Orson Scott Card and LDS Music

ArthurMormon, music, testimony 38 Comments

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.

Comments 38

  1. I actually think that OSC hit the mark with this one.

    But his comments don’t just apply to music, unfortunately. The same is devastatingly and lamentably true of virtually all entertainment categories that Deseret Book sells.

    LDS themed fiction, games, and movies all suffer from the same problems. The movies are so hit and miss that MOST of them require such a deep inside knowledge of LDS culture and church structure that the comedies fall absolutely flat without the audience’s special inside knowledge–or they walk a tight edge of potentially mocking the sacred, but seem to have no idea where that line might be and so rely on situational embarrassment humor in the low-brow sort of humor that I absolutely despise. “Single’s Ward” is perhaps the prime example of this. I consider it absolutely unwatchable, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s not vulgar, it’s just relying on insider knowledge and embarrasses it’s actors to get a laugh. Not funny to me or a good number of other folks. “Meet the Parents” was the same sort of humor and I didn’t like it either, if you must have a reference…so it’s not like it was in unsuccessful Hollywood company.

    LDS themed games are typically terrible and the VERY few that are good are generally reliant on another game to come up with the underlying mechanism (Settlers of Zarahemla), but unfortunately add very little to the market. Sure I can buy SoZ, but why would I prefer that to Settlers of Catan? Anyone?

    I think that the place where we are seeing the BEST effort is unquestionably in painting, but LDS painters have had MUCH longer to deal with these questions–and its a bit more clear-cut how to deal some of these issues.

    I’d like to say this–as someone who would love to publish fiction, I’m delighted by the success of Twilight, and by what OSC does. While some people really dislike OSC and the way he takes a very public stand on some issues, and others within the church dislike his occasional use of profanity and dealing with sexual themes in his books from time to time, I respect that if nothing else, he is trying. He puts himself out there, and is unashamed of his religion. How many other LDS authors and entertainers are being so bold about it? He doesn’t claim to speak for the church, but he also isn’t afraid to say “this is my opinion as a member of the LDS church, and this is where the church is giving more information.” I respect that a lot, and I wish more would do that.

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  3. Nick, Prop 8 is just on the slow track to failure. I believe the CA Supreme Court will remain consistent in its outlook, and then we can look forward to OSC violently overthrowing the US government, singlehandedly.

  4. I remember performances of popular LDS music in my college wards (before the admonition to perform only music from the hymn book). As I didn’t buy LDS recordings of the music, it would generally be new to me and somewhat refreshing to hear, but I didn’t understand the reaction that people thought it was soooooooo wonderful. I remember finally buying the re-release of Kenneth Cope’s “Greater than us all” to see if listening to the artists original interpretations of the songs would give me insight to this reaction that I was seeing. It gave me an appreciation for the creative ingenuity for Mr. Cope, but there was a “smile” singing style to it, as you’ve adeptly described. I was, during that era, drawn more devoutly to the music of John Rutter. Even though it was chorale and religious in nature, it was neither smile singing nor heavy MoTab vibrato.

  5. Okay, you almost lost me when you said “a respected name like Orson Scott Card” but luckily you left that behind and went into the meat of your argument. I don’t exactly know when Card gained this legendary Mormon status but anyone who has meet him or like #2 said, read his political diatribes, knows he’s a pompous windbag. How he can claim to be a staunch Democrat and then side with every Republican policy and candidate for the last 16 years and still maintain any level of credibility is beyond me.

    That rant aside, he’s right. Our “contemporary” music sucks. About a month ago, I did a blog about the state of mainstream Christian rock versus traditional Mormon tunes (http://tjshelby.blogspot.com/2008/11/christian-music-of-today-and-yesterday.html) and we are light years behind. I’m not saying that it good or bad, just an observation of reality.

