I happened to be in ‘ole Blighty over the Christmas season and we took our mum to church. It was the first time in ages I had stepped into a church. This one was a new church, still settling into its new home and building its (diverse-but-skewed-Black) congregation. The pastors were White Brits and it was beyond fascinating to hear gospel-tinged prose in a Brit accent: American continental Christendom has wired its brand into my brain and a decidedly southern drawl is part and parcel of that brand… but here was this lad who sounded like he’d walked straight off of an episode of Eastenders and onto the stage in the small hall, and who was now regaling us with tales of how Christ had changed his life forever and how grateful he was for the fellowship the church offered.
I was more focused on the fact that there was a small band:
A bass guitarist and a rhythm guitarist, both seeming a tad less than 100% confident of their riffs but managing to hold things down. An elderly drummer. 4 or 5 singers at the front belting it out with all their hearts.
What struck me most though, was the music itself. The score. The arrangement. The lines of melody and the keys resorted to and the harmonies chosen. You see, it wasn’t a Black church… no gospel or “praise breaks” to be had here. But it wasn’t a traditional English church either: it really drew directly from the East London community it found itself in. And, I have to presume, the music had to work for any and everyone who walked in through their doors. It had to be something that encouraged everyone to sing along, and it had be easy to follow and memorize. You can triangulate, from there, the musical result.
Alternative and Rock feels in places made the soundscape quite modern. But by “feels”, I don’t mean driving rhythm, groovy bass-lines etc. I just mean a chord change here and there that you’d expect more in a piece of pop than in a song extolling the virtues of God’s boundless love. But the whiff of modernity would at least (I suppose) not alienate the young.
Then of course there were the vocalists: You can build a harmony around anything, and sing it with as much diaphragmatic oomph as you want, so that even if it’s not gospel or a requiem mass, a listener can be convinced to at least hear the song out. As a Black churchgoer-in-universes-parallel-to-this, I feel the vocalists were doing double-duty as singers and emcees as far as keeping the energy in the room up.
The drummer too, did his best: holding down the relative squareness of the rhythm so that anyone of any neuronal persuasion could clamber aboard the music express… but let there be even the slightest whiff of a syncopate-able beat or an upcoming fill and he totes wellied it: thumping the bass kick just that bit harder and accentuating whatever changes in feel and tempo came his way. The fairly-Black congregation seemed grateful. In fact: knowing (as I do) how our bodies move to rhythm, and what rhythms we prefer, I can honestly say that the Black audience were bopping to a rhythm that they had in fact already internally superimposed onto what was ACTUALLY being played. (This is something that people from rhythm-rich cultures can understand perhaps better than others: I was once chided by a fellow African that I danced Salsa like a Ghanaian, and I laughed because I knew it was 110% true: I wasn’t properly honoring the Latin flair of the music: I was distilling its afro-cuban fundamentals, finding the 2/3, 3/2 claves and rolling the fuck with THAT, because math).
In short, I was staring bland-for-memetic-purposes church music in the face, and it was strangely FASCINATING. I started paying attention to it on the radio, and these seem to be it’s core principles:
- ease of memorisation / transmission: check
- middling vocal range required to sing along: check
- straight 4/4 rhythms: check
- no allowed prominence of any musical instrument: check
- no improvisation: check
- minimize syllabic complexity: check
Now these things are all true for church music in general, but my point is, it’s especially true for modern church songs at modern churches. By the way – do you know what else meets these criteria? Nursery rhymes and songs we teach young children, that’s what.
“Twinkle Twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are”…
Just change the lyrics, keep the melody, toss syllables:
“God is always wa-atching, God is always li-stening” <== this is the style of the fodder I’m talking about.
It has to be intentional, because Christian music is a vast array crossing every genre of music evolved by humanity… so it’s interesting that the “plain” church-song is resorted to at all. What does it do for its listeners? For the pastors/church-leaders? Is it at the behest of the former or the latter?
I personally couldn’t find it in myself to hate the songs… given that they were being presented as vehicles for religious worship rather than pieces competing for rank in the billboard top 100. I couldn’t even let myself find them annoying: my executive functions kept tossing my own musical verdicts because I refused to be that person. But I did allow that they signalled a simplicity that perhaps communicated an aura of… of safety? Of safety and calm.
That immediately made me think of a convo I’d been having with a friend about another music designed (we think) to signal simplicity and safety: modern ad jingles. You know the type… the ones that take “jingle” so literally that it’s built into the soundscape: little tinkling, jingling, xylophonic sounds throughout, backed-up by equally-interminable bars of ukulele-strumming. It doesn’t matter if the product is nappies or car insurance; if a drooling, crawling baby reaching for a soft toy makes ppl coo with comfort and joy, then by God advertisers are going to rub that same part of all of our brains, in the hopes that we’ll coo with comfort and joy at anything. If you’re lucky, the aural pablum pauses long enough for the narrator to drive home some vapid point, after which the bouncy jingles inevitably pick up again. And by the way, these devices also hearken back to nursery rhymes and the songs we teach young children.
What is going on? It may well be a case of “safe space”-ing, but in the aural domain. Perhaps it appeals to those who really want feel as though the world REALLY IS filled with people who want to hold your hand and sing Kumbaya…
That said, looking around at the world we live in, I can’t say I can blame people for seeking (or heck, creating) these kinds of… aural refuge.
Which brings me back full circle to the churchgoers who stood up to give their personal testimonies, and the encouraging responses from the rest of the congregation as they spoke.
I started to realise that the whole church experience is, and perhaps always was, The Original Safe Space, long before the term was coined and long before it gained it’s current, derisory tinge. The people who were speaking/testifying that day had gone through some things. And instead of having to face those challenges all alone, they’d discovered this community that treated them like family and faced their fears and challenges with them. Stood side by side with them. Prayed with them, while the rest of the world – sometimes their very own families – simply got on with their lives.
Church-going is not my thing. But I think I can TOTALLY see how it would be someone else’s.
Post scriptum: By the way! The Christmas carol repertoire in the UK is much richer: they’ve kept a lot of the old, traditional songs still kicking about, and even if Mariah Carey STILL RAKES IN ALL THE ROYALTIES each xmas, it lends to a musically richer experience imho. :o)