In defense of Phillip Phillips

So another Safe Scruffy White Guy with Guitar (SSWGWG) won American Idol yet again, beating out far better singers because so many pre-adolescent girls with cell-phones thought he was cute.  That’s what critics are saying.  I acknowledge the underlying problem, but I would argue that this year’s winner, Phillip Phillips, is different from all of the other SSWGWGs and that he is a worthy winner.

The format of singing contests favors the “big voice,” the kind with loud, swelling tones, vibratos, runs, riffs, and grandiose finales.  That style shows off various kinds of talent, for sure, but how much of that can you really listen to at one time?  I hear the American Idol style with little kids singing in school choruses and with “special music” for church.  In that sense, American Idol has had a detrimental influence on contemporary music.

Phillip Phillips, though, doesn’t sing like that.  And he has attained what has become rare:  a fresh, distinct sound.  He also shows actual musicianship and artistry, playing with the melodies and making interesting new arrangements of the old chestnuts that Idol made him sing.  And you have to like his integrity.  After Tommy Hilfiger, no less, told him to stop wearing grey shirts and to glam up his wardrobe, Phillip wore nothing but grey shirts!  And he refused to take part in those idiotic Ford commercials.

I shifted my allegiance to Phillip after realizing that I would much rather listen to an album of his laid-back, restrained, original singing than an album of Jessica’s virtuoso pop-operatic power ballads.

I’m curious about who all of the contestants will get recording contracts.  In the past, the country singers (Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery [last year’s SSWGWG]) have launched big careers, as I suspect will be true of Skylar Laine.  But most “big voices” do not seem to have done all that well.  We only need a few Celine Dions and Mariah Careys.  And few of the SSWGWGs have found much success.  I suspect that Phillip Phillips may be a different story.

That form overwhelms content

I have spared you my American Idol reflections up to this point, that show being one of my pop-culture vices, but a recent performance was so emblematic that I cannot help but comment upon it.  Joshua Ledet, arguably the best singer in the contest (who made the top three but, unfortunately, got voted off before this week’s finale), sang as his personal choice John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  Now that has to be one of my least favorite songs, a treacly anthem to atheism.  Joshua, though, has made much of the fact that he’s all about the church, his father being a pastor, and singing gospel songs or non-gospel songs with gospel stylings every chance he gets.  He sang “Imagine”–“Imagine there’s no Heaven;it’s easy if you try/No hell below us; above us only sky”–not to go against type, though, but, according to what he was telling the judges, because of its uplifting and inspirational message!  He obviously didn’t understand what he was singing.  The reason, I would suggest, is because the music sounds uplifting and inspirational–in a peculiarly sappy way–and that overwhelms for most listeners the nihilistic lyrics.

This is the same principle demonstrated by the avant garde East German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote with musical collaborator Kurt Weill the song “Mack the Knife” for his play The Threepenny Opera.  You know the song, which has become a “standard” of light jazz and lounge crooners.  It’s got a light swinging tune.   But notice the words, all about how a shark has teeth that are razor sharp and is like Mack, who will kill you with his blade.  The melody is sunshiny and peaceful, but the lyrics are dark and violent.  Brecht was purposefully playing form off against content.  Usually, the two go together, mutually re-enforcing each other.  But Brecht was trying to write a song in which the two go in opposite directions.  In his experiment, he believed that the form would overwhelm the content, that audiences would pick up on the happy melody and consider it a happy song with the disturbing lyrics having no impact!  And he was right, as evidenced every time “Mack the Knife” gets played in an elevator or as Muzak in a shopping mall.

This is important to realize when it comes to contemporary Christian music.   The assumption has been that to make Christianity relevant and to communicate with the culture, all we have to do is take “secular” forms–rock, metal, hip-hop, whatever–and put Christian words to it.   But Brecht’s experiment with “Mack the Knife” and Joshua Ledet’s performance on American Idol prove that it’s not so simple.   Death metal with Christian words will come across as and will have the effect of death metal, with the Christian words hardly registering.  Form is not neutral.  Form will drown out the content.