    FYI: Greg Simpson was as cool as it got during my mission years (96-98)…

  6. Just count yourselves lucky that you didn’t grow up in the Osmond’s heyday.Here in the Uk it was a constant source of humiliation to me.I admire your efforts Arthur,but doubt that the moral ambiguity essential to great art is ever going to be acceptable to the mainstream in the church,since it has to be adapted to the capacity of the weakest and we have to be so careful not to undermine the faith of others.I hope that over time we will grow enough to grapple with the questions for which we have no answers through the arts,but since the tradition of great art has always been counter cultural,we’ll have to be inventing something quite new.Hopefully it will grow with our integrity and courage.Love linescratchers,a great piece of culture building.I’m also greatful to OSC for articulating why i found those women so irritating,patronising is the term, and it and alienated a whole generation from mormon womanhood.Dangerous stuff.We so fear getting down and dirty.

  7. Wayfarer, it is not just in the arts that we’ve become attuned to dumbed-down Pablum. In the doctrinal arena, also, where meat is needed we get milk. Or stones.

  8. I am a musician and also review music. That said, I do think there is a certain quality to LDS artists such as Hillary Weeks and Cherie Call that I like. The “Deseret Sound” has its positives. But it can only take you so far. Once they increase the tempo enough to dance to it LDS musicians will find themselves at odds with the majority of LDS listeners.

    But when it comes to film I strongly believe that LDS filmmakers can’t win. Either their film has to adapt to the LDS mythological history and be seen as lame by real movie buffs. Or their film has to break that mold and risk being seen as controversial and offensive to the Spirit to the general membership of the Church.

  9. Thumbs up OSC’s remarks and Arthur’s post.
    I don’t own any LDS pop music for all these reasons. I do own other stuff by LDS artists (Raymond’s “primarily” series, but should have stopped at just one, Pixton’s Hymns Anew, and Douglas Erekson’s Back Porch Believer – hat tip to John Hamer), but have always disliked the “Deseret sound.”

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    I think you’re right in some ways, #7, but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s an impossible task to reconcile the “counter-culture” of art with the Church. Handel’s Messiah may have been controversial at first, but now stands as (arguably) one of the greatest pieces of music (religious or otherwise) every composed… by anyone, and a great source of spiritual strength to many. Don’t think that Messiah’s level of artistic achievement is an experiment that can’t be repeated!

  11. #9:”Or their film has to break that mold and risk being seen as controversial and offensive to the Spirit to the general membership of the Church.”

    Richard Dutcher would likely agree with that statement. Other criticisms aside, my first viewing of God’s Army was a breath of fresh air because someone was actually trying to show some of the REAL life of a missionary. I was shocked at how so many I talked to about it found it offensive. I don’t know that we will make the kind of progress Arthur speaks of until we can, collectively, overcome our fear of reality. #7, Wayfarer, you have it right…I don’t know why we can’t simply dig in to the meat of an issue. While I really do love the times when an apostle grabs hold of an issue and boldly discourses, I find it happens much too rarely. Most of the time I feel like I have listened to a politician – I may not disagree with what has been said, but I get the impression that they’re holding back, not wanting to say the wrong thing, staying within the lines. Hard to react with the passion that I associate with religious conviction.

    On the original topic, I don’t know how anyone over 13 actually swallows the vast majority of LDS music. While I can agree with the content, I can’t stomach the delivery. It’s actually sort of insulting.

    I hate it when I hear someone refer to “The Work and the Glory” series as “great” books. I think they are the perfect literary parallel to the music Arthur speaks of. This stuff is like the whole “it’s the thought that counts” sort of gifts. You don’t doubt the sincerity of the giver, and while the offering itself is representative of that sincerity, there’s really no mistaking that the gift is utterly useless to you.

    So what stops us, here? Is it that the stuff just isn’t available? Maybe Mormons only know how to go to LDS bookstores for art? Are we afraid of uplifting art from the heathen or born-again masses? Are those capable of producing good stuff doomed to failure because they just can’t sell it to us?

  12. I agree with Mr. D in #9. I can’t handle Mormon pop, but some of the inspirational artists are quite good. Hilary Weeks’ songs, in particular, include some very profound doctrine and really resonate with many women – and men who actually listen to the words.

