Music and the Popular


By Gary D. Erickson

Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” The saturation of music in our modern culture has created a change in the way we listen to music. It is no longer a rare enjoyment where the listener sits in total captivation, absorbing every sound, but it has become an audio addiction-just a backdrop to life, a soother for our fast-paced society. But as we become desensitized to its effect, we require more in the way of variation and novelty to stimulate our emotions and to stir our interest.

Never has music played such a prevalent role in the church service, nor in the private life of the individual Christian. Bob Larson, musician and author, explains this Christian intrigue with music:

I have had the privilege of traveling to more than seventy countries around the world. As a student of religions, I have been able to make valuable observations regarding the impact that belief systems can have on culture. One of the more obvious conclusions I have drawn is that no religion outside of Christianity has so generously incorporated music as a means of expression. Even the heathen and the agnostic must admit that the greatest music of human history owes a debt of inspiration to the Christian faith.

Great changes are sweeping the gospel music industry. Gospel music now takes a 7.5 percent bite out of the music industry, when as early as 1977 it was in the three percent catchall category with comedy, spoken word, and other obscure headings.

Gospel music is no longer a style of its own, but the gospel is packaged in every musical genre used by the world. As a result, Gospel music is challenged as never before with compromise. Guidelines are needed to avoid the inevitable pitfalls.

Pop Music

The advent of technology brought about a new form of music we call “pop.” It is an expression of mass culture revealing its infatuation with machine and technology. Pop refers to the music created for the masses-what is “popular.” The primary trait of pop music is quantity. It is a commercial, assembly-line product that is produced for the purpose of gleaning great profits.

Although there are numerous styles of music considered to be in the class of pop (jazz, ragtime, reggae, blues, folk, country, etc.), rock-and-roll has become by far the most prominent and influencing on the musical soundscape. In the 1950s this special alchemy of sound came out of nowhere to captivate the adolescent feeling, attitude, and ideal.

The heart of rock-and-roll is rhythm and beat-those twin forces give rock its energy and propel its intentionally simple harmony and melody. The appeal does not lie in harmony, because most rock-and-roll music consists of no more than four or five very simple cords in a very clearly defined key. Nor does the attraction lie in melody, since the rock-and-roll vocalist does not so much sing as shout and wail. Musicologists have pondered the enigmas of rock’s attraction and have generally gone away mystified, for rock hardly fits into high-culture formalist definition of musical accomplishment.

Rock’s sudden emergence came propelled by technology’s new inventions-transistor radios, 45 rpm recordings, and electric amplification. MTV has added the visual dimension to this abundance of music listening. Rock-and-roll exerts an immeasurable cultural influence, providing a stage for youthful experience and guiding youth through the wilderness of adolescence. “The lyrics, rhythms, and harmonies provide raw materials that youth may draw upon in earning sex roles and composing their sexual identities. Hence music becomes an essential ingredient to the romantic rites, parties, and dating so intrinsic to this traditional period of development.”

Rock provides emotional support and creates an atmosphere of a perceived normalcy in many turbulent homes of teens. Their music provides a social link with other youth, giving them identity and acceptance. It can even supply social status in this consumer crazed society, based on the size and style of one’s CD collection. Rock’s stars become cultural heroes, and rock videos and sound tracks provide an artificial intimacy for many teens, stagnating their social skills.

To understand rock music one must look beyond the lyrics and realize that the words are only part of rock’s multiple effects. “Rock songs may carry so much expressive ambiguity,’ cryptic symbolism, and buried irony that its meaning cannot be clearly deciphered. Adding to the difficulty is the challenge of simply hearing the lyrics: very often, while the lyrics of some songs may be offensive on paper, these are rendered inaudible by the volume of the accompaniment.” A live stage performance might say something totally different from the lyrics since the music is more impressionistic than rhetorical. Rock deals with the sensory and the emotional, employing figurative lyrics, musical mood, and symbolic gestures that can confuse the “outside” listener.

“It is safe to say that for the most part rock-and-roll features feeling and experience more than thought and analysis; it cares more for identity and intimacy than knowledge and intellect; it celebrates the here and now, focusing on the experiential rather than the ideological.” Rock’s romantic spirit prefers randomness over plan, excess over balance, subjectivity over objectivity, emotion over reason, the transient over the lasting, and the personal over the historically rooted.”

The commercial pop music industry has taken advantage of the indulgent consumerism of our capitalistic society. Music for the masses is described by Calvin M. Johansson:

The popular has an incredible drive toward continuous novelty. Durability and depth are not characteristic of its products. Wearing out soon, they must be quickly replaced. In order for pop to continue to grab the attention of the public on whom it feeds, it must ever produce a new twist, a glossed over cliche, or even outright shock. In its novelty, it shows itself to be shallow musically, for novelty is merely repetition in a different but quickly recognizable disguise-a surface change without substance. Being novel is the closest it can become to being creative….Pop music seeks fun and amusement at the expense of beauty. Titillation through emotionalism, bypassing the intellect….”

Pop’s Influence on Gospel Music

Gospel music has not been insulted from the influence of the pop music demands. A missionary said the most pronounced change he found in America, after four years out of the country, was in the music. The following observations are made based on the general trends in gospel music. Due to the diversity in music, no doubt exceptions can be cited for every point made. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that gospel music is changing.

