Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture and faith.
“Let’s not have popular culture accost the gospel but rather enrich popular culture with the gospel.”
You might not be aware of this but classical music is experiencing the beginnings of a resurgence in American culture. It might not be readily apparent that this is occurring, since many of the largest orchestras and opera companies are in dire financial straits. From staff lay offs, merging with other institutions, filing bankruptcy or the near constant negotiations between union musicians and their financial backers, the institutions of classical music seem to be dying a slow, drawn-out death.
Additionally, classical music audiences are aging without being replenished by a steady stream of new young fans, since younger generations find more artistry, creativity and challenge in popular music. The issue is, as classical music advocate and Julliard professor Greg Sandow succinctly puts it, “classical music culture… — as a whole — doesn’t [have] many roots in contemporary life.”
Therefore, to most observers it would seem that classical music has lost the clout and musical importance it once had in American culture, so why would I say that it is experiencing a resurrection? The concert hall and opera house could be going the way of history but a number of enterprising classical musicians are skipping the traditional route and using the medium of pop culture to expose a new audience to this ancient music.
There are three main streams in which classical performers have co-opted popular culture, something I think we as Christians can use to examine our own engagement with popular culture and more importantly, in creating new culture.
First, there are several performers out there who primarily do classical covers of pop music. From the rock-edge of 2Cellos to the pop sensibility of the Vitamin String Quartet, these groups re-imagine popular music within a classical idiom. However, the one issue with these types of experiments is that they do not truly embrace the sound of classical music but rather come across as an instrumental version of a pop song. The shift from a guitar-heavy song to a violin or cello is not a difficult one and even more so when the original song was strings-driven such as Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” or Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room”.
The second approach is the mashup. One of the most popular YouTube videos of 2012 was of a classical violinist, Lindsey Stirling (first introduced to the public through her America’s Got Talent audition in 2010). “Crystallize”, an original classical piece married with the synthesizers of dubstep, had over 45 million views and was the sixth most viewed video in 2012.
Then there are The Piano Guys, a pianist and a cellist who have given a rock-edge to classical masterworks and classi-fied pop music. Their most popular music video, a version of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1” arranged for eight cellos with a backbeat, borders on 8 million views. At the moment, their YouTube channel has 220 million video total views and 1.3 million subscribers. Their well produced music videos on YouTube caught the attention of some media power players leading to a PBS Piano Guys concert slated to air nationally in Spring 2013.
While widely entertaining, the genre-mixing of these performers creates a music which is neither classical nor pop music but remains in the safe middle space between the two. Thought-provoking these mashups are not, as they water down the intent of both pop and classical music.
Lastly, some performers forego the inclusion of pop music into the classical dialogue, remaining fairly traditional in their musical output. Though instead of rehashing old culture in the typical manner, they create new culture by presenting classical music in new and vivid ways.
Opera singer Andrea Bocelli has been successful in this regard, navigating popular culture while remaining true to the content of his specific musical genre. Bocelli was the sole classical performer part of the 2012 iTunes Festival, which speaks volumes about the state of classical music but is much more a testament of his keen ability to crossover into popular culture.
Perhaps less well-known than the great Andrea Bocelli, is the piano duo Anderson & Roe. Before The Piano Guys appeared on the scene, their piano four hands arrangements of classical works, presented within filmic-quality music videos, forged a new path for classical musicians. These performers are able to remain true to their musical roots but present these pieces to video-obsessed Millennials.
Anderson & Roe’s transcription of Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” is not revolutionary, but the way they present the narrative of the piece is. The monster is no longer a German mythological creature but the very piano which Anderson and Roe are playing. Haunting, intriguing and immediately engaging, Schubert’s almost 200 year old piece comes to life in an age where pop culture reigns supreme. These are creators of new culture through the lifeblood of ancient cultural artifacts.
Christians, especially Evangelicals, have followed similar paths of engagement with popular culture, with all three options occurring concurrently. First, like the classical covers of pop music, Evangelicals take on the medium of popular culture forgetting the message of the gospel or over-read pop culture by finding signs of the gospel everywhere.
For instance, this church (see video below) celebrating its 10th anniversary decided to sing a medley of pop songs for each year they had been together as a church. Not to say that these are bad songs artistically or lyrically but gathering as a community to worship our holy, righteous and loving triune God should involve songs which glorify God not simply to appease our own musical desires.
Then I don’t even know what to say about this church’s mixture of “Auto-Tune the News” and “Gangnam Style”:
But what about those gospel-esque readings of pop culture items which either are unfounded (something I am guilty of myself, read here and here) or are found in a piece of pop culture Christians should probably avoid? Blogger Yankee Gospel Girl levels this critique of these over-readings:
I think often these attempted Christian readings of innocuous material are just the beginning. They’re indicative of a certain mindset, a certain approach to art that extends much further up the spectrum. If you do enough of these “readings,” you begin to think of yourself as this very profound, insightful sort of person. And when you go to apply this approach to something that is not innocuous, but unlike The Avengers is posing as serious art, you justify it to yourself by saying, “I could even get something gospel-esque out of The Avengers, so I shouldn’t have a problem getting something gospel-esque out of this.” That’s an excellent way to become worldly, really worldly.
Similar to the mashup of classical and pop music, evangelicals have created their own mix of popular culture and Christian faith—the evangelical sub-culture. What happens with this pairing is that evangelicals create culture which is not very good and promotes a skewed or watered-down version of Christianity. Not in all cases but this is the general trend. As our own Drew Dixon wrote about the largest export of this culture, Contemporary Christian Music:
The most common critiques leveled at CCM by my contemporaries is that it is theologically shallow and stylistically derivative of successful secular musicians. When I converted to Christianity and started listening to CCM in the early 2000′s, I certainly noticed that a great number of CCM songs spoke of Jesus as a cosmic boyfriend come to fix all our earthly problems and consequently seemed to lack a biblical understanding of justification, sanctification, and glorification. Add to this the number of CCM artists who mostly took popular secular song structures and imported Jesus into them, and I can see why such criticisms have been leveled… Singing along to CCM felt like some weird existential experience–standing outside myself applauding my own deep seated faith and many spiritual victories. The problem was that my life was not filled with an endless chain of spiritual victories.
But there is the third approach, where Christians follow a path similar to Andrea Bocelli and Anderson & Roe. Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making describes this method as: “In the kingdom of God a new kind of life and a new kind of culture become possible—not by abandoning the old but by transforming it” (146). We see this type of culture making in artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Lecrae, who both operate as Christians working and living in the world but not of it (John 15:19). Their primary concern as artists is to create good, true and beautiful music within already existing popular culture not against it.
It is this latter approach to popular culture which I hope all Christians can embrace. The message of the cross remains central in the life of the artist but they utilize pop culture as a language through which to speak those truths in creative and artistic ways. Let’s not have popular culture accost the gospel but rather enrich popular culture with the gospel. As Gabe Lyon notes, Christians have transformed culture in the past with this approach and we can do it again:
Christians could use a review of their history in culture shaping, for by better understanding it, we just may have a chance to repeat it. Historically, Christian’s were known for their wide and significant contributions to culture. But somewhere along the line, Christianity’s positive influence on culture changed.
Let’s heed this as a call to make new, vibrant and redemptive culture without abandoning the old story of salvation through the blood of Christ.