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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

WEEKENDER: Religion in cisgender women’s and gender minority music

A seemingly irreconcilable pair of ideas is beginning to define a whole section of indie music.

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Ethel Cain is pictured performing in Portland, Maine on Oct. 4.

“I’m not scared of god / I’m scared he was gone all along, rising alternative artist Ethel Cain sings on the title track of her 2021 EP “Inbred.” The critical and popular success of Cain’s recent debut album “Preacher’s Daughter” (2022) landed her song “American Teenager” a spot on Barack Obama’s 2022 playlist and cemented her as a rising star of the indie/alternative music scene.

But Hayden Anhedönia, who uses the stage name Ethel Cain, is only one singer within an increasingly popular phenomenon of cisgender women and gender minority artists producing music which deals directly and indirectly with themes of religious belief and trauma. They explore the manner in which Christianity specifically has influenced their lives and their music, with the result being something unexpected: The music resonates with a whole community of people whose relationships with their faith may not have always been easy.

On “Family Tree” from “Preacher’s Daughter,” Anhedönia opens the track with the line “These crosses all over my body / Remind me of who I used to be, in reference to the tattoos of crosses which feature prominently across her skin. Anhedönia was herself the child of a Baptist deacon in Florida. She often cites her experience in the church, especially her relationship to church music, as one of the main inspirations of her lyrics and production style.

There is a very real tension in Anhedönia’s music between the religious life she used to live and the manner in which she is now trying to reconcile her religion with being transgender in the face of the discrimination that religious communities often direct towards their LGBTQ+ members. In “Sun Bleached Flies,” also from “Preacher’s Daughter,” Anhedönia sings one of her most iconic lyrics: “What I wouldn’t give to be in church this Sunday / Listening to the choir, so heartfelt, all singing / God loves you, but not enough to save you. It’s in lyrics like these where Anhedönia gives her audience a real glimpse into the way in which religion has not only shaped her, but left her both stranded at times and embraced at others.

Perhaps the veritable queen of experimental alternative music with profound Christian themes is Lingua Ignota. Lingua Ignota, the stage name of musician Kristin Hayter, was a project which allowed Hayter to explore the very Biblical themes of vengeance, justice, sin and devotion, particularly as they related to her experiences of relationship trauma and abuse, and her struggle to reconcile God’s role in that abuse. In her 2017 album “All Bitches Die,” Hayter created a soundscape which was at times explosively apocalyptic and at others profoundly intimate. The 12 minute and 22 second title track is the album’s pinnacle. Hayter begins the song with the line, “Sinner, you’d better get ready” as she builds towards a proclamation of vengeance against her abuser: “You can’t run, I’ll find you / I’ll bind your feet to hell and drag you down.” Hayter takes ideas of Biblical vengeance and twists them against her abuser in a cataclysmic uproar against the injustice which allowed his actions.

Hayter emerged from this album into her third, “Caligula” (2019), where she continued to express her rage through cinematic pianos and heavy metal outbursts. In “FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST,” Hayter explores devotion and the idea that even Christ’s most faithful servant, bathed in “most glorious and holy light” must also “bow before unending night.”

But it is Hayter’s third album, and the last released under the name Lingua Ignota, which is truly the culmination of all of her previous works. Where rage drove her previous albums, now the anger is almost slaked. In this album, “Sinner Get Ready” (2021), she seems to realize that she is at once all powerful and yet still subject to harm that she cannot control. In one of her best songs, “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES,” Hayter demands that God kill her abuser, using “any of [His] heavenly means.” The song is a battle of control in her relationship with God and her conflicted emotions over God’s involvement in her suffering. The song ends on the line: “Glorious Father, intercede for me / If I cannot hide from you, neither can he.” Herein, she demands justice.

Hayter as Lingua Ignota has pushed the bounds of Christian imagery, pulling at the fabric of what we understand to be religious devotion and reclaiming it as her own. Artists like Lingua Ignota demonstrate that perhaps religious devotion, and perhaps Christianity, have a new audience and a new purpose in this age of music. Christianity is for Hayter both instrument and oppressor, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in “Sinner Get Ready” and its key tracks like “Repent Now Confess Now” and “Man Is Like A Spring Flower.”

There are other musicians who are part of this movement in a less sonically experimental way. Indie-rock artist and boygenius member Lucy Dacus has been open about her religious upbringing, and in her song “VBS” (2021) she talks about her experience at vacation bible school over the summer as she explores youth and romance. She sings of “a preacher in a T-shirt” who “taught [her] how to build a fire and to spread The Word.” As she explores how religion impacted her relationship with an early boyfriend there she sings, “You say that I showed you the light / But all it did in the end / Was make the dark feel darker than before.” Here, Dacus shows us a glimpse of her adolescence and reflects on the impact of religion on her childhood, and the gaps that it did not seem to fill in her and others.  

There is also a plethora of recent music which deals particularly with the occult and ideas of female sin. This is achieved by songs like Julia Romana’s “Moon” (2022), which centers on ritualized bathing in the moon, or “mary magdalene” (2019) by FKA Twigs which explores the idea of “A woman’s touch / A sacred geometry” and how she can “lift you higher / … do it like Mary Magdalene,” whom she describes as a “Creature of desire.”

Other works like Christine and the Queens’ recent album “Paranoïa, Angels, True Love” (2023) investigate the paths to divinity, through love, sin and pain in tracks like “I feel like an angel.” Religious imagery and references are prevalent across Yves Tumor’s “Praise A Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)” (2023), particularly in the closing track “Ebony Eye.” Florence and the Machine’s long history of religious and occult-inspired music, from “Which Witch” (2015) to “Girls Against God” (2022), is also a good example of religion’s place in cisgender women’s and gender minority music.

These are only a few artists, and only a handful of examples, but the stories and music they construct reveal that perhaps religion is not dead, but is rather a new form of inspiration as a new source of fear, love and devotion for a new generation of musicians who might have historically and currently suffered religious prejudices. While these artists and these songs explore their tumultuous relationships with their own faith — or just with the idea of faith in general — they are redefining the significance of that faith and demonstrating the manner in which traditionally oppressed groups can find religion, and combat it, on their own terms.