28 February 2008

mediocrity should not be encouraged

I think enough time has passed to allow me to write about this with a clear head.

Matt and I went down to Commerce City to visit Billy & Carla & the gang, with the (sarcasm alert) oh-so-tantalizing promise of going to a CD release party for a band fronted by a friend of a friend (end sarcasm alert). I'm all for supporting strange local music (I assumed it would be strange, due to the fact that a friend of one of my/our Commerce City friends was in it, and while they are certainly among the best people I have ever known, it would be foolish to call them normal. In fact, they might be insulted by such labeling), and if I didn't get away from my computer screen I was going to go stir crazy, so why the hell not go see a weird local band play?

Now, some prefacing must be done before I get down to business. Despite the fact that most of my views on the religion/God topics are frequently in flux, despite the fact that I firmly believe organized, 21st-century religion to be little more than a scam designed to separate good, hard-working, honest and hopeful people from their money, despite the fact that I doubt an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving God would choose to punish me for exercising my gift of free will and questioning the decrees not of this omnipotent, impossible being but of the men who claim to speak for him, and despite the fact that I refuse to accept that groups of stogy old men are the ultimate powers in the world, I keep making friends with people in whose lives religion, in varying forms and to differing degrees, plays a role. My knee-jerk reaction to people who, in this age and day, still say grace before dinner (in my younger, stupider years) would have been sarcastic, bitter mockery, but I've found nothing in these people that deserves scorn. They have been, with little exception, kind, generous, open, accepting, entertaining, friendly and, most importantly from where I sit, odd. Normal is a watchword for me and [prospective] friends; normal and I don't get along that well.

It's also important to note that if I'm pushed by a document-thumping, religiously minded person, I will at first shut them out. I refuse to disrespect something that holds great stock in another person's life (unless it's a belief that I wholeheartedly disagree with and feel every person in the world should disagree with - the ritual sacrifice of infants, the teaching of "intelligent design" in school alongside Darwinian evolution, support of the Iraq invasion and/or a continued American military presence in what could only be charitably called the country of Iraq) without giving them a chance. I have my beliefs (loose and difficult to articulate though they may be - I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school for 13 years... it'd be tough to do away with all of that... stuff even if I wanted to), I respect yours (to a point - we'll get to that in a second), so I'd appreciate it if you extended to me the same courtesy. I will shut you out if you attempt to push your perceived-to-be-superior beliefs on me. If you continue to push, despite my polite, but firm, rejections, I will go off like a fucking neutron bomb. Nobody's right, nearly everything's relative, most people will just as soon kill you and fuck your corpse as move aside to let you through in a crowded hallway, anyone who says they have answers either wants your devotion or your money or both, any benevolent, loving deity would be appalled at the amounts of blood humans have shed in its supposed "name," if you're going to tell me your religion is better than mine, at least have a sacred tome that's well-written to back your argument up, sometimes it is necessary to take life in order to save it (I'm talking about abortion here - I also don't think men have a right to tell women what they're supposed to do with their bodies, unless that man is a doctor and the woman needs surgery if she's going to have any quality of life at all, or even live, period), I see no moral virtue in "believing" because hey, if the other guy's right, at least this way I'm not going to hell (by the way, hell will probably be far more fun than heaven - Oscar Wilde'll be there, for one thing), and I sure as shit am not interested in an organization who can't muster up a better representative than you.

If you and I can't get along, we can at least both shut the hell up and grudgingly respect the other person's right to disagree.

All the prefacing aside, I became worried when I heard that this CD release party was to be held in a church. That doesn't mean anything on the surface, because especially in this age and day of "multi-purpose spaces," I imagine any number of non-explicitly religious events could be held in a church space, 'specially if it's a non-denominational sort of church. Old habits, much like Bruce Willis, die hard, and while I'm working to curb them, any time someone mentions "youth group," "minister," "church," or the like (I don't think I'd react like this to any Jewish/Islamic/Buddhist/Hindu/Zoroastrian terminology, just Christian), I bristle and get ready for the inevitable onslaught.

Going in with an open mind, my gut reaction was proven right. My friends and I were, in so many words, surrounded by Jesus freaks (whoever it was that said s/he liked Jesus but couldn't stand his fan club, I agree with you wholeheartedly), enthusiastic, to a nearly ridiculous degree, for Ben Zornes and his band.

Now we get to a sore spot with me: Christian music. I'm not talking about hymns (though some of them could stand an updating - Salma Hayek's character in Dogma said that her problem with the Catholic church was that Catholics didn't celebrate their faith, but mourn it. I don't see the alternative when the most prominent image inside the building is a representation of a man's bloody, barbaric, spite-fueled death, but I greatly appreciate her point), but about Creed, Pillar, Audio Adrenaline, and most of the artists that show up here.