    My greatest disappointment with Dutcher is that he felt like he had to push the envelope in ways that required harder ratings then turned around and blamed people whom he knew wouldn’t patronize those films for not doing so. I loved Brigham City, in particular, and there was a wide-open market for such films in the Mormon community. To expect that community to embrace R-rated material, however, is simply unrealistic – and to blame that community for it is ludicrous. I blame Dutcher himself as much as anyone else for the pablum that is current Mormon film making, since his abandonment of it gave the impression that there is no market for good, introspective, profound art in that arena. His earlier films proved there is such a market, imo.

    In a nutshell, the Mormon community’s acceptance of his earlier films launched Dutcher’s career, and it feels like classic ego to turn around and spit at that community as he was leaving simply because they couldn’t embrace his new direction – assuming he was moving on to “bigger and better” things. I don’t know him, so that probably isn’t fair or charitable, but that’s how it looks from the outside.

  13. The lack of any amount of depth to LDS music probably explains why so many Mormon kids I grew up with were so into bands like Rush or U2 — they at least offered some sort of complex musical structure combined with thoughtful writing (ie., Joshua Tree).

  14. So any suggestions for improving LDS music? I work in the music world and generally cannot stand to listen to LDS popular music for more than one or two minutes. There’s a distinct sound for sure, but not one I can stomach.

    I’m inclined to believe that the problem lies in the process of the creation of art. In part, great art is usually disruptive, often divisive, and acknowledges shadow as much as it does light. This, I feel is what is lacking in most LDS art, and in LDS music in particular. LDS musicians sit down to write “inspirational” music: music with a message that uplifts and ac-CEN-tuates the positive. Sure, many give lip service to enduring trials and self-doubt, but they are so self-conscious about it, and they always return to “blessed assurance” by the end of the song that their reference to the darker moments is really only that: referential. Its like the art student who paints a shadow only because he or she knows that one is supposed to be there, not taking into account how the shadow itself could be operative in the context of the painting at large. Part of the artificial nature of this music, I think, stems from a rather naive worldview. Perhaps this is why LDS popular music sounds like primary music: perhaps our LDS artists haven’t (speaking in general terms here, not specifics) haven’t progressed past that stage spiritually. Its not a question of proper tools, either: the vast majority of the music and art we have up until the 18th century is religious in nature. People have figured out how to approach spiritual topics in many artistic media. The tools are out there; why don’t LDS musicians and artists use them?

  15. I would add about spiritual naivete of LDS artists this: it may be the artists, or it may the market they are catering to that aren’t interested in nuance and spiritual struggle. There may be many LDS artists who are creating authentic music and art out there, but who cannot “break into” the LDS music and art scene because they aren’t producing the kind of art that sells.

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    #16. My contention is that there are LDS musicians who are capable of that kind of art… they’re just succeeding in worldly venues. They basically see what the LDS music scene delivers and then depart for other markets. They don’t leave the Church, necessarily, like Dutcher, but it does mean they’re writing “worldly” music and they have to do it IN the world… in bars, clubs, etc.

  17. I think that’s true Arthur,this was my daughter’s experience.Not only that ,but both she and we experienced moral opprobrium for that from our ward,and still do.Lovely people,but ‘worldly thoughts,wordly music’.There is no model here for artistic struggle,with integrity,within the church,which is ,of course what you are nobly trying to address.From what I hear,it’s not even possible to take a life drawing class at BYU.I’ve always wondered why medicine should be handled any differently-these are both ways of addressing excellence.

  18. “It’s a lesson that applies to Mormons engaged in all the arts. Testimony does not substitute for craft and skill.”

    That’s an incredibly important that OSC makes.

    And I shall make no caveat to disabuse myself of OSC’s political views in the face of my peers. I generally like what he has to say.

