Burn me once, shame on me; burn me twice …

Years ago, I had a teacher who said wonderful things about my work. “Great stuff,” he’d write in response to my work. “First rate,” “excellent ideas, fine writing,” and so on. This went on for a while and it pleased me, but a funny thing happened as I began to compare notes with my peers and pay closer attention to my teacher’s public acts of praise and affirmation: just about anything typed and written in English could get a “first rate” or a “great stuff” or a “fine writing” from him. That is, at least outwardly, he’d never read a student paper that didn’t suggest unchecked brilliance and a meteoric rise through the academic ranks. For a long time it puzzled me … why’d he do it? A distaste for the sometimes confrontational side-effects of hard truths? A desire to be liked by everyone? An underlying insecurity that propelled him to give the affirmation he wanted for himself? Perhaps it was a mixture of all these. Or maybe he was just unprincipled. Anyway, I was reminded of all this paging through paragraph after paragraph of Rick Hendrix prose today, which I did after getting burned by one of Hendrix’s releases. So hang with me for a moment even though I realize this is a long post. I know this is not as gripping a debate as the one over how high Jesus would have spiked his hair, but it’s a pretty important issue in sg all the same.Hendrix’s work is pretty formulaic stuff: “[Big Name] reaches agreement with Rick Hendrix Co.” (or vice versa) is his favorite recipe for press releases. Thus “Kim Hopper Reaches Promotional Agreement with Rick Hendrix Co.” and “The Rick Hendrix Co. has reached an agreement with George Jones label BNA.” Or, my favorite, “Bette Midler reaches promotional agreement with Rick Hendrix Co.” This is a particularly clever construction, since it implies that the star in question (Midler, Hopper, Jones, whoever) has sought out Rick Hendrix and actively pursued this vague “agreement” that has now been “reached.” Here’s a typical Rick Hendrix release:

The Hoppers have reached a marketing agreement with Rick Hendrix Company. With numerous number one songs (Here I Am, Milk and Honey, Mention My Name, Anchor to the Power of the Cross, Yes I Am), the group has continued to build fans all over the world. “The Hopper’s are the ultimate family package. They have the sound,the music and the integrity,” stated Rick Hendrix. “We are really excited to be apart of their ministry.” The Hoppers new album “Great Day” was produced by Lari Goss. [ed. I’ve left the original as it appears on Hendrix’s website to give you a sense of the quality of craftsmanship here.]

Notice a few things about the release: first, no mention whatsoever about the precise nature of the “marketing agreement” that has been “reached” (more about that in a bit). Second, the specious associational logic of the sentences. After establishing the prominence of the group or artist in question, Hendrix then serves up some blathering boilerplate in praise of the artist. He closes by dropping another sacred name (Lari Goss) just to put one more legitimate superpower in the same rhetorical space as Hendrix’s own name. The third-person voice of the release lets Hendrix appear to be responding with his quote to some third-party request for an authoritative remark about the Hoppers. This allows him to appear sought-out and, incidentally, gives him a chance to suck up to the artists whose popularity he’s trying to siphon off for himself. If it were a syllogism ,the press release logic work something like this: The Hoppers are Really Important People (look, even Rick Hendrix says they’re great!). Rick Hendrix has reached an agreement with the Hoppers. Therefore, Rick Hendrix is a Really Important People, too. Want me, like me, LOVE ME!

If you read between the vague lines, the extent of most of these “agreements” often appears to be little more than someone’s refusal to say no (one obvious exception is Young Harmony, for whom Hendrix went above and beyond the call in drafting their most recent press release). From what I can gather, here’s what typically happens: Hendrix contacts a music label or an artist, volunteers to put a single on a comp disc (a compilation of songs sent out by promoters to radio stations as part of a promotional campaign for certain artists and groups), and promises to distribute that disc to hundreds of sg radio stations (this is shouldn’t imply that Hendrix’s promotional services are free; they are not). The artists and labels, of course, usually have no reason to say no, since Hendrix is promoting their music for them. And voila … “an agreement has been reached” between [Big Name] and Rick Hendrix, who promptly sends out a press release about the “news” to every hot-dog stand and press-release bulletin board on the internet, including of course, sg’s main “news” outlets. In the non-sg world (and even within the sg world among those who don’t know better), these releases imply all manner of professional and industry standing for Hendrix based almost soley on Hendrix’s own self-proclamation.

