Contemporary vs traditional

An interesting tangent has taken off in responses to my review of LordSong: what, if anything, do terms like CCM (contemporary Christian music) refer to? It’s not entirely unlike a question that gets bandied about in sg a lot: to what do we refer when we say something is southern gospel? A set of conventions? A historical tradition with which a musician self-identifies? Particular kinds of instrumentation and vocal styles? And so on. The two terms - CCM and sg - do indeed raise similar issues, but in equally important ways, they are separate problems of classification. Why? Not least of all, because Christian music that is contemporary is not the same thing as CCM (and as I did in the LS review, I do not a very good job of making that distinction as clear as it should be in my references to Christian music that is contemporary and CCM; as a general rule, I think of CCM in a broader sense more accurately capture by “Christian music that is contemporary” … and yes, I realize I’m breaking my own rule about not randomly capitalizing acronyms; apologies, but that’s the way it’s going to be). The first term - Christian music that is contemporary - designates a whole range of subgenres (CCM proper, praise and worship music, Christian country, inspirational, etc.) that share very little in common stylistically except that they are, or claim to be, on the front edge of musical, stylistic, and performative innovations in their respective areas. It’s not that these forms don’t recognize major figures in their past or borrow from a collective history. It’s just that they are … well, … contemporary. Their emphasis is not on tradition but on newness. Contemporary, after all, means “happening in this time,” containing something new that is, necessarily, in some significant way different from what came before it. In this respect, the habits of Christian music that is contemporary (and especially CCM habits) share more in common with pop rock than sg and other musical traditions (country western, folk, jazz, classical, sacred, and even hip-hop, which has very consciously crafted a history for itself over the last few decades of its existence). These latter kinds of music derive energy and vitality not primarily from innovation or the recombination of various new styles and emerging sounds (though, as I have written, sg is uniquely well suited to absorb the best that is written and sung in other genres, adapt it, and retain the stylistic coherence of Southern Gospel as a Thing). Rather, genres like sg identify themselves with a specific tradition, a set of tropes and habits carefully cultivated over time. And sg music values deference to that tradition and those conventions over everything else - whether it be imitation (which is what’s going on right now with the Classic Quartet craze, for instance) or revision (re-animating old forms with new ideas, which is what I tend to enjoy most and what I responded positively to in the latest LS project). Innovation and adaptation from other genres are certainly important to sg, but its first commitment is always to some difficult-to-define but palpably real factors that are uniquely Southern Gospel. As Potter Stewart said in a different context, sg devotees know it when they see (and hear) it.

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