What we need from contemporary Christian artists (musicians, painters, filmmakers, authors) is not slavish following of other people’s styles, attempting to Christianize them; rather, we need original styles, ones that can carry the Christian message and that other people will imitate (thereby promulgating, even unintentionally, the Christian content).

Dick Clark dies

The seemingly ageless Dick Clark passed away.  He was 82.  Through radio, the long-lived TV dance show “American Bandstand,” his New Year’s Eve specials, and as an overall music impresario, Clark presided over practically the whole gamut of American pop music, from the very beginnings of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s through today’s rap music. Here is a good survey of his life and career:  Dick Clark of ‘American Bandstand’ fame dies at 82 – latimes.com.

“American Bandstand” introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the teen-aged masses.  I liked the part where he would play a new song for a couple to rate.  Whereupon we would often get this critical analysis:  “It’s got a good beat. It’s easy to dance to.”

Scandals at the biggest Christian TV network

Christianity has a presence on television.  Unfortunately, its presence come from Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a forum that presents a schlocky and embarrassing version of Christianity, its programming consisting mostly of “prosperity gospel” preachers.  It’s interesting how such ventures are so often accompanied by overt corruption and scandal.  From World Magazine:

A $50 million jet. Chauffeurs. Mansions in California and Florida. Clandestine affairs. Crimes and cover-up. Even a $100,000 motor home for the pet dog.

These are just a few of the allegations directed against the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and its directors in a pair of lawsuits filed in February by former employees of the nation’s largest Christian broadcasting network.

The first lawsuit, filed on Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court in California, contains charges by Brittany Koper, the former chief financial officer of TBN and the granddaughter of founders Paul and Janice Crouch. Her lawsuit is not against TBN but against Davert & Loe, one of TBN’s law firms. Koper’s suit says she discovered illegal activities when she became head of finance. Among the alleged activities: “the unlawful distribution of the TBN Companies’ charitable assets to Trinity Broadcasting’s directors,” some of whom are Crouch family members. The suit says “these unlawful financial transactions” exceed $50 million.

She took that information to Davert & Loe, seeking legal advice. The firm “acknowledged that the conduct in question was unlawful but nevertheless advised … Ms. Koper to perform and cover up such unlawful activities,” according to the lawsuit. The suit also says lawyers in the firm harassed her sexually. She seeks more than $500,000 in damages.

The other lawsuit is against Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, one of TBN’s corporate entities, as well as other TBN entities and Davert & Loe. Joseph McVeigh, Koper’s uncle, says TBN sued him in retaliation against Koper. A judge dismissed TBN’s claims against McVeigh, who now seeks legal fees and “punitive and exemplary damages.”

Both lawsuits paint a sordid picture of TBN, including allegations that Janice Crouch had an “affair with a staff member at the Holy Land Experience,” a TBN-owned amusement park in Florida. The suit also accuses Matthew Crouch, a TBN director and the son of Paul and Janice Crouch, of sexual and financial misconduct. Koper’s suit said that Matthew Crouch brought a gun to one meeting. He “began tapping the firearm … and asked Ms. Koper what she thought would happen [if] she wrote a memo to the board critical of Matthew Crouch’s financial improprieties.”

via WORLDmag.com | TBN again | Warren Cole Smith | Apr 07, 12.

Put a bird on it, but not a real bird

More Portlandia. . . .

This is more than a satire of artsiness.  It cuts to the human condition:   how we idealize nature while also loathing and fearing actual nature.

HT:  Joanna

The chicken’s name was Colin

Have you seen Portlandia, the TV sketch show that skewers today’s fashions and mores, as manifested in Portland, Oregon?

Nothing against locavores!  Or localism!  Or Portland!   It’s just the pose and the righteousness that begs for satire.  (And if you care so much for Colin, why are you going to eat him?)

HT:  Joanna