Breathy singing, part II

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road the last few weeks, which has meant surfing through all sorts of unfamiliar radio stations. And I surprised myself by how quickly I could identify the CCM radio stations after just a few bars, sometimes even just a note or two.

One main identifying factor: the extraordinarily breathy singing that is qualitatively different - more cloying? raspier? less filtered? Something anyway, that is similar too but beyond your typical breathy singing on commercial pop radio. We’ve talked about this before, and I’m not going to rehash that discussion here, except to say that Christian singers seem to have taken breathy singing to a new level of angsty scratchiness in American music.

I think this vocal style is meant to convey some sort of deep musical meditation of the divine, or suggest the indescribable spiritual longing or striving that God’s love inspires, as though the spirit moves the singer so deeply, you can actually hear it in her voice. And there’s a legitimate argument to be had about how successful CCM is in this respect (ftr, I come down on the “not very” side).

But somewhere in the middle of Illinois, flipping through the dial and landing on some dime-a-dozen CCM singer/songwriter crooning away about “your majesty and grace” in high breathiness, I realized the main reason I find this style of Christian music so obnoxious and off-putting: whatever the intent of breathy singing (assuming there is one), it has the effect of sexualizing the expression of religious ideas and spiritual themes, and of not-so-vaguely eroticizing the individual’s relationship to the divine - leaving me with images such as: Justin Timberlake trying to seduce the holy spirit. Ick.

This is not new, exactly (and it’s not, of course, unique to CCM … just most common there). From the apostles, to Julian of Norwich, through to modern ascetics - it has been not uncommon for divines and saints to talk about their experience of religion in terms either implicitly or explicitly erotic. Writers addressing themselves to rapturous enlightenment, grace, spiritual ecstasy, and other varieties of religious enthusiasm have regularly found their experience pushing up against and exceeding the narrow limits of language when they tried capture in writing their encounters with what they experienced as powers and forces so foreign to the everyday, walking-around self. Sometimes the language of our deepest human intimacies was all that was available, or the most accurate idiom in which to express religious ideas.

But some Smitty wannabe (or Smitty himself!) whispering his way through a bunch of old testament names of God set to music is a long long way from St. Augustine’s Confessions. And most of the time when I listen to your average CCM headliner singing, I feel like I’m listening to knock-off versions of American pop and rock. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (and there are genuinely original exceptions, of course, even if they’re not my bag), but for those of us who grew up associating the sound of the soul’s lament and salvation with music that borrowed from but ultimately defined itself against popular song styles, much of contemporary Christian music of the past several decades can feel hollow and disconnected from the deeper currents of feeling and experience that shape the life of the spiritual striver.

So while legions of, say, BarlowGirl fans hear …. well, something religiously meaningful (at least I assume they do; Russ Breimeier has written about the “the outspoken passion with which BarlowGirl drive their message”), I don’t, but then maybe that’s because I liked this music better the first two times, when it was called Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne.

Which is why I have them on my iPod and play them, and not BarlowGirl, when I want to hear this sort of music (we will leave aside for another time the discussion of whether Christian music imitations of American pop like BarlowGirl can really “challenge the idea of toning down our faith in modern culture” or if in fact this derivative music ironically enacts the very thing it decries). But when it’s time to hear from or speak to the soul, well … give me Gawd on thuh Mountain any day.

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  1. » Saturday News Roundup on 27 Sep 2008 at 8:36 am

    […] Who would have thought it–Avery prefers the McKameys to BarlowGirl? […]


  1. anonymous wrote:

    Lyrics make a song “Christian,” not musical style.

  2. SgDoc wrote:

    I was listening to Enlighten 34 on XM radio just a few days ago, when I heard the “breathiest” singing I’d ever heard. I thought I was on a CCM station. It was so bad I could not understand a word of the 1st verse. I glanced over to see who it was and was floored to see “Karen Peck and New River”. Apparently the male part of the trio has a solo on the new record. I really like this guy. But this was bad! It ruined the whole song for me.

  3. Kyle wrote:

    I agree with the lyrics statement 90%. The other 10% comes down on the “understandability” side of the argument. If you can’t understand what’s being sung, then the message (and ultimately, the witnessing) is hindered or lost completely.

    This is why I can’t stand Christian hard rock or rap.

  4. Leebob wrote:

    Anonymous - to a point I will agree. Somehow headbanging gospel strikes me as simply wrong. Too much noise to reach anybody regardless of the intention. Then when you couple your comment with what SgDoc stated that he could “not understand a word of the first verse”, the words, and consequently the song, cease to be Christian, worldly, or anything else for that matter; it pretty much becomes white noise.

    CCM is still primarily singing to God proclaiming the singer’s love for Him. Last time I checked this is still Biblical according to some of what David wrote. The part about singing to God that I have never gotten is, if it is a song sung to God, why does it need to be published, unless it is intended for the church to incorporate it into it’s worship service.?

