Orson Scott Card recently made ripples with his recent column on his experience listening to a “new” LDS album, and the dire state of current LDS music. While I’ve heard these sentiments from many individuals, it usually takes a respected name like Orson Scott Card to point out that the Emperor has no clothes, and it’s not a moment too soon.
Most of the singers sounded as if they were talking down to Primary children.
You know what I mean: that smiley, condescending tone that used to be heard, not just in Primary, but in Relief Society meetings as well. For many years, it was the oh-so-special accent of LDS women in public discourse.
(I think it ended the first time Sheri Dew spoke in general conference. It’s as if LDS women heard her and thought: “Oh, now we can talk like grownups.”)That tone of voice did not translate very well to singing — it undercut the credibility of every word they sang. We called them “smile singers” and never played the CDs again.
I had noticed something else as well. Most of them had song after song that was intended to bear their testimony or teach a doctrine. They were trying to say something important. But there was no attention to the art of diction.
There are words that are weak or even ridiculous when sung, rhymes that make the listener wince — and, with all the fervor of their hearts, they used them regularly, arousing something between pity and embarrassment.
But I could understand it — these young Mormon singers were inventing a new genre, and had neither precedents nor standards.
I remember serving my mission from ’04 to ’06 and being exposed for the first time to so-called “LDS music,” featured on EFY albums, and being astonished beyond all measure. Growing up in an area of the world with very few Latter-day Saints, I was unfamiliar with this particular genre, and it was like a bucket of ice water over my head. Or rather, it was like a mixture of ice water and the LDS equivalent of David Lee Roth doing bluegrass covers of Van Halen songs (quite a bit of, “Wait, is this for real?”).
The thing that really irked me, though, was that when I pointed out the obvious deficiencies in the lyrics and structures of these songs, all the other missionaries completely failed to see what I was talking about. It suddenly made sense to me why Yellowcard and Dashboard Confessional were so popular in Utah.
And it wasn’t that they were saying the wrong things. It was just that they were saying the right things in such a banal and unchallenging way that absolutely no responsibility was left with the listener to understand what the singer was saying. It was as if the lyrics to these songs were being copied out of Primary children’s books, in order to appeal to the “weak” and “weakest” of listeners. Is this really what we’re trying to do with our music? I found that the real sincerity, and the place where real LDS members were saying real things (and by real I mean unpolished interactions of LDS theology and thought with… real life) was in “secular” music written by LDS musicians. Bands like Low and Good Morning Passenger and artists like Young Sim. This is why I started Linescratchers (shameless self-promotion), to interview and promote LDS musicians who exist in the “real world.”
That isn’t to say I’ve given up on LDS music, because I haven’t. I think it will take some work and some great innovation for new LDS musicians to 1) “break” the current LDS Music World and somehow convince the Powers That Be that there is merit in more challenging works, that there is responsibility on the part of the promoters of our music, and that there is money to be made in it as well, 2) challenge themselves by introducing into their music the diction and articulation of the greatest of English poetry, literature, and lyrics, and 3) risk writing music like this before current LDS listeners have the capacity to process it. It will take a few years for the gears to get turning.
And I also don’t wish to sound condescending, so forgive me if, in my overzealousness, I cross that line. I don’t wish to implicitly state that LDS listeners aren’t capable of comprehending finer language in music, but I have to admit, I’m not sure they’re used to it. It will take a few years for the Renaissance to occur because listeners must be exposed to a higher art form, understand why they need it, and then understand it. This is not easy for any population or culture. But I think we’re long overdue for it and there is a generation of musicians ready for the challenge, and if we do pursue this course, the finer lyricists and poets won’t be so ready to “escape” LDS Music World just yet.