If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.
Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.
Just stop and watch it already.
(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)
VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)
In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)
Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:
To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.
So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:
1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.
This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.
2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.
While I’m on this topic …
3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.
Speaking of which …
4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.
Which brings me to …
5. Great songs unify people. I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show. “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.
And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.
So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.
Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”
REFORMED MIX: Rapper Lecrae inspires both praise and debate with his blend of solid beats and Reformed theology.
With the release of his new album, Gravity, earlier this month, Lecrae is growing in popularity as a hip-hop artist among audiences Christian and non-Christian, black and white. The Associated Press, among others, praised the album, saying, “Lecrae delivers a strong piece of work. He’s not afraid to rap about his past mistakes, supplying inspirational rhymes filled with Christian values backed by well-produced secular hip-hop beats.”
Lecrae (his full name is Lecrae Moore) stands at the intersection of two contrasting cultures: the urban vibe of historically black hip-hop and the theological leanings of the historically white Reformed tradition with its roots in Calvinism.
It’s a cultural mix common in Holy Hip-Hop, says author and “hip-hop theologian” Efrem Smith. Holy Hip-Hop artists often appear in front of white evangelical audiences and receive support from white Reformed pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll (who have bothinterviewed Lecrae). But the artists themselves tend to be young black men from inner-city backgrounds who ironically struggle to find an audience among urban youth.
The reason for that, Smith argues, is because the African American church has too often rejected hip-hop culture and because urban youth sometimes dismiss Holy Hip-Hop as inferior to secular hip-hop music.
“Lecrae and Reach Records are the main reason why Holy Hip-Hop is growing in popularity in urban American and African American communities,” Smith said in an interview with UrbanFaith. “Put the Christian stuff aside for a minute; Lecrae is more gifted and talented than many artists being pushed by secular companies today.”
Lecrae’s Scripture-packed music hits a variety of urban issues, like fatherlessness, drug addiction, and violence. Lecrae himself was raised by his mother in the inner city of Houston and was involved in gang activity before his conversion at age 19. He went to a black church when he first became a Christian, but later visited a white Reformed congregation and was attracted to their take on the Bible.
But as Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition, “To drop Calvin’s name (in the black community) is to drop a curse word.” The Reformed tradition has historical links to racism in the U.S., going back to Calvinists who used their theology to justify slavery.
For that reason, Smith cautioned Holy Hip-Hop artists against depending solely on Reformation theology (which he wrote about in a blog post). Rather, he said, they need to draw upon other theologies that address the concerns of the oppressed, like liberation theology, reconciliation theology and missional pietism, to speak a prophetic message. Smith suggests that’s one area where Lecrae could grow musically, although he likened this constructive critique to criticizing LeBron James’s basketball skills.
“He does a great job of talking about individual sin and individual responsibility and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living by the Holy Spirit,” Smith told UrbanFaith. “What I’d like to see him do more is raise the systemic issues — the corporate issues of sin and injustice in our country and the world — and point to kingdom justice and mercy to deal with these corporate sins.”
For Lecrae, the Reformed tradition describes how he interprets the Bible, and his adoption of that theology is a way to bridge the racial divide.
“I don’t feel like I’m under theological imperialism or whatever,” Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition. “I feel like I’m in search of truth, and I’m going to get it wherever I can find it. And I feel like I am in some senses a contextual ambassador, a cultural ambassador, and I do want to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls.” Check out the video below.
What do you think of Lecrae’s music and Holy Hip-Hop?
SHINING STARS: Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks star as a mother and daughter in ‘Sparkle,’ the remake of the 1976 classic about the highs and lows of a family singing group during the Motown era.
Sparkle hits movie theaters this weekend with a star-studded cast of black actors and entertainers. Based on the 1976 classic, this remake is a cautionary tale that chronicles the story of three sisters in their rise to fame as they navigate the twists and turns of the music industry.
American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks, in her film debut, plays the lead role of Sparkle, while pop star Cee Lo Green, actors Derrick Luke and Carmen Ejogo, and comedian Mike Epps appear in supporting roles. But there’s no doubt that throughout the film, all eyes will be on the late Whitney Houston, who plays the mother of the aspiring girl group.
In the film, the three sisters (Sparks, Ejogo, and Teka Sumpter) move up the record charts as they sing and dance in high fashion. In their search for fame, the girls are swept away by mesmerizing men, challenged by the demands of life, and overcome by the dreams that almost tear their family apart.
