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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

American Jesus--er, Idol

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I don't have a TV. But I watch American Idol online, the day after. I haven't watched last night's "Idol Gives Back" extravaganza, but I've come across the online buzz surrounding the song that closed the show, a contemporary Christian tune called, "Shout to the Lord."

It's only the most assertive step in what is becoming an American Idol Jesus march. Over the last several weeks, contestants (especially David Archuleta) have increasingly chosen songs with overt references to God, from "Smoky Mountain Memories" to "God Bless the USA." It's a trend both Meredith and I have noted with some discomfort.

The producers of Idol and the executives at Fox have certainly figured out that there is a heap of ratings dollars to be made off of the religious sensibilities of God-fearing Idol worshipers. Maybe next week they'll start and end the show with prayer.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 12:35 PM


rock, you know David A is Mormon? So is Brooke White. Anyway, thought that might add a wrinkle to your theory. I think this emerging religious connection is one fascinating component of AI, but do perhaps maintain a bit of a different take.

I don't want to get too preachy, but I guess I don't agree with your "discomfort" here. A hallmark of the judging is to critique "song choice," so that leads one (being me) to believe that these folks are making these decisions on their own (albeit probably from some huge list prepared ahead of time, as has been alluded to). Thus, if they want to choose a song, for whatever reason at all, more power to them and it's their butt on the line (on the group numbers, see below).

While Chikeze spoke quite openly about his faith, and sang a bit of gospel (and was voted off), I think it is interesting that Jason Castro has picked songs with overt and implicit spiritual meaning more often than perhaps any other contestant. However, maybe his appearance elicits counter-stereotyping here, i.e. "Oh, he's probably not a Christian." Whereas with Chikeze/David/Brooke, that is not the case necessarily. Interested to hear your response to that...

As for the group number, I have 2 points. First, while this is obviously a religious song, it is also one of the best-selling songs (and genres) in recent years, particularly if the program focuses on "inspirational" music, which was the stated theme. I would think it nothing but intentional and almost silly if AI ignored this genre entirely during a themed night like this. I think I would consider its exclusion more scandalous than its inclusion (and you know me, so it's not like I'm an in-your-face-only-CCM type of person). Secondly, is it not reasonable that AI provide some sort of acknowledgment to the (large) Christian fan base that supports and is familiar with relief organizations worldwide through their religious affiliations? I have no idea about percentages, etc, but it struck me while in Africa that much of the relief work going on is growing from faith-based roots. I don't think it inappropriate that such a program remind potential donors of what a large percentage of them might already feel is a connection between giving to help others and their call to live out Christian commitment.

Anyway, that's my fourteen cents!
hope you are well, brother
commented by Anonymous matt, 11:28 PM  
Matt: stellar. Absolutely stellar.

I had a hunch that Archuleta was Mormon, but I didn't know that about Brook.

Your defense of the Jesus music stands on its own; that contemporary Christian and gospel music ought to be able to get in the ring with all the other pop music that gets featured on AI I guess is fair enough. The thing that makes me a little uncomfortable is the picture that is emerging of religious music (and therefore religion itself) is getting packaged and exploited for ratings. When Christy Lee Cook sang "God Bless the U.S.A.", Simon called it "smart" or "clever" or something like that. I think Archuleta's bellowing about "holding to my Jesus" and Chikeze's gospel stylings are clever in the same way; they're aimed at a demographic. They're marketing.

Look, this is TV. I understand that. You have to get the viewers in order to drive the Coca Cola's and the Ford's and the Exxon Mobile's to the advertising table. It just seems that God is a much bigger carrot for AI viewers this year than ever before. That, as you say, could speak to some kind of spiritual hunger on people's part. I'm afraid that it probably speaks instead to Jesus' role as the centerpiece of a consumer niche.

As for Jason Castro, his "spirituality" strikes me as the kind that is greatly aided by a certain not-quite-legal herb.

Was that going too far?
commented by Blogger Not Prince Hamlet, 4:19 PM  
Okay... points taken... counterpoints ready!

Re: "God Bless the USA"
Come on. That's not a religious song, unless you're counting civil religion. Simon said it was smart not because it would pull in the Christian viewers, but because it would pull in the flag-wavin' crowd
(which is the crowd he has pointed her toward many times - country music fans). Simply put, who's going to hate on the girl who sings in front of the stars and stripes? If you recall, he chastised Mandisa a few years ago for singing a Christian gospel number, calling her "self-indulgent," when she was trying to connect with a Christian audience. He called her anything but savvy. Now, incidentally, Mandisa does have "hit" songs a few years later with that niche audience. So, perhaps it was savvy; but I don't consider it inauthentic.

