Thursday, November 5, 2009

Redefining marketability

I know this blog is called God According to a Music Nerd, but humor me as I transition briefly into God According to a Kinda Sorta Film Buff. I would very highly recommend reading Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders of Faith, Film and Culture for Christians whose divine revelations tend to be more visual than aural. As one could guess from the title, the book is a collection of essays from 18 different Christians with various connections to the Hollywood film industry, and many of the anecdotes contained therein are insightful, impassioned and outrageously funny. Craig Detweiler, a professor at Biola University, explains how The Passion of the Christ was a missed opportunity to reconcile the longstanding tension between Jews and Christians in Hollywood; I don't know about you, but making a film that ONLY focuses on Jesus' nearly unbearable suffering at the hands of those particular first-century Jewish authorities sounds quite anti-Semitic to me (and if you've heard about Mel Gibson's notorious drunken rant against a Jewish police officer, you can easily fill in the blanks). Thom Parham, from Azusa Pacific University, writes a hilarious piece about how non-Christian filmmakers are usually better at making Christianity-themed films than Christian filmmakers who are too worried about soiling sacred tradition to produce anything the least bit thought- or emotion-provoking. And several essays touch on the Southern Baptist Convention's tendency to somehow take offense to even the most innocuous movie moments, and subsequently protest its existence as a threat to the moral fabric of our society, blah blah blah ...

But for the purpose of this post, I will focus on "A Filmmaker's Progress," an essay by Scott Derrickson. In this essay, Derrickson -- director and cowriter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- details the steps toward his eventual "membership" in what he calls the Quality Club, evidently the ideal meeting place for Christian filmmakers. And the Quality Club has strict Fight Club-style rules: The work you produce must be excellent, marketable and virtuous. When I read this, I immediately decided it would be beneficial for modern-day Christian musicians to have their own Quality Club.

Christians who recognize the Real Reason they attend church (sorry, mere socializers don't count) shouldn't have to be told the value of being virtuous. Everything we do -- whether it be writing a song, directing a film, painting a picture, carrying a conversation or simply keeping our mouths shut in the face of traffic and frustrating family situations -- should be done with "The Word" stuck in our heads. Any note we play and sing that doesn't sound at least a little like "The Word" should probably be silenced, and yes, our admission into the Jesus Jam's upcoming performance at the Ultimate Temple DOES depend on that. Still, our reverence to "The Word" doesn't mean that we should stop listening to all other songs, period. Especially in this day and age, Christian musicians can and do learn a lot from secular music that frankly doesn't suck nearly as much as most CCM. And as I explained in a previous post, mediocrity has less to do with technical skill and everything to do with originality.

So, Quality Clubbers, we've determined why virtue and excellence are important ... but what about that marketability rule? That seems like kind of a toughie, especially considering we are to base our own unique versions of "The Word" closely on the Jesus Jam's rendition. Didn't the Jesus Jam play an unexpected, unwelcome show at the High Priests' Hangout in Jerusalem, deliberately starting a riot with a breakneck protest rant called "Awesome God's House Ain't a Market"? Didn't their "Beatitudes Medley" contain a section entitled "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit"? And what about that uncompromising rocker they played called "The Eye of a Needle"? The chorus of that one made its message pretty clear: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle/Than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

It seems as if making marketability a rule is at odds with these vital sections of "The Word." If we happen to make money from performing "The Word," hallelujah indeed, but that's not why we are hired to play it. All of our performances are meaningless if we don't inspire at least one person to pick up an instrument and join in the symphony, and it doesn't matter whether we do that with nine 18-wheeler trucks full of gear or a single beat-up ukulele. The Jesus Jam didn't tour the Mediterranean circuit on an extravagant tour bus -- heck, they weren't even luxurious enough to have the stereotypical Volkswagen van that barely functions. They WALKED to all their gigs, except for that "triumphal" one in Jerusalem where they rode through the branch-laden streets on donkeys. You don't get more indie than that.

But as I thought about it more, I started to realize that much like mediocrity, maybe "marketability" also needs to be redefined. In "A Filmmaker's Progress," Derrickson talks about marketability like it's a defeated requirement of sorts -- he's a reputable director hired by a studio and therefore has Earthly contractual obligations to fill. While I can certainly understand where he's coming from, I can't help but feel like he's sucking up to The Man. All the studio wants is to make money, and consequently, so does Derrickson. The only contract we should be following to a tee is that written by Awesome God, signed by Daddy Abraham, refined by Go Down Moses and renegotiated by the Jesus Jam. It may be tempting to place another, more lucrative contract before this one, but doing so will significantly hinder our chances of witnessing that final Ultimate Temple extravaganza. Derrickson's essay doesn't sound like "The Word" so much as the corporate-mogul narrator of Pedro the Lion's "Penetration": "If it isn't making dollars/Then it isn't making sense/If you aren't moving units/Then you're not worth the expense."

But if taken from a different viewpoint, marketability might not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might help us performers of "The Word" in encouraging others to join the symphony. A friend of mine mentioned a few weeks ago that not every song about God has to contain the word "God" in the lyrics, and I think that's true. I'm certainly not an advocate for omitting God-talk (i.e., "Jesus Christ," "sin," "prayer," etc.) out of utter fear -- far too many Christians become sheepish about their faith for the sake of being "respectful" to those who mercilessly throw us believers under the bus. However, I'm well-aware that bragging about one's faith can be construed as sinful if done for the wrong reasons, not to mention alienating for those who were required to perform unlistenable, unnecessarily rigorous monstrosities of "The Word" growing up and now cringe at its mere mention. Just because we are required to "Be Bold, Be Strong" doesn't mean we can't be tactful about it; if we aren't tactful about it, oftentimes we look no better than the Southern Baptist Convention protestors outside Disneyland.

