God is tough to find in popular music these days.
Religion writer Joe Carter went looking recently and found that among the five dozen songs that topped Billboard's pop charts in 2010, there was nothing centered on God and family.
"While there are a few 'daddies,' they aren't referring to fathers," writes Carter in a February 2011 article on FirstThings.com."
He found similar results on the R&B/hip-hop chart, though the final song on the top 60 was called "God in Me," by the gospel group Mary Mary.
It was more of the same on the adult contemporary charts. Of the top 60 songs in 2010, not one verse included a reference to mother, father, child or marriage, much less a line about Christian deity.
"If you judge contemporary music by this genre, you might soundly conclude that contemporary adult life has no place for such trivialities," Carter writes with obvious sarcasm.
There is one chart, however, where such themes are prevalent. Carter notes that among the top 60 country songs, 23 include at least one theme of family, faith and God.
"And yet, the music world still considers it peculiar," Carter writes. "The willingness of country musicians to talk about God, family and other topics counted among the most important in people's lives is considered aberrant. Compared to other pop music genres, this strain of country is definitely eccentric."
But beyond the "music world," is country music more in step with traditional American values?
It's certainly not a holy genre. There is plenty of debauchery to be found, and the stereotypes about drinking and cheating are all too often accurate. But as Carter's analysis of the charts indicates, country musicians and fans are at ease with themes of family and faith. In fact, some consider that one of the genre's strongest pulls — especially in a society where there is a disconnect between popular culture and traditional values.
"What's interesting, a lot of people listen to country music but aren't a real country music fan, but it's so big in urban areas because it deals with issues," Carter said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I think they are attracted to that kind of music because it reflects their values, reflecting what's in the streets and in people's lives. But they see a different message in the media every day."
"Sing a song about the heartland. Sing a song about my life." — George Strait, "Heartland"
Salt Lake City native Anna Kaelin, who is living in Nashville and pursuing a country music career, appreciates the genuine nature of the genre.
"The thing I like about country is that it's people's music," Kaelin said. "As a part of people's lives, I feel it views life in a real way."
It can also be very raw. With all the realities of everyday life, it's hard to expect the genre to be clean across the charts, Kaelin says.
Alcohol use and sex are common themes. Luke Bryan's song "Rain is a Good Thing," which came in at No. 2 on the 2010 chart Carter analyzed, is one particular example.
But for country musicians and listeners, God is often a part of life, too.
"Country music often has that play-hard, pray-hard sort of mentality," said Carmen Rasmusen Herbert, a former "American Idol" contestant, Utah resident and columnist for the Deseret News. "It's about partying on Friday and Saturday night, drinking or looking at girls in tight jeans, all the honky-tonk, but still going to church on Sunday and pounding the Bible. They'll still acknowledge God and providence."
Mark Wills, a country artist with 16 top-40 hits, says the real-life focus of country music provides ground for spiritual themes.
"In everyday-based music with real people, it will involve faith in God," said Wills, whose latest single "Looking for America" speaks openly about the need for churches and seeking for truth. "It is who we are and what's important."
Wills says he isn't out to "preach to people on stage," because that's not what the audience paid to hear. But he will share his feelings about faith when asked.
At the 2010 Country Music Association awards, Miranda Lambert talked about how she needed "to go to church" after accepting the award for best female vocalist. Herbert remembers how Carrie Underwood receiving a standing ovation after performing "How Great Thou Art" at the 2010 Stadium of Fire.
Faith and family is just part of the country music culture, Herbert says.
"A country music audience is the Bible-pounding, drinking-your-iced-tea-and-lemonade-on-the-porch-type audience," she said. "So they feel comfortable singing about God, country, raising your family."
Carter, a Baptist who writes for First Things, a blog published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, writes about one song in particular, Chris Young's "The Man I Want to Be."
"While I've probably heard the song a hundred times, it only occurred to me recently that it might be considered 'religious,' " Carter writes. "Instead, it just seems, well, normal. Most men I know can relate to the desire to be a more godly man and to be a better man for the woman in their life. Considering that we live in a country in which 80 million men identify as Christians, it shouldn't be surprising to find that many can appreciate the sentiments expressed in this song and others like it."
Carter also addresses the disconnect between traditional values and pop music, which he suggests is even more disengaged than other forms of pop-culture media. Families are still a prominent fixture in both film and television, but not in most pop music.
"There are, of course, endless references to the union of bodies in sexual intercourse, though not a single mention of the union of souls in marriage," he writes. "In pop songs, sex never leads to babies or matrimony."
The messages of musicians such as Lady Gaga have more power and impact than a discussion in Congress, Carter says.
"Culture, not laws, makes the greatest impact in the moral universe," he said. "Even if you have strong family ties with a religious background, you're in the culture regardless."
"When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar, you're listening to the sound of the American heart." — George Strait, "Heartland"
Rather than traditional values, pop music often relies on shock value and what Kaelin describes as "what you can get away with."
"Human curiosity kind of thrives on the bad things, I think," Kaelin said. "Sometimes people will go for that shock value, because just seeing people living happily can be boring. … It's unfortunate. It should be the opposite way."
Still, Carter suspects there are some who gravitate to country music when they notice a dearth of their values in pop culture.
And it doesn't necessarily have to be twangy.
Herbert points to country artists who are combining their talents with contemporary performers in crossovers, as well as hybrid music styles like that of Taylor Swift's.
"There's music that caters to not necessarily the South, but it gets to core values and making God a priority in their life," she said.
And country music hasn't cornered the market on godly themes.
"There are options out there if people are looking for that type," said Wills, referencing Christian radio as one of those options.
David Osmond, a Utah Mormon and member of the famous singing family, recently released an album called "Road Less Traveled," which is targeted toward a Christian audience. Osmond sees potential for spiritual themes in popular music genres beyond country, but says there are realities of reaching audiences that may not be inclined toward spiritual matters.
"I don't think (artists outside of country) negate God throughout music, but can you find music that absolutely applauds God?" he asked. "Sometimes there's a 'we're oblivious to God, we are who we are, it's all about the here and now, tonight, eat drink and be merry' attitude. Sometimes (the artists) are more about empowering us without God in our lives."
Carter believes that the majority of people actually do seek out the good. He identified Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel" as a popular, religious country song that came close to reaching mainstream status a few years ago. Such songs can make a difference.
"(Hollywood) is not going to come to the Mormon people in Utah, or to the evangelical church in Dallas," Carter said. "We need to go to L.A. and reach out to them and explain that the market has to keep showing the family friendly songs and we'll respond to it.
"Regional radio stations have a lot of power. They should take chances with unheard-of pop stars and give them the exposure they need to show the L.A. music scene that there is a kind of appeal for wholesome music right there."
Herbert believes such music — the kind that is unafraid of God and family — is essential in today's world.13 comments on this story
"You see so many catastrophic things around the world that it seems like people are naturally gravitating to a higher source, someone or something they believe in," she said. "Hopefully we'll start to see more audiences talking about a higher power. People want to look to someone or something to move toward in this life.
"The good will probably get better, and the bad will probably get worse. I think country music will always sing about (spiritual themes), and pop does have some religious undertones in songs. Will it come to the point where it will be cool to bust out religious trends in that medium? It may just take one person to say, 'I'm going to do it first,' and the bandwagon will follow."