God's gift to music?

They're young, glamorous and hugely popular, but they have a dark secret: religion. Simmy Richman reports on the 'quietly Christian' pop stars

Anyone who believes the devil has all the best tunes hasn't listened closely enough to Marilyn Manson. The self-proclaimed "anti-Christ superstar" is, however, clearly quite at home in the world of rock'n'roll, while some of his more clean-cut colleagues are still having to hide their light under a bushel; even in these religiously polarised times, it seems proclaiming a love of God will be a detriment (rather than a divine gateway) to mainstream success.

Anyone who believes the devil has all the best tunes hasn't listened closely enough to Marilyn Manson. The self-proclaimed "anti-Christ superstar" is, however, clearly quite at home in the world of rock'n'roll, while some of his more clean-cut colleagues are still having to hide their light under a bushel; even in these religiously polarised times, it seems proclaiming a love of God will be a detriment (rather than a divine gateway) to mainstream success.

Take Daniel and Natasha Bedingfield. Committed churchgoers who once played at Christian-music festivals in a band called DNA Algorhythm, they are currently playing to devoted audiences around the country. While Natasha may well say a little prayer in her Liverpool dressing-room tonight, the closet is where her God will stay. Following in her brother's footsteps, Natasha rarely speaks about her faith in either interviews or lyrics. To the bemusement of some sections of the Christian-music community, the Bedingfields appear to have decided that belief is a private issue with little role to play in the art of selling records.

If you do want to search deeper for the "uplifting" and "inspirational" nature of Natasha's music, however, don't let her own enigmatic nature stop you. At Damaris, an international association committed to "building a global community of people who have a firm grasp of the Bible, a clear understanding of contemporary popular culture, and the ability to connect one to the other", there is the following "study paper" on Natasha's song, "Peace of Me": "This is the only song in which Natasha Bedingfield's faith can be seen, and even in this song it is not overt. She could be singing about God, but she could also be singing about a boyfriend. What did these lyrics mean to you?"

So, while her songs are vague enough to be open to interpretation, Natasha manages to keep the Bible belt tight while not alienating the pop mainstream. And when you consider what the editor of NME, Conor McNicholas, recently said on the subject, this appears to be a shrewd and strategic balancing act. "Religion," McNicholas proclaimed, "is the least rock'n'roll thing you can think of." It is also, he added, never going to be thought of as "cool". Which must be why current contenders for the Coldplay crown, Athlete, are also keeping quiet about their Christian-rock past. The group met at a religious-music festival called Greenbelt, but you will not have heard any mention of this while Athlete were promoting their current album, Tourist. It is this reticence for modern pop-makers to share their belief with the general public that has led people in their religious community to label them "quietly Christian". Clearly, the rules governing what can and can't be used as a marketing tool in today's pop world are complex and potentially confusing. So to help today's young music stars understand the potentially career-shaping laws of rock and religion, I thought I'd outline a few dos and don'ts.

If you want to thank Him, do it on the liner notes, not in the lyrics. For pop acts, lengthy letters to the highest, all-seeing, all-giving, without whom none of this would be possible, etc, are fine in the CD sleeve where they can be as lengthy and elaborate as you like. Start setting them to music, though, and you are heading straight for the niche "religious-music" market.

Second, pick your genre carefully. Commandment one becomes void within certain styles of music. As countless stars of soul and country have proved over the years, in some markets a church-going past will be a positive boon to mainstream success. Al Green, perhaps, best demonstrates how finding God and, indeed, singing about finding God can actually enhance your back-catalogue. After a life-changing incident involving boiling grits being poured over him by a former lover in the mid-1970s, Green entered the ministry. By 1976, he was an ordained pastor at his own church in Memphis, and his gospel-influenced recordings merely put a different spin on previous hits. Seen in the light of his spiritual rebirth, soul classics such as "Love and Happiness" and "Let's Stay Together" took on whole new layers of meaning.

Pick your religion carefully. Some genres and religions work better together than others. Islam and hip-hop, for example, have been bedfellows since 1982, when Chuck D enlisted members of the Nation of Islam for backing-vocal duties with his group Public Enemy. Likewise, a belief in Rastafarianism will prove no impediment whatsoever to a career in reggae music.

Pick your bandmates carefully, too. If you want religion to play any part in your band's growth, it helps if everybody is singing from the same hymn book. It can't have been easy for the non-believing bassist Adam Clayton when, in the early 1980s, three members of U2 (the Edge, Bono and the drummer Larry Mullen Jr) became involved with an American Christian group called Shalom, which encouraged them to give up the rock'n'roll lifestyle Clayton especially enjoyed. For the current indie faves Low, the religion of two of its members could also cause friction somewhere down the line: "If it got out we were Mormon," the singer Alan Sparhawk said recently, "it could be an issue." Not least for the non-Mormon bass-player Zak Sally.

Next, try not to confuse people. It will help the public to understand you if you keep the message consistent. Bob Dylan found this out to his cost when, in 1979, he wrote his "born again" album Slow Train Coming. Although the record was warmly received, the albums that followed it were short of divine inspiration, and it wasn't long before Dylan drifted back to writing "secular" songs. And while Sinead O'Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope on American television probably didn't help record sales, it was being ordained a minister in 1999 that finally convinced the record-buying public to be wary of her music. Thankfully, Madonna has yet to attempt to incorporate her love of Kabbalah into her songs - for the moment at least, papa's not the only one who doesn't preach.

Do feel free to bring in a gospel choir. Don't worry if your music has nothing to do with religion. If the chorus needs some extra oomph, cue the gospel singers. It has worked for everyone from the Stones ("You Can't Always Get What You Want") to Madness ("On the Wings of a Dove") to Blur ("Tender").

Of course, the normal rules are suspended at Christmas. During the season of goodwill, normal trading restrictions are lifted. But while committed Christians such as Cliff Richard may choose to croon about "children singing Christian rhyme", most acts are better served by keeping it "Christmassy" rather than "Christian". See: "Merry Christmas Everybody", "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?".

While you're praising your saviour, try not to ridicule other people's belief. Once The Beatles' records started being thrown on bonfires, even the rock rebel John Lennon waited less than two weeks to apologise for his 1966 claim that The Beatles were "bigger than Jesus". Again, the rules here will vary depending on which religion you choose to belong to. Since becoming a Sufi Muslim in 1975, the folkie Richard Thompson has consistently voiced contempt for all kinds of fundamentalism. This did not, however, prevent him from writing "The Outside of the Inside", a 2002 song that attempts to see things from a "Taliban point of view".

Artists short on lyrical inspiration should draw on any help they can get. From The Byrds' use of the Book of Ecclesiastes for "Turn, Turn, Turn" to Cat Stevens' lifting a hymn written by Eleanor Farjeon for "Morning Has Broken", if you're looking for words, religions are full of them.

Finally, do remember that, ultimately, the devil really does have better tunes. As Little Richard put it: "My true belief about rock'n'roll is this - I believe this kind of music is demonic... A lot of the beats in music today are taken from voodoo." He's right, of course, and while Little Richard is now born again, it's safe to assume that he has never been to Natasha Bedingfield concert.

Natasha Bedingfield plays the Royal Court, Liverpool (0151-709 4321) tonight and tours to 12 March

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