  19. I don’t think much of today’s music in general because of the lack of originality made up for by the often vile content. Most original LDS music, is as stated, pretty poor. You can put the real good stuff of the last twenty years on one CD. Remakes and interpretation of hymns are my favorites, though. I liked the Pixton stuff that John used and I love Brett Raymond’s Primary songs. I think what LDS music strives for is “Lawrence Welkian” in approach and is generally bad. You hate to see someone pour their heart and soul into something like a CD that all the relatives think is great and then have it be junk by most commercial standards. Even the LDS music that passes as contemporary rock music is hideous.

    So, I’ll just listen to the Michael Dowdle guitar versions of the hymns and the big band jazz version of “come, Come Ye Saints” that has been running through my head for the past 25 years.

  20. Oh, I do think that LDS art (paintings and such) are usually very good. The stuff in the Church Art and History Museum is just awesome!

  21. Re: LDS musicians sit down to write “inspirational” music: music with a message that uplifts and ac-CEN-tuates the positive.

    Isn’t this the nature of the market forces that make LDS recordings successful? In order to be on that rack at Deseret Bookstore there needs to be an appeal to being uniquely inspirational, free from controversy, and quickly identifiable? If it meets these three criteria, then it is likely to sell. If the artist is trying to break into mainstream, then another market venue is more likely to carry better sales to a wider market. Are there websites to download music from aspiring LDS artists?

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    Hopefully down the road I’ll expand Linescratchers to include music downloads, podcasts, and message boards… but as it’s a labor of love at the moment, my regular job and school come first!

  23. I’ve met Card in person, he was not pompous or a windbag, just FYI.

    I also like Felicia Sorenson’s two albums. I wish she had done more.

    A real test for me, when people complain about LDS music, is which artists they don’t like. Too often it is merely style rather than the weakness of the artist (kind of like when someone gave a talk on the evils of rock music, and the bottom line on it was a bit of music with a base line in it …).

    Not that the world is not filled with artistically inadequate works.

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    #25. Hmm, maybe Mormons feel comfortable complaining about a style, but don’t want to hurt feelings by naming names… especially on the Internet where they might see it. 🙂

  25. wow. this may be the first time I’ve read anything by O.S.Card that I agreed with. however, he is taking aim at the easiest of targets. I have heard nothing redeeming or valuable in this type of Mormon popular music. it’s just boring, boring, boring.

  26. I’ve had many discussions with member of the church who feel the same way as OSC. However, usually it doesn’t just deal with music, but all entertainment. There is an inferiority among members of the church, when the brethren has stated that we should be in the forefront in all areas. I submit that the reason involves a line in the sand. Members are taught what is right, that there is a line not to cross in regards to the darker sides of life. They haven’t gone there and are therefore unable to artistically call on those ideas and insights. If they have, they are embarrassed to admit it. This is what the Mormon community advocates. This stigma needs to end. Individuals should feel comfortable in creating art that shows all areas of life, until then, we will continue to be seen as infantile in our music, literature, and other artistic endeavors. Members are not evil for admitting that they are human. We all grow because we are human. I don’t need to read another book about someone’s conversion to Mormonism. I just want a good story, well written. Or music that isn’t classified as elevator music. A revolution is coming, if enough members are willing to stick their necks out like OSC, then we have a chance.

  27. It seems to me that LDS pop music has degraded rather then improving.

    Earlier LDS pop music seems more fleshed out, and closer to hymns or special musical numbers and thus had more strength in the lyrics and music.

    I haven’t even bothered to listen to the newest stuff, but last time I did it seemed to be moving towards simplistic cord music with mushy and formless lyrics.

  28. This same point can be made about the visual arts also, most of all drawing and painting. It seems that most mormon visual artists only create gospel centered works. Being a member of the church doesn’t have to define every single thing you do or are. It is OK to create something that has nothing at all to do with the gospel. You don’t have to hit people over the head with the redundancy hammer.

  29. #31 – “It seems that most mormon visual artists only create gospel centered works.”

    That probably is true – of those we know are Mormon. We know of them specifically because their work is gospel-centered.