And this finally brings us up to the title. I have, to date, not been exposed to more than one or two "Christian rock" bands that could survive on the strength of their songwriting, their musicianship, their abilities as a "band." Much like Eric Cartman, I have seen very little of merit in "Christian rock," and am halfway convinced that it, just like organized religion, is a money-making scam (not to beat a still-dead animal here, but it remains interesting that satanic death-metal bands, while not everyone's cup of tea, cannot be condemned for their lack of musical ability. Thrash may be caustic, but it's also ridiculously demanding). Particularly when I hear that the mission of "Christian rock" is at least partially one of prostelyzation, I have to hold myself back from laughing, because no one who is on the fence about becoming a Christian would find their opinion swayed by songs like this:

"I know that there will come a day/
When the Lord will call His own away/
To a place that He has made for all of us/
But until the day of His return/
There's a lesson that we've got to learn/
We are brothers and we're sisters/
We are one"
- Third Day, "Come Together"

I find stuff like this ridiculously offensive, for a number of reasons that I'd rather not go into here (but let's look at it for a little while - what I get out of these words is that the Elect will one day have a better existence, in what has to be a version of the saving of the faithful that was so horribly addressed in those shitty, shitty Left Behind books - more proof that this "Christian" market is a bottomless money pit that wouldn't know what to do with a good product if one came up and was itself nailed to a cross. While I'm kind of down with the message that the whole human community needs to understand itself, I will never, ever be able to get past the inherent self-affixed smug superiority that comes with "Christian" art. Maybe Third Day wasn't the best example, since it's not out-and-out shitty, but it still pisses me off, so it'll work.

In case the above paragraphs didn't tip you off, dear reader, my fears were confirmed; I was attending a "Christian rock" band's release party. And they were AWFUL. The musicianship was passable, better than mediocre at times, but the lyrics (projected in a series of PowerPoint slides above the band on two screens - when did every crummy local band start needing a visual show to get the audience involved, by the way? What happened to engaging the audience through music and lyrics?). Unfortunately, I wasn't possessed of sufficient foresight to record the text displays for posterity, so I've had to make do with trying to piece together some of the lyrics from their MySpace page. Here we go:

"Sin had blinded our hearts/
Death had covered our eyes to see/
God reached down from on high/
Pulled back the veil that blinded our hearts/
To see his wonderful light/
For now we see
[I can't make these next lines out... here comes the chorus]
God who sees/
Sees deep within/
Looks into our hearts/
Loves us still"
- Ben Zornes Band, "God Who Sees"

The most egregiously bad songs didn't make the Internet's cut, apparently, but you can see the mixed metaphors and the terribly generic "Christian" vibe of the music. What you don't get from the representation here is how bored everyone on stage looked (with the exception of their dear frontman, of course), how uninterested they seemed in the part they were playing in the dumbing down of their religion, which I'm supposed to believe is ridiculously important to them (they are making music to promote it, after all).

The crowd - all friends and relatives and friends of friends and relatives, I imagine - was into it. Not shocking, for reasons I've listed earlier. That's what continues to confound me, why the target audience doesn't demand a higher quality product. Not in the "You fucking suck!" sense that accompanies a lot of my contemporaries' reactions to many of the opening bands at the shows I prefer to frequent, but in the, "You're not very good, so I'm going to support a better artist" sense. Sure, a band of 20-year-olds (or thereabouts) isn't going to have the chops of, say, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but you can still want them to be... good. To show some promise of improving.

The crummy music wasn't what got to me the most; what really started sawing on my last nerve was when the band left to take a quick break, and Ben himself returned to the stage and began to preach. Not content to bleat these didactic, awkward lyrics at me, he has to state, in no uncertain terms, that the band's music is not about the band, that the band is not about the band, that we shouldn't be about the band (I wasn't), but that we should all be about God, and about this weird hybrid of an Old/New Testament god that sounded both angry and forgiving. I stopped paying attention pretty quickly after he started talking about his experience as a home-schooled child, so I can't relate everything he spat out at me, but I can say that he's a less compelling speaker than he is a lead singer.

[I'm pretty sure the Ben Zornes Band is about one thing that isn't God, by the way.]

Over 90 minutes had gone by at this point; I'd been polite enough. So, fortunately, had our friends, who got up to leave (they were my ride back to Matt's car) before the rest of the band could take the stage for their next set.

I understand wanting to support your child, your friend, your brother, sister, cousin, nephew, niece, family, friend, whatever when they feel they have a gift to share, a message, a purpose. But I think you should also be there to help push them, to help them better themselves and strive towards that goal of theirs. And sometimes you should be kind enough to tell them to pack it in, that they're really not going to be all that good. Ever.

The extraordinary should be encouraged. The exceptional, the bona fide, the brilliant. The mediocre will go away, given time, but they'll hang on with every last ounce of strength until reality comes along and slams right into them. Encouraging them just makes arrival at the final destination that much less palatable.

I apologize for frequently losing sight of my point here, and for not devoting sufficient space in this entry to decrying mediocrity in all its forms ("it was an okay movie," "I guess the exhibit was good," "Sure, John Kerry's not the best candidate, but he's the one we've got," etc.), but you don't read the blog entry you wish you had, you read the blog entry you've got. Am I right?

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