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.

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  1. Barb wrote:

    You sure have a warped way of looking at things. I’m glad there are very few who are as thankless as you are. I’ll never be back to this site.

  2. Glenn Ezell wrote:

    Boy did you hit a chord with me. I actually think that their stories of how they were healed from cancer or how they were personally looked upon by God as being deserving, have to make those in the audience who were not so blessed feel badly. Like, “why wasn’t my husband healed from his cancer, he was a God-loving christian man.”

    Actually, Tracy Stuffle is one of the worst I have encountered over a lot of years, and I attend a siginificant number of concerts. I have never heard one of their concerts that she did not have a story that I guess is supposed to “grab your emotions”. When she has received Singing News awards, she has done the same. One year it was her father, and one year it was some dying girl that she had contact with. I’m not saying that she is not sincere, I am just saying why not let your music be your ministry and speak for itself.

    One of my pet peeves is that most groups treat their audiences like they have never “known the Lord” before. 99.9% percent of these people are there because they are in fact rejoicing in the fact that they “know the Lord” and love that expressed through music.

    I love your perspective as I have told you once in the past.

  3. Glenn Ezell wrote:

    Obviously, I meant Libby Stuffle.

  4. Lewis wrote:

    I hope that I’m not way too off topic here. But, I am a bit annoyed by people who cry and testify, the same testimony, at the very same point of the very same song at every concert. It’s like it’s rehearsed. I just don’t like that.

  5. RF wrote:

    This is one of the characteristics of the southern protestant church. Miracles and good things that happen to individuals are glorified and “all because of the Lord.” I guess it’s better to dwell on the good that the bad thing that happened that led to the “miracle,” right?

    It all reminds me of a re-run of Little House on the Prarie, though. Bad things happen, but it all ends well. Church people like those stories, but I’d rather hear the music. JMO.

  6. Faith wrote:

    Where is Avery? I miss the old days of his nearly-daily writing.

  7. Debra Perry DeLong wrote:

    This is to Mr. Ezell: I am Libbi Perry Stuffle’s older sister, Debra. I want you to know that I think you are a shame to the the Christian race. How dare you slam my sister for sharing about things she’s been through. People handle things in their own way. You don’t know what she’s been through and you never will. Sometimes we need to have our emotions “GRABBED” because we are full of dead mens bones! My sister has never used the stage to promote her loss but to share and to be an encouragement to others. Now, if you’re offended, take it up with the Master!!!!! I guess Jesus shouldn’t have shared his sorrows with people either.
    I guess HE was just trying to “GRAB” our emotions. People are jealous for the success that Libbi and the groups have had and I dare to say, you could walk a mile in her shoes. I’ll remember you tonight when I pray and hope that you get save. Please don’t ever let me meet you in person because I don’t think you would be man enough to say those things to me, Libbi or Tracy face to face

  8. Debra Perry DeLong wrote:

    In my comment when I said I guess Jesus
    was just trying to “GRAB” our emotions when he hung on the cross, bled, died and rose again so that we may have a better way. I guess for all the people who participate in Easter plays are doing it because they want to “GRAB” peoples emotions. If we didn’t have emotions, we’d
    be like robots. Maybe you are a robot or maybe you go to a church where the praise and adoration of God is prohibited!

  9. Bert wrote:

    Publish them! I would be interested in what they have to say. Her sister didn’t mind talkin’, so why would Libbi?

  10. Jo Jo wrote:

    Although I will leave it to a higher power to decided what is or isn’t Christian, I think I agree with Mr. Ezell. My family has experienced more tragedy that most any I know, but we don’t choose to share it with a lot of people unsolicited as a demonstration of our faith or to gain a sympathetic ear. Actually, we are known in both our church and our community for the good things that we do and not the hardships that we have endured.

    To any group, I say do what you do best and what we are paying to see you do, sing.

  11. Michael wrote:

    I have been a fan of you and your families ministry for many year. But your comment to judge someones salvations was out of line. Since all this is done in writing you do not know the person that wrote this, since this country is made of different people with different beliefs he is entitled to think what he wants. You my sister were out of line by saying he was a disgrace to the Christian race and you would pray he would get saved.

  12. Dee Ann Bailey wrote:

    My daughter and I attend concerts every weekend almost. This summer at least every other weekend we have seen the Perrys in concert.

    During those concerts, less than 1/4-1/3 of those have I heard Libbi even say a word from stage. The times I have heard her though, after the concert I’ve heard folks come to the table and thank her for sharing.

    Often people believe those on stage don’t understand what they are going through, they see the gospel singer (pastor, preacher, etc) as the ‘perfect’ example and at times allowing them to see the pain and problems that God has brought them through is an encouragement to them.

    Testifying of God’s grace and mercy isn’t saying you are more deserving, it is showing that even if you aren’t deserving God can still bless. If you know much about Libbi’s life you know that her testimony is more about God’s grace to bring her through trials than about God delivering from trials. That is something we all need, God’s grace to bring us through!

    Libbi is someone that people talk to, she is open and receptive so she may hear a few more of the ’stories’ that as some of you put it ‘grab the emotions’ than some other artists. She also cares about the people who talk to her so she is more likely to share their needs and prayer requests with others.

    The Bible says ‘bear ye one another’s burdens’ so it seems that she is doing what it says. You may find fault with that because we are all entiitled to our opinions, but I don’t think you will find scriptural fault with it and that’s the only standard that really matters anyway, isn’t it?

  13. JW wrote:

    I’d rather just hear mostly singing.

    But, if anyone has to “share”, please keep it brief. Nothing turns me off at a concert more than a long winded sob story. Some like shared misery, but it’s a turn-off to me as I think the Gospel should lift you up.

    I don’t know the answer as there is definitely an audience for the sob stories, but I suspect it turns off just as many. Maybe some singers who like to talk a lot should sit in the audience sometimes and see how we feel.

  14. Geno wrote:

    J. W. After twelve previous messagies, I think that you said it best.

  15. Gerry wrote:

    God speaks to the artists if He wants them to say something specific, even if it is only for one person to hear. But, I agree with Lewis; when something sounds rehearsed and is said in the same place in the program night after night, I begin to doubt the sincerity of the artist.
    Along the same lines, I wonder about some artists who selectively share details. Kirk Talley’s testimony comes to mind. The Crabb remarriages come to mind. Kenny Bishop comes to mind. And there are so many wives in SG that just seem to disappear. Why don’t artists step up and talk about how God is helping them through those types of situations?

  16. James Blackwood Jr wrote:

    I just noticed a mention of some recently discovered recordings by my dad but I did not understand the comment, “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”. The recordings which were referred to were never thought to be “forever lost”. We didn’t know they even existed. As far as I know there are not any other undiscovered recordings of my dad. But if there were you would not have to wonder about what “they” are going to do with them. The recordings would be released with the hope that the songs of this great gospel singer would continue to be heard and appreciated. He wasn’t called “Mr. Gospel Music” without good reason. He lived and breathed gospel music. He was an humble man who was used of God and was also recognized with 31 straight years as a Grammy nominee and won 9 Grammys. He also won 7 Dove awards for top male vocalist. Sorry, I just couldn’t help but brag on my dad a little.

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