Partisan hacks with a microphone

I was a bit rushed with work when I originally posted the query below, so I should probably say by way of full disclosure now that I have time: I really am no big fan of the politicized subgenre of gospel tunes of which “We’ve Got to Get America Back to God” is a representative (the song came up in a piece of writing I’m working on right now; thus my need for your collective memory). Any time you try to put music in service of explicitly political rhetoric, the result is inevitably stilted and clubfooted. It’s like trying to find a rhyme for cancer. You can do it, but not without a cringe.

But that’s a matter of taste, I suppose. The bigger issue is that the music-as-political-chum approach disrupts the useful fiction of universal ecumenicalism that is an essential precondition for the successful live performance of gospel music (listening at home, you can just skip the cringe-inducing polemics). Typically, concerts work in no small part because we all have agreed to pretend that we agree about everything because we share a love of gospel music performed live. It’s one thing for artists to sing or talk about “values” or “Godly leaders” or voting for those people who will ensure this is a “Christian nation.” We all think we know what we are supposed to infer from these loaded words (politically conservative, religiously fundamentalist positions), but they’re sufficiently vague to allow listeners of all political and ideological stripes to assign their own meanings to these terms … and for those of us to the left of the hard right, hope the awkward but bearable moment of vaguely political grandstanding passes quickly. As soon as you start getting into specifics – abortion, the war, sexuality, prayer in school, whatever – you cut off access to that interpretive flexibility and make people choose sides. In the process you descend from the artistic ether (where people will suspend a lot of disbelief about politics and such and assume you’re someone they’d get along with because they like your music) and become a partisan hack with a microphone.

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Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Keep Quiet About Politics If You Sing? « Pastoral Musings on 21 Jul 2007 at 2:53 am

    […] Keep Quiet About Politics If You Sing? Doug over at AVERYFINELINE seems to insinuate that gospel singers should be quiet about politics. […]

  2. www.southerngospelblog.com » Blog Archive » Politics in Southern Gospel on 24 Jul 2007 at 10:16 am

    […] Some bloggers criticize singers who express conservative positions on controversial issues, so with that in mind, I thought I’d point out Jason Skipper’s post that provides a nice counterbalance. […]

Comments

  1. eddie crook wrote:

    Huh???

  2. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Gospel music in and of itself is divisive among music fans in general due to the subject matter. SG or not, many (if not most) non-Christians are going to be turned off by the lyrics of a gospel song.

    People will tend to keep coming back, though, if they really like the music. Perhaps if an artist does something colossally stupid (be it Dixie Chicks or Michael English), there will be a significant backlash against the artist for a period of time, but those situations always makes the fans remain that much more devoted.

    As for pro-USA songs blended with gospel songs, those have always been happily accepted by the majority of SG fans. You may not like it from a personal point of view, but I don’t think it’s likely to change. That’s why we have so many songs that mix the two topics. (from “God Bless America” to “Statue Of Liberty”).

    I agree that when an artist starts sharing opinions on several controversial topics, they can alienate more people. However, I don’t agree that inserting a political statement into a gospel song diminishes the quality of the art…at least not necessarily. Many of these songs have stood the test of time.

  3. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    That line in the second paragraph of my previous comment should read:
    “those situations always makes the REMAINING fans that much more devoted.”

  4. JLS wrote:

    #

    eddie crook wrote:

    Huh???

    Posted 21 Jul 2007 at 1:30 am ¶

    My sentiments exactly.

  5. quartet-man wrote:

    David, don’t forget Scars and Stripes and Scars and Stripes Forever by the Cathedrals. (Those like Statue of Liberty mixes part of the gospel story with patriotism.) One that doesn’t mix the two as I recall (at least not crucifixion and patriotism), but is a great America God Still Loves You by the Singing Americans. :)

  6. GLenn wrote:

    I don’t think that Avery is talking about songs that may be patriotic, which seems to be what David Murray is talking about. Songs like this and Jeff Steele’s “We want America Back” aren’t pro-USA songs, they are loaded to invoke a certain response.

  7. Sheldon wrote:

    I agree with Glenn - I think there’s a huge difference between “Let Freedom Ring” or “Statue of Liberty” and “We Want America Back” and “We’ve Got to Get America Back to God”. The first two are patriotic/feel-good songs that express a down deep patriotism that I think most Americans share across the political spectrum. I have always cringed (or worse) when I’ve heard the phrase “rule with staff and rod” in “We’ve Got to Get America Back to God”. That is such a loaded phrase, and seems to go way against our NT mandate as Christians. I can readily identify with Doug and others as to how uncomfortable it is when the politics become very specific and exclusive.

  8. CVH wrote:

    Seems as though we had a dialogue about that song last year sometime? The presumptuous “We” in the title suggests that everyone within earshot abides by the same sociological and political norms and that even if we may differ in our positions or opinions we put that aside when we come together under the big southern gospel music tent so that the greater good in the song’s message may prevail.

