The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Movement Rock, Blandness, and Acceptance

I grew up in a neighborhood where a number of the other kids were only allowed to listen to "Christian Rock". As a kid, I was rather unimpressed with the music, but, then, I was also unimpressed with most of the pop music that I heard*, so I didn't think much of it. Years later, I worked with a woman whose music of choice was Christian Rock, and I listened again, and was further unimpressed. I didn't comment on my dislike until she asked me what I thought of it, and then I simply expressed that it wasn't to my taste. Her response was that I disliked it because of the "Christian message."

This wasn't true.

You see, I enjoy blues, I enjoy some jazz, I even enjoy some gospel music, and all of these (especially, and obviously, gospel music) have numerous entries that clearly espouse a Christian message. I may not be overly-fond of the message, and yet I often enjoy the music anyway. Why? Because it is good. The Christian messages in these songs are either expressions of the actual beliefs of the musicians or else expressions of ideas and concepts in play in the culture of the musicians. In other words, they were an inherent part of the musician's artistic intentions, and the music itself is often quite good - driven by the interests, emotions, and passions of the artists.

The Christian Rock that this woman and the kids in my childhood neighborhood listened to? It was essentially just over-produced pablum made to provide parents and teens with the means to listen to something that sounds vaguely like what was popular in the world at large without leaving their bubble and being challenged by outside ideas. It was the musical equivalent of religious Velveeta. What I had heard was less "Christian" music than the soundtrack to a niche marketing campaign.

I would, as time went on, encounter other music that gets grouped in with Christian Rock but which is produced by musicians who were trying to create their own music in their own voice, and was often quite good a result, regardless of my view of the "message". This sort of rock is solid music at worst and legitimate art at best. And yet it is rarely what people play when they play Christian rock, which I always found rather odd.

In the book Rapture Ready, Daniel Raddosh observes that while there is legitmately good art, in the form of music, fiction, visual art, etc., produced by evangelical Christians, much of what floods the Christian niche market (which is itself largely comprised of Evangelical Christians with a particular right-wing political bent) is of poor quality and of bland taste. He attributes this to the fact that much music, fiction, film, etc. is accepted based on its "message" rather than its merit, and as such, the producers who are able to produce the most simplistic, straightforward message are the ones who are easiest to spot as "safe."

More recently, I began to notice this same tendency in the atheist/skeptic communities.  While these communities lack the financial backing to produce the sorts of market-friendly artists that the Evangelical Christian community possesses, and therefore the works produced in and for this community tend to remain quirkier and less "mainstream", there is nonetheless a definite tendency for people to grasp on to the message, rather than the work itself.

For example, I have often, both in person and online, been asked my opinion of George Hrab's music.  Hrab is a professional funk drummer who also produces a wide range of music in many different styles, all of it with his own quirky, oddball twist.  I have heard a few of his albums, and while I don't object to his music, with the exception of a few particular songs, it is not to my tastes.  When I explain this, I typically receive a response of "but he's providing a good, skeptical message in his song lyrics!"  Yes, yes he is...but that I agree with his message doesn't mean that I enjoy the music itself.  In fact, there are times when the message actually hurts the music by using it as a ham-fisted vehicle for delivering a secular sermon.

Now, there are many people that I have met who legitimately like his music, and I say more power to them.  But there is a definite undercurrent of people in these movements who listen to him because of "the message" rather than because they like his music.

Similarly, horror and science-fiction writer Scott Siegler writes stories based, as much as possible, and either real current science and technology, or on reasonable extrapolations thereof.  As a result, he has gained a following amongst the skeptic/atheist community for his "realistic horror" stories (that is, stories that gain horror from potential real events, and not from supernatural nonsense).  I have read one of his novels, and tried to read two others.  While I can see the pulpy appeal of them, they are not for me.  But, again, he is someone who is often held up for promoting a secular, materialist worldview in his writing.  But, if I am reading a horror novel, I am doing so for entertainment, and if I am not entertained, I don't care what worldview the author is promoting.

And yet, people with whom I communicate in these communities routinely express disbelief that I would "fail to support a secular author."

Evangelical Christianity and the atheist and skeptic communities are, of course, not unique in this regard.  I have encountered similar types of emphasis on message-over-substance amongst every group that could be considered a "movement" - from Libertarians to Greens, from hunters to vegans, etc. etc.

This shouldn't surprise us.  That music, writing, visual art, and so on grow up out of these movements is to be expected.  Given that these things have, since at least the early 20th century (even earlier depending on the art form) been essentially commercialized and badges of belonging, it makes sense that many producers would be accepted because they "send the right message" rather than because of their individual merits.

But damn, it is annoying.

*Yeah, I've always been a contrarian.


Evan Davis said...

I have often said I do not like what I call "Mormon Pop." I do recognize that the product is rather better than most "Christian" music in the quality and skill demonstrated, it's too touchy-feely for me. Luckily I've been met with more of a "but it's awesome" response than a "you're not Mormon enough" one. Though I do have a couple of songs I love despite their overwhelming sappiness.

Gordon said...

I listen to George Hrab in podcast form.I find him likeable and engaging. I have no idea what his music is like other than the bits he does for the podcast.

Anthroslug said...

Evan: I didn't even know that there was such a thing as "Mormon Pop" - I guess it makes sense, but I had never heard of it before.

Gordon - I actually quite enjoyed his podcast, but stopped listening to it due to general lack of time. Aside from a few songs, I'm indifferent to his music, but he is actually a pretty good show host.