NYT: Mercy Me: Big Sales. Lackluster Art?

CW MercyMe.jpg
People get irritated with me when I say that Christians are settling for sales instead of art; they don’t like it when I say as I did in my column on the DaVinci Code that in light of our spiritual & intellectual superficiality and imitative art, that “evangelicals may sell a lot of books and CD’s and cast a lot of votes in culture, but given current trends will not ultimately “influence” culture intellectually, spiritually or artistically.”

A few days later in a piece on “Christian” marketing to teens, I commented, “as a broadcaster I am saddened to see publicists trying to attract my attention to their author or artists by playing the “big Christian market” card in their press releases.?

Today the two themes converged in a NYT piece on “Mercy Me.”

Predictably, no sooner had I read the article than I received notification from a publicist) who is a good one and was just doing her job) reading as follows:

MERCY ME FEATURED ON FRONT PAGE
OF THE NEW YORK TIMES ARTS SECTION:

**Adding to their promotional blitz this week, MercyMe is featured on the front page of THE NEW YORK TIMES Arts section today.
**The paper sent a photographer to MercyMe’s performance/in-store event at a WalMart in Houston Tuesday night, where the band performed for over 3,000 fans and signed copies of their new CD, “Coming Up to Breathe,” for over 2 hours.}

What the publicist didn’t mention was the essence of the NYT piece in which the writer was actually rather pejorative about the lyrical and musical merits of “Mercy Me,” but impressed with their unit sales! Her point? 1) Even though CCM is artistically inferior to secular; 2) Their large and loyal fan base assures sales.

Here are some quotes to show you what I mean. Please understand I am not commenting one way or another about MY OPINIONS of MERCY ME (I haven’t heard the new CD), I am simply repeating the cultural perception (as voiced through a NYT reporter) about CCM in general and this album in particular.

Inferior Art:

1) “To your average rock ‘n’ roll fan, this operation probably sounds laughably rinky-dink.” (Appearance at a Christian Book Store).
2) MercyMe relies upon a familiar (though often effective) head-fake: the song seems to be about a romantic relationship, but it turns out to be a relationship with God.
3) In “One Trick Pony,” there’s a bluesy groove (sounds like someone got hold of a G. Love & Special Sauce CD) and an eager admission: “I got a one-track mind.” Guess where those tracks lead? (Monothematic).
4) There are plenty of lowlights, too, and plenty of hackneyed lyrics. (“I just need to break these chains” doesn’t sound very what’s the word? inspired.)

Great Business Model:

1) MercyMe already has a devoted fan base, a ready-made touring circuit and lots of loyal album buyers. The Devil may still have the best tunes (for now), but can he match that business model? (Photo blurb: “MercyMe at a Wal-Mart in Houston. The band’s large fan base virtually assures that its albums outsell many of those of its secular counterparts.”)
2) One of the strangest things about this album is how rarely it mentions Jesus by name; only one song does. (Perhaps that circumspection increases the band’s chances on secular radio.)
3) MercyMe like Casting Crowns and a number of the other top Christian rock bands routinely outsells many of its secular counterparts. The band’s 2001 album, “Almost There,” sold more than two million copies, thanks to the crossover hit “I Can Only Imagine.” Two follow-ups didn’t do as well, though that’s relative; “Undone,” from 2004, still moved more than 600,000 copies, about the same as Bruce Springsteen’s last album.

Overall I think it would be fair to say the NYT writer is saying: 1) CCM is getting better; 2) secular rock still offers the best tunes (for now); 3) You gotta give Christian bands/labels their props–they’ve got a great distribution and business model (especially if they leave Jesus out of the lyrics so they can get secular radio playtime!).

The problem with all this is so obvious.

1) Our popular culture is unworthy of imitation because it is mindless & soul-less, yet Christians get excited, even when they don’t yet meet the “fallen” artistic standards of the culture.
2) Popular Culture is not about thoughtful art or craftsmanship, it is about money & profits generated through reaching the lowest common denominator, yet Christians get excited, because based on that standard, they’re even MORE financially successful than their secular counterparts.
3) The real standard, the one that should matter, seems to go unmentioned and unmet. I’m referring to our uniqueness as created in God’s Image, which provides deep and rich spiritual, intellectual, creative, relational and moral capacities.

So-fallen culture meets imitative culture and everybody gets rich and goes to the bank. And I’m supposed to be excited about this why?

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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