Rock and Roll and the Holy Spirit


In Cameron Crowe’s brilliant movie Almost Famous, a sage rock guru (played with boozy slyness by Philip Seymour Hoffman) offers the young William Miller, high school student cum aspiring rock journalist, a fifteen-year-old about to embark upon a decidedly atypical coming of age journey, a profound piece of advice.

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”

Would that we all needed this advice.

And William, remarkably, heeds it. He follows the fictional band Stillwater across the country, rocking out, taking notes, occasionally getting swept into wacky misadventures, but most of all watching as the band both breaks into the big time and threatens to come apart at the seams.

At one point, lead singer Jeff Bebe, played by Jason Lee as a man who has passionately embraced platitudes, an artist who believes in the Byronic myth, proclaims “Rock and roll can save the world . . . all of us together . . . But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music. And the chicks are great.”

In the end, William keeps himself aloof; he sacrifices his friendship for objectivity, and honestly describes Stillwater in a Rolling Stone story as the midlevel, mediocre band that they are. Rather, it is Penny Lane, the ‘Band Aid’ William mistakes for a groupie, who falls for Bebe’s vision. Key moment: she reverently lifts his pen from his notepad when she deems William too focused on notetaking during a concert. As she tells William, she is there “for the music.” And she slips into the myth; she falls in love with the guitarist, enigmatic rock god Russell Hammond, a charming man not expecting such commitments, and ends up sold to Humble Pie for fifty dollars and a case of beer. And so she attempts suicide.

What of Mormonism can we find in “Almost Famous?” The movie, viewed in this light, is about the places where we find meaning. Stillwater’s tour bus is one, Neverland, in its way; its inhabitants driven by romance and art and idealism. They cling to “the music,” and find beauty there. Cameron Crowe clearly loves it for that; but knows that the myth of the music lacks the power that in their more innocent moments his characters ascribe to it. Despite what Jeff Bebe says, the music is not life; it can do nothing for Penny. Russell leaves her, the band moves on to a new city, and Penny is left behind, cast out of Neverland into the world.

The world. This is a word in Mormon lexicon that often describes a place to fear, and Penny Lane certainly suffers desolation in the Stillwater-abandoned New York. Russell’s rejection severs her connection to the glory which sustained her, and in staring at that sun she has missed the altogether mundane way that William has fallen in love with her. But when she overdoses, it is he, not Russell, who saves her life, for there is no room on Stillwater’s bus for the casual details of everyday existence. Russell avoids Penny rather than dealing with her heartbreak, and when he, the self-proclaimed “golden god,” visits William at his mother’s home, it is with awkwardness and hesitancy and timidity; he does not know how to confront the fierce protectiveness of her love. Rock in Almost Famous finds meaning primarily in its own exhilarations, in its personal territories of stage and studio, and is uncomfortable elsewhere.

There are lessons to be learned here about boundaries of the sacred. Mormonism is as any religion, vulnerable to the dangers of rock and roll. Not the if-you-play-Stairway to Heaven-backwards-it-teaches-your-kids-devil-worship threat, but the Stillwater threat; that of becoming overly fascinated with ourselves and drawing the boundaries of the sacred to match up with cultural comfort zones. I remember driving to church once about ten years ago and instinctively switching the radio from Smashing Pumpkins to a classical station. At some level I believed that the Spirit prefers Bach to Billy Corgan, and that therefore while Monday or Thursday is okay for Billy, on Sunday, when one wants the Spirit, one must listen to Bach. Now I’m not so sure, on either count.

The point is not that it’s silly or hypocritical to prefer Bach on Sunday, but rather that I think there’s a danger in becoming too comfortable with ourselves, too settled in routine and familiar ways of seeking the sublime, too quick to believe that since there’s an organ in the Tabernacle (but not on Stillwater’s stage), there are no electric guitars (nor rock and roll) in heaven. One thing I love about Mormonism is the Thirteenth Article of Faith, the one which declares that, contrary to apocalyptic premillennialists who see only evil outside the borders of their faith, we are to seek after the lovely and praiseworthy outside of our own beliefs, folkways, and religion. This means that the “world” is not so menacing as we fear; and that there is joy to be had by meeting God in unexpected and seemingly mundane places. Jan Shipps has told us of a nineteenth century Utah wherein barn raising and ditch digging were invested with the holy, sanctified and made a form of worship entirely proper to undertake on the Sabbath.