You can spend all day cataloging Hendrix’s tactics. Notice that the Young Harmony release I wrote about recently says that “a recent search found websites in France, Denmark and the UK praising their music and recognition.” I have no idea what it means to praise someone’s recognition (”WOW LOOK HOW RECOGNIZED HE IS!”), though clearly Hendrix does value “buzz.” But no matter. This means that since my Webalizer reports show that people in three countries have visited my website, I’m internationally recognized (nevermind that I’ve gotten all of three hits ever from international visitors). You can see how this works (go ahead … play along at home … watch the Golden Globe Awards recently? Well, you just spent an evening with Hollywood’s hottest stars!). The same release also claims that YH headed to D.C. “on the heals [sic] of yet another number one song in CCM, ‘Im Trying.’” CCM of course typically refers to Contemporary Christian Music, and Hendrix does nothing to stop you from making that assumption even though in this case “I’m Trying” is a CHRISTIAN COUNTRY music song (a sub-genre with nowhere near the clout of CCM). See how Hendrix lets the readers’ own assumptions do the heavy lifting of fabrication for him? It’s really brilliant, and perverse. And his hands are clean all the while. No one technically lied. Nothing was technically misrepresented. What’s the harm in zealously representing your clients, or people you wish were your clients, and letting readers fill in the rest on their own?

Several things, actually, but I’ll focus on the practical, the pragmatic for a minute: Like my old teacher, Hendrix praises everything, indiscriminately heaping accolades on everything and everyone that he comes into professional contact with. In the process he impoverishes everything around him, however slightly, since criticism and praise only mean anything if people at least try to be straightforward in their relationship with facts, claims, and arguments (that is, don’t conveniently omit evidence that contradicts what you wish were true; don’t manipulate readers by exploiting their assumptions for the cheap sake of self-aggrandizement; don’t imply associations and connections between people, things, and ideas to an extent that may not exist, and so on). It’s not just that Hendrix looks ridiculous, but oh how silly he does indeed look. Consider this from his portfolio: “Over the past 11 years this 27-year-old man has seen over 1,000 top 80 song positions.” This is as meaningless as it is preposterous. The sentence is clearly trying to generate the feeling of a grand accomplishment, in this case, that Hendrix started getting top-flight positions in the charts for songs he represented when he was 16 years old. But the only thing the sentence says for sure is that he has “seen” a bunch of songs in the top EIGHTY over the past 11 years, by which equivalent standard I suppose I have seen millions of volumes of best-selling books over the past 10 years I’ve spent in libraries … Want me, like me, LOVE ME!

No, foolish as he appears, the real problem is that this kind of thing demeans southern gospel (I’m leaving aside here for the moment the effect this kinda thing has on sg’s image in the world beyond, though in this regard the effect is perhaps even more devastating). Take the Bette Midler press release, the headline of which is still posted at sogospelnews even though the text of the release has been deleted. Since the release was active long enough on sogospelnews for 91 comments to pile up behind it, I wonder if sogospelnews removed the text only after they were pressured or shamed into doing so. But even if that wasn’t the case, it’s pretty amazing that the release ever went up in the first place, since it trumpeted the kind of “agreement” I described above. While I think I understand a desire for greatness so intense that it reduces a person to Hendrix’s brand of publicity stunts, I struggle to understand the bizarre logic by which news sites eagerly publish something like the Bette Midler or YH-inauguration press releases. Why on earth would anyone publish something that traduces the trust readers place in editors and publishers, a trust that ensures a publication’s viability and credibility?

I confess that the few plausible options I could come up with are all pretty discouraging. It’s possible, of course, that editors who choose to publish exaggerated or misleading press releases could be too imperceptive to distinguish between bland or oversold but harmless public-relations campaigns and those that resort to rhetorical games just this side of charlatanry. I find this scenario difficult to believe, but it is possible, in which case impercipient editors are guilty of intellectual irresponsibility bordering on the inadvertently unethical, but probably as worthy of pity as disdain. It’s more likely, I suspect, that editors know exactly how specious this stuff is. So why publish it? Why appear to assume such a staggering level of gullibility and stupidity among sg fans? Why give the impression of attempting to gain personally from the vulnerabilities of pietistic unworldliness and the religious value many conservative Christians place on simple, straightforward ways of speaking and listening? It probably has to do with an editor’s or publisher’s assumption that the publication is not legally liable for press releases written by third parties. Someone who is inclined to split this kind of hair probably sees nothing wrong with printing misleading press releases or dubious “news,” since they probably see themselves as only responsible for what they explicitly write. There are a couple of problems with this thinking. For starters, publishers can and do often share the same legal exposure as writers if published content generates a legitimate legal action. But there’s a more basic ethical issue at stake in this second scenario, even or especially in cases like the Midler or YH release, in which nothing libelous (so far as I know) was printed. In these kinds of cases, the people publishing the trumped up press releases know it’s hogwash, but they publish it anyway in the hopes that if they fling enough crap around, some of it will turn into fertilizer for their little plot of editorial turf. In both instances, though, everybody loses - writers, publishers, especially readers … everyone loses when rhetorical exhibitionism becomes an accepted and acceptable form of public discourse.

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