The Poverty Mentality
Mickey Gamble has an interesting post up over at Gospeleer about what he calls “the poverty mentality” of southern gospel:
There is a widely held belief in our genre that degrades both the value of the artist and the level of support that fans will indulge. That belief is that our fans live lives of economic struggle and are not willing or not able to support the artists’ work at a level equivalent to other genres of music. In addition, artists are restrained from appearing wealthy or talking about wealth as a positive thing (with a few exceptions, notably busses and clothes).
Mickey’s post is worth reading for what he has to say about the implications of this phenomenon. One thing you get is a self-fulfilling spiral toward inferior product quality:
If a promoter follows a pattern of putting on concerts in gyms with poor sound and lighting, he is going to draw crowds that are only comfortable with very low ticket prices and looking only for “bargains” at the record table.
But it goes deeper than this, too. I recall watching Connie Hopper sing the second verse of “Thank You, Lord” at NQC. She sang: “You know I’m not wealthy, these clothes they’re not new, I don’t have much money, but Lord I have you.” All the while looking, as I wrote at the time, “like a million bucks” in obviously not old clothes (and the Hoppers are definitely not on the list of sg people without much money).
The story both bears out what Mickey says and complicates it. Big hair, caked-on make-up, plastic surgery, bejeweled clothing, coordinated costumes, pleather furniture settees on remnants of plush carpet at the NQC exhibition hall (emphasis on exhibition), buses worth more than the value of several decent homes … even the conspicuous parsimony of the sort Claude Hopper is not coincidentally known for … these are all ways of indirectly signaling wealth - or, more often, someone’s attempt to match unwealthy people’s idea of what wealth looks and acts like - to a culture that, as Mickey notes, can’t openly appear to prize material wealth the way the rest of the world does.
Thus do performers get on stage - trailing clouds of AquaNet, with their industrial strength make-up melting in the spotlights, a $500,000-bus idling on $4-a-gallon fuel in the parking lot, and five figures worth of product out at their table - and then stand there and regale their audience with tales of how they care nothing for this ole world of sin and materialism and the seductions it affords … they just want to sang for Jesus.
To outsiders, this paradox is so much obvious charlatanism, and this is undoubtedly true in some cases. But it’s easy to dismiss something as entirely hypocritical on the basis of a few frauds. Far more difficult to try to understand the underlying dynamic.
Compared to most artists in other genres of professional music, southern gospel is musical bankruptcy.
Nobody knows that as well as the folks trying to keep fuel in the bus and make payroll every week (lots of time to consider the balance sheet when you’re applying make up and fixing your hair before a set). And measured against the conspicuous prosperity of CCM and country music (to take the two nearest neighbors to sg), professional southern gospel artists may not have as hard a time as you might think telling themselves (and really believing) that the conspicuous consumption required to keep their show on the road really is (to quote myself) a ministerial pillow of stone.
As Dolly Parton is fond of saying, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. And when you don’t make much more than it costs to meet expenses, this pricey cheapness can begin, after a while, to feel like a genuine sacrifice for the kingdom.
Update: Only because it intersects in very general ways with questions of faith, wealth, and the conflicts the two engender, I’d bring this story to your attention. It’s apples and oranges in many ways, but interesting for our purposes all the same, if only because money is being used as a proxy to scrimmage over a whole range of cultural and political issues, which isn’t entirely unlike what happens in southern gospel culture.
Later update: Daniel Britt and his morning show colleagues try to take up this topic this a.m.Email this Post