. Although this deserves a separate article, we can at least notice a few of the threads to pick up later.
Miley is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, god-daughter of Dolly Parton, and excellent performer of Dolly’s anthem “Jolene.” To my mind, she looks like Dolly, somewhat motherly toward Noah, in the “I Got So High” performance.
But, in case anyone doesn’t already know this, it was Miley’s flamboyant break with being a child Disney star by performing sexed-up pop that brought her mass-market fame. One minor milestone on this path was performing “Doo It!” (“Yeah I smoke pot/yeah I love peace/but I don’t give a fuck/I ain’t no hippie!”) at the Grammy Awards with a stage full of dancers in drag. As I write, Miley is on the cover of Rolling Stone, talking about how she regrets that the music part of her art got lost amid the over-the-top theatricality of this stage, and also how she recommends being sober (although she may want to try ayahuasca again someday.)
I wholeheartedly concur with her comment about focusing on the music, and the main reason Miley caught my ear lately—leading me as a smallish part of the total package to “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus”—is for her choice of extremely interesting and proficient covers. It is fascinating to hear her blend her (mainly) pop and (partly) country voice with a reinvention of styles by pioneering female rockers like Joan Jett and Debbie Harry.
This is where the “Zombie” cover re-enters our discussion. She is bringing back some of the most innovative and commendable parts of the music scene from back in the 1980’s—a critical moment in music’s digestion of second-wave feminism. This was the era when Madonna, the leader among many others, was transforming our imagination of what feminist-inflected music could be.
Hardcore Sacred Matters readers probably know that this included pointed religious interventions, most famously “Like A Prayer,” which scrambled (or at least should have scrambled) the common wisdom that forces a false binary: “normal” sexually transgressive rock stardom versus musicians legible as thoughtful participants in wider conversations about who speaks for “the sacred.” This rough and ready binary screens out or distorts far too much: Madonna, Prince, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, the list goes on. But now Miley may come into this discussion too.
In Miley’s rethinking of these 1980s legacies—bundling Madonna, Joan Jett, and Dolly Parton, plus her own voice, into one original package—we have the advantage of Miley’s far superior vocal prowess, compared to Madonna’s, and a powerfully assertive rock sound palette. This doesn’t strike me like Lady Gaga’s “Madonna retread” stage which was OK but ultimately boring because it copied so much rather than innovating. (Later Gaga, for me, is a separate issue.) Recent Miley sounds to me much fresher—a sound that taps into memory while also pushing us forward. And she is still only 28 years old. It seems clear that she has something fresh and interesting to say, and will not be a one-hit-wonder pop star “aging out” of the industry before she finds her mature voice.
Miley as Pot-Smoking Crypto-Protestant Theologian
“I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” is a relatively minor song in relation to the “holy shit, I think I’ve become a Miley fan” train of thought I that pursued in the last section, which deserves a separate article.
However, the song does holds up on its own. And there is one thing about it that is noteworthy about its religious messaging within country music—its implicit theological understanding is hardcore Lutheran!
I suppose not too many readers want to get deep into theology—by which I mean reflexive intellectual focus on how best to think about what counts as sacred—and especially not to get lost in the weeds of debate about Martin Luther’s distinctive polemics within a range of Christian theologies.
But bear with me, it’s worth it. There is a broad distinction between Catholic and Protestant approaches to this. Catholics stress church institutions and rituals as boundary-enforcers and intermediaries—so if, for example, Miley and Noah wish to have a connection with Jesus, they should try confession in the Catholic church first and priest-administered sacraments second. Conversely, if they wanted to rebel against their religious formation and rethink it, their targets might center there. (We might follow this down a rabbit hole of comparing Miley to Madonna’s Catholic roots and their later mash-up with the New Age.)
On the other side, Protestant theologies stress how such mediations (especially if they are compromised in the ways Catholics and Baptists frequently are) get in the way of such connections. Luther articulated this as getting sidetracked by “works” whereas “grace” was the point, and variants of this same distinction loom also large in other world religious traditions.
In this regard, Miley and Noah’s song ratchets up Protestant sensibilities to an extreme.
Meanwhile, there is a wide continuum within the notoriously schism-prone Protestants. At one pole are people who stress how, in the terms of this song, “everything is gonna be OK” simply because that is what the universe (“God’s will”) is like at the root. That’s irrespective of anything that Miley and Noah, or Mitch McConnell, have done to mess things up or set things right.
The jargon terms here are “redemption” and “grace.” This theological camp adds that human nature is such that Miley et. al. are naturally prone to mess things up more, the harder they try, so they could not possibly attain a state of grace on their own.
This is classic Lutheran ideology. You get grace because Jesus says so, and because the importance of his life was to show us what the universe is like, period. That’s no matter how screwed up you are. In light of such grace, one would naturally expect a response along the lines of what Miley and Noah flag as “love”—and/or gratitude, compassion, Miley’s Happy Hippie Foundation, and so on. Yet, for classic Luther, such a response is somewhat optional, or at least secondary, and distinct from the “everything’s gonna be OK” part.
Recently I have argued that Kanye’s version of a Trumpian “I’ve got mine jack” prosperity gospel— for which he prepared a full-scale Christmas opera complete with the well-known Christmas angels proclaiming “peace of earth”—might think harder about showering grace indiscriminately on everyone, including King Herod and Trump. Kanye gives enough mixed messages about Herod (as well as the sexual politics of Christian rock) to make his Christmas pageant fascinating, but at the end of the day it was for me a failure. Let’s just say, for shorthand, that I wanted Kanye’s protagonists to chant down Babylon instead, then wait to celebrate Christmas peace until after Babylon had fallen.
This was not a hard-core Lutheran logic. For that we should leave the part of where the angels say “peace to all those with whom God is pleased” (not including Herod), or at least stipulate that this caveat is redundant because God is pleased with everyone.
Most country music religion assumes a different brand of Protestantism, that is considerably less Lutheran in this sense. It puts more stress on things you have to do: above all repent of your sins (often with hellfire as a threat), be “born-again,” and practice “good Christian behavior.” When Travis Tritt sang about rebelling against the “laws of the Bible Belt,” he presupposed something like this.
Even “Amazing Grace, that saved a wretch like me” is typically understood to be somewhat conditional on repenting and cleaning up your life. It would be objectively ironic to sing “Amazing Grace” if one had no intention of stopping one’s sinning—whether or not this consciously registered as ironic, given how much this song is taken for granted in country, like the wallpaper.
Don’t worry, I am aware that Lutheran practice is more than theology. It is also ritual and custom, so we can’t simply conflate it with pot-smoking mysticism. Nor should we fail to note that Miley and Noah can be read as “seekers” in a New Age vein, however much infected by country’s hegemonic spirituality. This leads to a good question for another day—how much of the “spiritual but not religious” discourse is implicitly reworking an underlying Protestant common sense?
Still … all good Lutherans know that Luther said, “While we sit and drink our beer, God makes his kingdom come.” Who would have thought that Miley Cyrus would become a standard-bearer for this understanding of “everything’s gonna be okay” for the new millennium?
Mark Hulsether recently retired from 27 years of teaching on religion, culture, and North American politics at the University of Tennessee. He is working on a book called Listening for More: Spirituality and Cultural Critique in American Popular Music and he blogs at https://marksbloggingexperiment.com/