NQC 06: Final Thoughts

First, it’s worth noting that for all the expectation and big talk in the run up to NQC, I heard the American Gospel Music concept mentioned only twice: once from the stage between acts in a brief mention Friday night about the inaugural American Gospel Music festival in Dallas and once again from a reporter on Friday who legitimately complained to me privately that the AGM press conference on Wednesday specifically excluded questions from the press. The organizers evidently didn’t have time, which is just so hopelessly emblematic of this whole deal. I’ll be interested to see where this Dallas festival goes. Promoters and business people I talk to say that Dallas is a notoriously difficult city to stage southern gospel. I assume the city was chosen for its large Southern Baptist population given AGM’s aspirations to tap the suburban Baptist church market, but the town’s ambivalence about sg from a promotional standpoint will make the spring event an interesting test for the concept. Watch and see if AGM starts to manage expectations more conservatively or continue to talk up the galactic goals and aims for AGM that its organizers have their sights on.

Second, and related to the underlying thread to the whole AGM discussion: the future of NQC. I know, I know. But I’ll try to be brief. This is an old chestnut for gospel music insiders … how to grow the event, how to “save” gospel music, how to get more young people interested etc. I stand by my longstanding newspaper-subscription theory: that a taste and devotion to gospel music, like subscribing to a daily newspaper, comes with age the change in means and tastes and life-patterns that aging brings. Proof of this is that NQC’s decline at the margins notwithstanding (and these declines are cause for concern), it is still a fairly robust event that’s anchored and kept alive by a core of fans who will come back year after year (the “faithful hordes” I’ve described elsewhere) no matter what. This makes a reasonable person wonder if the more useful approach to all this is to stop worrying about finding the NQC subscribers of tomorrow today but to let the faithful horde proceed on autopilot and focus on targeting the people who might NOT be likely to become a future NQC fan. Perhaps, in the end, this is what AGM will amount to: a promotional arm of NQC that takes the best of NQC on the road to audiences on the margin of gospel music. We’ll see, but the big ideas seem to be getting in the way at this point.

Third, the sharp turn toward the patriotic and nationalistic was striking, even by NQC’s the own tendency toward the hawkish and nationalistic. Insofar as the war in Iraq and the ideological division in the country over the role of the active militarism in the war on Islamic extremism has foregrounded questions of war and foreign policy, this uptick in displays and performance of patriotism and support for military isn’t that surprising. What interests me is how conspicuous patriotism has become as the favorite political topic, both from the stage in artists comments and in songs. Old music with a patriotic bent is repurposed for use in the current political debate while new songs – most notably, “Truth is Marching On,” but also a slightly more sensational evocation of the war on terror in a song that the Pfiefers staged this weekend – are clearly and directly pivoting off a network of feelings and associations surrounding the war, terrorism, and of course September 11, which coincides so closely to the 9/11 anniversary. It would take much more space than I wish to use up here to explore all the lines of influence and force and construction of meaning that goes on in this exchange between artists and audience, not least of all because the surface of ideological predictability in these moments of political stumping from the stage – poor Martin Cook just can’t help himself – both meets the community’s expectations and also authenticates existing political viewpoints. In this, gospel music generally and NQC specifically act as indexes for how evangelical culture shapes and is shaped by the wider world of conservative American Protestantism and American political and social life. Ten years ago it was abortion. Three or five years ago it was homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Now it’s war. When I talk about NQC as an anthropological dig of evangelical culture, this is a big part of what I mean. Understanding the cultural work, so to speak, that NQC performs is central to understanding its importance and its survival.

Last night MNP and I brought a gospel music neophyte with us – a twentysomething, educated, middle-class, Midwestern not-terribly-religious fellow with a music composition degree who had heard gospel music live only once before and never been to NQC. His reaction: The Booth Brothers were really the standard setters that no one else approached. Once you dissolve all the grains of salt with which you must take these kinds of “as others see us” reactions, I think there’s something to it. On the way to the airport this a.m., I was thinking about watching the Booths three years ago. Michael Booth was a spastic mess on stage, jumping and running and slipsliding around and generally threatened to spontaneously combust all over the Booths set. The music was solid (looking back on my NQC 04 notes, I see that I found their set well arranged and well sung, but Michael Booth “wound a little tight” to put it mildly), but since then they have taken it up a notch. Perhaps the Gaither influence played a role here. Fine. Great. Whatever it takes. This is the kind of group that manages to appeal – as our neophyte friend’s reaction suggests – to both traditional and non-traditional audiences. I don’t think you can really create a formula that builds more groups like this, so I guess the upshot here is to enjoy these rare moments.

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  1. KS wrote:

    I always liked the Booth’s sound but I always hated watching them because frankly I found their stage presence annoying…glad to hear they have gotten better in that respect…

  2. DM wrote:

    American Gospel Music is a big to do about nothing. Some of the artist listed are terrible singers.

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