the gospel singer/songwriter
Over at southerngospelblog recently, Daniel Mount ran a couple posts about singer/songwriters in gospel music. And though we’ve been down this road before, Mount’s posts got me thinking about the singer/songwriter bias in gospel music, namely: what’s behind the preference for songs written and performed by the same person?
Mount argues it has to with the proximity of the lyric to the singer’s life:
Nobody really disputes that a singer/songwriter can bring a passion to their song that’s hard to match, since they’ve lived the lyrics.
If I understand this right, it’s basically an argument about “authenticity.” The singer/songwriter can sing her own song more authentically than someone else because she’s closest to the complex of experience and feelings from which the song emerged.
Doyle Doc Horsley makes a similar argument in his ebook, Gospel Quartet Music Then and Now:
Many top quality acts have member-songwriters … Others may draft lyrics, but these blessed folks are both writer and performer and are supported with sufficient grace to release songs which are distinct, different, inspired, and not duplicates of other themes, ideas, or lyrics.
Horsley overstates the case considerably, it seems to me. Writing songs that your group cuts and performs does not necessarily mean you have “the capacity, inspiration and dedication to create enough quality lyrics and original music to fill a 8-10 song project,” as Horsley goes on to claim. Usually, there are 6-7 duds for every decent cut. But no matter, Horsley’s is a common view, I’d wager.
For his part, Mount ends up arguing that it’s possible to sing a song you haven’t written with as much feeling as the original songwriter would, which is both right, it seems to me, and an interesting conclusion for Mount, since it implicitly cuts against the notion of the authenticity suggested by his original claim.
Libbi Perry Stuffle, to borrow one of Mount’s examples, sells “I Will Find You Again” (written not by her) because she’s a first-rate performer and a trenchant interpreter of gospel ballads. That’s what performers do. Sell other people’s material as their own. And in a less imperfect world, it would be enough for someone to be a performer who’s that good at just that.
But of course in southern gospel, that’s not always true. Or at least those artists who try to be double or triple threats are generally rewarded more than those who don’t, whether they deserve the accolades from a musical and artistic standpoint or not. Still that doesn’t get at the underlying question of why singer/songwriters receive disproportionate amounts of fame and fan love.
My own theory is that fans are drawn not so much to the authentic experience provided by the singer/songwriter as to the idea of authenticity.
That is, fans don’t keep voting Rodney Griffin favorite songwriter because he is necessarily able to sing his own material better than anyone else. (My guess is, a vote for Rodney Griffin as songwriter is more often than not actually a vote for Gerald Wolfe as an impressario/vocalist extraordinaire, capable of making Griffin seem and sound much better singing his own music than he would have, say, singing that same stuff with the Dixie Melody Boys. But in any case, the most we can say here is that songwriters sing their songs differently than anyone else, but very few sing them better than the best performers could or can, given the opportunity.)
Instead, southern gospel fans like the idea that this song is a direct expression of some personal feeling, experience, or other dimension of the performer’s life, writ large in music (I’ll leave aside for the moment the question of how much southern gospel’s emphasis on confessional testimonies in and around song amounts to a kind of spiritual voyeurism).
I say “idea” because, whether we do it consciously or not, experiencing performance-based entertainment requires us to suspend our disbelief that the performance is a construct to some extent.
This is commonplace in most parts of the world, but in southern gospel, performers are in a pretty tight spot: fans want to be entertained and moved and shown a good time, just like fans in other setting would which requires all the typical artifices of entertainment. But in sg, especially over the past two decades or so, performers must also take into account the added expectations of intense piety, which demands - in the name of spiritual sincerity - performances that efface almost every trace of being a performance, of appearing to be artificial (at least as these things are judged by the aesthetic standards of southern gospel).
What to do? Inasmuch as this trend has been afoot all over Christian entertainment to varying degrees, CCM has responded by (re)turning toward praise and worship music or derivatives thereof, which rely on simplistic, recursive lyrics and big open musical phrases that create the impression of artless, unself-conscious statements of religious and spiritual commitment.
In sg, one answer has been sentimentality and nostalgia, which translate on stage into all things lachrymose - tearful testimonies, cry-talking, chin-quiveriness, the conspicuous attempt to dab at one’s eyes inconspicuously, and so on. Of course not every instance of these things is performative, but the fact that there is a standard repertoire of emotional moves we all recognize testifies to their use as a shorthand vocabulary of affective authenticity.
One could argue that the rise of the singer/songwriter, which really seems to be a post-Hinsons phenomenon in sg, has been a response on some level to the increased pressure performers are under to be “real” in an age of digital pitch correction, band tracks, vocal stacks, and plastic surgery.
But whether that’s the case or not, it seems inarguable to me that on stage the singer/songwriter obviates the need for fans to suspend their disbelief about how “authentic” the song is in relation to the singer. That doesn’t mean the singer/songwriter won’t need to dab his eyes and do a little cry-talking now and again, but chances are he won’t have to do as much as his colleagues who sing other people’s material, since most fans will be doing a lot more emotional work for the singer/songwriter than they do for other artists.
Update: A couple of commenters have noted that part of the rise of the singer/songwriter in sg has been financial: singer/songwriters make more money by writing their own material and (potentially) they work more cheaply for groups/labels. This is true enough in accounting for one reason why the industry may have drifted in this direction, but it doesn’t really account for why fans seem to like the singer/songwriter so much. Following these commenters’ lead, one cynical answer is that having hit upon a lucrative arrangement, it’s in the artists’ and labels’ best interest to pitch these people and their material as more authentic and spiritual than other music. And there’s probably some of that at work. And I guess you could further argue that sg fans are gullible sops who will buy anything pitched as speerchul. But the point of the post was to try to push beyond the purely cynical readings, true (in part) though they may be.Email this Post