Wherein I meander through some thoughts on my generation in gospel music
Around the time I wrote that post on loyalty a bit ago, I started getting emails (and thinking) about the state of the junior generation of gospel talent (that is, my generation, I suppose). This isn’t a “state of creative crisis in sg” post. There are plenty of examples of professionals in their 20s and 30s doing good work, working hard, and putting out good music. But as a journalist friend of mine once said, tonight we’re not writing about all the planes that landed on time.
Inarguably, gospel music is a different bidness now than it was 15-20 years (which I gather is still the rough measure of a generation). The declining influence of and demand for white gospel music in Christian entertainment and the precipitous rise in what might best be described as full-time amateurs have created an unstable market full of middlin-to-fair-to-downright-crummy music. The rise of Gaitherization has simultaneously broadened the commonly accepted definition of what gospel music is and (because of the enormous success of the Homecoming phenomenon) homogenized singing and showmanship – a truly big finish is synonymous with a choir of old friends and everybody wants to sing like David Phelps or Michael English or Guy Penrod.
And finally, the anxiety and instability created by the erosive effects of the first two forces have fueled a pietistic backlash: it’s reassuring to explain the decline of gospel music as a collective backsliding rather than admit it’s at least partially about a collective failure to innovate, think creatively, and acknowledge that times change. If this is a spiritual (not an artistic) problem, then you fix it not by making better music but by being holier lest the forces of darkness continue to ruin southern gospel. This turn toward ostentatious ministry-mindedness has a twofold effect: for the self-deluded and joyful noisers, it converts the ever shrinking market share and diminished influence of gospel music into a badge of spiritual honor (nobody may know who we are or buy our music, but we love the Lord and won’t compromise for the world). And it makes showy demonstrations of religious conviction at least as important as artistic ability and musical talent. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!
Enter the young professional, the aspiring artist, the talented idealist. Drawn to the music by a generation of masters (and their way of singing and doing bidness) that held sway in the 80s and 90s (and who have been slowly, sadly disappearing over the last decade or so), these young artists face a monumental paradox: of living up to a standard of artistry and showmanship that today’s gospel music infrastructure is far less able or willing to support.
The Martins, Anthony Facello, Chris West, Loren Harris, Kenny Bishop. There are many others. Their circumstances are all as individual as they themselves are and ultimately we ourselves are alone responsible for our careers and the choices we make. But they all strike me as good examples of people whose fitful and sporadic relationship with southern gospel bespeaks something of the instability roiling white gospel music. Perhaps they would have drifted away from or flirted intermittently with professional performance in another time as well, but a thread of disaffection might also be said to connect their careers. To illustrate what I’m getting here, let me quote from an email I got a while back from a young professional (not any of the above named) around the time of my Loyalty post:
There is no loyalty in SG. No other genre is like this. From church house to auditorium all I’ve heard for [years since I started singing professionally with a group] is “just stay together,” “Dont go contemporary,” “your the future of SG.” But it seems that the older groups try to run you out and destroy you as soon as you get your head above water. It’s like in the wild where a male will kill it’s young to ensure it’s survival. I love this music. When I started I had such a passion for singing and getting to know my sg heroes in the process. Now, except for a select few, I have to watch my legs at all times because I understand that anybody could cut them off.
To what extent does a more senior generation of artists have an obligation to the younger? Not much, I think. Bidness is bidness. And the social Darwinist in me thinks that maybe if there was a little more competitive aggression out there, better music would issue from the struggle. But the reality is, the best artists are not always the strongest (Judy Garland anyone?), and the people who survive the starving artists’ struggle are in many cases simply those willing to live on less and settle for diminished expectations (make your own list here). Or those who don’t need the money that rarely comes (ditto).
Certainly the prunings and consolidations that yielded the clunkily christened TK & McCraes suggest a sort of desperate hopefulness born of no more options than to throw a hail Mary – what if we downsized and merged! – or put the stuff up for sale on ebay, shutter the dreams nurtured since God knows when, craigslist the van, and see if Grace Community Faith Chapel needs a music minister, or the Gap a shirt-folder. Similarly, one senses in the Martins on-again-off-again schedule, in Anthony Facello’s real-estate-turned-solo-ministry, in Chris West’s and Loren Harris’s starburst careers, in Kenny Bishop’s singing-political-operative hybridity – in all of these cases (and others) one senses more than a certain persisting, unresolved ambivalence (in the psychological sense of holding both positive and negative feelings toward something that pulls you in opposite directions at once). Stay or go. Road or home. Sing or silence. I just can’t decide.
I’m grateful that in most cases they can’t and keep at it, however fitfully, though to be honest, I am also sometimes a bit ambivalent myself about the implications of my desires, my demands as a fan and a consumer.
And yet … To hear Katy Peach sing a melody or Anthony Facello gently cradle a lyric or Joyce Martin fill the air with flawless intervals is to hear, for me, the voice of God (Kenny Bishop, more of a minor prophet). I have no idea if this is a calling for these people (and anyone else for that matter) or not. I think I understand why people need to believe their favorite singers are suffused with holiness, full of sanctification, and brimming with the gifts of the spirit. But it’s foolish to assume we know why people do what they do. That they do it, and do it well (if they can do it well), this ought amply to take the measure of their conviction, the sufficiency of their faith, since it is no small feat to open oneself up, vulnerable and needy, before a crowd of strangers and sing of the soul’s lament, the heart’s salvation, of grace and redemption and make it real - make it felt - in and for we who so often little understand what these things are, or mean.
If it’s harder today to meet the mark of authentic artistry in gospel music, more likely that you’ll be cut off at the knees or felled by your own top-heavy expectations, I believe (well, I want to anyway) that the result will be a better brand of beauty. Sounder for the struggle. Heartier for being brutalized.
PS But hang on to those early Mercy’s Mark albums, and your Martins collection, just in case I’m wrong.Email this Post