Friday, April 16, 2010

thoughts on church music, part 1: Why Worship Music is Like Disco

While many may not ask themselves why much of what is considered modern Worship Music in church is so horrible, others, like me, obsess over that question. I hope to look closely at this during the next few days... but you know my schedule. Plus, I have Earth Day to satirize, along with fleshing out my perfect Christian conferences.

So, part 1 of why I don't like modern worship music (and why I think I am finally headed to a liturgical tradition, even if I like guitars in church) is that it reminds me of disco coupled with a tear jerker move.

Of course, the obvious manipulative aspects cannot be overstated. There is a level of coercion manifested in the repeating of phrases like a Krishna mantra, along with the music which bears much in resemblance to musical scores from overly dramatic movies (tear jerkers) and Romantic era classical music.

Too often, we find ourselves emotionally manipulated while worshipping God based upon the emotive vocals, never ending crescendo and dramatic musical swells more than the theological underpinnings of the lyrics. In fact, on Easter Sunday I found this happening during a musical video called Awake. The song was written, as one featured on Grey’s Anatomy or Scrubs, to force an emotional response. This puppet mastery of the writers/ leaders on the audience has angered me since church camp where someone tried to force the Holy Spirit and tongue speaking on me and the film Dead Poet’s Society in which the director forced me to be angry at the dad upon the suicide of his son, instead of seeing the son and Robin Williams’ Captain as responsible.

While I ramble on, this brilliant quote sums up the reason why the Chris Tomlins of the world and the Charlie Halls and the Matt Redmonds (and whoever is popular today) instill so much musical hostility in me (it is about a page and half long in the book), Spin magazine writer, Andrew Beaujon, in his brilliant book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock says this:

Quentin Crisp once said, “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference.” I’m not saved and don’t think I ever will be, but if such a miracle were to take place, I can’t imagine anything worse than being forced to pay for my salvation by listening to worship music for the rest of my days.

Worship music is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music-not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold. Every song follows the same parameters. It opens gently, with tinkling arpeggios or synthesized harp glissandos that portend the imminence of something celestial in glacial 4/4 time. In the second verse, the band-invariably excellent players-soft-pedals in, gaining in volume to the bridge. And then the chorus, Heavens, the choruses. They could put U2 out of business for good, they’re so huge. Another verse. A middle eight. Then, a breakdown when the audience takes over singing. Another massive chorus. Fin.

This isn’t music to appreciate; it’s music to experience. People at a worship service close their eyes and, as ecstasy spreads across their faces, begin to rock rhythmically, arms out, mouthing the lyrics. It’s more than a little sexual and a tad uncomfortable if you’re setting next to an attractive person who’s been overcome by the Spirit.

Worship tunes tend to evince an adolescent theology, one that just can’t get over how darn cool it is that Jesus sacrificed himself for the world. Moreover, it’s self-centered in a way that reflects evangelicalism’s near-obsession with having a personal relationship with Christ. It’s ME Jesus died for. I just gotta praise the Lord.

The Jesus of worship music is a mentor, a buddy, a friend whose message is easily distilled to a simple command: praise me. Not “feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner.” Simply thank Him for His gift to YOU (and make sure to display copyright information at the bottom of the screen so royalties can be disbursed.)

All of which I could bear, or at least imagine defending, if all the songs didn’t sound the same.”*

The writer then goes on to write his own worship song, just to show how easy it is to do it. In fact, most worship songs sung in church seem to have the same infinitesimally small vocabulary of less than 25 main words (praise, love, I, You, are, worship, alone, worthy, etc.). Its as if Apple has created an App called “Worship Creator” so anyone can punch in a random selection of words and out pops a new worship hit for your church.

Don’t get me wrong, some people are writing good modern day hymns. However, most of those songs are not sung in church, and the ones that are don't get a lot of play outside singular communities. I will talk about the good ones pretty soon, many of which were written by drunks and those struggling with faith, but a few were written by CCM stalwarts like The Choir, Smalltown Poets, Rich Mullins and Adam Again.

*I loved this book and quote when it came out in 2006 and it always reenters my mind while standing in church. My friend Dustin quoted it a while back on his blog, which I appreciate since I didn't have to type out the quote.


mycotn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

I don't think modern worship music is horrible.

I LIKE singing in a crowd with my brothers and sisters. I don't mind closing my eyes and waving my arms. I don't mind the same stupid 3 chords (or 4 if you are lucky), rock and roll does not have to be complicated.

I HATE hymns with a djword-like passion and would not like to sing modern day hymns.

I'd agree about the content of the songs. No more songs begging God to stop whatever he is doing in heaven and come down and be with us. No more "I am worthless, you are worthy".

I'd be happy for church music to be better. But I am much happier with the state of music in the church now than I was 20 years ago.

Jon said...

As with most blogs on worship music it seems that this basically boils down to 'I don't like/enjoy the style of modern worship'. Repetition? Look at Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4. Worship in Heaven apparently has quite a bit of repetition. The experience part of it? Check out 2 Samuel 6 where David explains that he was in the presence of the Lord, so he will dance and lift his hands all he wants (and note that the Bible takes his side). Are there lyrical issues with some modern songs? Absolutely! Are there lyrical issues with some hymns? Once again, absolutely! Ultimately this debate always seems to boil down to personal preference, does the person prefer more emotional worship or does the person prefer more of a muted worship?

DJ Word said...

ultimately it comes down to quality, not preference.

the repetition of the Bible is not lazy or just a rehash of the same ole same ole or a tiny vocabulary.

no one said that experience is bad or that dancing was bad.

I think you are choosing to read what you want, not what I said and missed my point.

Rick Renfroe said...

I agree with most of this article if not all of it. Most worship music is simply a re-stating of previous songs. Is there new ground being broken today in worship music? I honestly can't say there is much difference in the overall formula of "worship song making" from 10 years ago. This would never be the case with secular music. Why is this? This is because secular musicians are fueled by a "need to adapt", "need for income", and "passion". Now, most Christian artist aren't fueled by a need to adapt because they don't have to. Has God called them to be lazy? No, but they will be lazy as long as they continue making money off a simple formula that they call music. As far as passion goes, every time I find a new/unique worship style artist that I think will break the mold.. they usually conform to popular worship patterns within their 2nd or 3rd album. I think a big reason for this is that some of these artist are NOT being inspired by God. They are seeking to formulate good songs with words and no inspiration. Even secular artist will tell you that forcing songs is a quick ticket to crap.