First, let us consider the six ethnical elements of music and how pop has influenced changes in gospel music.

1. Melody is a series of tones that we hear as a single musical thought. These tones create moods and express feelings. Melody gives a song its distinction and uniqueless. There is a trend to shorten melody, to a chantlike pattern with considerable repetition. This gives the music a lack of identifiable pattern and beauty.

2. Harmony is two or more ones sounding at the same time adding dimension and depth to the melody. There is a trend toward more dissonant blends of tones (unpleasant to the ear) or simple, monophonic, chantlike vocal sounds-in either case producing emotional tensions.

l3. Rhythm is the orderly movement of music within a specific duration of time that is repeated over and over, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The increased emphasis on rhythm is perhaps the greatest single change in modern gospel music. The rhythm has been greatly emphasized, giving music a driving, energetic effect.

4. Meter refers to the organization of musical time (scheme of accents). The metrical patterns have become more congested and rapid, giving a rushed, accelerated effect.

5. Tempo is the rate of speed or the pace of the music. Much of modern gospel music is fast paced, which reflects our rushed society.

6. Dynamics refers to the degree of loudness or softness at which music is played. Since electronic amplification came into our churches, gospel music has continued to get louder and louder. Churches with lively worship services are notorious for loudness due to the volume required to overcome audience response.

Changes have occurred in the lyrics. Many themes concern the present with more emphasis on personal blessings and less emphasis on the greatness of God and our personal consecration to Him. Many songs seek fun and amusement at the expense of good theology and ministry.

Many gospel musicians visualize themselves as performers, capitalizing on the emotional and the sensational with hyped-up performances that draw attention to the sensual and idealize the complex with simplistic jargon. Entertaining the audience has become a vital ingredient for success in music ministry due to our spoiled, entertainment-addicted society.

The pop influence makes music a commodity that is to be spent as a transient, expendable product. There is nothing colder than last year’s pop hit. The musician is pressured to be contemporary in order for his music to enjoy popular approval.

There is an excessive use of electronic gadgetry such as cordless microphones, electric drums and guitars, electronic keyboards, powerful P.A. systems, and special lighting. One secular sound specialist walked into the sound room of a lively worship service and exclaimed to the technicians, “This is exactly like a rock concert!” Noise levels at rock concerts often reach l2O decibels. Dr.Flash Gordon, founder of HEAR, said, “Sustained noise levels over 100 decibels flatten the hair cells in the inner ear that transmit sound.” As a result, some rock performers are wearing ear plugs to avoid permanent hearing loss.”

Alfred Knopf expressed his fear of sound pollution in even more rigid terms: “Medical science has determined that sounds over 85 decibels, heard continuously over long periods of time, pose serious threat to hearing.” He also stated: “Dr. Singleton and others found that the hearing ability of college freshmen who had attended rock concerts often deteriorated to that of sixty-five-year-olds.”

At Christian music concerts today the music is so loud that listeners can actually feel their clothing palpitating against their body under the impact of the intense sound waves. Most church services are not this bad; nevertheless, the pastor should take seriously the complaints about loudness. With today’s powerful P.A. systems we can actually cause hearing loss in the pew.

Not only has the use of music increased but the volume has risen
considerably. Technology has offered amplification equipment that will produce music with equivalent decibels of a 747 airplane at takeoff. Alfred Knopf expresses his concern in this way: “Noise pollution is now a world problem. It would seem that the world soundscape has reached an apex of vulgarity in our time, and many experts predict universal deafness as the ultimate consequences, unless the problem can be brought
quickly, under control.”

He was referring to all sound in our modern culture, but music has certainly contributed its part. The church is not immune to this problem, but it has kept abreast with the latest in sound technology. Some churches, in an effort to overcome audience response, have installed the finest of sound equipment. Complaints about excessive volume have been justified in many cases. The thunder of our voices through a P.A. system is not to be mistaken for the Holy Ghost. Watts of power are not Holy Spirit power! Complaints about loud sound in our churches perhaps should be taken more seriously.

A Christian Response

Certain gospel music sounds that could be classified as pop music style are not conducive to good communication of lyrics. Moreover, they perpetuate the generation gap and illustrate a headlong, unrestrained chase after the latest in worldly trends. Nevertheless, the technical aspects of the music are not the greatest factor of concern. It is the decadent pool of social, economic, and cultural conditions from which these sounds some that should arouse concern. The Christian ethos that once prevailed in America is rapidly disappearing and is being replaced by a blend of ancient philosophies: hedonism, epicureanism, humanism, and now New Age. At one time the institutions of our country strongly supported faith in God, morality, families, and freedom of religion. The strength of that support has sharply declined. The gap between the sacred and the secular is wider than ever.

Contemporary popular trends come from a society that has forsaken biblical principles and a God-fearing ethos, and as a result, pop music reflects this decline. Some popular lyrics explicitly announce their depraved philosophies, and some styles of music implicitly tell the same story. Aligning ourselves too closely with the popular does not help the church maintain its separation from the world as commanded by the apostle Paul: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” (II Corinthians 6:17). Musicians and Christian believers can be affected in subtle way’s. Attitudes, purposes, direction, and faith can be affected by a heavy flirtation with the popular. Conforming to the popular is the opposite to scriptural instruction: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).

(The above material was published by FORWARD, July/September 1993)

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