Panda Bear and Atheism

Panda Bear and Atheism

Panda Bear’s new album, Tomboy, just came out, meaning that every music blog is comparing it to the Beach Boys right now. While this is an apt comparison, I think what is most notable about Tomboy is that it shows just how oddly religious Panda Bear’s music is.

Vocal harmonies, which characterize both The Beach Boys and Panda Bear, do have an ability to create the otherworldly, wistful feeling that is associated with religion. Panda Bear’s music often conjures associations with Gregorian chants and other religious methods of eliciting spiritual reactions with sound, and on Tomboy it is more apparent than ever.

Noah Lennox’s music has always been somewhat religious in texture. “I’m Not” on Person Pitch sounded like Latin chanting, and his first album, Young Prayer, felt spiritual in a more barren, vulnerable way as he tried to let his dying father know he appreciated him.

It’s undeniable that Panda Bear’s songs have a hymn-like feeling, although the audience of listeners is, for the most part, probably comprised of non-religious, progressive Gen-Y types. In other words, Panda Bear is making hymns for the first generation of atheists.

When I say atheists, I don’t mean the kind that subscribe to atheism as its own system of beliefs and hold humanistic rallies. I mean the kids who just don’t believe in god and don’t really think about it. Panda Bear’s music is not a rational journey into a conclusion. Like religion, it’s more just a feeilng.

You can see this by comparing it to Animal Collective. They both have the same found textures and psychedelic serenity, but their lyrics are very different. Animal Collective is cerebral, clever and purposeful about their ideals. “I start in a hose/ And I end in the ground.” Panda Bear’s lyrics really aren’t much. They are either incomprehensible – Esquire speculated that in “Slow Motion” he is simply repeating “It’s accounting” – or they’re disappointingly meaningless. “Do you know what coolness is?”

There is a detached, scattered feeling about Panda Bear’s music that reflects how our generation feels about meaning. A song will start with the rattle of a skateboard, the sound of the waves, making it feel like a vignette from reality rather than music coming from instruments. The chanting brings a holy feeling to these every day textures, in a way that is self-aware, even sublime, in its meaninglessness.

I think Panda Bear’s influence and accessibility show that even though many twentysomething kids these days aren’t religious, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some residue of religious feeling, the feeling of basic human awe and smallness. Freud called this an “oceanic feeling,” a sense of connectedness to everything in the universe that he said made people believe in god. (No, he did not experience it.) Now, even people who have that feeling still can’t find compelling reasons to adopt the religion of their parents, and it remains there, unchanneled, or connected to something simple, like smoking pot and listening to records.

But what about Panda Bear? Is Noah Lennox an atheist? Surprisingly enough, he majored in religion at Boston University, although he didn’t graduate. But that doesn’t mean he’s a man of faith. Coup de Main magazine asked him about this choice, and he responded self-deprecatingly:

So religion was… nobody else I knew was doing it. *laughs* So it seemed sort of interesting in that respect. And also, I didn’t grow up as a religious person under any sort of system or anything like that, I just felt like I’ve always been sort of intrigued by that – how it can make people’s lives better – I mean, it’s a powerful thing. So I was interested in thinking about that kind of stuff.

Like lots of us, he lives in a non-religious reality. He just might be more interested in pursuing that feeling than most.

Becky Lang