The Music of Mardi Gras Aaron M. Williams, Diocese of Jackson

By: Aaron Williams

Jesus told them a similitude: The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” – Matthew 13:24-25, 27

After living in Louisiana for seven years, I finally decided to stay in town for the Mardi Gras festivities—if anything, so that I could say that I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans once during my time in seminary. I had not avoided Mardi Gras because I feared the crude behavior of tourists or other such behaviors which are often associated with the popular conception of New Orleans. (I am simply not one for crowds and loud music.) I knew that most of what I would see was good-natured families and children going out for a weekend of fun, food, and maybe a few drinks—and, generally speaking, this is what I experienced.

I was struck, however, by one flaw in the Mardi Gras tradition of New Orleans. All the parades, taking from the origins of this celebration, were centered on pagan and mythological ideas. This is because, for the Christians who started the practice of “Carnival”, it was a time for them to sweep away not only the food they had in store in preparation for the Lenten fast, but also to say ‘goodbye’ to their pagan practices and mythological ideas which distract them from true Christian worship. Today, however, very few people need to sweep away their pagan gods, yet these are the works of the flesh which are sent away in parade (the literal root of “Carnival”—“Goodbye to the flesh”). Most New Orleanians, and those that travel to New Orleans for the holiday, are not at the parades to bid farewell to Zulu or the astrological gods of the constellations at Endymion. But, I dare to say there is something else that needs to be sent away.

“An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:27). There are weeds in popular culture today. They are the little practices which we may not at first glance consider dangerous or problematic, because they simply look like the wheat—that is, those practices in our culture which are good. The field of music is filled with weeds. This is not a condemnation of any particular genre of music. (I, as a classical musician have my opinions on musical genre, but I will table that for now). What need be called into question is the near blanket acceptance and celebration of pop music in today’s culture despite its often troubled meaning.

As I walked up and down the streets of New Orleans during the parade this past weekend, I saw many families with small children, college students, foreign tourists, priests and religious, and seminarians. But regardless of where I went, there was a constant bombardment of pop music pumped through loud-speaker systems. None of these families or tourists (or even some priests) found anything disturbing about the music they were being forced to hear. This is probably because they like the beat, or the harmonies, or know the dance moves, or they are familiar with hearing these things on the radio and associate certain songs with good times with friends—and there is nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is, in order to accept the ‘wheat’ of pop music, often times we accept the weeds wholesale as well.

At the time of writing this, the number one pop song in America is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”. I will not repost the lyrics here, but I suggest you search for them. The song is about a man and woman who meet a bar, get drunk, and then engage in acts of fornication. The number two song in the US is Bruno Mar’s “That’s what I like”. The song has a similar meaning about a man who invites a woman to fornicate with him at his condo in Manhattan. He addresses her using degrading language—but this is justified because “Lucky for you, that’s what I like”.

Not all pop music is filled with vulgar and degrading lyrics (though I usually have to skip every 10 to 15 songs on iTunes pop radio when I am in the car). But, for those of us who understand Christian morality, and claim to seek holiness, how can we accept these songs as part of the culture? Music is powerful. It unites people and is often melded to the root of the culture itself. (This is why music is often divisive as well.) But, if we are to be holy, we cannot accept weeds in place of wheat, because they have been planted there by the Enemy. He has lied to popular culture and told us we can accept a song for its beat and not its meaning. But, this is ridiculous! We don’t tell married couples to accept their spouse for their face but not their heart, or professors to accept papers for their many words but not their content. If you are still not sold I suggest you print out the lyrics of “Wop” by J. Dash, or “Laffy Taffy” by D4L (even the clean version). Take the lyrics to Church and, kneeling before the Most Blessed Sacrament, try to read them out loud.

I had a conversation with my spiritual director once where he asked me to describe what holiness looks like. After listing a few things, he stopped me and said, “If you know what it takes to be holy, why are you not holy?” The truth of the matter is that I am not holy because I have not yet said farewell to the ways of the flesh. I have not sold all I have to follow Christ, or let the dead bury the dead. I am clinging to this world, but this world is passing away. Lucky for all of us, the Church has given us a season to sweep away these ways of the flesh (hint: its not Mardi Gras). Lent is the true “carnival” of the Church. In some cases, we literally say farewell to flesh (as in our abstinence from meat on certain days), but all of us should make it our ultimate goal this Lent to say farewell to the weeds of our life.

Maybe next year we can load up the Mardi Gras floats with pop musicians and send them packing—maybe, but I doubt it. But, we can still say “farewell” to them in our hearts and refuse to accept weeds in place of wheat.

About the Author: Aaron Williams

Aaron is a third year theologian studying for the Diocese of Jackson, MS. He will be ordained a transitional deacon on March 18, 2017.


All opinions published by the authors on this blog are solely those of the authors. Although the goal is that they should, they do not necessarily express the views and opinions of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Notre Dame Seminary, the Church, or their respective dioceses and bishops.

Notre Dame Seminary and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are not responsible for the comments of commenters, although every effort will be made to remove offensive comments.

If you should find an error or offensive content, please email the NDS Blog editorial team.