Thursday, April 22, 2010

Church Music: The Place of Art

Another one from the vault today. It's much easier to make public something I wrote in the past than something current - my self is no longer in the deed in the same way. Two years ago I read a little book and haven't stopped talking about it since. I had planned to submit the following response to... something... I can't remember what (maybe Geez: a friend of mine did edit the music issue), hence the formal style. Several things struck me upon reading. First, it's clear Mennonitism dominated my thought a lot more several years ago than it does now. Second, it's clear I worked much harder at writing several years ago than I do now (some of the experiments I found on my hard drive are not half bad!). Third, I should karaoke more often. Here goes. It's a doozie.

The ‘Church’ of Celine: Music and Communal Salvation – A Response to Carl Wilson

Globe & Mail music writer and notorious scenester Carl Wilson recently wrote a book… about Celine Dion. The book, entitled Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste, is one installment in the fast growing 33 1/3 series, in which each work focuses on a different pop or rock album. While most writers choose a classic critical success, from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, Wilson chose 1997’s Let’s Talk About Love, the Celine album most renowned for its inclusion of the Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”. Not acquainted with a single Celine fan, Wilson is perplexed and intrigued by her popularity, and dares to ask the question “why?” On this journey Wilson explores Celine’s global appeal, her Catholic francophone background and her roots as a talent show performer, her powerhouse ‘pipes’, and the musical genre in which we might place her (something he calls ‘schmaltz’). His primary aim, however, is to explore the philosophy of taste. Following Pierre Bourdieu, aesthetics are easily analyzed from a socio-economic perspective, and Wilson must necessarily dabble in this quasi-scientific game, but he does not leave behind the question of what it means to be a good music listener. Unlike the ever-growing host of belligerent music bloggers, his conclusions do not insist on the superiority of one style over another, or of one musician over another, but nor does he say that we cannot ask these questions. Instead, in the name of democracy, he calls for sympathy: a sympathetic listener need not like every style of music, but she should be able to appreciate those who listen to other styles. Wilson, the long-time critic, finally says: “I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, ‘Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate everything you like. What might we make of that?’” While I appreciate this conclusion of sorts, I can’t help but wonder where such a conversation would talk place. Even on the nebulous terrain of the internet, how often do free jazz enthusiasts encounter Celine fans? For this sort of encounter to take place, we must actually listen to music with people. But where and with whom do we listen to music these days?

This question leads me to level a charge against Celine that Wilson didn’t touch. Celine’s catholicity (in both the institutional and more general sense) is undeniable. She is the mostly invisible Roman Catholic episcopacy, drawing crowds in nearly every context worldwide, due in part to her syncretic tendencies. In these vastly disparate contexts the hungry and hopeful multitude arrives, receives the sacred elements and departs. But in the Church of Celine, who is the parish priest? Where is the local house of worship? Perhaps in providing a soundtrack to people’s lives, Celine has made our every day experiences into times and places of worship. Yet in ever more atomistic and isolationist North America, does Celine do anything to break through that isolation and provide a public place to encounter one’s community, not abstractly and emotionally, but tangibly?

I am not as ‘naturally’ averse to Celine Dion as Wilson was at the beginning of his exploration: I was 14 when Titanic came onto the big screen and I wept with the widows. “Because You Loved Me” was my first slow dance (with my long-term adolescent crush, I might add). Although I never entered the terrain of true Celine fandom, I was a fanatic Backstreet Boys enthusiast. BSB’s global appeal and saccharine lyrics operated in much the same way as Celine’s (with rather more ego in the mix). Although I look back on that time fondly, I have come to recognize something rather dangerous in my love for the Backstreet Boys, and that’s alienation. If “All I Have to Give” is background music at a social function, so be it, but when it became the anthem of my solitary dreams and ideals, and when Nick Carter became the vacuum into which I poured my romantic notions, I cut myself off from actual social encounter. This is an element of mass fandom that Wilson did not address, perhaps because it seems to be a danger in every musical genre, not only schmaltz. Is there music that calls us out of our private spaces to gather at the parish church? Although I’ve never attended a Celine Dion concert, I have attended two [Now the tally is up to three! Ha!] BSB concerts, and they were certainly no example of community living. Instead of a local house of worship, they operate like large-scale revivals, demanding no patience of their participants, only unthinking emotional assent.