The natural progression from your argument would seem to posit that any Christian music sold for money is "selling out" the gospel, and I can see why some would think that. However, I would argue that it is little different than a church paying for a pastor to preach to them each week, or a Christian paying to attend a conference of some sort. "A worker (be in a pastor, musician, speaker, etc.) is worth his wage." At the most basic level, these people (musicians included) use special skills (and gifts) to bring glory to God and to help others become closer to God or feel connected to the faith. They do it full time because that's what they are called to do - and they have to live (perhaps even at a level that enables them the freedom from worry that facilitates their ministry - a point that is debatable in its details, but that is what (in not so many words) our terms of call and salary guidelines for pastors indicate). Thus, why shouldn't we pay when we download a Christian song we like? Why can't a Christian band appear on Leno to market their CD? And why can't Christians enjoy listening to music that edifies them without being subjected to cries of "sellout," or accusations of inauthenticity?

As for Archuleta, etc: That was Dolly Parton week. Just as if there were a Boyz to Men week they'd be singing about making sweet love, with Dolly, somebody's gonna sing about Jesus. That's Dolly. And I don't think there are ulterior motives to evangelize or court a demographic here. That's a little much. Did they do Gloria Estefan week solely to appeal to Spanish speakers? Did they do Lionel Richie week solely to appeal to Gheri Curl clients? My suspicion is that they are actually trying to be "diverse" in their themes... and eventually that means somebody who has some Christian themed music. That's my take. And i think that if there is the insidious marketing plot developing it is just that - diversity of all strokes to appeal to as many "Americans" as possible.

As for Jason Castro's herb of choice... if that wasn't a stereotype, I'm not sure what is. I'm not saying I disagree necessarily, but I'm not abandoning my convictions about his song choices thus far... just saying I'm trying to reserve judgment until he gives a chilled-out rendition of "Don't Fear the Reaper" or "What a Long Strange Trip it's Been." And, having said that... check out this quote I saw on a blog "Jason Castro and his family attend my church in Rockwall, Texas. He is a Christian and has asked for prayer because one of the other contestants is either an atheist or agnostic. I was told that Jason Castro encouraged a few of the others to sing "Shout to the Lord" after they at first balked at the lyrics. Just FYI: Jason's mother gave him the idea to get dreadlocks, and he now uses his look as a way to be able to witness to teens that normally wouldn't listen. Way to go, Jason" Apparently, the (evangelical) church he attends has thousands of members. So... perhaps it blows your theory? How 'bout them apples?

Anyway, love going back and forth... miss ol' Alexander Hall.
commented by Anonymous matt, 6:06 PM  
Matt, I'm enjoying this too.

But as for the "sellout" charge, you put them words in my mouth. My dis-ease with the trend (and it is little more than an upset stomach at this point) isn't that individuals are selling out to a "secular" audience; I thought we left that argument behind with Amy Grant. It's more that the marketing juggernaut that is American Idol is more and more appropriating the language and affect of faith, and I can only assume a profit-driven motive.

I should point out that a profit-driven motive is the only motive that a television production can have, especially one that airs on a corporate, for-profit network. That's not a condemnation, only a statement of reality. TV exists to sell stuff. I'm simply noticing that Jesus is helping American Idol sell stuff.

As for "God Bless The USA," no, it's not a Christian worship song, but it is a God song. And I do think that the people who got misty-eyed at Christy Lee's rendition of it are the same people who would have applauded Dolly's "Jesus and Gravity" and "Shout to the Lord." I think it's more of a cultural lifestyle niche and less of a federation of people who all go to church on Sunday.

The dig on Jason was a stereotype. I'm glad he asks people to pray for him, surrounded as he is by atheists. Maybe he should ask people to pray for the atheists themselves.

You rule.
commented by Blogger Not Prince Hamlet, 8:14 AM  
okay... now you're capping on my boy Castro. I will tell you, from the context of the place where I read that info, the prayer he was asking for was for those without faith - that they might find it, or perhaps at the very least, see him as a witness to an authentic and accessible Christianity. But, maybe I'm reading into it too much, and putting too much hope in the boy. In any event, I really don't want to see him chastised for asking his community for support in some way - come on, you're the one usually riding the community hobby horse. You can't be mad at the boy.

