In 1956, the origins of gospel music met with the future when 14-year-old Aretha Franklin stood before a recording microphone and the congregation in her father’s church in Detroit and sang Thomas A. Dorsey’s Take My Hand, Precious Lord. The song was one of the first and most-loved examples of a new sound Dorsey had created two decades earlier when he added touches of blues and jazz to traditional spirituals and gave it a name: gospel.
Franklin’s six-minute recording of Precious Lord was one of her first and remains one of her finest. The teenager’s pure, God-given voice soars to unimaginable heights, and the people in the pews go there with her, shouting, clapping and squealing. Throughout are foreshadows of a sound that would eventually revolutionize American popular music. It would come to be known as soul, and Franklin would reign as its undisputed queen.
Fast-forward to the 2008 Grammy Awards, when Franklin is onstage beneath a huge illuminated white cross, performing a medley of contemporary gospel songs with current stars such as BeBe Winans, Trin-i-tee 5:7 and New Breed. She tries to soar but the music — a gooey, keyboard-heavy concoction better suited to a dentist’s office — won’t let her. A melody lurks somewhere, but Franklin’s co-performers are too preoccupied with showcasing their vocal pyrotechnics to pay it much attention. A finale with the veteran Clark Sisters from Detroit shows a little of the old spark, but mostly the performance is utterly devoid of gospel’s defining ingredient — soul.
You could write it off as a mediocre awards-show performance were it not for the fact that it was a fair representation of most gospel music today. In a quest for mainstream respectability, the genre, now preferring to call itself “contemporary urban gospel,” has mostly forsaken its roots in spirituals and the blues and gone middle of the road. Imagine Beyoncé with a halo. Where traditional gospel is straightforward, accessible and instantly recognizable, contemporary gospel, — including the hip hop variant — is dense, over-produced, over-sung and virtually indistinguishable from secular easy-listening pop. The music is targeted, not felt.
On one level it’s working. Current gospel stars such as Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary and BeBe Winans enjoy incomes unimaginable even during gospel’s golden age in the 1940s and ’50s. Yet the financial success of contemporary gospel performers only underscores the genre’s weakness. Where once it helped to push American popular culture, popular culture is now pushing gospel.
You could argue that a more mainstream sound means the gospel message reaches more believers and, more importantly, potential believers. Fine, except the message is problematic, too. Traditional gospel celebrates intimacy with God. Music is a way of getting closer to God: the more intimate the connection, the more divine and joyful the moment. Modern gospel tends to view a relationship with God in terms of self-actualization — God gives me the strength to be all I can be. God picks me up. God shows me the way. God does so much for me I get all moony just thinking about it. “Imagine me,” croons Kirk Franklin, “loving what I see when the mirror looks at me.” Enough said.
Musical genres always spin off new forms. Blues morphed into rhythm and blues, R&B into rock ’n’ roll, rock ’n’ roll into The Beatles, and so on. Innovators almost always invite controversy. Detractors accused Dorsey of consorting with the devil when he gave spirituals a backbeat and started charging admission to hear it. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye all came in for intense criticism when they crossed over from gospel to soul. So maybe we should go easy on contemporary gospel; maybe it’s just evolving, reinventing itself with a more secular, sentimental sound for more secular and sentimental times.
I think not. It’s one thing for a genre to evolve into something new and enduring. It’s quite another when a genre is absorbed by something else, when the qualities that defined it disappear altogether in the new iteration. With a couple of notable exceptions such as Yolanda Adams and Canada’s own Levy sisters, what has disappeared along with the gospel sound is gospel passion.
In its impulse to conform, gospel has sold its soul. While some may be reaping earthly dividends, the rest of us are poorer for it.
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