William Miller is abandoned by Stillwater after his article is published. Only Russell tracks him down, wandering down foreign suburban streets to find William and apologize, to find some sort of meaning in truth and relationship. And when William asks him what he loves about music, Russell says, “To begin with, everything.”


  1. This is a really great post. I don’t have to much to add more than that. Thanks!

  2. I believed that the Spirit prefers Bach to Billy Corgan.

    Entirely depends on whether it’s pre- or post- Melancholy.

    Wicked post, Matt.

  3. Amen. Well said, Matt.

  4. Katie P. says:

    I love the description of Stillwater’s bus as Neverland. We have to careful of not imbuing things that cannot save us with too much mysticism.

    I was thinking of all of those “trust not in the arm of flesh, but trust in the Lord” scriptures. I love that there are so many good things in the world, and the thirteenth article of faith expresses the exhortation to us to seek them out. Do those things count as the arm of flesh? Rock and roll does not save Penny, but I wonder what is it about William that does. He’s the hero, but is it because he’s not caught up in Stillwater bus? Because he’s a kid? Because he loves her? Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have anything that he places above people, really. No matter how exciting the life, he talks to his mother.

  5. With the mythology of being a peculiar people who are in the world and not of the world, we often take ourselves out of so much that is good in the world that is definitely not Mormon, and when somehow we stumble on something that’s good then we make it ours, that it was somehow inspired by the greater, ancient, ubiquitous Mormonism.

    That bugs me.

    I like that God trusts us with the difficult task of discerning goodness in the world for all its manifestations and the struggle of loving in the world and all it has to offer and still trusting the in the mysterious, otherworldiness of God.

    That pleases me.

  6. So very, very good, this post.

    If there’s one thing that is better than rock, it’s Almost Famous. So, any post that takes the movie seriously is going to move me–and this one did.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Hold me closer, Tony Danza! what a great scene.

    …, for those who haven’t seen Almost Famous, there’s a scene where they’re all singing “Tiny Dancer” together. Plus there was a Friends episode where Phoebe thought that’s what the song was really saying…. never mind.

  8. D. Fletcher says:

    I like the post, but sorry to be the naysayer: rock (and Almost Famous itself) is overrated and doesn’t begin to approach the sublime noise of Bach. I don’t know if there will or won’t be electric guitars in the celestial kingdom, but I can only hope …not.


  9. Mark Butler says:

    The worst of rock and roll is where it abandons the aesthetic or any sense of moral constraint, most often at the same time. Acid rock, heavy metal, suicide / death cults.

    The cult of the aesthetic is seductive in and of itself, but this only dominates the endless peons to love for its own sake.

    The music that I like the best – rock and roll’s claim to fame – is that which combines excellent aesthetics with a robust sense of morality – not the depressive resignation of country, but inspiration in the true sense of the word, and where not inspirational at least commentary and petition founded in sound moral principles – the prayer of the ordinary man.

  10. Mark Butler says:

    Amri, Didn’t you know that the God is a Mormon?

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    Rock is sensual. Jazz is sensual too — does anybody get this? And plenty of classical music is sensual too. Perhaps the composers of “sacred” music have tried to remove the earthly from their music.

    Rock is nothing if not earthly, earthy, base, and sensual.

  12. Mark Butler–
    Indeed! Both Church and South Park tell me so!

  13. My husband: “What bands do you think will be in heaven?”

    Me: “Stryper?”

    My husband: “No. They’re going to hell for sure.”

  14. D. Fletcher says:

    HaHa, Susan, I love you forever.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, Matt. I loved the movie. (And I got the joke, Steve.)

  16. Mark Butler says:

    Well, there is the good kind of earthy and the bad kind of earthy. Joseph Smith is an example of the good kind. Eddie Money is an example of the bad kind – Take me home tonight and all that.

  17. This statement is so interesting:

    Rock is sensual. Jazz is sensual too — does anybody get this? And plenty of classical music is sensual too. Perhaps the composers of “sacred” music have tried to remove the earthly from their music.

