Signifying… it’s one of the many terms that people have used for the historically black pastime of tossing playful insults back and forth, also known across generations as “cappin’,” “playin’ the dozens,” “stingin’,” et cetera. And testifying…well, if you’ve been to a black church, you know what testifying is. And chances are, that testifyin’ happened while a black church choir was present, swaying, clapping, and generally responding to the call flowing forth from the preacher or soloist.
This is probably how Beyoncé, John Legend, Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell first learned it. Because if you were a musician blessed with enough good fortune to perform at the 2015 GRAMMY Awards, chances are, you probably had a black choir or vocal ensemble back you up. (Notice I didn’t say gospel choir…it may be semantics but I reserve the word gospel for actual gospel music.)
Not that this is a recent phenomenon. Pop artists have adorned their live sets with choirs for years. It can amp up the dramatic element, and makes for a great visual. However, anytime entertainment reaches this level of influence and scale, the politics of identity are unavoidable. In particular, artists – especially white artists – tend to open themselves up to the charge of cultural appropriation when using black choirs as backup singers. More often than not, the appearance of a choir endows the music with a sense of spirituality, even when the lyrics are less-than-spiritual in nature.
And yet, cultural appropriation is never just a black-and-white matter. Plenty of white, popular artists have no problem takin’ it to church, and some black artists do it and end up looking less-than-stellar. For a variety of reasons, some choir appearances work better than others. And in this GRAMMY celebration, it seemed like there was an undercurrent of spirituality, even stronger than in recent years. Even songs like “By the Grace of God” and “Take Me to Church,” while not having choirs per se, still carried an air of churchiness not usually seen on this stage.
So in order to make some sense of things, I took all the Grammy musical performances that involved choirs or had significant Christian imagery, and rated them for the following characteristics:
-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?
-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?
-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?
-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*
From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?
Let’s go to the tape!
Katy Perry, “By the Grace of God”
Appropriation Index: 7.5
Not gonna lie, this song surprised me. I was only familiar with a few selections from the Katy Perry catalog, so I expected either something really saccharine and overwrought (like pretty much anything by Celine Dion) or something really cold and distant (like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Instead, what I heard felt, at first listen, like an instant classic, a song worthy of the main stage. As I listened, I couldn’t help comparing it to Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” especially because of the way it was staged. The white dress and the white backdrop with the interpretive dance behind, it all seemed very classy and polished, like the kind of production you might’ve seen from CeCe Winans in the late 90s. Though there was no choir, there were some really sweet background vocals toward the end, like maybe Katy Perry’s road manager hired a couple of the ladies from either Virtue or En Vogue, but just for one song.
Although I figured it didn’t have an explicitly gospel message, I knew it was preceded by an important message from President Obama about domestic violence, so I was ready to receive Katy Perry’s uplifting message about escaping — wait, what? The last line of the refrain begins, “so I decided to stay”??? Is this a song about leaving an abusive relationship, or staying in an abusive relationship? Does she move out of the apartment but still stay in the neighborhood? I’m so confused.
As someone who has never dealt with domestic violence, I don’t feel especially qualified to assess the moral validity of a domestic violence anthem. That said, if the emotional climax of a song about domestic abuse leaves open the question of whether such abuse should continue, that seems pretty unsatisfying. And if you prefer the sunnier interpretation, that it’s just about difficulty in a long-term relationship, then why precede it with stern words from No. 44?
I’ve since listened to the song three times in a row, and while I love that grace is at the center of it, the overall meaning of the song still feels unclear. It seems less like Katy Perry is embracing the mystery and ambiguity inherent in the pursuit of authentic Christian faith, and more like she tried to write a song that people on both sides of the issue would like. That feels dishonest, lame, and sadly, it’s exactly what I would expect from an artist of her caliber – a shame, because the song really does sound beautiful.
The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’ (barely)
Sam Smith featuring Mary J. Blige, “Stay With Me”
Appropriation Index: 4
A quick word about the Appropriation Index – the higher the number, the more appropriation has taken place, which in my view, is hardly appropriate (how ironic). And again, because I was unfamiliar with Sam Smith, I did not know what to expect. And like the Katy Perry tune, I was pleasantly surprised.