    Once again, sometimes the singer is so enamoured with themselves that he/she loses the whole purpose of a song. He/She “breaths” a song and to me personally, this is neither entertaining nor inspirational.

  5. Jeremy Carter wrote:

    What about gospel music in the form of Hip Hop?

  6. Leebob wrote:

    Jeremy - I wish you wouldn’t have said that. I sense a disturbance in the force. Prepare for some verbiage and bad typing coming forth pretty soon.

    See the aforementioned words about the ability to understand the words. Hip-hopping for Jesus would only be acceptable if you properly used the “stank face”.

  7. RDB wrote:

    “And I-aye-yi-yi-yi, I’m desperate for youuuuuu. And I-aye-yi-yi-yi, I’m lost without youuuuuuu.” Gives me the shivers, and not in a good way, everytime I hear it. I’m glad I’m not alone in getting horrible images from this stuff, fortunately however I’ve been spared justin timberlake. I pity you, maybe about 10 hours straight hours of the mckameys will purge the foulness from your mind.

  8. RDB wrote:

    I meant “maybe about 10 hours straight” , not “hours straight hours”.

  9. Leebob wrote:

    RDB - Good point but be prepared for some grief over the McKamey’s comment.

    “10 hours straight” would constitute…”I could sing this song forever.” There is a point of redunduncy that may violate the “vain repetition” clause of Matthew 6:7. Don’t give me the “this is talking about prayer” line because as I read the words of P&W the majority of them are “prayers set to music.”

  10. apathetic wrote:

    Having a breathy tone in a song does not diminish it’s ability to minister. Nor does it negate the validity of the lyrics. You say you “can’t understand it” because you don’t like it. It is a personal preference. The same way someone with a taste for modern Christian music would say they “can’t understand” southern gospel because of the southern drawl and nasally singing. Of course they can understand it, they say that because they don’t like it. It is a personal preference again.

  11. Alan wrote:

    A subject like this brings out the subjective nature of music itself, and can lead to a departure of all objectivity. So far, not in this thread.

    To me, the first important thing is the lyric. When they’re good - well constructed, very properly enunciated, accurate to doctrine, and sung in a way that brings the listener more to the Lord than to the artist, then I’ll both enjoy them and be blessed, almost regardless of the musical style.

    Again, it’s a value judgment, but some of CCM to me falls short of the above. Too many of the lyrics are vacuous at best, the enunciation can be abysmal, and I find that I can listen to the music more easily than I can watch the artists perform it, either live or on video. (In fairness, I feel the same way about EHSSQ) My last experiences with CCM and P&W music left me cold; the artists seemed to me to be very taken with themselves - and I’m not judging; this was just MY impression. When we listen to XM’s Spirit or other CCM channels, I often ask my wife why so many of the artists strain to the point where it’s as if they’re trying to make their vocals as unattractive as possible. And yet, the kids love that, and I have to realize that.

    An occasional breathiness can be a very effective and affective technique; but too much of it is detracting, and I agree with Doug.

    All other things being good, I’m a sucker for great phrasing. Occasionally stretching a word or phrase, at other times stutter-stepping one, etc., to me, is what makes a singer an artist, and a good singer great. Sinatra was a wizard at phrasing, so is Willie Nelson. In our genre, Janet Paschal is nearly without peer for her emotive phrasing in my mind. Even singers whose voice I may not particularly care for earns a lot of points from me if they phrase well.

  12. Irishlad wrote:

    How about Michael English at his most breathy, singing a few of the more erotic verses from the Song of Songs.Something along the lines of”How beautiful you are,my darling!Oh,how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.How handsome you are,my lover!Oh how charming!And our bed is verdant. That would have went down well on Reggie and Lady Love’s ‘romantic’ album for Christians(quote from the NIV by the way)

  13. RDB wrote:

    McKameys comment not to be taken too seriously, btw. No offense to McKameys fans but 10 hours of them might drive me into a different fit of insanity as bad as the one that prompted me to listen to them 10 hours straight . . . I better quit before I get too far behind.

  14. Jeremy Carter wrote:

    Leebob..It appears everyone skipped right over it. Gospel Hip Hop is one of my sore subjects, as is Hip Hop in general. It makes me sad to see groups using a music genre that has been taken over by prison culture.

  15. pk wrote:

    My car radio used to have JoyFM on it constantly….but when I found KLove in our area, I switched to keeping it on. Nothing against SG but I love the music and the positive message on KLove. Still like SG but KLove beat it out.