    Rock is nothing if not earthly, earthy, base, and sensual.

    1) It reminds me of listening to fm100 (Utah’s easy listening) in the car with my mom and realizing that a lot of the lyrics were surprisingly graphic and sensual. Yet it remains the “safe” station for mormon adults.

    2) I now reject the notion that the sensuality is the problem in and of itself. Humans like sex and I think it is an appropriate element to expressive art.

  18. Jonathan Green says:

    Sorry to be negative, but I despise this post. I haven’t seen the movie, but I object to comparing the church to the tour bus of a mediocre rock band, and church leaders to platitude-spouting lead singers, and orthodox believers to vapid groupies.

    So Penny, the true believer, buys the mythology wholeheartedly, and then is exploited and discarded by the institution she loves, while William is able to write objectively about the band by keeping his distance from it. Maybe that’s good advice for riding a tour bus, but if you never abandon distance from your religion, if you never surrender to the urge to be a true believer, you’ll never experience the core of what the church is really about.

    I understand what you’re trying to say, and you present it well, but I despise it.

  19. Ed Snow says:

    Interesting ideas here–not sure how they apply to religious sentiment though–or, why not. Great movie. Care to follow up with a similar “School of Rock” post or someting on “Amadeus”? I’m planning on posting something comparing the age of Nibley, Arrington and Bennion to the age of Classic Rock (Nibley, of course, is Led Zeppelin).

    I’d say God’s spirit has to do with intentions of the individual heart, not sounds. I think there’s nothing inherently evil with words or instruments or beats, especially when words are merely sounds, which is often the case with rock and roll, or at least that’s how I usually treat them. I also reject arguments that certain beats are more sensual than others AND therefore lead you to sin, hell, etc.

    When I listen to, for instance, Edgar Winter band’s “Free Ride,” I usually ignore the lyrics which are possibly some of the most lame ever, aesthetically speaking. Or when I notice them, I laugh and sing along anyway. Yet the Ronnie Montrose guitar riffs are catchy, full of energy and invigorating (at least for me–your results may vary). And, as an infrequent guitar player, I marvel at the ingenuity in coming up with the hook at the beginning of the song and the later solo. It rocks. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of taste, really, or I should say, bad taste perhaps.

    But consider “Layla,” a song about a man’s infatuation with another man’s wife. Hardly “Gospel Doctrine Worthy”. Yet I find it a terribly moving piece. Clapton’s suffering is palpable in his vocal performance. The structure of twin winding guitars embodies the conflict in his soul which finally reaches some resolution or peace by the time the tempo slows and the piano plays at the end. Beats the crap out of Free Ride aesthetically speaking. Does it celebrate infidelity? No, it’s just a song about someone’s self-inflicted pain.

    As for instrments? “Silent Night” was apparently first performed on a guitar. I’d say some pretty lurid songs in the 80s were played on organs (no puns intended). Ray Charles took gospel and made “God’s music into the devil’s.” And, Martin Luther apparently said, when asked about “A Mighty Fortress” being written to the melody of a beer hall song, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes?” You can definitely swing an imaginary beerstein in the air while singing along to this song.

    I once heard “House of the Rising Sun” sung at a Ward talent show in Spanish. Someone next to me, oblivious to what it was all about, said something like “that’s such a beautiful song.” Sure. And, I guess the moral was pretty good too, complete with an object lesson, but it was hardly “Standard’s Night” fare.

  20. I didn’t understand this post until Jonathan Green explained it. And now that I’ve had it explained to me, I agree with him.

    I did like the movie, however.

  21. Matt Thurston says:

    Nice post. I was worried for awhile that the point of your post was going to be a simplistic church-is-good/world-is-bad moral lesson… you know, the tour bus representing the great and spacious building; William and Penny letting go of the iron rod; Penny suffering near fatal consequences; William able to find his way back through the mist to the rod; blah blah blah…

    You took the metaphor in a much more interesting and profound direction. Well done.

  22. Jonathan, you’re kind of overstating things a bit, aren’t you? I don’t think that Matt is making the conclusions that you are. You’re interpreting what he has to say in the worst way possible, which is a pretty unkind thing to do to anyone.

    His post isn’t about not buying into our faith; it’s about recognizing what the 13th Article of Faith is all about.