I was also surprised when I read the lyrics, because I had no idea what the song was really about until it was almost over. I don’t know how I missed it – the very first line refers to a one-night stand. I guess I was won over by the simplicity of the chorus, which was carried by Smith first, then by Mary J. Blige, and finally a very stately sounding choir. Soulful, but not too far out there.
The choir helped it to pass one of my appropriation tests – could you sing it in church with a straight face? If I didn’t know this was a Sam Smith song, and someone made a few tactful edits to the verse, I’d say yes, absolutely, and put it in the same corner of gospel-influenced hits as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” You could easily pair this song with a reading from Psalm 51, and it would be powerful.
And honestly, now that I know that it’s about the self-loathing sense of desperation after a tryst, it feels even more honest and resonant. Because who among us can call out to God for help from a place of complete blamelessness?
But I could’ve done without quite so many goo-goo eyes between Sam and Mary J.
The verdict: TESTIFYIN’
Hozier featuring Annie Lenox, “Take Me to Church”
Appropriation Index: 8
This was a hard one to review, because I really like Annie Lennox (I use Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” as a go-to karaoke jam) but I’d never heard of Hozier and all I knew about the song beforehand was the title.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about this title. Now, I realize that white people go to church. But white people, by and large, do not take it to church, musically speaking. No judge on American Idol is ever going to remark to a soloist, “boy, you really took us to church… I mean, a typical Midwest Lutheran church, that is. Your performance was perfunctory and unemotional.” Like, people don’t do that.
So between the combination of all the tweets and Facebook statuses I saw about how Annie Lennox “killed it,” “shut it down,” etc, and the title of the song, I was ready for some good ol’ fashioned chuuch.
And then I actually listened to the song.
In “Take Me to Church,” Hozier does what plenty of others have done before him in order to get a rise from the audience, he uses sacred words and imagery to paint a very dark picture. Even if you ignore the original video depicting a same-sex relationship (odd since the lyrics are written by a man about a woman), the lyrics are pretty antagonistic toward faith in general:
Take me to church / I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life
This song is like the sonic equivalent of Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix. It’s bold, provocative, and to most Christians, patently offensive. I personally wasn’t offended, but I was disappointed. Not that God couldn’t use it, of course… He can use anything. This particular bluesy-rock medley was long on emotion, for sure, but short on anything that resembled spiritual truth.
Though it does explain why Annie Lennox, in her cameo appearance, segued into “I Put A Spell On You.” If you’re gonna do the anti-Christian thing, you might as well go all out.
The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’
Madonna, “Living for Love”
Appropriation Index: 9.5
The appropriation index is probably a little high for just this song, but you have to take the context into the matter. Madonna has made a career out of flouting the rules of the religious establishment. She took her stage name from the virginal mother of God, and her first hit was about how sex with her new boyfriend makes her feel “Like A Virgin.”
So it’s not like I didn’t know what to expect. And by her standards this was maybe even a little restrained, but that’s only because there was no cameo appearance of Dennis Rodman making out with Kim Jong-un. As it was, her major visual accompaniment was a fleet of glistening, masked topless men with bull horns affixed to their heads, leaping and undulating to the rhythm. Some people thought it looked satanic, I just thought it was rather bizarre.
As for the song itself, I actually liked it, somewhat. It was a bouncy anthem, fun and fresh feeling, much like, “Like A Prayer.” The choir came out at the end, clad in bright red robes, clapping and swaying. Thankfully by that point, Madonna was done with her more salacious pelvic thrusts, but still, the disconnect between how much they were wearing and and how little she was wearing was still a little jarring.
Also, I did find it odd that the song is called “Living for Love” when the lyrics make it clear it’s actually a break-up song. The overall message of the song appears to be, I’m living for love, and since I’m not getting enough from you, I’m outta here. But you wouldn’t know that from the chorus or the vamp, which consists mostly of the phrases “I’m living for love” and “I’m not giving up.”
It’s as if the two parts of the song were written by two people in separate rooms who couldn’t communicate until after the song was over.
“I can’t do this anymore!”
“What?! I thought we weren’t giving up?!”
The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’ (like a mug)
But that’s just my take, what’s yours? Leave it in the comments, and be sure to come back tomorrow for part two where I will take on Pharrell’s “Happy,” Beyonce’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and John Legend & Common’s “Glory.”