Sure, television is about money. If you want to be a socio-cultural realist, everything is about money (or capital) at some level. But, don't forget, there are people involved here, too. Not just the corporate behemoths. I read that a group of insiders at FOX, who are Christians, considered this a triumph personally and professionally that AI is opening up to broadcast a message of faith and hope (even one that is not universally held by those singing it) with the world. Because, it is the WORLD watching, as AI is broadcast in any number of countries, and also sets the tone for countless other series (i.e. "West African Idol" which I have actually seen).

To extrapolate on that a bit, how are inauthenticity or insidious motives suddenly a barrier or a hindrance to the preaching of the gospel? Didn't Augustine argue that the character of the celebrant had nothing to do with the efficacy of the sacrament? What about the preachers who preach (think of any example) without taking the very message they speak to heart? Does that make the message untrue? Does that make it not worthy of consideration? I would say not. Unfortunately, the character of a preacher might be a stumbling block to some, but it doesn't change the truth that is there. So, I might argue that the ulterior motives of the decision makers at AI might be a stumbling block to some (you?), but that doesn't change what it getting out there into the homes (the hearts?) of millions of viewers.

As far as the "God Bless the USA," I would say that it did strike me a cheesy, over the top, and a bit false. BUT, if she chooses to sing that song, and saddle her wagon with the baggage that comes with a a song like that, then that's her choice. Some may be turned off, some may "shout to the Lord" with joy. But, Christy is ultimately the one they have to believe means what she's saying. And, I would add that this particular demographic would be quick to cut all ties with her were she discovered to be just using a "god card" or a "USA card" to buy votes, and it wasn't (at least in some way) part of who she was. This crowd takes its family values (God and country) seriously, and won't abide with a major departure.
I guess that what I mean is: if these kids truly want to sing this stuff and they get on the show, that isn't AI trying to woo the dumb Americans with Jesus... that's just how the show works. If a kid who loved heavy metal got on, he'd sing heavy metal. Would AI try its best to promote that edge of the show to bring in some fans for the kid, keep things interesting, and (yes!) maybe bring new advertisers to the table? If the kid could pull it off, then you bet they would. That's how it goes. So, they trumpeted the "janis joplin rocker-nurse" until they realized that wasn't going to play and she got voted off. What they have are a few mormon angels and maybe an evangelical Christian or two. They are playing the hand they're dealt (Of course, with marketing and business success in mind - thus, the reason why the even the "bigger" contestants have always been attractive, funny, charming, and, yes, overweight. A fat slob wouldn't sell... they're not idiots).

Now, on a more general note, perhaps I am not quite as cynical as you are for some reason. I don't see it as you do: "TV exists to sell stuff." I would be slightly more optimistic: TV exists to entertain and inform, and is financed and sustained by selling stuff. You didn't really address this, but I do think that from a marketing standpoint, AI is trying to diversify as much as possible; thus, appealing to a broader stroke of the country. Maybe "diversity" has now finally come to include white, middle-America God and guns (obama) Christians?

You also rule.
commented by Anonymous matt, 1:37 PM  
TV exists to sell stuff. Don't kid yourself.

"Didn't Augustine argue that the character of the celebrant had nothing to do with the efficacy of the sacrament? What about the preachers who preach (think of any example) without taking the very message they speak to heart?"

You make my point for me: that the content of American Idol can be so easily considered "preaching" is the problem. It's the whole conflation of the entertainment industry with the proclamation of a religious message that makes me uneasy. But that is a part of the American religious experience, and always has been.

That the producers at American Idol are playing the hand they're dealt is just not a serious notion. As producers they're dealt no hand; they do the dealing by placing hand-picked contestants like Carly Smithson and David Archuleta into the auditions. But I ain't mad at them. It's TV. They have to make people watch. And people are watching.

As for the Christian execs at Fox who are thrilled about "Shout to the Lord," good for them. Even if it's hard to imagine evangelical Christians as a minority population in the Theocracy that is News Corporation, they've every right to get excited about their employer hocking Jesus to the world. Maybe next year they'll accomplish a real coup and Rick Warren will be a guest judge.
commented by Blogger Not Prince Hamlet, 1:54 PM  
Wow, you guys sure think a lot. I just thought it was funny that they were wearing all white outfits - reminded me of Benny Hinn. :)
commented by Blogger Jerilyn, 7:28 PM  

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