It’s quite ironic, then, that this is the last project Whitney Houston completed before her untimely death on February 11, the night before the Grammy Awards. At 48 years old, Whitney accidentally drowned in her hotel bathtub. The coroner’s report later revealed that cocaine was a contributing factor in her death.
After her tragic passing, the world reflected on Whitney’s life and how we watched her grow up to fulfill her dreams. Much like the girls in the movie, she was beautiful, rich, and famous. She had it all, and yet there was immense sorrow which ultimately led to her demise. Until her final days, she continued to smile, pursue her dreams, and to profess her love for Christ. And she continued to sing!
Singing, of course, will be a highlight in Sparkle, which features songs from the original film written by the great Curtis Mayfield as well as new compositions by R. Kelly. The movie was preceded by a soundtrack release which includes Whitney’s final musical recordings. In what is sure to be a highlight of the film, she sweetly sings “His Eye is on a Sparrow,” a song that encourages us to sing even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. And even in her absence, Whitney’s performance emanates with hope.
Yet I wonder, what is a proper response when singing and dream chasing is the catalyst for sadness? The painful reality is there are almost too many parallels between Whitney’s life and the lives of the girls in the movie. I wonder what kind of responses that will elicit in the theaters this weekend. As we sit and watch, I wonder if we will “Celebrate” as she and Jordin encourage us to do in their recently released single from the soundtrack. I wonder if we will shed a tear at the new images of Whitney, her gentle grace, or the sound of her voice as she lifts her hands to worship God during the church scene. Will we pause and reflect?
You see Sparkle causes us to consider important questions. What happens when we get exactly what we want? Will we hold on to our family, faith, and friendships? Will we hold fast to our dreams at all costs? And what happens to us — our identity — when those dreams are lost or deferred? How will we respond when our dreams are fulfilled? Will we sparkle? Will we shine like a light, or will our lights flicker and go out like an ember in the darkness?
Whatever the case may be, Sparkle opens tomorrow, August 17, in theaters everywhere. So grab your girlfriends, get a date, and head to a cineplex near you. And then let us know what you think.
Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation is a sociological exploration of worship music ministry in multiethnic churches, and as such, its timing is critically important. There’s, of course, no shortage of resources that point to multicultural worship music as a panacea to cure what ails struggling churches, something that will help to usher in a glorious new dawn of cross-racial unity. What sets this work apart is its approach.
Worship Across the Racial Divide aims to be more descriptive than prescriptive. Through thousands of interviews of pastors, worship leaders, and congregants from a variety of multiethnic churches across the diverse state of California, Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, uncovers a series of principles and patterns gleaned from actual multicultural worship ministries. Rather than speculate on what should be, the book tells us a lot about what is.
And when it comes to multicultural worship music, what is — that is, the way things are being done — is sometimes at odds with what or how we expect things to be.
With the rise of diversity as a cultural value in churches, there has been a noticeable creative spike regarding worship musicians diversifying their sound. The prominence of Israel Houghton, especially, has opened doors for a host of other artists (Freddy Rodriguez, William McDowell, Tye Tribbett, etc.) who have in some measure adopted a similar, dynamic, multicultural sound, what some might call the sound of the new breed.
Yet, when it comes to the ways in which multiethnic churches are approaching their music, that Israel-and-New-Breed sound is far from the norm. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the differences in philosophies regarding musical styles. According to Marti, there are four main philosophical models of music selection at play in multicultural or multiethnic (for the most part, those words are used interchangeably) churches:
a.) The Professionalist – where the style of music doesn’t matter as much, so long as whatever music that’s performed is done with excellence (high musical variety, low racial awareness).
b.) The Traditionalist – where the style of music performed is whatever the worship leader or the church leadership is most comfortable with (low musical variety, low racial awareness)
c.) The Assimilationist – where the chosen style is deemed to be “universal” and can connect with most or all kinds of people (low musical variety, high racial awareness)
d.) The Pluralist – where a variety of styles are deliberately chosen to connect with various ethnic groups (high musical variety, high racial awareness).
Most leaders who deal in worship music may find themselves somewhere in these philosophical models, maybe even incorporating more than one approach depending on context. But the key is to remember, not only is there no magic bullet for achieving multiethnic worship music, but among practitioners of multicultural worship ministry, there seems to be no consensus as to how to define it.