    Personally I think that’s a load of crap. It’s one thing for a Gloria Gaither to write “Let Freedom Ring” or a Neil Enloe to pen “From A Star To Stripes” or “Statue of Liberty”, but those are analogies, not overtly patriotic songs. I doubt either writer would stoop so low artistically as to try and wrap God up in the American flag. They’re comparisons used to illustrate a spiritual point.

    On the other hand, lyrical sludge like “We’ve Got To Get America Back To God” cheapens not only the heart of the message of the gospel but the very patriotic ideals the writer/singer is so desperately invokes. To trivialize the truth of what the Bible teaches in this way is hardly different that the skewed superficial nature of much of the praise and worship music that has flooded the mainstream Christian music market. Neither are accurate in painting a wholistic picture of the Gospel. One of the results is the continual dumbing-down of people’s understanding of what the Bible says as well as what it means to be a God-honoring citizen of this (or any) country. Another is that it contributes to the growing irrelevancy of the genre as a means of communicating relevant Truth.

    I’d compare it to the downward spiral of the work of James Dobson. In the 70’s when he was a practicing clinical psychologist and wrote a couple of books on parenting, he was probably doing what God called him to do. And he did it well. As American evangelicalism heaved its way through the decades of the 80’s and 90’s, he traded his position as an articulate professional in one area of expertise for the bully pulpit of right-wing conservative politics. In the process he has been (rightly so) marginalized as just another hack for the conservative right. Even some people in his own organization are ready for him to finally leave (vertically or horizontally) so they can try and steer FOF back to where many feel it should be; a God-honoring family resource, rather than a mouthpiece for every conservative cause that suits its founder.

    When politics, right, left or centrist, starts to permeate art of any form, it’s time to read, listen or look at something else. It’s hard enough (as numerous discussions on this blog indicate) to encourage good art in a narcissistic, culturally-entrenched, economically-challenged genre of music like southern gospel. Subverting art in such a blatant
    manner reveals the utter lack of understanding on the part of the writers and performers of what art is meant to be and do. If it is meant to convince hearts and minds it must be done in a noble, courageous fashion. To beat people over the head with worn-out rhetoric and tired cliches does a disservice not only God but the country as well.

    Jesus didn’t call us to be patriotic; he called us to be faithful. And the Bible also instructs us to “choose this day who you will serve”. You can’t serve God and mammon, especially when that mammon takes the form of hyperpatriotism.

  9. Practical Fellow wrote:

    I think I get what you’re saying, and if I do, I disagree somewhat. Some songs are simply going to offend people. And they should. The gospel is offensive and some gospel songs are going to offend. It gets complicated when you start thinking about market share and sales and marketing and on and on… At some point, song material should include additional subject matter to the blood, mama’s prayers, crossing Jordan, and dinner on the grounds.

    I agree that music should, for the most part, remain somewhat open to interpretation to be more inclusive of the audience (i.e. the recent conversation here about cancer songs - don’t name the disease specifically and more people can identify with the song). But in an age where our country is further and further divided, it may be time to be more specific in gospel music. It needs to be calculated and the artist needs to understand they may have a Dixie-Gate situation (of which the Dixie Chicks have never fully recovered their audience). But in terms of sexual orientation, abortion, prayer in school (your examples) and other hot-button issues that are as much moral issues as political ones, I believe songs should not waffle or present a vague message. Nor should artists simply ignore that these issues/debates are occurring beyond the church walls.

    Having said that, it’s tough to write a great ‘message’ song. I’ve heard songs that were against abortion, but they came across contrived and kind of icky (”Mama, please don’t kill me”). I’ve heard songs that were anti-homosexual lifestyle and they were simply weird and sounded more hateful than hopeful (”It’s unnatural! Hey now, listen to me ya’ll, it’s unnatural!” - no joke). I think a really great song could communicate any number of political/moral issues - but it has to be GREAT SONG. And those are stinkin’ hard to write.

  10. Dirk wrote:

    I have an honest question for you Doug: Are you a born-again Believer in Jesus Christ? From your blog, it appears that you may possibly be a “left-wing Christian.” Well, socially liberal is one thing, but if you’re not morally conservative (which most such individuals you seem to love to rip to shreds) on issues such as abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, adultery and a host of other left-wing issues then I say, “Read that dusty Bible on your shelf. It might do you some good…”

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    Let Freedom Ring and I Pledge My Allegiance by the GVB are great ones as well. I do see the point about those songs being different than “We Want America Back” and “We’ve Got to Get America Back to God” I do agree with the post about the gospel being offensive. Although there are many people in SG and some have different ways of interpretation or beliefs than others, I do admire those who will stand up for what they believe even if their careers might suffer.

