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.Email this Post