Harshing, Part I
From the Ask Avery file, Edie wants to know:
Hey Mr Editor-guy,
I’m wondering why you think there are all these Ernie-haters out there? Is it jealousy? I mean, Ernie is just as nice and just as normal (which means he has his faults) as anybody else out there.
On the one hand, I don’t really get all the Ernie hating either. EHSSQ hasn’t done anything more or less outrageous than other groups –whether we’re speaking sartorially, choreographically, or aesthetically.
What they have done is succeed, or else done a really good job of playing the part of what the small-time gospel music world thinks big-time success looks like (for the record, I think it’s mainly the former). So, on the other hand, harshing on EH makes a lot of sense. Partly it may be professional and personal jealousy. But it’s probably a lot more complicated than that.
The ubiquitous cult of personality in gospel music has its roots in a conservative evangelical deference to authority and power figures. Iconic singers and stars aren’t icons just because we like their music. As with all entertainment figures, southern gospel stars represent at some level a projection of what audiences ideally imagine about themselves and want from the world or and their lives in it. In Christian music, the spiritual and religious dimension of the entertainment only intensifies the ties that bind fans to their favorites. The connection isn’t just personal; it’s eternal, metaphysical, potentially salvific.
In this context, EH’s rise to fame has to be understood as the symbolic success of a certain set of unconventional values and aspirations that challenge the status quo of southern gospel culture. For those people who came down more on the Scott Fowler/Roger Bennett side of the Ernie/Scott divide in the post-Cathedrals years, EHSSQ’s emergence as a hot ticket might well seem like a repudiation of whatever core values or conventional ideals people wanted to believe the Cathedrals represented. Thus all the suggestions that Ernie is somehow a usurper or a phony or worse because he married into the Younce family. The clear (and fairly preposterous) implication seems to be that George Younce was somehow forced by his daughter’s marriage to “side” with Ernie when what he really wanted to do was pass the torch to Scott and Roger. Royght.
EH and SSQ are arguably flashier, explicitly sexier, and unabashedly more ambitious than probably any other gospel act on the road today. Observe, dear readers, this trailer’s unsubtle hat-tips to Broadway, Vegas, and the “blockbuster” culture of mainstream big-budget roll-outs:
They aren’t the first to take this approach. But they are alone among the current crop of top-tier gospel artists in robustly succeeding thanks to a formula that pretty willfully dispenses with all but the most perfunctory or obligatory acts of self-deprecation or self-denials or “we’re just tryin’ to be a blessing” demurrals that southern gospel fans expect from groups that enjoy a great deal of success. Why do you think Bill Gaither plays up his stutter? Or George Younce made old-man jokes about Glen Payne (indeed, though Payne and Haase represent two very different on-stage personalities, I’ve often thought Payne, with his hard-driving style and non-nonsense “here’s your change who’s next” business style, was actually the truer ancestor to Haase’s take-no-prisoners approach to success, no matter how cloying Ernie is on stage). Look too quickly at that clip and you might miss that this is a southern gospel quartet. And that, I think, is a big part of the point.
In gospel music, it’s ok to succeed, but it’s dangerous to succeed in a way that sharpens the economic, social, or cultural differences between the fan and the performer. And so, while EHSSQ’s flashiness, their flamboyant fashionability, their eager appropriation of styles and approaches from American popular culture – while not bothering with any “reclaim the devil’s music for the Lord” apologetics – obviously appeals to a lot of people who like to live the gospel rock-star lifestyle vicariously through EHSSQ (a friend of mine who attended the Dream On taping said she saw alot of what looked like Mennonite women), it’s also an approach that runs the risk of rubbing a lot of other people the wrong way - people who want their music to reinforce their worldview and self-image, not provide an escape from it or glamorize other ways of religious living.
And so for these people, a group like EHSSQ has the potential to make them feel outclassed or shown up or played for the fool. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that (in fact it’s often easier to defend forms of pop culture as art if they push people out of their comfort zones), but it might help explain the Ernie-hating cottage industry in sg.Email this Post