Friday, February 20, 2009
A Musical Conundrum
"I've never seen anyone lead worship like you do." -Anonymous Minister at a church where I worked
It was not, I guess, a compliment. There are plenty of people who lead worship like I do, but this guy had never seen it. I'm not the gregarious, in-your-face, Guy Smiley kind of worship leader. I'm subdued. I say things, encourage people to get involved, but I try not to draw attention to myself. I have been told that I'm not dynamic enough. But, what can I do? I'm probably not going to give my personality an entire overhaul. I don't think I could even do that.
There is this struggle I have with popular opinion. On the one hand, it's overwhelming. It's everywhere. That's why it's popular, right? We live our lives most of the time based on what other people think. What is acceptable now may not be the same as fifty years from now, or fifty years ago, because popular opinion changes. Tastes certainly change. Music tells this story better than anything.
When Elvis played the Grand Ole Opry, he was told by the Opry's manager to go back to driving a truck. A year later, he's the most well-known, popular singer in the history of recorded music. When the Beatles auditioned for Decca records, the producer said that guitar groups were on their way out. These guys were playing styles of music that hadn't really been heard by mainstream music listeners at the time, but soon they would be the biggest thing in music.
As a songwriter, I can't hardly stand a lot of mainstream music. It's simple minded and arrogant without a hint of introspection. I don't usually listen to most contemporary Country or Christian music, and when I do I can hardly keep listening. Overriden with cliche and unimaginative production, I quickly put on some Iron and Wine. Yes, I have my guilty pleasures, but most of what I listen to says something of substance, and says it well.
So, I have a conundrum here. I love to write songs, and I'm trying to break into the business of songwriting. In order to get anywhere with songwriting, you have to write in the style that people are already listening to. It makes me wonder, is there a place for music in the mainstream that doesn't fit the mold of mainstream music? I read a post on a songwriting message board where someone told a guy that if this were 1995, all of his songs would be hits. Now, he can't get anyone to record his songs. They are, I'm assuming, good songs. There's just no place for them now. I've got to tell you that old songs that are good are just as good as new songs that are good. It's the business part of music that has ruined it, I suppose. If you can't sell it, or if it's won't sell now, does it matter if it's good?
There's also a conundrum for church people of the same variety. We say that we should not change our Biblically based views of social issues, and I agree. God's word has spoken on so much of what is going on in our society. But what about our music? It should be good, right? What does good mean, you ask? I'm not sure I know any more. After all, I've been hired by three churches to lead worship, and all three have been responsive to my worship leading style. So, it's apparently good, but not good to the churches that have either not hired me, or those who have been critical (see the quote) of how I do what I do. I understand this is all subjective, but I'm wondering if there is some quality standard in all of this.
I think I'm confused here. I believe the goal of music is to express thought and emotion artistically, and new songs should bring something new to the table. But the more I listen to mainstream music, the more I hear more of the same. I feel the same way about worship music, too. It's hard for me to pick new songs because I want great songs, not overly repetitive or simplistic songs. Afer all, I'm leading worship for adults, right? I love new worship songs like "All Because of Jesus" and "Mighty to Save" because they bring something new to mainstream worship. But, for every one of those, there are five songs that are rehashes of hymn titles or verses of Scripture that were written about better in another song. But, we don't do those any more because they aren't good now, right? Allow me to roll my eyes with exasperated expression.
Originality doesn't seem to be a concern for Nickleback, most likely because when they've released the same basic song as a single twice, they racked up two hits for the work of one. Elvis recorded two songs by the same guy that had exactly the same melody, but different arrangements. Maybe it doesn't have to be original, but I'd have a tough time getting paid for someone else's work.
So, if I write lyrically complex songs, I might not get a hearing. If I dumb it down, I've got a better shot. I feel that way about worship songs as well. My present church excluded, I might get more acceptance playing what's popular in a worship service, and leading in a popular style, but I'm not sure I'll get the depth that I think God deserves in our worship times. Then again, why should I be concerned about it? What's a music guy to do?