The pitfalls of gospel tourism

Fiqah over at Racialicious and Possum Stew has an extensive, fascinating and much-needed take-down of Harlem gospel tours, from a personal perspective.

As you may know, there are plenty of African-American, largely Baptist, churches in Harlem which are well-known for their excellent (primarily gospel) music.  It’s not necessary to be a believer to appreciate the talent and incredible sound, and Fiqah herself describes how she’s not religious, but rather goes to church with a friend occasionally just to appreciate the music.  This doesn’t seem at all problematic to me; a few people going occasionally, behaving respectfully toward church community members, and appreciating good music can only be positive.

However, to make money, some churches have opened up to “gospel tours,” which essentially means white Americans and European and Asian tourists paying money to come in and hear the music.  But Fiqah describes some downright disrespectful behavior: nonstop talking, cell phone conversations, and worst of all, acting like the service and the music were spectacles to be gawked at instead of human beings making some good sounds in the service of their beliefs.

When people’s experiences on these tours have been written up, it sounds uncomfortably like old-school ethnomusicology (read: “I went to a faraway place with strange brown-skinned natives and listened to their crazy music.  They are so sensual and primitive!”):

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

Please, spare me.

The takeaway: respectfully appreciating, enjoying, potentially participating in, learning about music of other communities, and hopefully thereby building relationships across communities = good.  Fetishizing those communities and reinforcing existing problematic power structures = emphatically not good.

Ethnomusicology has largely moved on from this approach; maybe we need to be doing more as a discipline to help educate mainstream society on respectful, egalitarian ways to learn about musical communities.

Quick hit: Musical architecture

Those are two words you don’t see together very often (except in the case of Lady Gaga’s avant-garde fashion creations…).  Today, Apartment Therapy highlighted the work of a Georgia architect-turned-luthier who got inspired to start building wooden instruments (including some old-school ones like the cittern) via his architectural work with wood and veneers.  The instruments are gorgeous–take a look!

What I’ve been listening to lately

1) Cake, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”–old school, but still awesome.  I want a machete that cuts through red tape and fingernails that shine like justice, among other things, but I think the outfit described sounds a bit too 1980s-power shoulders.

2) Sufjan Stevens, “Super Sexy Woman”

3) Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” Okay, so I’ve really just been on a woman-power (I am grown and therefore am not into this idea of being a “girl”) kick lately.  Which is fine.  Clarification: I’m on a permanent woman-power kick.  I meant a woman-power music kick.  Come on people.

4) Bright Eyes, “Classic Cars” Say what you will about Conor Oberst and emo-ness, but this is just a solid song.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

What I’ve been listening to lately

This is a busy week for me so I’m being lazy and sharing what’s been in my ears lately.  Hopefully I’ll have time for a more substantive post tomorrow.

1)  The Dead Weather, “I Cut Like a Buffalo” from Horehound, which came out last Tuesday.  I rarely buy albums on the release date but I love just about everything Jack White does (except for the Raconteurs, for whatever reason) so I picked this up right away, by which I mean clicked “Download” because waiting in line at a record store is old school and expensive.

2) The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song” from Hazards of Love because I was cleaning out my wallet and found one of those cards from Starbucks that gives you a free download.  I like the Decemberists but their historicism gets in the way of their music-making, I think.

3) Gossip, “Dimestore Diamond” from Music for Men, mostly because Beth Ditto is, famously, having a moment and I wondered if the music would be affected, and also because Rick Rubin produced this album and I’m always interested to see what he does with a group’s sound.  I think this track is better than the single “Heavy Cross.”

4) Dirty Projectors, “Temecula Sunrise” from Bitte Orca.  I was in Temecula, CA over spring break, celebrating Purim at the local Chabad House with a great group from Penn Hillel.  After the service we had a really amusing discussion with the rebbetzin about vegetarianism–she thought it was totally nuts, essentially because she likes meat.  Chabad has interesting views on vegetarianism anyway…

5) A lot of Socalled as part of my research (more on that later this week).

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.