On the perils of star gazing

Writing and editing this website has given me the rare and deeply gratifying pleasure of getting to know some of my regular readers. In a few cases, I’ve ended up developing friendships with people involved in sg bidness, people who occasionally come up for comment on the site as a matter of course. And the question inevitably arises for me: how to treat them? Ideally of course, they’d get treated like everyone else, like someone with whom I wasn’t friends. That not being possible in human reality, the best you can do is try to balance the demands of fairness with the claims of friendship and be especially vigilant in those places where friendship and commentary intersect.As one always interested in this particular pickle, I perked up when I saw a recent post over at Danny Jones’s blog: “Sit Back and Watch It Happen.” In it, Jones describes his experience as a sg insider: “I’ve been around many of these people in Southern Gospel Music for a long time. I’ve gotten to know them well” enough that “I believe I can sense their intentions.” He talks of witnessing performers’ many acts of generosity, their selflessness, and their attentiveness to the “many ‘opportunities’ God creates during the week [of a Singing at Sea, for example]. And frankly - it’s a blessing just to sit back and watch it happen.” This is indeed an enviable position for anyone to be in, all the more so if, like Jones, you get this kind of access as part of your job. So, you might naturally ask at this point, how does Jones - a veteran of the sg press corps and a lead editor of the industry’s most influential publication - manage the tension between his personal relationships with sg celebrities and his professional responsibility to provide the SN’s readers with thorough coverage of southern gospel? His answer is - at least to me - pretty stunning. Succinctly put, it is this: Jones won’t criticize sg performers because he’s too close to them. Jones supplies the longer version:

[G]iving a kudo to Mark Trammell or Brian Free because they took the time to listen to someone’s problem and share the scripture with them is a lot more important than giving my opinion on why their new album is better or worse than their last. Discussing McCray Dove’s rain dance doesn’t excite me when I’ve seen him give the last dollar in his wallet to someone who needs help. Going back and forth with someone debating the merits of a new single by the Perrys doesn’t do a thing for me when I’ve seen Libbi Stuffle pay for a tank a gas for someone she doesn’t even know just because they’re out of money and a long way from home. Trying to figure out which is the best group just doesn’t measure up to observing Ricky Carden pay for someone’s meal because he knew it would take every penny in their pocket.

What on earth to make of this? First, let’s dispense with the ancillary: Jones and his boss, Jerry Kirskey, might want to compare notes on this subject, since Kirksey’s “Sin is not news” rational for the SN’s happy-facing is at odds with Jones’s account of the same. And nevermind that this is just the latest attempt from an SN hardliner to discredit the polyphonic voices (almost all of them online) that have pretty suddenly and lately cropped up to challenge the SN’s orthodoxy of “Everything Is Always Good” and “If We Don’t Cover It, It Don’t Exist.”

Beyond the obvious, then, it’s probably worth noting in the interest of fairness that Jones (and for that matter Kirskey and the rest of SN crowd) is probably not primarily motivated by the idea of the success of southern gospel, insofar as success means growing the popularity of sg to new demographics and expanding the industry to embrace new styles or outlying sounds at the edges of the genre. What I think motivates them is the preservation of a very particular vision of southern gospel: traditional sounds, traditional styles (in music, appearance, word, and deed), traditional lyrics. The zeal with which they approach this mission makes them seem ogreish and mean-spirited sometimes (NO FACIAL HAIR ON THE COVER! NO GAYS MENTIONED IN ADS! IT’S TOO LOUD! PUT SOME CLOTHES ON, YOU BACKSLIDERS!). But their underlying motive is probably pretty altruistic as they understand the idea: protect the core, guard against impurities, keep the good ole music alive. Once your professional goals are so clearly overlaid with a Mission, your professional job as, say, an editor at the SN is not to simply report on people but to discern which people further The Mission and which don’t. Make friends with the former. Exile the latter. And don’t expect us to answer questions we don’t want to ask in the first place. Thus, Jones’s blurring of the personal and professional: how I do my job, Jones suggests, has ultimately become dictated by my personal relationships with the industry people I am close to. Knowing them to be good, I refuse to discuss anything that detracts from the reflection of that goodness. It’s what pals do. It’s bidness among friends.