  23. Okay, now I’m back on Steve Evans’ side. You’re on your own, Green.

  24. I saw Almost Famous through quite a different lens: In the movie, Fame is an archetype of Perfection, and as such, it’s mostly illusion.

    That said, I’ll take your appeal to Rock’n Roll and it’s drug culture one further: Perhaps the Liahona was a small, spherical water filter.

  25. Matt Thurston says:

    I think Jonathan has it backwards, but Matt (not me) can correct me if I’m wrong. I thought he meant:

    1. Tour bus = “world”.
    2. “World” is full of beautiful things, including music and musicians, both of which can teach us important truths.
    3. Penny and William are Church Members.
    4. Penny invests everything in the “world”, which in the end is not there for her when she needs it most.
    5. William finds much that is good and praiseworthy in the “world”, feeds off of those things, but stays grounded to deeper truths.
    6. Moral is NOT to avoid getting on the tour bus altogether, as many Mormons might preach, but to seek out what is good and praiseworthy and true on the tour bus.

    The “Church” and “Church Leaders” are not really part of the metaphor, and if they are they remain in the background, playing no specific part.

    At least that is what I got from Matt’s post.

  26. I despise this post

    Blimey, Jonathan.

  27. Seth R. says:

    No, I think Jonathan missed the point in at least one place:

    I simply didn’t see the lead singer as representing “church leaders.” I saw him as representing me.

    My wife told me about one time when she was waiting in the Wal Mart portrait studio. There was a TV/VCR playing Spiderman. A boy of about 7 or 8 years old was watching. It was at the part where Green Goblin gets impaled on his own jet-flyer. This kid would watch the impaling, rewind, watch the impaling again, rewind, and so forth. He did this the entire time my wife was in line (about 5 minutes). His mom was standing next to him entirely unconcerned.

    Music is like this for young folk today (and perhaps much earlier) – Pure sensation to penetrate the dull haze of those who are past feeling much of anything. It’s a drug meant to numb us to our own profound isolation in modern society.

  28. Matt Thurston says:

    William Miller: That groupie”? She was a Band-Aid! All she did was love your band. And you used her, all of you! You used her and threw her away! She almost died last night while you were with Bob Dylan. You guys, you’re always talking about the fans, the fans, the fans; she was your biggest fan, and you threw her away! And if you can’t see that, that’s your biggest problem. And I love her! I love her!


    Penny Lane: Maybe it is love, as much as it can be, for somebody…
    William Miller: Somebody who sold you to Humble Pie for fifty bucks and a case of beer! I was there! I was there!… Look- I’m sorry.
    Penny Lane: [sniffs] What kind of beer?


    Penny Lane: I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriosuly, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just got to the record store and visit your friends.

  29. Thanks for the responses, everybody.

    Hmm. Jonathan, sorry to have offended you. I did not intend the direct metaphors that you drew – rather, I was riffing a bit off of the bittersweet tragedies of the movie, using the lessons that I found there to think about ways of seeking the holy. What I hoped to say was that of the twin sublimities presented in the title, there was nothing rock and roll could do for Penny; what she or William found in their first concert was, despite its glories, all that there was. The Holy Spirit, however, can work through places and ways that we do not expect, and we should be open when God surprises us, be it through the work of Billy Corgan or something so unexpected as a burning bush or poor young farmboy. If we see a correlation between the limitations of the band and the living word of God, it is because we are placing artificial constraints upon the word, and it is this which I hoped to point out.

    I do think, though, that you raise another point worth thinking about – that of Penny Lane as true believer. There is something to that, and it makes her particularly tragic, because she did nothing wrong and something beautiful in losing her life in an attempt to find it. The same might be said of any sincere seeker. And it’s worth noting that again, while rock and roll may fail, God, we trust, can be depended upon.

  30. I also like what Katie pointed out – that through the whole mad strange trip, William never stops calling his mother.   There’s truth here, and it relates to Matt Thurston’s ideas.

  31. John Taber says:

    His post isn’t about not buying into our faith; it’s about recognizing what the 13th Article of Faith is all about.

    But there are plenty of folks who buy in to what’s on the surface, say, along the Wasatch Front, in the name of buying into the faith.

