NQC 10: Final Thoughts
So what are the takeaways from my experience this year at NQC? I don’t have any grand narrative or essayistic reflection to give you. Just some thoughts that have surfaced after a day or so of sleep, reflection, and return to the ordinary world of everyday life.
The absence of the Fan Awards left NQC without a center or organizing experience in some ways. This isn’t because the Fan Awards were an irreplaceable event (something else, properly conceived and executed, could probably do the trick). It’s just that in retrospect, the Fan Awards, coming on Thursday, served as something to look forward and then to refer back to as the week progressed.
Until they weren’t there anymore, I never realized how much the outcomes of the awards – particularly song, album, and group of the year – helped infused those final two and a half days with a sense of possibility surrounding the winners’ subsequent mainstage performances. With fans primed for a confirmation of the big win from their favorite groups and the artists themselves energized by their awards, there was a certain fusing of desire and ambition and great feeling that may not have always paid off but that helped give some kind of affective shape to the weekend all the same. Something to look forward to.
This year, there just seemed to be one artist after another. And then some video clips. And some lame stand up. And some profiteering preachers. And then some more performances. Gaither sort of gave the week a high point insofar as people flock to see him and there’s buzz – I mean, really, literally: there were catcalls and screaming fans … I actually wouldn’t have been surprised to see panties thrown on the stage when GVB came on. So maybe that argues for a larger Gaither Homecoming style event. I dunno. Everything seems so Gaitherized these days, it may not be that big of a deal. But the afternoon singalong certainly seemed to be a big enough hit that maybe that needs to be moved to the evening mainstage.
I dunno. In general, my sense is the affliction ailing NQC is less a programming problem and more a symptom of a long goodbye going on to the relevance of this sort of event. No, NQC’s not going to go away any time soon. But it certainly has ceased to be the force it once was, for reasons tied to other forces that are not going to magically undo themselves … ever. I’ll talk more about some of these dynamics in the coming weeks, after I’ve rested and cleared my head. But for now, the salient point is to listen and look for those moments that catch you off guard and hold you in their force field, if only for a fleeting note or two, a transient phrase, the briefest bar. Theoretically, those moments could shrink and shrink infinitely off into the distance without ever actually ceasing to exist altogether, but I hope I don’t have to find out where my threshold is. I still want to go back, but I’m not sure for how long.
Which leads me to my other main observation: I think my Friday night epiphany – that the unstoppable force of my affection for the music had run headlong into the immovable wall of sonic contrivance that dominates so much of the music today – left the impression that I was not very implicitly longing for some golden age of musical accomplishment and authenticity.
Let me say for the record then: I don’t really believe such an age ever existed. Here’s why. When the music today is really good, it’s as good or better than the best music I’ve heard from any previous era. The corollary to this observation is that today’s worst music is not worse than that of earlier moments.
What is different about today’s music is the plastic, preprogrammed, conspicuously artificial and coldblooded nature of the technically enhanced sound so popular with all but a few artists.
Here’s what I mean: listening to the Hinsons set at the 100th Anniversary showcase, I heard plenty of bad singing: pitchy, unblended, occasionally just downright unmusical. But it was entirely and unequivocally live … alive, immediate and urgent, and so, deeply felt. These songs, as I’ve noted already, were so obviously written as much for a live band as for singers themselves, so that artists, performers and listeners alike were able to inhabit the music-making experience as the tunes unfolded on stage (this also what I was trying to describe about Jason Crabb’s set on Thursday). Sure, it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. They may not have rehearsed much, by all available evidence, but everybody knew the basic arrangement. Yet the liveness of the music – not least of all a band of first-rate players rather than professional showboats – cloaked the imperfections of the music in a felt and endearing humanity.
My point is not that having a live band is a license to suck, as you know all too well if you’ve been following some of the more spirited NQC threads elsewhere on this site (though obviously “live band” is a tricky term, since even most of the groups with multiple live instruments were still using tracks). But when you hear mediocre, amateur or otherwise subpar singing accompanied by an orchestral track of stratospheric proportions and the kind of facile perfection only digital technology can provide, it leeches that intrinsically human dimension out of the music, calling attention to the flaws not as honest failures of musical ability but as the residue of a small-time fixation with the appearance of greatness, with a sheen of accomplishment, with the unearned applause that, say, a flat-VI, flat-VII, tonic tag, annotated with brass fanfare and rolling tympanis will generate almost every time among gospel audiences.
And so, you see these artists down there bowing in motions of gratitude or pointing humbly heavenward as the crowd roars … and you realize that genuine though the vast majority of them doubtless are in their desire to give credit to the Lord, the credit’s often borrowed, leveraged to the hilt against a symphonic soundtrack and the marvel of pushbutton bands that leech out the essential human element, leaving little more than karaoke. I can hear that at Larry Parrots down the street, but have more fun, because I could get a drink there too.
I ran across a line a novel I was reading on the plane back from Louisville Sunday that I’ve been thinking about a lot apropos this topic. The passage discusses a character’s thoughts on a musician he’s listening to at a club, and it went like this: the singer “was performing sincerity, and when the performance threatened to give the lie, he performed his anguish over the difficulty of sincerity.”
Great stuff. Sincerity must be performed in southern gospel, of course, as in any other performance art organized around the performer’s authenticity, whether anyone is willing or able to admit so or not. But in sg, when the performance starts to give the lie – when the tracks call attention to themselves and the dearth of any real possibility for artistic spontaneity (which is, I think, what most people mean when they talk about artistic authenticity) – when this happens, there’s no way the gospel performer can recur to the crisis of sincerity as a source of energy, no way to plow the anxiety of performance back into the song, because no one can admit there’s any artifice afoot in the first place.
In the southern gospel imagination, there must be no daylight between seeming and being. And yet perversely enough, the commitment to “authentic” singers has led us to this place where so much of the music couldn’t be more patently, obviously, absurdly artificial. So the tenor screams a little louder and the bass kicks the subwoofer in and the other two suspend their resolutions even more lengthily … and all the while the sound guy keeps pushing the track slider up a bit higher, as if to drown out any doubts that may linger on either side of the footlights about the dubious wisdom of relying on canned music to mobilize the mysterious and powerful movings of good gospel music.Email this Post