In Life - Debriefed, Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

(I have removed all the names to protect the guilty and avoid the possibility of lawsuits.)

I don’t know how much longer I can take it. Really.

I just listened through the new anthems in a major choral publisher’s latest packet, only to be assaulted by yet another “praise & worship”* song that should have never seen the light of day, let alone used as an excuse to chop down trees, make paper, and spill ink. When is this gonna stop?

(* I used quotation marks on “praise & worship” because it’s difficult for me to believe this particular song, or its army of sound-alikes, could be an effective part of either praise or worship. But that’s just me, and I’m cranky.)

The offending song is a perfect musical storm, capturing all the Lowest Common Denominators of the modern praise & worship song:

1) A forgettably simplistic lyric with only one verse,

2) A repetitious melody sitting atop chord changes that any 8th-grader with a Stratocaster knock-off could master in twenty minutes, and…

3) A nursery school rhyme scheme.

If those were the song’s only problems, ordinarily I would roll my eyes and move on to the next anthem demo on the CD.  The Lowest Common Denominators of Praise & Worship music are so pervasive, such Standard Operating Procedure, that it’s all I’ve come to expect whenever I hear this genre of music.  In fact, I am genuinely surprised any time I hear a “praise & worship” song that employs a complete song form, has a memorable melody, or says anything of any importance in a fresh or meaningful way. (But enough kicking of the proverbial dead horse.)

This particular song also has what I call a Fatal Flaw, an error that by any reasonable standard of songwriting should cause it to be sent back automatically to the writer with a note attached saying, “Rewrite, please.”

In the world of Christian songwriting, Fatal Flaws include, but are not limited to, errors in theology, verses that don’t share a common form, and lyrics that are about more than one thing. Often a Fatal Flaw can be repaired with a simple fix, if the writer would simply bother. (Many don’t.) The Fatal Flaw in this particular song was the constant changing of the Point of View. (P.O.V.) Specifically, the writer refers to Jesus in the Second Person in the verse (“you”), shifts to the Third Person in the chorus (“he”), then back to the Second Person in the bridge. This is a classic beginner’s blunder, a mistake no experienced writer concerned with craftsmanship (or grammar) would ever make.

So, the writer is a rank beginner with good intentions who didn’t know any better, perhaps?

A quick Google search informed me the writer is a prominent worship leader in a big church. He has released three CDs. Count ’em – three. (There goes the “beginner” defense.) He has a band with a slick website and cool promo photos.  Apparently, to be an effective worship leader these days one needs to look very, very trendy.

And here’s the kicker: The song was a HIT on the radio! (Let’s just say in the Top Five, and leave it at that.) The song is a mindless piece of musical fluff with a lyric that doesn’t approach mediocre – and IT WAS A HIT!

What saddens me most as a choral arranger is that it was almost certainly the song’s hit status that weighed heaviest in the decision to release it as a choral anthem. (It HAD to be, since the song itself had so little else to offer.)

So who’s to blame for the song’s undeserved commercial success? I know – assigning blame is not very New Testament of me. Suffice it to say, I’m having a decidedly Old Testament moment here. But as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy when she had done something remarkably foolish, “Somebody has some ‘splaining to do.”

But who?

What about the church that hired this guy? Or the record company that recorded  the song? Or the radio programmers who played the song? Or the choral music company that foisted it on the churches? Did no one in that long and impressive chain of gatekeepers ever stop and say – “This song could use a little work before we release it”? What were these people thinking???

Oops. Wait a minute. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s all of us.

Maybe I need to point a finger at the guy in the mirror. After all – as an arranger, whenever I accept an assignment of a poorly written song and then dress it up with a shiny coat of paint, I give the song my de facto stamp of approval.  That certainly contributes to the problem.  And what about the vast “all of us”? What’s our part in this ongoing crime against church music?  Whenever we sing these one-verse wonders in worship, or tune in to listen to them on the radio, or download them onto our I-Pods, we support this stuff. In doing so, we all contribute to the problem.

Maybe, just maybe, if we didn’t sing this music, if we didn’t buy it, if we didn’t listen to the bland radio programming, if we didn’t arrange it and doll it up – eventually they would stop making it.

So, I guess a lot of us have some ‘splaining to do.

But that’s just my opinion.

Showing 2 comments
  • Allen Cade

    Hi Robert,
    We have not met, but I have been in full-time music ministry since graduating seminary thirty years ago. During those years I have used with my choirs and congregations numerous songs/musicals that you have written or arranged. Thank you for providing such a rich resource for folks like me who still focus on choral music as a key element in worship planning as well as in philosophy of worship.

    I happened upon your blog this week and read with interest your response to a new music packet from an un-named publisher. It interested me because about the same time I was going through review music searching for fresh new choral music for the upcoming year. Yet, I found absolutely nothing in the packet that captured my attention. And this was from a company that I have for many years found useful choral music. The music was so bland and uninteresting that it made me wonder what had happened at that publishing company.

    I would love to dialogue further about choral music and current worship trends. Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts from a composers point of view.

    -Allen Cade
    FBC Nederland, TX

  • rsterling

    Allen –

    First – thanks for the kind words.

    Second – My wife’s a Port Arthur girl – so I know a little bit about the Nederland area – the birthplace of humidity. (Cindy and I always smile when folks in Nashville complain about the humidity.)

    Finally – Depending on the day of the week, I can either be hopeful about the current trends in church music – or totally depressed. Last night, I was at a pretty magnificent “hymns” concert at FBC Nashville. So this morning, I am hopeful. 🙂

    My thinking is that we need to focus on quality – rather than style. Let’s face it – genre is no predictor of quality. There can be great music in any genre of music. And there can be reeeeeally bad music in any genre, too. (Of course, what I think is quality doesn’t always line up with what others may think.)

    The print music companies are in a real tight squeeze these days. Sales are down, and yet they feel like in order to compete they have to continue to put out the same volume of products. And they are under enormous pressure to do choral versions of whatever is currently popular. And so – we see a lot of mediocre songs put into print.

    As a songwriter and arranger – all I can do is try to write the best songs I can or choose the best music available to me. I’ve turned down a lot of songs in the past ten years. (And I’ve aggravated just about every choral music publisher by doing so.) That probably seems foolish to some – but I just don’t wanna put my name on a song as “arranged by” if I believe the song is weak. I’ve probably chosen poorly more than a few times – but it’s not for lack of trying.

    You (and all your fellow music ministers out in the trenches) have my undying respect for the hard work you’re doing, especially in this ever-changing musical landscape. god bless your ministry. RS

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