    Just to make a general point:

    We are talking about “Mormon Artists” in this post as if every artist who is Mormon is known to us as Mormon. We are aware of the ones whose work is explicitly Mormon. What about those whose work is not?

    For example, there are Mormon songwriters (and musicians and dancers and painters and writers) in many genres whose religion simply isn’t known to the world. For every Brandon Flowers (lead singer of The Killers) or She Daisy (popular country group a few years ago), there are dozens of individuals whose religion is never mentioned publicly. The famous ones become known to the membership, because we are obsessed with social legitimacy, but many more fly under the radar.

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    #32. And there are a few reasons why this happens. Sometimes managers and record labels encourage their artists to keep their religion unemphasized. Religion can be a liability sometimes in the music biz. I assume it can be the same in other mid- to high-profile occupations. Many members of the Church may feel that their religion isn’t the “important thing” with their art, wishing to focus more on just the art itself. Many feel like they don’t necessarily want to use the Church to exploit or market their art. It’s kind of complicated I guess.

  31. #2 – Nick said: “I’d rather have OSC writing about sappy music, then publishing a column which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in the event that Proposition 8 failed”

    Nick, you just wrote an excellent article about how even small untruths or misrepresentations via spreading rumors is harmful.

    I tried to find where OSC advocated violent overthrow of the government if Prop 8 passes and I’m coming up blank. Please produce a link to this article.

    I did find this article where he advocates a constitutional convention. (Extreme, yes, but nothing even close to a violent overthrow.) In fact, he said the following:

    At that point, what can we do? I’ve heard frustrated people talk about armed rebellion, about overthrowing the government. Those of you with itchy trigger fingers, put away your guns. We are committed to democracy, not to violence.

    Please read a history of the French Revolution. And then the Russian Revolution. Armed rebellion does not restore constitutional government, it most likely replaces one dictatorship with a worse one.

    And while you’re at it, read a history of the U.S. Civil War and decide if you think that’s a good idea. I don’t.

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    I have also failed to find this particular statement by OSC. After I read that comment I looked for it and couldn’t find it, but I just blamed my own lack of Internet search skills.

  33. Arthur, I think it doesn’t exist, but I can’t be sure until Nick responds. I don’t want to accuse Nick of anything, but it’s not out of line for me to ask for the link if it’s true.

    Since I can’t prove the absence of such a comment, it does seem to me that Nick has the burden of proof that it does exist if he’s going to make such a claim around the internet like he is doing.

    Nick strongly asks others to not misrepresent him. For example, I found the following quote from Nick on the fair blog site:

    Ever read that passage that says “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Steven? Now that you’ve made this accusation, I expect you to quote any instance where I have ever said that LDS members should have no right to speech or right to vote. If you have any integrity at all, you will retract your completely false accusation, ask forgiveness from the person you’ve wronged, and repent of the sin which Nephi said would result in you being “thrust down to hell.”

    Interestingly he makes the same claim there that OSC claimed we should do a violent overthrow if prop 8 passes on that same thread right near the above quote.

    I think Nick, feeling as he does above, will want to correct himself if the quote doesn’t exist.

    My suspicion is that Nick read the article I gave a link to and misread it and is accidently spreading a completely false rumor about OSC. I’m trying to be guarded here until we have more facts.

    Another possibility is that Nick is exaggerating a constitutional convention to be a violent overthrow. But of course this would be at odds with Nick’s own quote above and just about everything he has written to date.

    Of course the other possibility is that OSC did say something like that and Nick is taking it out of context or that he did and it’s not out of context and OSC is just plain guilty of hypocrisy. I’ll wait and see what Nick has to say and see what was actually said in context before I draw any conclusions.

  34. #34-36 Isn’t it possible that Nick was simply refering jokingly to OSC’s book “Empire”? I don’t know! But I agree with the music dialogue going on here. Have you read OSC’s article on LDS webcasts (Songs Affirm Our Heritage)? He is right that we (LDS artists who don’t fit the ‘LDS artist’ mold) need a more church-wide outlet. Hmm. This is something I will be thinking about as a composer.

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