  32. Seth R. says:

    I sorta remember reading Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” a couple years ago. He reported on his experience teaching entry-level philosophy to freshmen at some eastern ivy league. They were covering Aristotle.

    Now, Aristotle wrote a lot of stuff on a vast range of subjects, much of it very crucial and important to human experience.

    But there was only ONE time in the entire class when Bloom reported really seeing his students come alive – Aristotle’s critique of and assertations about music.

    Students who hadn’t really gotten worked up about much of anything during the entire class, became very agitated and passionate about their music.

    My own gut feeling is that music may be the only thing many of our youth really love and seek after anymore. Not family. Not patriotism. Not “the good life.” Not wealth. Not God.


    The one true deity of high school and college campuses.

  33. Seth R. says:

    Pity then, that the vast majority of it (including just about every top-ten hit) is so utterly devoid of anything praiseworthy.

  34. I think Bloom’s whole point, as I remember that chapter, is that his students’ music had destroyed their ability to know passion.

  35. Seth R. says:

    Need to read that book again.

    It really resonated with me.

  36. Seth, I usually love your comments around all the blogs, but you’re killing me with this one!

  37. Seth R. says:

    Oh it applies to me as much as anyone Susan. I still find myself rewinding and replaying particularly feeling laden bars of my own favored music. I’m as passionate about the stuff as anyone. But I also recognize the true nature of my own participation in it.

    Our religion requires the sacrifice of ALL things. That includes our music. If we aren’t willing to give that up, then perhaps we ought to reconsider our whole commitment to this Mormon theology thing.

  38. Matt Thurston says:

    Anyone a fan of Zwan or Billy Corgan’s solo album? I’ve listened to the former once or twice, but never the latter.

    I’ve enjoyed most of the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but Gish remains the highwater mark for me. The song “Crush” is sublime.

  39. I attended that dedication of a friend’s baby at their Baptist church recently. I had to actively and frequently remind myself that there’s nothing intrinsicly wrong with having a band with guitars and drums instead of a piano. So there’s that for cultural comfort zones.

    However, rock is often loud, fast and angry. That’s what makes it rock. How can you hear the spirit over the screaming of Nine Inch Nails? So I rather agree that rock isn’t something to be listend to on Sundays or other occasions when you’re seeking the spirit.

  40. Oh, if that’s what you mean, then sure. I spent most of the 90’s not listening to much music, so I know I can do it. :) It was also the darkest time of my life, as melodramatic as that sounds.

  41. Seth R. says:

    Gee, what did you think I meant?

    You never know … Your first impression might have actually been right you know.

  42. Patrick Star says:

    Bloom is an ass. His holy pantheon have nothing on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

  43. Mark Butler says:

    No, Harold Bloom is a classicist, like Richard M. Weaver. And between the two of them they wrote a couple of the most influential books of the late twentieth century. No grand revelation required just an evaluation of the emptiness of American liberalism from the perspective of Plato and Aristotle. Ideas do indeed have consequences, and contemporary liberals are living on borrowed light.

  44. Patrick Star says:

    Thanks for the correction, Mark. Bloom is obviously a bright guy, but of anyone he should know that complaints about new forms of discourse corrupting the youth have always been with us.

  45. Mark Butler says:

    Yes. Weaver complained about Jazz. I was raised in a home where rock music was definitely of the devil – and with reasonable justification too – but there is much to admire if you look hard enough – past the cult of license and sensuality, in particular.

    FM100 may have had better aesthetics in the 80s and 90s, but the morality of its music was seriously lacking, more than many of the harder alternatives. And when (or should I say why) did boy bands turn into the ultimate whiners?

  46. Jonathan Green says:

    Matt: You say you didn’t intend the metaphors, but I don’t see how they couldn’t have occured to you. You set up an analogy such that
    the tour bus: real life :: the church: the world. And you write, “Mormonism is as any religion, vulnerable to the dangers of rock and roll,” which you call the “Stillwater threat.” Nearly every paragraph plays off the metaphor of church as tour bus.

    The essay starts out with the motto: “‘You cannot make friends with the rock stars.’ Would that we all [h]eeded this advice.” What did you mean by that? Who are the rock stars that we shouldn’t make friends with? Given the sustained metaphor of church as tour bus, I don’t think it’s a strained reading to see the rock stars–who even promise the world salvation–as church leaders.

