Does sex sell in sg?
Now that I have your attention … of course it does.
Naturally, though, I have a longer answer too. In a recent post I referred to a “sexed-up” version of “Get Away Jordan” and some readers thought I was implying that EHSSQ uses sex in some way to sell their music. This made me chuckle at first. Since the run-up to the
Whatever the case, I meant it that way in this instance: as a short hand way of summarizing all the extra-musical emphasis – the meticulously constructed visuals, the flamboyant choreography, the short hair/spikey ties schtick – EHSSQ relies on to sell their music. If EHHSQ is a success in general, and if “Get Away Jordan” is at all popular in particular – and there seems to be far less consensus on this than I realized at first – it has as much to do with the hype (the “sexed-up”) style of the song.
But does this amount to a sexing up of gospel music in a less euphemistic sense? Is there an implicit or (not-so?) latent erotic component to this swishy dancing and hip-swiveling and gyrating and Rico-Suave gesturing and oh-so-smooth (“sensual” was the first word that came to mind) gesticulating that goes on during your average EHSSQ concert? I think a lot of people would say so – and a lot of the people who wouldn’t say so really secretly know it’s true all the same.
In the entertainment bidness, attractive young stars who spend a lot of time at the gym and the tanning bed and the designer clothing store and the hair salon, and who have glossy 8×10s available for the low low price of $5 that fans buy and pin up in their bedroom or on their refrigerator, and whose image is as much a part of their popularity as their musical ability — we often call this sex appeal. And just because we don’t use that term in gospel music doesn’t mean an element of that same kind of appeal isn’t at work with a lot young, hippish gospel groups and performers. Gospel music may be officially about the saving or enriching of the soul, but it’s an enfleshed soul after all.
This is not a new thing. There is a long connection in religious history, literature and the arts between the intense emotions and strong expressions of passionate feelings aroused by religion, and sexual ardor or other desires of the flesh. Indeed, more than a few writers, psychologists, philosophers, and theologians have argued that religious expressions (like music and speaking in tongues and revivalism) are a sublimation of certain dimensions of sexuality and sexual desire.
You need not agree with this to see that, closer to home, EHSSQ has been more willing than most southern gospel groups to present themselves in a manner that blurs the lines between the physical and spiritual.
This has a lot in common with the CCM tendency to adapt and adopt performance styles from popular culture and let fans make sense of it all - what’s the ministry and what part’s the show? - for themselves. But we forget that groups like the Statesmen and the Blackwoods pioneered this style of Christian entertainment that made no pretense about entertaining more than just the soul. It may be tempting to accuse a group like EHSSQ of being CCM for sg, inasmuch as CCM performance styles track right alongside dominant trends in mainstream music to an extent that the only way to tell them apart is to listen for “God” or “Jesus” now and again. But that would be wrong. Unlike CCM, EHSSQ (and to be fair, there are others) are converging old and new sg, both classic quartet and contemporary gospel styles with CCM and pop music and (as commenters have observed) some Elvis to boot … indeed, it seems they use whatever else strikes their fancy (what about a little dollop of Jamie Cullum here? Ok, sure … let’s do it). And they eagerly call it sg.
I don’t always care for the result, but bully for them, I say. Because this is actually only a logical extension of aesthetic tendencies that have been at work in gospel music for a long, long time … namely, eclecticism and hybridity (don’t let anybody fool you; what defines sg most clearly as a musical style is the way it blends styles and approaches without surrendering to any one of them). Music appeals to different people different ways and if you listen widely and are curious about how different styles of music work and can be adapted for your own purposes (as gospel music is), it can be difficult to contain that music’s effects, all protestations to the contrary. The only thing worse than hearing music that doesn’t move you, is hearing music that does and then being told by the person singing it how it’s supposed to effect you.
However, I digress. As it relates to the sex appeal thing, ESSHQ is part of a trend in sg that received particular emphasis from Michael English. He took the sensuality of inspirational Christian music and infused it with a kind of yearning and urgency and piquancy and, well … a kind of naked emotional quality that audiences responded to deeply. And no small part of that response, I daresay, had to do with the fact that he was young and fit and good-looking and nattily dressed. Women (and probably a few men) were attracted to him. A lot of the rest of men wanted to be him. How many times in the 90s did some college kid come home on break and sing “I Bowed On My Knees” at church in high Michael English imitation? And almost as many young gospel singers since then have tried to make themselves into English – not just sing like him, but also look and carry themselves like and make the audience swoon for them like he did – as there are United States senators who want to be president.
In a way, it’s funny that it’s so heretical to say sg performers might have some sort of sex appeal that is part of their success and that they rely on in part to succeed. Because really, we’ve already settled this question from the other side of things. Anyone who remembers our discussion of groupies and roadies remembers that we long ago more or less agreed that many fans – of both genders – use the rhetoric and conventions of Christian fellowship to mask the kinds of crushes and other assorted attractions that fans can associate with entertainers, especially young and attractive ones. Why wouldn’t we expect that street to run both ways?
Anyway, I don’t necessarily think any of this is a bad thing. Indiscretions get overmuch attention, but in general southern gospelites seem to do a decent job balancing the private and public demands placed upon them by the music. And if I had to choose between stylistic chastity and the way things are, I vote for the way they are. Not least of all because it makes the music more human, more palpable, more authentically entertaining. In this age of digitized tracks and canned bands, we can use all the hints of human authenticity we can get.Email this Post