Saturday, July 2, 2011

Super-Pop Worship?

I don’t know how I remembered: Linkin Park? There was a whole wave of pop rock bands that got big shortly after I graduated from college in 1997. In the five years that followed, I was securely snug into Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City.  Many of us were writing our own worship tunes. And we didn’t listen to the radio, so we missed Linkin Park.*

When I took the position at Hope College in 2006, a year had passed since (according to wikipeida) Linkin Park had reached international fame. Yesterday I pulled up a few of their videos on youtube and now so much of the super-pop worship music makes much more sense to me.

And another: Newsboys. Again, we weren’t listening this band in my church either. Their worship hits began hitting CCM radio in 05-06.

I made a definite effort last summer to find a few songs that were over 112 bpm…maybe even 115. Halfway through the school year one student asked me why I didn’t lead any uptem-po music. I mentioned the few songs that we’d added, and he responded, “no…I mean really fast…like over 130 bpm.”


He ended up emailing me a link to five songs ranging from 130-144 bpm. I confess it is only till just this past week that I looked up the songs on youtube.

My first obstacle is watching people worship. I don’t understand the need to video the arena worship rock event. The lights and the rest of the visual production don’t draw my attention to God. My attention is fixed on a spectacle.

My second obstacle is the lyrics. Lyrics that fit such fast tempo tend to be overly simple. Of course, there is nothing wrong with simplicity. Some of the simplest things can be the most profound. There is nothing wrong with rehearsing the core truths of the faith. Merton said we will always be beginners—all of us.

The question is if the simplicity serves a consumable good or a transcendent reality. This is where the subjective responses to the songs is apparent. Who I am and how I’m made as a musical creature makes it hard to listen to these super-pop worship songs on the internet and discern if or how they could ever serve my campus ministry. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though. I remember “Trading My Sorrows” from a long time ago. When did I become too cool to sing and dance to that song? In the right context at the right time, perhaps that song could still be very helpful for my spirit and worship. Likewise, with the right leadership and the right context perhaps any of these super-pop worship songs could move us closer to the presence and likeness of Christ. Perhaps!

The great fear is sentimentality. Milan Kundera’s definition of the kitsch is synonymous with sentimentality: "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

Sentimentality, then, is an emotion about having an emotion. Thus my concern about the spectacle of the video performance: is our emotion a reaction to God, his truth and revelation or to the A/V production? But you say, so much good music and film is made with vast amounts of production. Surely Bach’s cantata’s were an enormous production? Again, the question between manipulation and formation is whether the production draws us into the revelation of God, or if we become distracted by the gadgetry of our technology.

The jury is still out for me on the matter of super-pop worship. I confess cynicism and elitism. I want to be a leader who loves his people. My realization is that much of the difference between what the aforementioned student and me is age. If he is 20 years old, that means he was born in 1991. When I was 16 I was listening to Rich Mullins and REM. When he was 16 (only four years ago), he was maybe listening to Linkin Park and the Newsboys’ worship records or some derivations. It is hard to believe that I am a veritable dinosaur…just when I was starting to love playing the electric guitar.

Here is the next layer of the issue at hand: Kundera’s other famous quote about Kitsch: “Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists.” Many of my counterparts, leaders my age, have moved beyond anything above 90 bpm in order to avoid kitsch and sentimentality altogether. Yet the Psalms call upon us to shout to the Lord and even to dance and clap our hands. How does their music lead their worshipers into this biblical worship expression? Yes, pop music can be awkward, a prickly pear of an issue. However, we are called to redeem our culture and that means wading into the proverbial shite. At least I know that is what I am called on in the love and service of God and these college students.

U2 is on tour this summer. I'm not a huge fan myself, but another way of getting at my musings above is by asking how many of my college students would even want to go? I know of at least two who did. Another student a few years ago really hit me between the eyes when he referred to U2 as "dad-rock." I'm not a huge fan, but still...I feel old.

*I admit that I may have missed the other, real bands that have affected the sound of super-pop worship. Anybody have suggestions?


Ryan McCall said...

dc Talk certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Newsboys. I grew up with these two groups, and I still can return to them occasionally.

A/V production is something that I still have to chew on as a musician whose primary focus is worship. Hillsong has been a major influence in my worship journey, but the conversation does quickly turn to the presence of the Almighty Father in our camera lenses and lighting towers. Please keep posting your thoughts. This is good stuff.

Kevin Krueger said...

Relient K comes to mind. Christianized pop-punk with a little bit of teenage angst mixed in. I still enjoy going back to it once in a while, but is it suitable for our churches?

OKC Herbivore said...

It was revelatory when 2 things happened on an early tour I was on with some of the Passion bands: I discovered Daniel, Tomlin's gtr player and I both loved Dashboard Confessional (old stuff of his) and we felt a quick bond that way. I realized the influences that bear on players don't necessarily translate to the music being made (in Tomlin's case-their taste might be more...err..variegated than their tunes imply).

The second was playing The Postal Service to Bwack, Crowder's drummer, while we were on the bus. He wasn't familiar with either TPS or DCFC, but loved them both after hearing. The rest, is, well, fantastical.

As far as influence goes, especially int he past 5-7 years, I would say there's a pretty good eschewing of CCM artists on the surface for myriad mainstream artists: U2 is the main example, Coldplay, Radiohead to some degree, and especially Sigur Ros have been distilled into what can be more or less adaptable to the successful models of worship: namely, Hillsong and Passion. In that distillation something numinous about the styles and layers can be lost, and usually is.

Wen Reagan said...

Joshua, great post... at times, these are my thoughts as well. What is almost always disconcerting to me is how relative (& thus slippery) kitsch can be. It is constantly in flux, constantly relative to larger cultural discourses. Because pop musical trends are so fluid and fleeting, what was kitsch yesterday becomes authentic and vice versa. Obviously many brilliant people have tried to tackle this with some informative rules for aesthetics, but I still find them unable to reign in the beast that is kitsch. Trying to work through layers of intention in the creation of art becomes even more confusing, as you've got musicians writing what is, to them, intentionally not kitsch, but then middlemen interpreting and reinterpreting their work (via music videos, concert promotions, album art, etc.) into more kitsch-like products (emotion about having an emotion). Finally, you've got listeners reinterpreting these songs/videos/lyrics into new modes of meaning as well. It all becomes so confusing that I'm not quite sure how to deal with it.

Take John Mark McMillan's song "death in his grave." Great song, wonderful lyrics. But then you watch the music video from integrity music. While the powerful anthem is belting, the camera continually pans around the room, filming the audience singing. At first, this seems weirdly refreshing. I quickly realized that this was because the people were calm. No ecstatic worship, no hands in the air, no emotional outpourings (nothing is wrong with any of those things, they're just often overdone in worship music videos). But after watching it a few more times, I found that the same technique was being applied nonetheless... it was still trying to create an emotion of having emotion, though it also now attached some flavor of what seemed like a "hipster cool factor" (intentionally or not), which made it, in many ways, even more problematic. It's a great example of the layers of meaning and interpretation that can surround a song and its lyrics, all emanating from the performing musician, the record label, the video producer, and even the audience.

This isn't a solution, but as a historian, I've found that history does a decent (not perfect) job of "distilling" things, including worship music. The high quality stuff gets concentrated and ages well... the rest often fades away. What will JMM's song look like in 50 years? Will it be considered good art or kitsch? Of course, the larger and more important question is what are the formative aspects of pop worship music, which you've considered some yourself. Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on all this.