    So your post seems to compare the church to a rock band led by a womanizing (“chicks are great”) false prophet (“Byronic myth”) which will remain forever mediocre, despite a sudden rise in popularity. I seem to recognize those tropes, but you say it’s all just accidental, which is possible, but pretty unsatisfying. I assume that polished prose reflects careful thought. But if all you really meant was that we should roll down the windows and enjoy the countryside as it rolls by more than we usually do, then sure, why not.

  47. Matt Bowman says:

    Jonathan – Actually, yes, your reading did occur to me. I would point out, however, that just because a reading is possible does not mean it is necessary. I consciously did not wish to take the path you think I did, because I don’t believe it any more than you do. I hoped to compare the band and religion, not identify them with each other. Unfortunately, it seems I did not do as good a job as I could have.

    I thought it was clear that what I called the “Stillwater threat” or the “danger of rock and roll,” is a metaphor for a threat to faith, not that faith itself; indeed, the sentence you quote makes clear that this threat and the Church are different things. The threat, I would say, is the problem of spiritual complacency, and of course the Book of Mormon itself warns us against assuming that “all is well in Zion.” If this was actually unclear, then again, I regret it.

    I am slightly embarassed to say that the line “Would that we all needed this advice” was a joke, given my lifelong unrequited desire to hang out with Eddie Vedder (another joke). Apparently a poor one, alas. Of course, I never intended to use the band as a representation for the Church, but rather a comparision to it, so I did not read into the line what you did.

    I’m sorry to have caused such animosity in you; I’m puzzled more than anything else. I’m not sure what I can do to assure you that I don’t have a secret agenda to liken the General Authorities to the Grateful Dead beyond what I have, so I hope you will be willing to assume a bit of good faith on my part.

  48. Steve Evans says:

    Jonathan: “I seem to recognize those tropes, but you say it’s all just accidental, which is possible, but pretty unsatisfying. I assume that polished prose reflects careful thought.”

    So either Matt is calculating and evil, or just an idiot with accidentally polished prose? Jonathan, you’re passing from the ungenerous to the insulting here.

  49. Jonathan Green says:

    Matt: Ah, I see that the third paragraph doesn’t contain a typo after all. Considering the first line of the fourth paragraph, I thought “needed” was supposed to have read “heeded.” Thank you for this, and your other clarifications. My comments were not motivated by any animosity, but by the troubling implications of your comparison that the original post didn’t distance itself from. Your post deserved a close reading, whether I liked it or not.

  50. Mark Butler says:

    One can feel the spirit during loud, fast, and even angry music, as long as the theme is moral or uplifting enough. In the case of anger, it must clearly be righteous anger. And even when the theme is imperfect – there is often a great spirit in true sympathy for plight unspoken or well described. It is having the right perspective on the theme instead of being captured by it that makes the difference – sometimes if only as tragedy.

  51. Jonathan Green says:

    Steve: If a writer appears to have chosen his words carefully, my assumption is that the interpretation is not accidental. Sometimes, even with good writers, this proves not to be the case. In my two comments I cited several passages from Matt’s post that consistently point towards a troubling implication; Matt now says the same idea occurred to him, but that it wasn’t his intended point at all. Which makes him not evil and not an idiot, but I wish he would be more calculating.

  52. No Mark, I don’t think so.

    It’s more likely to be your own adrenaline you’re hearing. Not the still, small voice.

  53. Rock, jazz and blues can be cathartic, and, as such, spiritually very healthy. Ex: “Freebird” live on a summer night in the band’s heyday; the Allman Brothers in their heyday today. Is there room for musically-induced catharsis in Mormonism? Or are Bloom and many church members correct in seeing a downbeat too sexual for redeeming value?

    Good post. The world offers so much good in the darndest places.

  54. Steve Evans says:

    Freebird! Freebird!!

    (sigh. Two jokes on a single thread that no one will get.)

  55. I liked the post. I think that Mormon culture is way culturally driven. I know many people who think that in heaven there exists a society were all the aspects of modern Mormon culture are exclusive. This of course I find to be ridiculous.

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