Tuesday, October 21, 2008

More on Bad Catholic Music

I ran into a friend who told me I was the topic of some conversation he had with a nun earlier today.. (This can't be good). About a month ago, I went with my former RCIA sponsor to a nearby parish to hear a seminar on the Eucharist sponsored by Renew International. At the conclusion, the nun asked people to fill out evaluation forms and I complied.

So the nun said to my friend "someone really criticized the music and said that the lyrics were all about me and we etc... I sure wish I knew who that guy was". My friend guessed that it was me and he was certainly right. So she left him with a rebuttal along the lines of "Jesus lives in us as does the Holy Spirit and therefore it is proper to sing about me and we". I kid you not.

Let me give you a little backdrop. Several times during the seminar, she played a predictably bad 70s "Catholic" song and wanted everyone to sing along. Like routine, about 60% of those present (including me) stared back as if we were being lectured in chemistry class while the other 40% mouthed words and maybe one or two sang out (noticeably off key). You Catholics know what I'm talking about... the same sad scene at most every mass when Catholics try to sing these awful excuses for songs. It's like watching a crowd of people trying to ice skate for the first time... and they never get any better.

And the thing is, she recognized the problem. She quoted that quasi famous line from "Why Catholics Can't Sing" - "Four episcopalian women make more noise than a whole Catholic congregation" or something like that. And she lamented this.

So I gave my two cents in the response - I said you expect us to sing along... well some of us don't want to sing about ourselves to the tune of the Brady Bunch. And in fact, some of us find it sacrilegious. Some of us don't particularly care for music that sounds like it was written by a middle aged feminist or some hippie priest from the 70s. In short, some of us would rather have no music at all than to be subjected to the garbage you're trying to force on us.

Naturally, I was polite in my reply and didn't say it like I'm saying it here. But how can someone be so clueless as to defend such a ridiculous position? I understand that she might actually like that music. She has a severely undeveloped palette. No big deal. Some people prefer Hot Pockets to fine dining. I have no problem with that. Pity yes; problem no.

And she misunderstood my problem I think... my problem isn't with the word "I" or "we" or even the occasional use of those words in a song. That's fine. I'm talking about the fundamental orientation of the song - it needs to be vertical and not horizontal. The emotion driven songs we're typically subjected to by their nature lean towards the horizontal instead of the vertical though. This is why Vatican II reiterated the fact that Gregorian chant is supremely appropriate for mass - it is intrinsically vertical music. You can't chant "Here I am Lord" to the solemn tone Salve Regina - the lyrics instantly get exposed for how ridiculous they are.

There is a serious problem with me-focused music in many American parishes and it needs to be addressed. I just don't know if this needed reform can happen until the baby boomers fade away.


Annette M. Heidmann said...

This is really depressing me, you know... I mean, what's the point of converting if this is all I have to look forward to?

:-) Just kidding. (a little...)

Gretchen said...

The music in our parish is just the same as you experienced. And the responses are just the same. The music director tries in vain to get us to respond, but no one wants to sing and or clap along to some version of folk music with a religious tinge to it. It was quite frustrating to leave a mega church (with professional musicians who actually did the pop Christian songs beautifully) to find myself in a Catholic Church (and expecting the beauty of chant and classical church music) that has 70s versions of the me-we folk stuff. It is usually badly played and sung, too. I've gotten somewhat used to it (most of us just bear it), but I do long for a higher idea of music. I have lots of chant albums at home. That helps a bit.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Annette - well, don't just accept my experience as the norm. There are plenty of great Catholic music programs out there- it depends on the parish. It's like the preaching... typically Catholic homilies aren't as strong as Protestant ones... but without any real comparison, the best homilies I've heard by far were all Catholic. Same with music. Typically the avg parish doesn't have a music program anywhere near the level of a Protestant one. But the best music I've ever heard in church (by far) was at a Catholic mass.

But.. if I can let you in on a secret that I hope doesn't scare you away... you're not converting into a holy resort... you're converting into a kingdom which is currently at war. You'll see what I mean when you get here, but it's well worth it. This is the gospel.

Gretchen - you should start a schola like I did :)

Annette M. Heidmann said...

Nah, I get it, and it's not that it scares me. It's just a little bit of a downer to recognize that no matter where I end up, as long as I'm in a church that involves humans, there will be strife of some sort. Liturgy wars and doctrinal wars will continue, and rest for my weary soul must wait until Paradise.

Tim J. said...

"Naturally, I was polite in my reply and didn't say it like I'm saying it here."

That's a shame, that is!

elm said...

