On mainstream media and gospel music

One reason I find the kinds of material Martin Roth digs up from mainstream media coverage of gospel music so fascinating is that, judging by the way they write, mainstream journalists for the most part have no clue what to think about southern gospel music, much less how to make sense of it in writing (case in point: the most popular act in Christian entertainment swings through Florida and the St. Petersburg Times thinks it all about a stupid beachball giveaway). It’s one thing for a good ole boy like Randy Travis or Alan Jackson to strike up a few gospel chords now and then. Excursions by country musicians into gospel music are easily “readable” to mainstream audiences as a “return to roots” or a statement of core beliefs – a back to the basics kind of thing. The story virtually writes (and reads) itself.

Even black gospel “makes sense” to mainstream writers and readers in ways that white gospel music doesn’t. I think this is because whatever people outside the black gospel tradition and industry might not understand or get about the music they can chalk up to an element of “black culture,” which in the dumbdowned popular culture version inevitably involves some kind of (generally oversimplified) mention of how central spirituals were in the establishment and survival African American identity down through the years.

But white gospel music … well … In the words of Rob Ritchie … boy, I don’t know. A gospel act comes to town and if he can’t get away with some dashed off fluff about a beachball, the well-intentioned (or just plain lazy) local features reporter rifles through his file of standard narrative lenses through which to view not only the odd, almost cultish devotion of all these otherwise normal and upstanding white, middle-class Protestant types around him who love southern gospel music, but also the undecipherable spectacle of a form of modern entertainment that lacks any discernable traces of irony. Two options usually present themselves:

  • Option 1: “idn’t that sweet’ condescension, which involves an overflowing of deference to the profiled artist’s deeply held faith and devotion to spreading the message of Christ’s love (translation: I have no idea why anyone would ever choose to live on a cramped and smelly bus with four or five other underpaid yokels who spend their nights cracking stale jokes to audiences that seem to be delighted by bad humor and undisciplined music).

  • Option 2: clinical reportage as if dictating the description of found objects at an anthropological dig to a dutiful secretary, which involves writing as if to aliens. “So-called ‘southern gospel’ is a form of religious music that mixes various theological themes with many different musical styles but is traditionally associated with the all-male quartet historically accompanied by a pianist, usually also a male.” Real-live example (from a recent article about the Down East Boys … hat tip, GM): “Every performance features favorite hymns, fast-moving beats, and life.” Life? Huh? As opposed to death? What thuh? (To be fair, there are some interesting details in the DEB story but still …) Submerged beneath this kind of writing is often the “it’s such a shame” attitude that gospel music is mainly one big festival of duplicity, in which emotionally manipulative performers mesmerize the religiously gullible.

In whatever form, this inability to understand (and incuriosity in really finding out about) white gospel music means that inevitably those stories that conform to a recognizable template from mainstream media and popular cultural narratives – the fall from grace, the prodigal returns, the lifetime of unwavering commitment, the native son come home – these are the stories that will get told about white gospel music in the mainstream press. Stories involving sexuality obviously fit above averagely well into these narrative molds.

Occasionally someone gets it right. The GQ article about Kirk Talley a while back, though imperfect, struck me as very thoughtful and an honest effort to capture the complexity of the situation. And too, I’m not sure one should hope for much more than occasional successes anyway. Still that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to read an article like the Country Weekly Bishop piece, which is especially dissatisfying, not only for the profile-by-numbers approach of the writing but also the have-it-both-ways logic of portraying Bishop as the prodigal come home and yet just assuming that all your readers are in on the open secret of Bishop’s “prodigality.”

Update: Reader NG writes in a comment:

In the mainstream [music] media press, Southern Gospel doesn’t exist. You can read about black gospel and country artists singing gospel but not SGM. A good example is the excellent magazine from the US south called American Oxford. Every year it puts out a great music edition with a CD and an article on each of the Southern artists featured on the CD. You’ll hear and read about black gospel artists (this year Swan Silvertones and Sam Cooke), soul artists, rock artists, country artists, rockabilly performers and so on. SGM doesn’t exist because it is small potatoes, because it had limited influence on pop music (unlike black gospel) and maybe because few folks, [even] southern ones, have heard it.

In a follow up email, NG elaborates:

I find this [ignoring of southern gospel] a little strange, since the Blackwoods and Statesmen were on a major record label like RCA while the Black groups were on lesser labels like Speciality. I guess the key thing was that black gospel influenced black pop while white gospel had a limited inflence. There were exceptions like the Kendalls (”Heaven’s Just a sin way”), which had a white gospel feel as did some of the Oaks’s country/pop stuff. It was easy to change some of the Oaks country hits to gospel (One in a Million and Elvira). Mainstream music writers didn’t care about the Oaks’ pop/country success in comparison to say Sam Cooke’s pop success. I own two books about Sam (one by Guralnick) which deal in depth with his move to pop. No one seems to care that much that the Oaks and Gatlins did the same thing.

What NG says, of course, is largely true, and though perhaps “doesn’t exist” is a bit overstating things, he is right to point to the role that influence plays in shaping popular attitudes toward subgenres of religious music.