And while the Pluralist approach seems to be the most explicitly racialized, it’s also most susceptible to racial stereotyping.
Less Rhythm, More Relationship
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the book is how little it has to do with music, per se.
It’s become a common refrain that worship is more than music. What did surprise me was the extent to which not even the music itself is about music. Contrary to popular assumption, Marti’s research shows tha the success of multicultural church music ministry lies less in the adoption or mastery of a particular styleof music, and more in the use of music ministry programs to form lasting cross-cultural connections in the congregation. In other words, it’s less about the rhythm, more about the relationship.
That’s because worship music is defined less by a particular sound and more by the activity that encompasses it. Worship music is inherently participatory, and it’s in this participation that lasting bonds are forged. It’s true monoculturally, and it’s even more true cross-culturally. Especially because worship ministries are by definition high profile, it’s often common for racial diversity to show up first or in greater proportions with the worship ministry compared to the congregation at large, a phenomenon Marti refers to as “ritualized racial inclusion.” The more people of color are conspicuously recruited and displayed on the platform, the more welcoming an atmosphere is projected, and the more likely people of various races will want to call that church home. Which isn’t to say that the style or the sound doesn’t matter at all — it just means that it’s not necessarily the key element that guarantees success. People might come through the door because of how the choir or the band sounds, but what will keep them coming back will be the relationships.
Cautions and Warnings
Worship Across the Racial Divide is not an easy book to read. It gets bogged down in sociological jargon in places, and because of its reliance on interviews, sometimes after five or six quotes supporting the same idea it feels redundant. Also, it should be stated that, despite Marti’s intent to reach a cross-section of diverse churches, they were all still in California. I’m sure there are plenty of cultural differences that come into play when you factor in regional geography.
Nevertheless, this work is a landmark achievement that lends plenty of insight into how multicultural worship is being done today, and how it might be done in the future.
PARADIGM SHIFT: Jason Nelson and company during the live recording of 'Shifting the Atmosphere.'
In an endless sea of new music, sometimes it’s easy to put your ears on autopilot and just allow one song to blend into another, one artist into the next. That would be a mistake with the music of pastor and worship leader Jason Nelson. Nelson’s new CD, Shifting the Atmosphere, recorded live in Baltimore, Maryland, is a 12-track gift of praise and worship that you don’t want to consign to that “generic music” category.
A Baltimore native, Nelson understands his music ministry as a “complement to his pastoral assignment” at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Randallstown, Maryland. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that he participates within the worship moment he facilitates for others. At unpredictable moments, he slips into an intimate interval of thanksgiving or a vulnerable profession of love for God. The earnestness of such moments gives credibility to Nelson’s project. Witnessing his “shift” from the posture of worship leader to worshiper invites the listener to undergo a similar internal transition.
The new album has a taut feel — there are no throwaway tracks. Nelson comments on this dynamic, stating that he “worked hard to put together a CD with no fillers.” Each song advances the theme of shifting the atmosphere. “Don’t Count Me Out” is a hopeful affirmation, rooting positive expectation in the conviction that because God doesn’t count us out, neither should we count ourselves out. “No Words” merits special mention. The song elegantly captures an enduring paradox of faith: no concepts adequately describe God’s grandeur, yet we must speak to give voice to the hope of glory that lies within us. “Dominion” is another standout. It acknowledges that external conditions impact our lives, but denies that such circumstances exhaustively determine our lives. Finally, I must note that midway through the project, the listener is treated to a resplendent rendition of the hymn “Love Lifted Me.”
Months ago, I heard Mr. Nelson perform “Jubilee,” one of the album’s opening songs, at Allen Cathedral. He introduced the song by explaining the biblical tradition of Jubilee. Nelson mentioned that Jubilee represents a communal announcement of liberation: forgiving debts, returning land to its original holders, and setting the captives free. Next, he transitioned into a personal — and soul-stirring — appropriation of that tradition with a song of empowerment in the midst of impediments to fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives.
Calling his family his “greatest accomplishment,” Nelson speaks proudly of his wife Tonya and their children, Jaelyn and Jason Christopher. A skilled singer-songwriter, he composed the majority of the songs on Shifting the Atmosphere. Shifting is an engaging, well-executed, and uplifting album. The Verity Records project was released earlier this week. I wholeheartedly recommend the album to music lovers everywhere, particularly those who appreciate contemporary gospel music.
Check out a recent interview with Pastor Nelson below: