A return to sensationalism
A follow up to my post on the sensationalization of private tragedy a while back that generated considerable feedback. First up, AG, who approached the subject with a kind of pragmatic cynicism:
You gotta admit that some of these stories are considerably more interesting than “Ed Hill Visits Studio of WPET Radio” or “New Ground Completes Recording”. Are there REALLY people sitting at home wondering what radio station Ed Hill is going to hit next? Or when-in-the-world New Ground is going to wrap up their new project? For the most part, there is SO little happening in SG music that is even marginally interesting, we seem to cling to the sensationalized stories that do include robberies, and hypothermia; even if they sound less like a news report and more like they should be nominated for a Darwin Award. Oh well…I guess I will just get back to wondering what they are going to do with all those James Blackwood recordings that were believed to be “forever lost”.
Next up, RH:
I couldn’t agree with you more! For Gospel singers (I am one myself) who sing about “looking for a city” and “When I die, hallelujah bye and bye, I’ll fly away”, we tend to be a little too fixated on the here and now. Perhaps it is related to the idea that a person’s ministry can’t be effective unless he or she has an amazing redemption story to relate (often becoming more embellished and dramatic with each telling). Something along the lines of “I can’t begin to tell you how awful a person I was - drinking, doing drugs, womanizing, suicidal, etc. etc. - but let me spend the next 30 minutes telling you about it, so I can spend 5 minutes telling you about the love of Jesus and how he saved me.”
JD was in a similar mood:
Glad you brought this up! I have been extremely annoyed lately by all the trite stories that artists are dishing up about their daily toe-stubbing. It would be more palatable if they approached some of the events with a little comedy and humanity so that we could understand that they are ordinary people and not a VIP whose guardian angel was temporarily off duty.
[NOTE: The two most spirited critiques of my post came from Libbi Perry Stuff le and her sister, but because they were so understandably personal in nature and because comments mode is now available for the post in the new blog format, I’m not publishing them here and will instead let the authors themselves decide if they want to submit the comments for public consumption or not].
As several of these emails suggest, sensationalism is a symptom of sg preferring retail entertainment – close-up personal time with entertainers who are expected to be just reghlur folks and peddle their own product – rather than remoter forms of contact associated with more mainstream genres (large arena-style concerts headlined by mega-stars with whom fans get usually no closer than the radio). As long as this is so, public personalities in gospel music will predominately reflect fans’s ordinary experience rather than fulfill their expectations. Evangelical religious life above averagely revolves at almost every level around narratives of struggle and overcoming (from the prayer chain to the crucifixion), so it’s no surprise that the public personalities performers cultivate will – like the music they sing – reflect the structure of life it derives from. The trouble is in the process of reflection.
A comparison to country music might help here. Watching some of the Hee Haw marathons on CMT this past weekend, I was reminded of how much country music in the 70s and 80s was about reflecting back to country fans an entertaining caricature of rural southern life (as opposed to country music today, which is a fully mainstream entertainment industry finetuned to fulfill and perform a certain sociocultural ideal). Hee Haw’s hokey sketches and stock bumpkin characters and hopelessly schlocky sets were ways of valorizing southern poverty and celebrating rural backwardness while simultaneously masking the rapid corporatization of country and western music. The point wasn’t that these were authentic depictions of country life. Instead, the idea, I think, was that anyone willing to act so ridiculous must really be a good ole boy or gurl who you’d like to tailgate with … or short of that, spend an hour watching on Saturday night television.
By this comparison, I don’t meant to suggest that the SN death-watches and the traged-e-letters from artists are purely manufactured. Indeed, my point in the earlier post was that the ways people represent themselves depend on deep-set habits of mind and emotional response determined by lifetimes of belief, culture, and social expectations. At the same time, though, private and public forms of expression shape and are shaped by one another.
Hee Haw played up big hair and chesty blonds and southern drawls and hillbilly buffoonery because country music did initially emerge in part out of that past. So too sg stars often act like they’re always trying to get on someone’s private prayer chain because prayer chains are a big part of the evangelical lives that southern gospel is associated with and comes from. But just as the hair on Hee Haw got a little bigger and the bosoms heaved a bit too much and the drawls became a titch too affected and the buffoonery went way over the top, so too can public recounting of private hardship and travail become (as often unintentionally as not, I’m sure) an outsized imitation of the original. The proportions get distorted in the translation of everyday life into the public personality of a performer.Email this Post