To continue the confessional tone of this response, I am a Mennonite who studies theology. Mennonite theology, much more even than the theology behind the Catholic parish church, emphasizes participatory community. From this perspective, the patient and faithful encounter with other people is the very meaning of Church. My critical thinking Mennonite friends and acquaintances like certain types of music more than others. Choral music and community orchestras may top the list: they require not only much communal practice time, but the patience to study a tradition and be willing to learn from the rather distant past, challenging the ever-growing sentiment that novelty is better. Folk music is also prominent: it is community-based, and demands that one listens to stories about other people. Although folk can be just as schmaltzy as Celine (if I attend any estrogen-centred workshop at Winnipeg Folk Fest I spend the majority of the time taming my gag reflex) and just as multi-generational (the grannies and the kiddies come out in droves), it is locally determined in a way that pop music could never be. Finally, a lot of young adult Mennonites are really into indie rock and pop, particularly its more avant-garde sides. Of course, this is no shocker. Urban North Americans of Mennonite background are almost all white, educated, and middle-class, which could, in Bourdieu’s terms, also explain the choral and folk music. But I don’t want to leave it all to Bourdieu. If one lives on Stereogum articles (one of many on-line ‘indie’ sanctums) and Waffle downloads (an invite-only music sharing website) [outdated references] one could certainly experience the same sort of physical alienation from one’s musical community, but there is another aspect to ‘indie’ music if ‘indie’ still retains any of its technical meaning. Indie rock happens on a smaller scale, making intimate communal musical events a necessary part of its development.

Let’s add another more recent layer to my biography. Like much of the mobile middle-class, I recently chose vocation over location and moved from Winnipeg to Hamilton for graduate studies. I felt I had betrayed my community, choosing personal aspiration over communion with others. I began to attend indie rock shows with a newfound zeal. Although this certainly had something to do with my own search for cultural capital and social mobility, it also was my attempt to fill a very real and often unmet need: the presence and affirmation of actual (not virtual or imagined) people. And it was this collection of actual people (perhaps just a handful of us) that necessitated the performance of music. There is a level of participation demanded by small-scale artists that simply cannot happen on a larger scale.

But my musical journey did not stop there. While the artists currently on my rotation are No Age, Dirty Projectors, Eric Chenaux, and Fleet Foxes (a list that brings me both pride and shame, the latter both for my pretentiousness and my predictability), I have recognized that, as much as this list provides me automatic community, it also isolates me. Moreoever, the community it does provide is notoriously judgmental. The solution is not, I think, to listen to more Celine Dion. I do appreciate Wilson’s mention of sympathy, not so much because it’s ‘democratic’ (I’ve read a little too much Theodor Adorno lately to redeem that word), but because it requires patient communion with others, even others with different tastes. But again, where do we find these others? In a privatized North America, I still hold onto the notion (one that descends straight from the medieval Gothic cathedral) that art not only requires but must create public space, space where we meet actual people.

I’ll end with two examples of pop-music based ‘communities’, one that makes me uncomfortable, and one that provides me ever more hope for the world. First, I spent this past Saturday night playing Singstar and Rockband with a large chunk of the Scarborough Chinese Baptist community. I had a lot of fun and made some new friends, even though none of them wanted to play “Wave of Mutilation” or “Suffragette City”. They were wonderful people, but this evening of gaming (which seemed to be their typical way of spending time with one another) did not connect them physically to a world beyond their walls (besides me). Pop music could be a communal activity, but it required the prior existence of a community, and a rather wealthy one at that.

I had spent the night before at Ray’s Boathouse, one of the innumerable working class dive bars in Hamilton. On Friday and Saturday, Ray’s hosts karaoke, and I have become a regular. Townies (from the barely legal to the nearly 70) gather to sing Journey, Meatloaf and 50s classics. I add my dose of Whitney Houston and Fleetwood Mac, and one of my friends even sings Celine. One could say I’ve become the classic omnivore (another term used by Wilson), increasing my social capital by dabbling in all sorts of music, but one could also simply say that I love cheering for strangers. In the world of popular music, the karaoke bar is the parish church, or maybe even the Mennonite congregation - a priesthood of all believers. One might argue that we’re not, in fact, creating anything new (not like the more independent alternatives, perhaps the jam session or the drum circle), but we are creating camaraderie. The music creates makeshift community. For some, it’s much more than makeshift: through faithful attendance and participation (and the sharing of good beer), they have gotten to know and care about one another. Although predominantly white and working class, anyone who knows the songs is welcome and many even attend alone.

So perhaps even vacuous superstars can, indirectly, build actual communities, but they certainly don’t demand this sort of formation. This is what worries me about the popularity of Celine in North America. It seems a little too much like my Backstreet Boys obsession, a place of sweet melodramatic refuge. Although my emotional response to the Boys felt very real, the only kind of solidarity their music really called for was solidarity with their marketed image. In high school I didn’t need to leave my room to ‘commune’ with my fellows, I just had to put on one of their CDs. The Church of Celine seems a little like the opiate of the masses, not because it hopes for something unseen (in fact, like Marxism, Celine puts her hope in things that may be too concrete), but because the hope is of the individual kind. Encounter with a community of others (not just a romantic other), while a possible side effect, is no longer a requirement for salvation.

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