Eastern Star (and 'Superstar')

February 5, 2008
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The balcony was shaking.

Literally. You could see the flag bouncing in the windless Artsgarden and I half-jokingly asked Alpha Blackburn, of Blackburn Architects, about the structural stability of the place.

What was causing this seismic disturbance?

The Eastern Star Church Gospel Choir, on stage in full force kicking off Art & Soul, a month of free events celebrating African-American art and artists in Indiana. (Rush over at lunch today and you can hear singer Lonnie Lester. Sunday it’s poet Tasha Jones.  Get the whole lineup at www.indyarts.org.).

The rousing Eastern Star concert got me thinking about religious music. What makes gospel appeal to wider audiences while some other religious music seems strictly for the faithful?

I found one answer from gospel superstar CeCe Winans, who told Jet magazine, “I think gospel music remains popular because the music is great; the message is everlasting. The music uplifts the spirit and feeds the soul.”

Gospel artist Yolanda Adams added “…when you are going through a trial or tribulation, you have to listen to something that is going to encourage you and make you feel better about your situation and that’s exactly what gospel music does.”

Is that it, or is there more?

And on a somewhat reverse note, the touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens tonight at the Murat Theatre. Thought by many to be heretical when it opened in 1971, “JCS” now is embraced by religious audiences. Why the change?

Your thoughts?
  • Christian music to me sounds generic and preachy. The lyrics are cheesy and is seems to lack any real feeling - at least what I've heard of it, which, admittedly is not much. It just makes me cringe. There are many popular artists who have songs that are spiritual in nature, but not preachy. Gospel sounds joyful, making you want to listen to it. I'm not a huge fan of the genre, but I do like some Sam Cooke. It also has a timeless quality to it, kind of like old bluegrass. It's music that comes from the heart and true beliefs. It's not trying to convert you.
  • Gospel is its own musical genre and style, whereas contemporary Christian music mostly just uses the clothing of other musical styles, particularly rock . . .

    . . . which dovetails nicely with the contemporary religious appeal of JC SUPERSTAR. Christianity is an uncommonly adaptable religion, and has stayed alive for two millennia with what might be called its marketing strategies. The first Christians debated whether they should even include Gentiles; before long they were successfully re-labeling pagan holidays and bringing new followers on board in droves.

    Likewise, when JC SUPERSTAR arrived on the scene, most church leaders weren't really on board with the devil music that was rock 'n' roll, and the depiction of Jesus as a rebellious (and all too human) dirty hippie, coupled with the absence of a resurrection scene, was just too much for them. Now the Boomers who made rock 'n' roll so popular are leading churches themselves, and they once again have adapted to the zeitgeist. Megachurches have rock music ministries and services for young people who are free to show up in jeans. The church (much of it anyway) caught up with rock - or rock just got less dangerous. One way or another, SUPERSTAR isn't quite so counter-cultural anymore (come on, there's a 64-year-old man playing Jesus!), so it's safe now for the embrace of Christians. (Also, lots of contemporary productions throw in at least some kind of nod to the resurrection. Clearly, they know their audience.)
  • Re JC Superstar -- I saw the original production when I was in elementary school and several times in the ensuing years. It was great theater even though it may have been dogmatically shocking at the time.

    I think that since 1971 the nature of Christianity has changed--the original production (along that of with its more whimsical cousin, Godspell) was blatantly evangelical at a time when not a lot of people identified themselves as evangelicals, and in fact didn't really make a big deal about their religion at all. Now it appeals to the same desire for a visceral connection to religion as the much later films The Last Temptation of Christ (not a hit, but an excellent film made from an even more excellent book) and The Passion of the Christ.

    I also agree that rock music and Christianity have been melded in a way that was unthinkable a generation ago; and I actually attribute it to the commercial success of JCS despite the controversy.
  • I was in a Chick-fil-a recently and not even knowing who the artists were, you could tell is was Christian rock. Yeah, it's a Chick-fil-a but the music just all sounded the same, the breathy, earnest, pained, loving voices and melodic guitar. Blah.

    As for listening to something uplifting when I'm down, I do the opposite. If I'm in a funk, I reach for The Cure and just REVEL in my misery until I exhaust the emotion. Then I'm ready to get on with it.
  • With Superstar, it's essential that the audience understand the lyrics. I was introduced to JCS in 1971. For Good Friday that year I transferred the two-disc vinyl to one 90-minute reel-to-reel tape (it fits perfectly) and projected the libtretto using an opaque projector while playing the tape through my home sound system, moved to an Episcopal church in Junction City, Kansas. At the end of the piece, there was not a dry eye in the house. All who came to hear (and read) it were surprised at how it affected them, and I'm sure it would not have had that power had they not been able to follow the lyrics along. But knowing the message in detail, they were hooked.
  • Interesting, Joe. Thanks for posting.
    It's similar to a question I've asked theatrical composers: Would you prefer an audience come see your show having already heard the music or that they hear it live for the first time? A variety of opinions on that. Perhaps we'll discuss it in a later blog.

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