A genre that doesn’t seem to have exerted much influence on adjacent styles is naturally treated as derivative and un- (or less) worthy of attention. But this formula tends to create its own reality after a while. To offer a more contemporary example to complement NG’s reference to the Blackwoods et al, the coverage of Gaither, who for years called himself by a gospel name, garnered a lot of press in the high rolling days of the homecoming tour, and yet most of that coverage seemed unable or unwilling to recognize the extraordinary influence he has had on Christian entertainment.

One might make the case, for example, that the rise of the compilation cd – such as the annual WOW series in CCM from the 90s or similar products that bundle existing releases together in novel fashion (i.e. Songs of Praise, The Women of Christian Country) responds to Gaither’s popularizing the idea of novelty re-grouping of existing artists and music. After all, what made those early videos so appealing was not just the revival of long forgotten personalities but the novel presentation of them, … say, Vestal, Jake, George, and Glenn singing “Cannanland is Just in Sight,” or Larry Ford and Lily Knowles sharing verses of “What a Day That Will Be.” I’m not suggesting compilation discs or themed albums were a direct result of Gaither, but certainly he helped cultivate an appetite for novel repackagings in Christian entertainment. And yet, the coverage of Gaither never really looks beyond the narrow context of the Homecoming tour’s success to the origins (in southern gospel) of that success or its legacy beyond the Homecoming stage.

So you have a situation in both the Blackwoods et al from mid-century and Gaither in the last decade or so where major and demonstrably influential southern gospel musicians go largely ignored (though Gaither is beginning to catch the eye of a few academics and scholars of culture and communication, there is still no sustained and serious treatement of his biography or impact, popular or scholarly). Media misrecognition reinforces preexisting blind spots … so much so that after a while it’s debatable which came first: the non-existence of sg in mainstream media or the latter’s inability to know what the former would look like in the first place.

What accounts for this misrecognition? I’m not sure, but I think it must have something to do with gospel music’s hybridity. To outsiders trying to write about gospel music, I suspect southern gospel appears just enough of a stylistic hybrid – borrowing from the Reformed church hymnody, country, pop, and bluegrass – to seem musically or stylistically uninteresting, a derivative of those more highly regarded musical traditions. And so those are the traditions that get the coverage. What’s more, the particular way in which southern gospel music expresses its religious commitments may also give the impression to the uninitiated journalist that southern gospel is a mere musical adjunct to (and is best understood as just another version of) traditional congregational worship experiences.

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Comments

  1. NG wrote:

    In the mainstream media press, Southern Gospel doesn’t exist. You can read about black gospel and country artists singing gospel but not SGM. A good example is the excellent magazine from the US south called American Oxford. Every year it puts out a great music edition with a CD and an article on each of the Southern artists featured on the CD. You’ll hear and read about black gospel artists (this year Swan Silvertones and Sam Cooke), soul artists, rock artists, country artists, rockabilly performers and so on. SGM doesn’t exist because it is small potatoes, because it had limited influence on pop music (unlike black gospel) and maybe because few folks every southern ones have heard it.

  2. LSJ wrote:

    One thing about Southern Gospel that pushes it out of being taken seriously in the mainstream is its almost strictly evangelical nature in lyrics and presentation. P&W is similar and is interpreted as “church service” music–not necessarily entertainment, which kind of groups its image together with SGM. Most CCM is evangelical, but the lyrics are typically nebulous–they could be singing about God, or their girlfriend, or their new car. The CCM presentation more closely resembles that which is similar to other genres of music popular in the mainstream (which I do not seem able to put into words right now, but perhaps someone else can elaborate). As a result, CCM appears to be influenced by other genres, whereas SGM appears to be (from the mainstream POV) influenced by black gospel, which in itself is a lesser appreciated medium than other genres.

  3. CVH wrote:

    Great topic. To add to LSJ’s comment, many of the writers in the mainstream press are on the young side; 20’s, 30’s. Unless they’re from the south (and depending on what press you’re talking about, most probably are not), their exposure to and understanding of southern gospel probably ranges from non-existent to very limited.

    Perhaps their grandmother had some old LPs by the Blackwoods or their mother-in-law raves about a concert by a group called ‘Signature Sound’. Other than some cursory Googling for background before they write, most lack any personal connection to the genre. So, by nature, their approach becomes tentative and exploratory.

    As our host points out, their approach is either sweetly sentimental (like casually leafing through Grandma’s copy of Guideposts while they chat during those all-too-infrequent visits) or clinically analytical (quoting statistics, sales, any notable mainstream accolades, etc.) to try and connect themselves to the subject and then, the reader.

    I’ve had the experience several times of
    being asked by writers who have no clue about any religious music - CCM, SG, P&W, whatever - to explain it. Try that with someone who is doing a story they were assigned to, in which they have little or no real curiosity or interest.

    Good writing requires context. It seems fewer mainstream writers understand that; with the exception of long-form articles written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, some major newspapers or scholarly journals, most writing these days is superficial and lacks context because the writers and even their editors don’t have any. Add to that a topic as remote in the popular culture as southern gospel music and you can’t expect much.

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