I run in circles that consistently expose me to those with the view that so-called “high art” is the only legitimate art. Everything else is at best a weak attempt at art-making or at worst worthless rubbish, so they say. Kenneth Myers’ schema, which has received heavy praise and usage among high-art-only advocates, is usually, in some form, the philosophical crux of their argument (whether or not they are conscious of Myers).
Myers wrote the influential book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes and continues to run a terrific program over at Mars Hill Audio, which promotes thoughtfulness in the spheres of church and culture. The schema encourages making a strong distinction between “high,” “folk,” and “pop(ular)” art, toward the end of avoiding consumerism and a host of other popular cultural idols.
When I first read Myers, I was sold out to it. The more I have been a practitioner-philosopher rather than merely a philosopher (the latter was my state when I read All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes), the more I’ve come to realize that Myers’ taxonomy is too wooden. He has offered a schema that allows a good deal of analysis (perhaps not possible without it), but it ultimately does a disservice to our thought about art and music if we use his categories without some strong caveats.
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the high/folk/pop distinctions have boundaries which are far too porous to offer us a lot of analytical fruit. The reason I’ve arrived at this conclusion is because, post-Myers, in my return to entertaining the notion that pop music could perhaps have something of value to contribute to culture artistically, I found myself observing more carefully that not all “pop music” is the same. I’ve been recently enjoying and appreciating David Crowder Band’s Church Music in my car on my way to and from work, and I believe that it provides good counter-evidence to Myers’ stark boundaries.
Church Music is a highly-programmed neo-disco, techno album. And it’s beautiful. I’d like to hone in on track 13: “Church Music (Dance!).” At first listen, you’ve got a disco beat with an opening techno talk box / vocoder melody line. If anything sounds “pop,” this is it. Myers would probably listen to the first fifteen seconds and immediately throw it into his pop-category, with all its nasty implications (ephemeral, gimmicky, used-then-tossed, etc.). And, by all standard definitions, the song (along with the album) is pop—programmed, highly-produced, edited to perfection, rhythmic, rock-oriented. But is it throw-away material? Is it dismissible? Or does it have artistic value? I think the latter. Take the opening verse:
Dance if you’re wounded
Dance if you’re torn in two
Dance broken open
Dance with nothing to lose
This is actually an incredibly profound biblical message, terrifically enhanced by its musical setting. I recall a sermon on Isaiah 54 by Tim Keller, who pointed out how Isaiah’s prophecy was a shocking statement:
“Sing, O barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,”
says the LORD. (Isaiah 54:1)
Why would God admonish one of the most culturally-cursed members of ancient society—a barren woman—to sing? Why would God tell the disgraced to rejoice? Because the kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. Kingdom values teach us “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are those who mourn.” God’s reign means that present and future blessings accompany the weak and the downcast. The beauty of Crowder’s artistry here is illustrating these kingdom values through the creative interplay of text and music. The disco-pop style is playful and light-hearted. It is music which sounds like it is intended to be danced to, not listened to (“used,” as Myers would say). It’s got a driving four-on-the-floor beat and funky electric rhythm guitar motif. The bass line spends much of the song in the typical funk-progression of step-wise octaves. They sing “dance” with a bluesy vocal scoop. But who are they admonishing to dance? The wounded. The broken. The downtrodden. The song’s end betrays its kingdom-intentions:
Change the world
Change your soul
Fill it up
Here we go
Here we go
Oh His is a story that saves
Feel it at a steady pace
Sung with a syncopated R&B/techno rhythm and harmony, it’s gripping. It’s Isaiah 54, disco-style. And because it’s disco-style, the message is all the more visceral. And isn’t that what good musical art does when wedded with words? Doesn’t good musical art enhance words, even say and expand on words in ways that words can’t?
I’m sure the astute aesthetic philosopher and art-thinker would poke holes in my implied definition of “art,” but I’m not trying to say anything too profound here. I’m just trying to point out that, in this pop song, there exists sophistication, thoughtfulness, beauty, profundity, and truth—these are some of the ingredients of art, are they not?
Not all pop can be dismissed. And when Christians do pop, it’s not always “aping culture,” as some say. Sometimes, it’s fresh…and redemptive…and downright beautiful.
Dude, I just read Isaiah 54 this morning for my devos. I love it when all of a sudden other people start talking about the same scripture I happen to be reading. God's cool like that.
100% agree with this.
Thanks for these thoughts, Zac!