The Genesis of Pop

Today I want to share with you a short passage from T. David Gordon’s new book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal”. Gordon, a media ecologist, is not re-hashing the tired “worship war” debates between traditional hymns and praise choruses, but is rather making a case for more serious reflection on why and how we choose the songs that we use in our corporate worship services.

In the chapter dealing with meta-messages (“nonverbal messages that go along with our actual words”), Gordon makes a convincing argument that when churches borrow the musical idioms of pop culture for our hymns and praise choruses, we communicate a nonverbal message that the content of our worship songs is insignificant. Of particular interest to me was the following section (found on pages 66-68) on the origin and purpose of pop music (all italics and parentheses are his):

Commercial interests joined forces with mass media (originally radio, but later television also) to create pop music; it did not exist before. Pop music is a form of music designed to appeal, in some way, to the masses. If there were no mass media, pop music would not and could not really exist. Once it exists, however, it serves commercial purposes. Businesses purchase airtime to advertise their products, and they want to sell many products. Therefore, the fee structure for commercial advertisement is based on the size of the audience; stations with large audiences can command higher prices than those with small audiences. But no one tunes in to a radio or television station for the commercials; we tune in for the programming.

So there’s this very basic tension in all commercial broadcasting. The broadcasters and their advertisers are interested in the commercials; the audience is interested in the programming. As long as both parties are content to put up with the interests of the others, everyone is happy. But because the advertisers want a large audience, the producers of the programs must make them easily accessible to the population at large. They cannot produce programming that is profoundly offensive, and they cannot produce programming that is difficult to follow, programming that requires a steep learning curve. So what do they produce? Programming that is fairly insignificant. In the case of music, they produce music that does not require concentrated effort to appreciate, preferring instead music that is fairly simply and straightforward. In short, they produce music that is fairly insignificant, trivial, or banal. It cannot, ordinarily, last an hour (as a symphony with four movements might), and it cannot be musically demanding. For commercial reasons, therefore, pop culture and pop music cannot be either beautiful or ugly; pop music must be easy, and therefore it must be fairly inconsequential. Demanding pieces of music, such as the string quartets of Béla Bartók, would be commercial disasters.

But now, is worship inconsequential, trivial, or insignificant? Is meeting with God a casual, inconsequential activity, or a significant one? Is religious faith itself insignificant? If the music or lyrics of our hymns are insignificant or inconsequential, do they not send the wrong meta-message? Does not their very commonness, their mundaneness, their everydayness, their inconsequentiality suggest precisely the wrong thing? The lyrics of a hymn might say, “Holy, holy, holy,” but the music might say, “Ho-hum, ho-hum, ho-hum.” In such a case, the meta-message competes with and contradicts the message. Neil Postman rightly said*: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” So what is at stake is the kind of religion presented in music that is easy, trivial, light, inconsequential, mundane, or everyday. The very existence of the expression sacred music once conveyed the notion that some music was different from other music, intentionally different, differently precisely because it was devoted to a sacred (not a common) cause.

* The Neil Postman quote is from his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”, page 121.

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