Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Staying-Power (thoughts on music and art)

I have heard from some that "Christian" music is going through a kind of renaissance. The days of crappy pop-culture cloning are dying out, being replaced slow but sure by more substantive musical art. Such a sentiment may be overstating things a bit, but it's not completely without merit. Mainstay and mainstream juggernauts like Anberlin and Switchfoot have carried that torch for the past ten years or so (though the latter has begun to show signs of wear and tear), and current big timers like Mumford and Sons and hidden gems like My Epic cannot help but feed the excitement that the dark ages of CCM are finally fading away.

Like I said, it's overstated. Pop-culture is big business, and "Christian & Gospel" is one of the biggest money-mongers around. Chris Tomlin and WOW Worship aren't going anywhere, and mainstream Christianity's seemingly incurable drive to ape the world and its culture will continue to be an ever-present source of parody and scorn.

But my point here is not to comment on the current state of so-called "Christian" music, but rather to point out how unpredictable it can be. Junk and jewels often get spewed out in the same breath, and there can be diamonds amongst the rough, rough sewage that passes for "Christian" "art". This is a fact no matter what day it is or what generation of music (or film or literature or whatever) we're going through. The dark ages can still produce a Beowulf, and the latest generations can still produce horrors to the ears and eyes.

Case in point, I have two songs to share with you. One is "Light Up the Sky," a single released in 2010 by The Afters (your obligatory generic Christian band). The other is "Calling Out Your Name" by legendary CCM icon Rich Mullins. Let's deal with "Light Up the Sky" first. Regardless of your musical taste, try and listen carefully:

Now, look: I do not in any way question these guys talent or sincerity, and since I believe that God is big enough to use any and every thing for His glory, I don't even doubt the song's ability to touch people. (Its official music video is actually quite inspiring.)

Having said that, be honest with yourself: they sounded like The Backstreet Boys, didn't they? (Seriously, when the chorus hits and they do the "light, light, light"/"I, I, I" thingy, try some choreographed hand gestures. It totally works.) It's fluffy, it's predictable, it's safe, it's...fine. Really fine, mind you, but just fine. It came out two or three years ago, and you've probably never heard of it, since it is not built to last. Canned pop-art is never built to last; when it ever does, it was an accident. Their primary purpose is to be disposable and replaceable.

Again, this does not mean that they weren't fun in their day, but it does mean that there is nothing everlasting about them. And the sign of good art (in any medium or genre) is that it has something everlasting about it. It has "staying-power" across generations. Shakespeare was said to be "not of an age but for all time," and guys like him and Mozart remain, not because dead white guys shove them down our throats forever. How can they (being dead white guys, after all)? Rather, it's because they have staying-power: they resonant down through the ages.

Compare and contrast that song with this one by Rich Mullins. It first appeared in 1991, during the early heyday of CCM. I would argue that while both this and "Light Up the Sky" are perfectly legitimate works of art, there is something inherently different about Mullins', and that difference is its eternal nature. It has staying-power. What it says, how its says it, how the whole composition rolls and rides through the soul like the wind and the's truly a transcendent experience. There is a reason this song (and other Mullins songs) still speaks while others (though well-intended) fall silent in the end. It's because he's singing to touch eternity, while everyone else just seems to be living for the moment.

See what you think:

-Jon Vowell, et. al. (c) 2013

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