Is there anything wrong with that? In the literal sense - that is, are SN types within their rights to act this way - of course they are. If they want to use their magazine to propagate a self-dealing, preservationist point of view, that’s their prerogative. The more important question, though, is this: is the position tenable? Does it withstand scrutiny? On the fundamental level of logic, no: Jones is not only summoning private experience and friendships to justify his actions as a professional, but also relying on his personal relationships with the people he covers to criticize any mode of discussing sg that doesn’t publicly pretend everything is sweetness and light. This is where it gets untenable: Jones himself admits that the reality of gospel music is at odds with (and more complex than) the rosy picture he publicly paints of it: “I know Southern Gospel Music is not perfect. Never has been, never will be.” Yet he rationalizes his professional refusal to portray that complex reality in public by referring to personal experiences very few mere readerly mortals can ever have. “I know I’m dissembling and I admit you’re not getting the full story,” Jones seems to say. “But trust me … you don’t really want an honest review of the Perrys’ latest project or a frank discussion of the classic quartet trend. Even if you don’t know it yet, what you really want is my artificially rosy take on things, and I’m the only one who can tell you what you want because I’m on the inside and you’re not. You’ll like my version better because these guys are my pals. My buds. My mates. My chums … see, we go on cruises together even.” And so on … SN: where the “S” is for Solipsism.

It’s not that being friends with sg stars is wrong or even necessarily unethical. It’s that if these people are even half as good as Jones makes them out to be, the intensity of the friendship at some point is going to begin to compromise Jones’s professional ability to make sound editorial judgments about coverage and reporting. Sound decisions demand the unencumbered distance of a professional rather than the passionate advocacy of a friend. This does not mean good journalism is heartless. But it does mean journalism purely from the heart risks becoming mindless.

What do I mean by that? Ask yourself these questions: How many sg fans are 100% pleased with their entire sg music experience? How many are pleased with the availability and quality of sg on their local radio stations? How many are pleased with the quality and quantity of sg music available for purchase in their area? How many are pleased with quality and quantity of sg concerts within a reasonable driving distance of them? These are just a few of the kinds of questions that need to be honestly, fully confronted in order to be answered - questions that go to the very center of any discussion about the future of sg, whether you’re a conservative preservationist like the SN crowd or a bring-all-comers progressive. But because of Jones’s insistence on suppressing reality, you won’t see these topics treated objectively or fully or searchingly in the SN. If you like your reality diluted and sanitized, you’re in luck. But if you don’t, we’ve got a problem.

Jones himself has conceded that these kinds of issues are of urgent importance. For instance, he recently spent something like a week on his blog painstakingly plodding through the logistics of concert promotion. Similarly, Ken Kirksey has decried the promotional crisis in sg radio right now. Jerry Kirksey and Roy Pauley have used their columns to opinionate about how everything is going to hell in a handbasket … long hair, loud music, short skirts, oh my. But these are opinions of people whose conclusions have been shaped (truncated, I might say) by the very insularity and insiderism that prevented a more rigorous and thorough accounting of the issues in the first place. Obviously, you’re going to get firmly held opinions from people like Jones who can “sense” the intentions of gospel music’s stars and celebrities. It’s not the opinion that’s the problem. No, what really beggars Jones’s credibility is the squandered access, the potential insight of an SN editor’s privileged position frittered away on gee-whiz star-gazing. The fuller picture is out there, waiting to be reported and covered, and that fuller reality - as opposed to the idealized account we get from Jones and the SN - will persist, no matter how many times Danny Jones witnesses an artist giving a $20 bill to a stranger.

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