I wrote this trying to work out a perennial frustration with conservative Christian music. I’m not sure everything I’m writing here is correct, but this is the best I can work things out. So please, give me your comments/criticisms.
One of the great gaps between conservative Christian music and the culture at large is decontextualization. This works out in two factors:
1) Modern culture has decontextualized music to the point that music is being asked to do things that it doesn’t do gracefully.
A hundred years ago, almost everyone played music to some extent. Most people knew how to play an instrument at some level and those who didn’t at least sung, even if it wasn’t good. I remember seeing interviews with WWII vets who off-handedly talked about singing to each other from their fox holes, singing when they got back behind the lines, singing walking down the streets… These were tough, battle-hardened soldiers who sang and, when they sang, they sang romantic folk songs and clearly had some understanding of good vocal production and musical lines. They learned this because it was the culture they grew up in. But anymore, music production is reserved only for those few in an actual band. And the only one who sings is the frontman. Music as a family activity or even a communal activity is all but dead (outside of a few places like Asheville, NC). Now people entirely consume music by people they don’t know, singing about things they don’t have first hand experience of, and they’re listening in the disembodied medium of iPods, car stereos, etc. Strangely enough, along with this dislocation and depersonalization of music has gone the need for music to be more important and more potent, more a part of our lives, more intimate and personal. Whereas before, the personal and intimate and important aspects of music were at least heavily dependent on their live performance in a specific cultural context among people you knew (or you were even joining in the music yourself), now the disembodied, impersonal earbuds throw all the need for intimacy back on the performance itself. So music is more emotionally pushy, more orgasmically vocally expressive. You can sing about walking down the street or thinking about getting a hot dog so long as you sing it like you’re in the throes of the world’s best massage. That at least lets me know I’m listening to a human being who believes what he’s saying. Anymore, it’s the only known way to communicate the personal interaction and intimacy that used to be the purview of live music among people with real, known personalities.
This is why I don’t mind recorded music where a someone groans their passion about losing someone or about their devotion to Christ. But put them 5 feet from me in a live context and it’s suddenly downright uncomfortable. If it’s also someone I know, strap a turbo on my discomfort. They’re pushing all the over-the-top emotion required in a disembodied performance into a real, live, intimate context. It’s too much.
Mind you, I don’t think this way of performing is inherently wrong. That’s the categorical divide from me and most fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists will argue that this kind of emotional verisimilitude is wrong and then attend an opera where vocal sliding and rubato expression is entirely normative. They’re culturally comfortable with opera-drama whereas they’re not comfortable with hymn-drama. And they don’t notice the hypocrisy because in an opera, they’re 60 feet from the stage and they don’t understand the language. They understand that an over-the-top emotional performance is required, in that context, to get the message across. But that also proves the point that the style itself is not the issue. It’s fine to be over-the-top when it communicates without getting in the way.
Which brings me to my second point.
2) Fundamentalists create decontextualized music, but with resolute disregard for the decontextualization.
Most fundamentalists are firmly entrenched in the idea that, if the world is using this overly expressive music (they would say “sensual” music), then they will certainly not do that. (Strangely, this never carries over to the way they play, say the violin, which is always set to “maximum weep”.) So fundamentalists take nearly expressionless singing and plug it into the disembodied medium of recorded music, with the result being eerily similar to the singing of drugged cultists. They feel disembodied. They feel passionless. Their singing cannot cross the chasm from my earbuds into my heart. I don’t fellowship with anesthetized spirits. They just creep me out.
Again, I don’t think that this kind of musical performance is wrong, either. Put a person who sings like that in a room 5 feet from me and it’s actually rather meaningful. Much more so if I know the person. Once you re-introduce the aspects of live music, real contexts and real people, communication finds a thousand other subtle outlets of expression in posture, facial expression, relationship, history, acoustics, and on and on. Five feet away, direct human feel and gutsiness are much better communicated around the music than in the music itself, which would free musical lines and tone to be clear and make skill more beautiful and appreciated. The music can feel human again because the humanity is coming heavily through the contextual halo around the music and so the music is more free to BE music rather than verisimilitude. This is why I can go to sacred choral concerts when they’re live, sit in the front row and be tremendously moved, but when the group releases their music on CD it’s nearly unlistenable.
I remember when doing stage acting in a 1,500-seat theater that my gestures, bearing, speech, and volume had to be blown way out of proportion. I’d strut around with over-the-top gestures and slow, horribly loud line deliveries where EV-er-EE SYL-la-BLE WAZ SLOOOWED DOOOWN and YELLLLED because otherwise the people in row 48F would absolutely not be caught up in the performance. But when I did small, theater-in-the-round acting (or television acting) almost all of the affectation was gone because of the intimacy of the setting. You could talk faster and more quietly, have smaller gestures, even subtle facial indicators. The physical distance between the performer and the audience alters the way the performance is received. A bombastic delivery on stage is the only thing that grabs people. The same performance on TV would be unwatchable. Or a joke.
Musical delivery is the same. Increased physical space, space of time, space of culture, space of medium, and space of relationship all break down those halo avenues of communication and the music is left alone with the tremendous burden of authentic communication. Modern culture has risen to that challenge by musically wearing all emotion on the sleeve and even pushing into a kind of hyper-emotional state. The question is, will conservative Christian musicians follow suit? How far down that road do they go? Or are there other options? One thing’s for sure, if fundamentalists keep recording music as though they were intimately live and are known to all the people in the audience, then their music will be less and less interesting or relevant.* For those of us listening to you while driving in traffic or running or working on our computers, you sound desperately lifeless. We’re in the third balcony and you’re whispering.
*There’s also a tangential issue that this same music is usually asked to live in a very one-dimensional emotional world. It’s as though the test for all conservative Christian music is: would this work being played in a southern lady’s parlor in the 1890s? The emotional tone must be Resolutely Pleasant. A steady diet of that, coupled with emotionless delivery, is… freaky.