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to managing all three Quality Club rules with equal aplomb, there's still no Christian artist who's done a better job than Amy Grant. Yes, I went there, indie snobs -- I love Amy Grant. DEAL WITH IT!!!! In all seriousness, though, somewhere down the line Amy Grant became the default flogging horse for every secular music critic who ever briefly mentions how all Christian music sucks except this particular band they're reviewing, yadda yadda yadda. And sure, Amy Grant is an easy target; not only was she one of the pioneers of what we know today as contemporary Christian music, but she was one of the first Christian artists to experience success in both the Christian and mainstream markets. She was kind of a flogging horse for me, too, since much of her music is super-duper-polished and she also happens to be very pretty. She was just-another-pop-diva in addition to being partially responsible for CCM, and therefore on my poo-poo list.

But then I did a little more research and some closer listening, particularly in regard to her #1 hit from 1991, "Baby Baby." This song is how I was introduced to Amy Grant -- I remember watching VH1 at the age of 12-ish and watching her lip-sync over that incessant, manipulatively catchy (and unfortunately, unmistakably early-'90s) keyboard hook. I came to my just-another-pop-diva conclusion right then and there, but a few years later I was surprised to discover she was a Christian artist. I was also intrigued to learn much later that at least certain tenants of Christian culture flipped their wigs when Amy Grant became a sex symbol and genuine pop star; 1991's Heart in Motion alone scored five Top 20 hits, which is absolutely colossal for a Christian artist.

A situation like this begs for listeners religious and nonreligious to cry "Sellout!" in unison, but I don't know if that's quite warranted -- especially after discovering Amy Grant wrote "Baby Baby" about her then-newborn daughter, Millie. Suddenly, what I initially heard as a trite love song transformed into a sincere and quite moving tribute to the joys of parenthood: "Baby, baby, the stars are shining for you/And just like me, I'm sure that they adore you/Baby, baby, go walking through the forest/The birds above a-singing you a chorus." I'm seriously crying just typing that right now; not only does it make for an awesome welcome to the world, but I think it goes a long way in proving that a song can still express very Christian sentiments without involving God directly. And in a stroke of sheer marketing genius, the lyrics to "Baby Baby" work just as well as a simple, fun radio singalong, although I have a feeling those birds above were probably singing "The Word."

Also, in regard to the controversy over her relatively suggestive image, I've got to give mad props to Amy Grant for responding in 1991 with a concise quote she is now famous for: "Christians can be sexy." And why can't they? It's exactly because of protestors like those in the Southern Baptist Convention (with all due respect to Baptists who abstained from the boycott against Disneyland, etc.) that Christianity has been reduced to a mere niche market -- the mainstream market figures we can never be pleased no matter what they do, so why bother considering us? It's almost as if Amy Grant saw Christianity becoming compartmentalized and reacted by showing just a little skin. It wasn't just about making extra money or getting teenage boys to drool. She was making a statement that Christians can be sensible, relatable people, too, and deserve to be included in mainstream society just as much as anyone else. What she did was very punk rock. (Although I think she may have unintentionally started the continuing trend of all female Christian musicians looking like models.)

And as I've already ranted and raved about numerous times in this here blog, it's happening again, folks. Christian music -- and consequently, Christianity -- is seen as more or less a niche market in our crushingly secularized society, and that needs to change. I'd assume we already have the virtue (or as much virtue as we can possess as sinners), and we already know full well that the excellence can and must be improved. But now with this new, un-Derricksonian idea of marketability, let's start working on employing that into the Quality Club's mission. Simply performing "The Word" may not be enough for some people; offering lessons on how to appreciate the piece may prove extremely helpful. But more importantly, "The Word" should never be played from atop a gaudy, elevated stage. It sounds best when performed at street level.


  1. I've read that essay, and remember this: it's about a Christian's responsibility IN HOLLYWOOD. If a filmmaker in Hollywood doesn't make movies that are marketable, then the filmmaker has failed to do his job, and won't get to keep making movies in Hollywood. I do think it's somewhat different for musicians though, because plenty of musicians have careers without being employed by the entertainment industry. The same can't really be said of filmmakers.

  2. Good point, Brenda! I guess a parallel could be drawn, though, to any musician who is on one of the four major record labels, and therefore has very strict sales requirements to meet in order to remain on the label. A lot of musicians -- especially in the post-MP3 era -- have more or less eliminated the need for a record label.

    But in any very successful industry, the suffocation of challenging work for the sake of easy profit still exists. An example that comes to mind for me is Derek Webb, a Christian singer-songwriter who ran into trouble with his Sony-distributed record label on account of there being a single curse word in one of his songs, in addition to controversial topics in other tunes on his latest album. The album has been released, but without the aforementioned profane track, "What Matters More." And from what I understand, Webb did that as a test of sorts to prove that if a Christian musician curses, it will get more press than a Christian musician singing about thousands of people dying every day throughout the world. The lyric is as follows: "Meanwhile we sit just like we don't have give a s@#!/About 50,000 people who are dying today."

    Heaven forbid Christians do something daring at the expense of making a buck. Webb may have failed in the sense of getting that song officially released, but at least he tried. And now the song is available for streaming on his Web site, so in that regard maybe he succeeded after all.

    Thanks for reading, Brenda!