At my local parish we sing very traditional songs at daily mass, and then on Sunday, we sing show tunes. I often expect a chorus line to come down the center aisle. Too bad those who only go on Sundays and not every Sunday are given the dummied down version of music. There is something to be said for vertical music that raises the soul beyond the ordinary.

Perhaps we have aborted all the good Catholic composers.

Neal Judisch and Family said...

"I'm talking about the fundamental orientation of the song - it needs to be vertical and not horizontal. The emotion driven songs we're typically subjected to by their nature lean towards the horizontal instead of the vertical though ... There is a serious problem with me-focused music."

Amen to all this.

I suppose there's a way of distinguishing horizontal from me-focused. Maybe we could call me-focused music "reflexive." But whatever we call it, it's hard to get quite as excited singing about me and my impressively pious emotional responses to God as you get when you sing about, say, God. But this isn't a 'Catholic' problem uniquely, I think. My parish actually uses pretty good music, and we have professionally trained cantors too. And it isn't as though the evangelical world has remained untinged by this sort of thing. I remember reading Doug Wilson complaining about the 'horizontal/reflexive' orientation of much church-music somewhere as well. "Frankly materbatory," he called it.

Neal Judisch and Family said...

Oh, that should be "masterbatory."

Nothing to do with mothers.

Josh McManaway said...

A friend of mine has written a Magnificat for our services in December. It is absolutely beautiful. The music brings to mind and heart the appropriate responses when thinking of Christ's redemptive mission. If the reason we have statues, beautifully decorated parishes (well...sometimes), etc, is all for the fact that we worship with everything we've got - what does our music say?

"Here, Jesus, you get the worst music that any idiot who has played acoustic guitar for 3 months could write."

This was a huge beef of mine while at an SBC seminary - our music was bad on a musical level, but most importantly, on a theological level. This ego-centric nonsense has got to go.

St. Paul tells us to do "all things" unto the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Why don't we give Him the best we've got musically?

Carolina Cannonball said...

never a problem @ Divine Liturgy. ;-P

*wink wink hint hint*

Rene'e said...

I realize that these are just opinions being expressed here, and I mean no offence to the Church Choir members or musicians , but let us remember, there is something much more important happening at Mass, then music, song selection, congregational participation hymn singing, etc. I surely hope that no one receives the mistaken idea that Catholics go to Mass with the mindset of going to a concert, or being entertained by the music, or the homily for that matter, or leave feeling unfufilled because of the music that was used. Music has always been a part of Mass, and I believe that each hymn must be approved to be used at Mass. I may be wrong though, anyway I do realize that for some that music is important, and I respect all feelings and opinions on the subject.

I personally am not fond of the contemporary worship Mass. I prefer the traditional with the Cantor, or choir, simply for the fact that I find the Music and congregational participation in contemporary worship a distraction from the Mass. Fortunately, my parish offers four distinctly different Masses on Sunday, only one being Contemporary . If for some reason I am unable to attend the 12:00 Traditional Mass, I will go to the Contemporary Mass, because irregardless of the distractions , the Eucharist remains the same. The Eucharist is the most important part of Mass and hearing the Word of God,prayer and communion with each other are the important parts of Worship, everything else is tradition.

Honestly, I could not tell you what song was played or sung during Mass, five minutes after leaving.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Kat - well the lyrics in DL are perfect... the musicality isn't always very good.

Renee- I agree that the Eucharist trumps the music and is ultimately the central focus of Catholic worship. All I'm saying is that the music should be worthy of the Blessed Sacrament (or at least as close as we can come I mean). Sometimes it's hard for us to believe that the mass is the meeting of Heaven and Earth when the music makes it sound like a bad acid trip.

Rene'e said...

LOL...If I am ever down your way, I am going to have to pay a visit to your church. I can not imagine what is going on there with the music. I trust you. If you say it is that bad, I believe you. What is this 70's music you are hearing? Is it available on-line somewhere, so I can hear a sample. I grew up in the 70's so other than Disco, I like it all, but I do not think it belongs at Mass. Though, I am sure there are those who would not mind hearing Stairway to Heaven at Mass.


Rene'e said...


Are you speaking of Gregorian vs. all others in reference to music? At first I thought you were speaking about specific songs that were inappropriate for Mass (contempory vs traditional), but after listening to Gregorian hymns I realized that you may be refering to any hymns which are not Gregorian. In this case I would agree that Gregorian is more worthy of the blessed sacrament in terms of worship than the other types of hymns.

George Weis said...

HA! Funny one Tim :)

This is not only a Catholic Issue, it finds its way into all traditions. YUCK! I agree with you. So you think that it is the Baby boomers who keep it booming? Interesting. I can't imagine how bad that stuff is :D
You sound like you have a passionate position on this huh? Hey, how was DC?