Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jee-Zak

I'm not really a fan of the "Cathy" comic strip (by Cathy Guisewite), but she published a strip once that was one of the best comics ever. Playing on the tension that existed between cartoon Cathy and her controlling mother, it showed the difference between the 1950s kitchen and the "modern" kitchen (I think the strip was from the 1980s). On the left, here is the 1950s kitchen -- just a range/oven, a sink, a cast iron skillet, and a refrigerator. On the right, here is the modern kitchen, containing every gadget imaginable -- blender, Cuisinart, automatic mixer, microwave, fancy Teflon-coated cookware, freezer, you name it. Then, on the left, here is the 1950s meal -- turkey, ham, soup, homemade biscuits, scalloped potatoes, pie. And on the right, the modern meal -- a microwavable TV dinner and a Diet Coke. Somehow, less is more.

Though now a Presbyterian, I was raised Baptist, so I learned all the good old Gospel hymns growing up, and loved them all. Well, all except "Just As I Am", which was the altar-call hymn. (If Preacher Hall was wrapping up a real stemwinder, we would sing every verse twice through, waiting, in what seemed like an infinite loop, for more people to come forward and be saved.)

The "Jesus Freak" movement of the early 1970s -- sort of a "Hippies for Jesus" thing -- came in right about the time I was discovering a world outside of the religion of my youth. So, I sort of missed out on the whole Campus Crusade/InterVarsity thing. As a freshman at Penn State, I did go to an InterVarsity meeting once with a very nice girl named Karen, a French horn player, and a junior. I was very, very uncool and certainly not what she was looking for in a boyfriend. But she was kind enough to take me to InterVarsity, which is the first time I ever heard the folksy bleating soon to be incorporated in what we now refer to as "praise music".

I hated it.

Cloying, treacly, overly sentimental. Ycch. The femininization of Christian music. Definitely not Men's Town. My buddy Ray came up with the perfect word for capturing its essence: Jee-zak.

That style is still with us today, more or less. Sometimes it's still in plaintive post-hippie time capsule form; other times, it's an overblown orchestral production number, complete with chorus, soloists, and everything but the dancing girls. And sometimes, even the dancing girls -- just not at the Baptist churches.

For all I know, the Lord loves modern praise music. I can't speak for Him. He says, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," and perhaps noise is good enough for His purposes. It might therefore be a sin for me to dislike it as much as I do. But I can't help myself. Every time I hear modern praise music, I feel another chunk of aesthetic sensitivity break off and head south, like an iceberg looking for the Titanic, like panicked brain cells grabbing their luggage and fleeing the Keith Olbermann show.

Turns out, however, I'm not the only church-goer who feels this way. Lawrence Henry, in the American Spectator, took praise music to task earlier this summer. Follow the link, and don't miss the feedback in the Letters sections, here and here.

Of course, what I think we're really seeing is just the general dumbing down of musical taste in our culture. Listening to the dreary, whiny sounds of electronic post-rock, it's hard to imagine that our tastes, as a culture, were once refined enough to appreciate George Gershwin and Cole Porter, let alone Beethoven and Verdi. These days, music is less an art form than it is a sensation. Craft takes a back seat to attitude.

We live in a very small age. Small, in the sense that our culture does not prepare us well to exalt anything bigger or more magnificent than we are. (Most modern music exalts sex; heck, snails can have sex.) We have every technical gadget and gizmo in the world, music composition tools that would have made Mozart weep for joy, recording devices, modern microphones and acoustic science and vast numbers of people who can play some sort of an instrument -- and the music we produce with all that paraphernalia sounds like it was written either by the four-year-old Neil Sedaka at one extreme, or a love-crazed salvage yard car-crushing machine at the other.

A hundred years ago, a couple of guys with nothing more than a piano wrote the incomparable "It is Well With My Soul".

Somehow, less is more.

1 comment:

AggieSoonerMom said...

Perhaps you would enjoy this:

http://www.oldchristianmusic.com/mproductpages/scottish-festival-singers--psalms-of-the-trinity-psalter.html