    But I never heard of any of that head banging music on KLove…lol

  16. nonSGfan wrote:

    As a singer, I understand the need for breath control. Sometimes, this can be mistaken for trying to be OVER “breathy”. It can also be purposely overdone. If you ever listen to David Phelps in person, you can hear every single breath he takes because of his extensive training in breath control, but also because it IS a modern trend. I personally believe that in many of today’s music (not all, not all, not all) but many, it is an attempt to have a sensual sound. Sensual, sexual, whatever you wan’t to call it. Breathing heavy has forever been a form of sensuality. Rebecca Saint James has always been a sensual artist. Michael English, I personally believe, was breathy for the sake of control, not sensuality. But there is a huge market for this sound, (Mariah Carrey, Usher) and many others, in the secualr genre. If you really study, the GREATEST artists briefly pull away during large breaths.

  17. nonSGfan wrote:

    Leebob, you sand, “The part about singing to God that I have never gotten is, if it is a song sung to God, why does it need to be published, unless it is intended for the church to incorporate it into it’s worship service.?”

    Most of David’s songs were songs to God, and they were published in the most popular book of all time.

  18. Leebob wrote:

    Apathetic - I happen to like some CCM and yes have an ear for it. Simply, if I cannot understnad the words, I cannot understand the words. The ministering comes from the words, the music is an avenue. This happens in all genres and is not CCM specific. (i.e. “yying cans to the back of the limousine” comes out “tying kids to the back of the limousine” and not even because of breathy singin’).

    Jeremy - fortunately I have been spared the “hip-hop for Jesus” craze thusfar so I cannot comment too much about it except that just the sound of it - Gospel Hip Hop - is a close second only to “strippers for Jesus”. I feel dirty even typing it.

    and finally - Has ANY song been more destroyed by breathiness and artistical license than our beloved National Anthem?

  19. Jeremy Carter wrote:

    Leebob…I did see a show one night late on ABN that was in fact “Strippers for Jesus”. If you made that up - it’s just too funny. It was a girl that was a stripper at one time and now was trying to “rescue” girls from that lifestyle too.

  20. Leebob wrote:

    nonSGfan - I understand that but David’s words were due to inspiration of the Holy Spirit. You will notice in that same post that I referred to most of David’ writings. David, however, did not publish his writings for profit, HUGE difference from today.

    People say this is “for the Lord” but turn around with a huge paycheck. I don’t begrudge the paycheck but at least be honest about some of the motivation.

  21. Leebob wrote:

    Jeremy - I did, for the most part make that up, but was also aware of that group. You would think they could come up with a different title. Then again, talk about getting your Christian male audience’s attention. LOL!!!

    nonSGfan is gonna have a field day with this one due to the sensuality of it. Before you speak nonSGfan just know that I am with you on this one. This would fall into the area of conviction and not letting your good be evil spoken of.

  22. nonSGfan wrote:

    I am a little breathy when i sing, but I can ASSURE you it’s not for the sake of sound, but because of my training. I personally just hate to hear it overdone. (i.e.) Chris Tomlin (ccm singer). Every note doesn’t have to be airy, and breathy, it just gets annoying. I just personally believe alot of it IS to have an allure, a sensual grabbing at your mind. An unsaved person is more likely to STOP and listen to something saying ” hiiiii nhhheeeeeed hhhhhyyouuuuhhhh”, than “I Need you”. LoL.

  23. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    It cuts both ways.

    There’s an abundance of mediocrity in every genre. A station that programs “current hits” exclusively is going to demonstrate mediocrity more than a station that seeks out rare gems by artists who have a distinct sound.

    For every Randy Travis or Johnny Cash whose voice is immediately recognizable even if it’s a new song you haven’t heard before, there’s a sea of Brad Paisley/Kenny Chesney/Trace Adkins and lesser recognizable names who sound nearly the same.

    Regarding the CCM “genre,” I don’t believe breathy singing is limited to conveying just one emotion (seduction), however. Two fans can hear the same song and come away with two entirely different responses. Like all art, the reaction of the fan is a matter of personal taste.

    What makes it “Christian” is the lyric…and yes, that goes for hip hop and loud rock music with lyrics you can’t understand. If you start down the road of what the world is doing or has done with a particular genre, there’s very little Christian music that could ever be acceptable. This goes back to personal taste. You may not understand the lyrics, but the fans of those styles do. With the same intensity you can’t understand how such music could be Christian, they can’t figure out why you like Southern Gospel.

    As I said initially, this cuts both ways.

  24. Leebob wrote:

    So THATS how we reach the lost!LOL!!! There is the breathy preacher too:

    “And the Lord-dah said-dah, Thou shalt-ah surely die-ah…”

  25. Fezzik wrote:

    Somehow I don’t think George Beverly Shea is going to reach those kids in the hip-hop culture. Folks like T-Bone, Manafest, Othello, Verbs & TobyMac are reaching out and making an impact for Christ. I’m sure there are others that might even be doing more, but these are guys I’ve “conversated” with and can tell you they have a burden for the lost. We’re all called to reach those in our circle of influence - let’s not just give up on people because we don’t approve or like the way they dress or act - Jesus is more than a “lily white” Savior.

