Unheard is sweeter?
Posted: 10 Mar 2011 @ 00:00
Stephen Tomkins on a case for keeping popular music out
Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How popular culture rewrote the hymnal
T. David Gordon
P & R Publishing (distributed by Evangelical Press in the UK) £7.99
“I DO not approach this subject without prejudice,” writes T. David Gordon, and that is an understate-ment. Then again, neither do I, but I do know something about it. The subject is contemporary music, and in particular its use in worship. Gordon judges it utterly inappropriate, because contemporary music is essentially shallow, irreducibly commercial, and inescapably individualistic.
These are sweeping condemnations that demand compelling evidence, but instead the book is full of statements that betray ignorance and misunderstanding of the music it disparages. To prove the individualism of today’s music, Gordon states: “Rarely does more than one artist perform a given piece of music”; “only Michael Jackson performs ‘Billie Jean’.” In fact, a recording of someone else’s song is called a cover version, and I own literally hundreds of them, including seven of “Billie Jean”.
Gordon says that for those raised on today’s music “nothing before the sixties sounds much like music.” First, as one of the people he is talking about, I can assure him that Chopin, Tallis, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong sound uncannily like music to me. Moreover, to think that contemporary music began in the 1960s — when, for example, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Cliff Richard, the Platters, and the Everley Brothers had all been at it for years — suggests a daring lack of familiarity with the subject.
He says that this music is “almost exclusively associated with fairly superficial amusement”. This is a matter of judgement rather than fact, I suppose, and yet I can’t imagine anyone who knows the oeuvres of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave making that judgement. For evidence, he says that when Eric Clapton recorded a song about his son’s death he used an acoustic guitar, thus moving from contemporary music to folk, which is proper serious music. To say that playing contemporary music on acoustic guitar makes it folk — and what else are contemporary church music groups doing, anyway? — is like saying that when the Rolling Stones used a harpsichord they became a Baroque band.
There is a point worth making in this book. Gordon writes movingly about the death of his own son, how he turned for consolation to the old hymns, and how nothing in today’s worship could have given such rich solace. I accept this. But it seems to me to be about the failure of the Church to mine the abundant seam of today’s music as secular artists have, not a deficiency of the music itself.
Stephen Tomkins is contributing editor of Ship of Fools (www.shipoffools.com) and deputy editor of Third Way magazine.