  12. Chris wrote:

    What makes SG better than contemporary is that SG lyrics edify - in other words, they preach. That’s why I like it. Sometimes we need to here how America needs to return to holiness. And if it makes a song sound political, it’s only because one party tends to consistently side against Christian values. So you can hear the lyrics as a good message and as a strong rebuke. I guess your response will probably correlate with how you vote.

  13. Tyler wrote:

    Here’s what I say: If the Gospel is offensive to you, you better not read your Bible. …you might get offended.

  14. Jim E. Davis wrote:

    “Choose this day who you will serve” was a choice between the one true God and the Gods of the heathen. The Israelites were not given a choice to be moderate, centrists or just shy of serving Jehovah (Oh, please…can I keep this tiny golden calf?).

    There are multiple issues we may wrangle and disagree about but abortion (murder) and immorality shouldn’t be on the list and neither should we be offended when someone, be it preacher or musician, has the fortitude to speak it or sing it. Truth has a way of vindicating itself and really doesn’t care if we are offended or not.

    David didn’t mince around sin in his Psalms but I’ll admit it is more exciting (and less condemning) to sing about how beautiful God is than about needing forgiveness for my wicked ways.

    Not to worry…this is not even close to “permeating” the genre of Southern Gospel. Two songs in fifteen years are rather sparse and two groups at the NQC out of fifty hardly qualifies for a great awakening. So go buy a bag of stale popcorn and ask for extra ice in your soft drink. By the time you get back to your seat the song will be over and the soda will be sufficiently watered down to your liking.

  15. Tyler wrote:

    “There are multiple issues we may wrangle and disagree about but abortion (murder) and immorality shouldn’t be on the list and neither should we be offended when someone, be it preacher or musician, has the fortitude to speak it or sing it. Truth has a way of vindicating itself and really doesn’t care if we are offended or not.”

    Amen Jim!

  16. Jim Lee wrote:

    The message of Gospel music should limit its subject matter to what makes it “gospel”, that is the good news of Christ and his love and truth and power working on us and in us. We make a mistake when we try to “baptize” nationalism or conservatism or any other political agenda.
    I served in the military, but I don’t like to see church choirs waving flags as they sing a tribute to the military on “patriotic” Sundays, nor do I care to go to a “Gospel concert” and hear someone rant about their conservative political views. Whether you agree with them or not, there are many dedicated praying Christians who are our brothers and sisters, who are more moderate or even liberal in their politics. At one time it was only the “liberals” who were against slavery. When I was a child in Birmingham, all of the “conservatives” espoused segregation and racism. If we insist on adding our own political views to the “gospel” that we sing, then we have further narrowed our appeal.

  17. RK wrote:

    All too often, one’s opinion of politics in music hinges upon whether the person agrees or disagrees with artists’ views. Many liberals who might scoff and sneer at the right-wing comments or lyrics employed by Southern Gospel artists are the same people who belittle conservative country music fans for abandoning the Dixie Chicks over their overt liberal stage antics. Is that consistent?

    In his post, Doug says, “Any time you try to put music in service of explicitly political rhetoric, the result is inevitably stilted and clubfooted.” I agree, whether it comes from the Steeles, Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez, or Barbra Streisand.

    Of course, artists have their First Amendment right to express their political views, but we as fans/listeners/customers have the right not to support them. And most often, we or don’t support them based upon the compatibility of their message with our own views, rather the rightness or wrongness of bringing politics onto the stage in the first place.

    As far as appropriateness on a gospel stage, Doug is correct about appealing to an ecumenical crowd, but the boundaries shouldn’t only be limited to politics. In fact, I’ve seen far more concert-goers offput by denominational or religious expressions or comments than by political posturing.

    It usually revolves around a group getting “too charismatic” for an ecumenical crowd, “too preachy” (revealing enough specific theology to offend some), or perhaps using a denomination-related joke that offends some.

  18. Tyler wrote:

    Like I said before, if Godly morals presented in the gospel is offensive then you’d better not read your Bible. You just might get offended.

  19. Derek wrote:

    Jesus was pretty controversial himself…and everywhere he went the Scribes and Pharisees were “offended” by his teachings. Truth is rarely popular with the masses, nonetheless, as the Bible says, the truth shall make you free. We are supposed to be set apart from the world. I work in secular radio as well as playing SG music, and rest assured you won’t hear anyone in secular music take a bold stand for the truth. If SG artists don’t address the “controversial” issues with boldness, who will?

  20. Tyler wrote:

    Preeeeeach on. A+

  21. Shane wrote:

    What an ignorant article. The whole point of Christianity IS to choose sides. Choose the side of Christ, righteousness, wholesomeness, honesty, duty loyalty. To say that we should compromise on any part of Christianity (including gospel music) is foolish and you are revealing the wolf under your sheep’s clothing.

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