This is appropriate and it makes me happy: “Amy Grant named Kennedy Center honoree in first for contemporary Christian music.”
Contemporary Christian musician Amy Grant has been named one of the Kennedy Center’s five honorees for 2022.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine ever receiving this prestigious Kennedy Center Honors,” Grant said in a statement. “I cannot wait to celebrate with my fellow honorees, friends, and family. Thank you for widening the circle to include all of us.”
The center plans to fete Grant in its 45th class of honorees that also includes actor George Clooney, singer Gladys Knight, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tania León and the rock band U2.
Adelle M. Banks does a good job distinguishing the place Amy — and this Kennedy Center first — are distinct as “CCM” without sliding into absurdities about her being the “first Christian artist” so honored. Dozens of Christian musicians have been previously honored at the Kennedy Center. Amy won’t even be the only honored there this year.
But, still, as Banks reports, making Amy the third-most-famous musical act to be honored at this year’s ceremony is still groundbreaking:
Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein lauded Grant, saying in a statement that she “became the first artist to bring contemporary Christian music to the forefront of American culture, then equally thrived after crossing over into mainstream pop with hit after hit, and today is revered as the ‘Queen of Christian Pop.’” …
Center director Deborah F. Rutter told The Associated Press that Grant’s inclusion broke new ground for the Kennedy Honors.
“We’ve had gospel before,” she told AP. “We’ve had plenty of R&B and soul. … We’ve had country music, but we haven’t necessarily had Amy Grant and Christian pop in the same way.”
Other gospel music winners have been Marion Williams, star of the Ward Singers and later a soloist, in 1993; and Mavis Staples, a member of the Staples Singers, who also moved onto a solo career, in 2016. …
Eileen Andrews, vice president of public relations for the Kennedy Center, told RNS that while Grant is the first contemporary Christian artist to be honored, others have had gospel music connections, most prominently Aretha Franklin, who recorded gospel albums and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994.
We could veer off here into a deeper discussion of why, for the white evangelical audience of CCM, Amy Grant “counts” as a “Christian singer” while Aretha and Mavis and Al Green don’t. And thus we could discuss the unspoken, yet unsubtle reasons that “CCM” and “Black Gospel” exist as separate categories. But that would require, at a minimum, several doctoral dissertations and a background syllabus longer than any of us will ever live long enough to read.
That’s all hugely important — you can’t fully understand anything about American history, politics, or religion without digging into all of that — but not my main point here, which is just to respond to this announcement from the Kennedy Center by saying “Yay!”
Banks does a good job in describing how and why Amy is iconic in the subcultural realm of CCM, but she — perhaps prudently — avoids getting into the ways in which she’s also controversial:
Over more than four decades, Grant has had album sales exceeding 30 million and more than a billion global streams, earning three multiplatinum albums, six platinum albums and four gold albums. She was the first contemporary Christian musician to have a No. 1 hit on the pop charts with “Next Time I Fall,” a 1986 duet with Peter Cetera of the band Chicago, and the first to perform at the Grammy Awards, eventually becoming a six-time Grammy winner.
“Baby, Baby,” a hit from her 1991 platinum album Heart in Motion, helped spread her fame.
Yes, “Next Time I Fall” was a hugely popular smash hit. And yes, Heart in Motion sold millions of copies. But these were also hotly debated by white evangelical fans who saw this “secular” success as a Great Betrayal. (Hence my joke from back when I got booted off of Patheos’ Evangelical Channel: “Sure, I’m pro-choice and pro-LGBT, but, c’mon, it’s not like I recorded a duet with Peter Cetera!”)
The nonsense Amy Grant had to put up with from white evangelical gatekeepers makes some of us rather protective of her, still, even though she doesn’t need it.
For those who do not share my background and history in the realm that once revered Amy Grant, let me suggest a different reason why you might want to view her celebration to the Kennedy Center as Good News: It may help to soothe the white Christian resentment fueling our white Christian nationalist slide toward fascism.
Yes, this white Christian resentment is delusional, imaginary, and a conscious, willful fabrication. It’s a sin that, ultimately, demands confession and repentance and amends. That confession and repentance is unlikely to come from those in whom this fever is burning hottest, so anything that can help to lower the temperature a bit may be a positive step. People desperately trying to convince themselves that “their culture” is somehow being perpetually disrespected by sneering cultural elites won’t be able to maintain that illusion easily when their culture is being celebrated at the Kennedy Center and their biggest celebrity is being applauded on national TV by Clooney and Bono and the president.
The voluntary fantasy of the white evangelical persecution complex might have to be put on pause, if only for a moment, while Carrie Underwood (or whoever) is brought out to sing “El Shaddai.”
At least I hope that’s what’s planned. I mean the Amy portion of the evening has to include “El Shaddai,” right? Just like the Gladys Knight tribute has to include “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the U2 tribute has to include something from The Joshua Tree (and the Clooney part of the evening has to include Brad Pitt joking about Batman Forever, thus allowing producers to cut to Clooney’s charming, self-deprecating laughter).
The Kennedy Center folks quoted above seem to be aware of this dynamic — to realize that their Amy Grant tribute will need to include something with what CCM gatekeepers refer to as “explicitly Christian lyrics.” I think they realize that if their Amy segment includes only, say, “Next Time I Fall,” and “Baby, Baby” and “Takes a Little Time,” then it’ll be like waving a needle and spoon at millions of indignation addicts. They’ll lash out to denounce the entire thing as a slanderous attack on Jesus and the Bible and the former guy in a thousand ferocious denunciations that they’re already probably pre-writing, hoping for that excuse.
Apart from the dread of that, I’m looking forward to this Kennedy Center event. I almost wish this were, instead, an episode of CMT’s Crossroads, because I’d love to hear all of these artists taking a stab at each others’ work — Amy could fulfill my long-time dream of a capital-Y CCM rendition of “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Gladys Knight could take “Where the Streets Have No Name” to church. And then the boys could come out to do — surprise! — “So Glad” (from 1980’s Never Alone) before segueing into a raucous, sloppy “Midnight Train.” You get the idea.