  26. Revpaul wrote:

    “hiiiii nhhheeeeeed hhhhhyyouuuuhhhh”

    Well done. Reads and sounds like an old Welch dialect or maybe early Pawnee.

  27. Jeremy Carter wrote:

    Fezzik….that may be so. I’m not a real big fan of GBS either. My point is that the style they are using came from people with no respect for authority, or women and has continually pushed the envelope in the secular field to where our children are constantly bombarded with evil influences and is now mainstream “pop” music.

    I’m sure that some people thought the same way about the Statesmen Quartet back in the day but this goes beyond some subtle sexuality in their movements, etc. It is blatant in secular hip hop.

    I have no doubt those groups are genuine in their convictions, but appearances and impressions are hard to overcome. For 90% of people, if a young man pulled up beside you in a car and all you saw was his clothing style and heard his back window speakers thumping, you would never think of that as gospel music and would be hard pressed to pay attention (if you could hear them) to the lyrics. Yes I know that would be judging and profiling, etc but it is hard for a lot of people not to do it. In my mind, when we are convicted by Christ, we should change from the things that would make us like the world. Doesn’t mean we have to listen to bad music, but I think it should be different than a music genre that kills each other, objectifies women and has bred a culture of uncooperative behavior…..just my $.02

  28. nonSGfan wrote:

    Jeremy Carter is dead on. Also, I have to disagree with you Fezzik, show me PROOF that they are “making an impact for Christ”. Look up the statistics in every city that these groups have performed in this year, and see if their is a statistical decline in Teen pregnancy, teen abortion, teen drug use, or suicide. SIN is still dominating because we’re trying to FINISH in the flesh what we BEGAN in the spirit. We are saying things like “Well, we have to appeal to their wants, preferences, and carnal desires to get the message in”. and MY agrument is…..ITS NOT WOOOORRKKIIIING!!

  29. nonSGfan wrote:

    And don’t tell me “1,000 kids made a decision for Christ at the last concert”, because that is nothing. We don’t make a decision for Christ, he makes a decision for us.

  30. Fezzik wrote:

    So, what is the answer? Stand idly by and watch them rush to destruction, thankful for our fire insurance?
    Be warm and well fed.

  31. nonSGfan wrote:

    The answer? 1 John 1:1, that which we have seen with our eyes, looked upon, and handled with our hands, of the word of life- that which we have seen and heard DECLARE we unto you. Not disguise, not water down, not make it “appealing”, or “attractive”, but DECLARE it. The gospel doesn’t need our help, Preach it, live it, give it, and it will do the work. We dont have to wrap it tightly in every 9th Christian Hiphop song and try to put it into peoples minds through deceptive methods of appealing to the flesh. Its plain, its blunt, it’s convicting, it’s offensive, it’s bloody, but to the lost it’s direction, to the blind it’s vision, to the thirsty it’s WATER, to the hungry it’s bread, to the distraught it’s solice. ITS GOOD ENOUGH THE WAY IT IS. The GOSPEL that is. We have more “Methods” than we EVER HAVE, and less “CONVERSIONS”, and In Africa, haiti, Jamaica, India Ect. They have LESS methods than ever, and MORE conversions. I’ve been, I can tell ya. America is a mission field. We need the TRUE power of a LIVING gospel presented in our music, not a mixed message of musical misery.
    Amen brother.

  32. Jeremy Carter wrote:

    nonSGfan….there is nothing I can add. Late to the party as always, I am. :)

  33. Fezzik wrote:

    Be sure and let me know how that’s working out for you.
    I guess you disagree with the “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” part of the Bible.
    I’m not saying your method is ineffective, for you - but there are people that you will never reach, whether separated by geography, culture, or mindset

  34. Leebob wrote:

    It is not our music that draws people, neither our craftiness of words, neither is it one style or the other that is reaching people….it is the Spirit of God and how, pray tell, did we get this far off the subject?

  35. NonSGfan wrote:

    Leebob, I have a masters degree in getting off subject. Fezzik, becoming all things to all people doesn’t mean that you take on new attitudes, mindsets, and actions to accustom their beliefs. Paul preached to people who worshiped the goddess Diana, but he didn’t strip down and go commit all sorts of lude acts with them. I’m glad that Christ didn’t change his message OR his method with the “Group”. He revealed sin, and commanded repentance. How is it working out for me? Very well. The people that I see saved through my ministry, ACTUALLY GET SAVED. Changed lives, changed talk, changed walk, changed attitude, changed perspective, changed beliefs…CHANGE is what we need, not confession. We need POSESSION of Christ, not CONFESSION of Christ.

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