Three different things happened this past week that caused me to pause and think. My mind connected the dots to form a muse on the topic of "style versus substance." (Or maybe I should say style "and" substance. "Versus" implies a competition between the two, when actually they are mutually dependent on each other. Or maybe just "style, substance." Or maybe substance should come first... Someone slap me...) Anyway, here's what happened in the past few days:
1) I randomly stumbled upon a YouTube video of a recent interview with the singer Carman.
Carman was my favorite singer for over a decade. (He shared the #1 slot with Sandi Patti on my list.) I no longer subscribe to his brand of Christianity, but I was, nonetheless, extremely sad to see that he is now terminally ill. This interview touched me in a number of ways. (Maybe exploring that will be an upcoming post.) The one I want to bring out for this post, though, was how impacted I was by the revelation that his music still… well… impacts me, even though I'm not on-board with much of his lyrics. His new song "The Flag" smacks of xenocentrism and the narrow-minded brand of American Evangelical Christianity that, though it has its good sides, is also extremely dangerous in other ways. And yet, I found my heart feeling stirred and uplifted, just from hearing that short clip of "The Flag" in the interview. I'm sure part of that is due to sentimentality about hearing Carman again. I haven't listened to his music in ages, and his music shaped my younger years quite profoundly.
And yet, part of it is, I'm sure, due to the production value of his music. There was that huge choir, the high fortissimo strings, the rumbling bass drum causing sympathetic vibrations in my physical heart. Carman has an incredible artistic talent-- that magic dust that many powerful performers have, that draws the listener in and invokes reverence. He is also quite picky with his productions, demanding high quality players and engineering. All of his songs are finely crafted works of art. (Art that relies on production and musical clichés, sure, but my point is about his dedication to his craft. Many Christian musicians are sloppy in their production by comparison.) So even though I'm not a fan of the overt message, the art of his music still moves me. Substance and style.
2) I was in a conversation with a guitar player who is self-taught, and I showed him some of my music. He mentioned that what he likes in music is the "groove" and the melody, and I said, "that's pretty much the opposite of what I look for in music. I focus on lyrics, chord progressions, form, and melody." It truly surprised me that he scarcely even considers a song's lyrics when he listens to music. Whereas, I really tend to prefer vocal music over instrumental, because lyrics are so important to me. Style and substance.
3) I visited a UU church yesterday. The building was lovely, the people were nice. One thing I noticed, though, was: little diversity. I saw one person of color there, and the age demographic was skewed towards the older generations. I understand that's the case for many other UU churches as well. Why? The UU has such great things going for it. They are passionate about justice, service, humanity. They are not positivistic but embrace the mystery of transcendence. They are on the "good" side of many issues that my generation, overall, as well as many in the non-white demographics, overall, care about. So where is the diversity? Maybe it's because I'm in the middle of white Americana Kansas... Maybe the younger church members were on vacation... (The person who talked with me after the service said usually there are more 20s and 30s there.) But still, it seems they should be bursting at the seams with young people looking for fellowship. And yet… The stained glass. The candles. The canned readings. The bad singing along to the studious pianist's clompy chords. The standing and sitting at prescribed times. It felt so… white mainline. It made me think that perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, style may be more important than substance, when it comes to making people feel comfortable in a place or movement.
Again, I recognize that this is somewhat of a false dichotomy. Each affects, evokes, and embeds the other. I'm separating them for sake of discussion.
I think what style can do, that substance can only whisper at, is provide immersive experiences, especially emotional experiences. And emotional experiences speak to us at primal, unconscious, or semi-conscious levels. Whites of a certain generation feel at ease in a place with stained glass, musty hymnals, and candles on a stage. All these peripheral cues, and more, form a gestalt that translates to "sacred" to them. Someone growing up in churches with blaring organs, an old drumkit, and a screaming preacher echoed by "Amens" yelled from the congregation, may need different peripheral cues to evoke the "sacred" feeling in them. Yesterday's UU service may have felt inhibiting to such a person, even if s/he agreed, theologically and philosophically, with the content of the sermon (which was about persevering through impossible situations. Who doesn't agree with that?) Background is so powerful.
To deal with this from another angle: even if the style isn't familiar, a work of art can pull people into its message if it is created by an artistic genius. For example, I'm not a hip-hop fan at all, but I remember my brother making me listen to a song by Tupac, back when I was in high school, and I found myself in tears. I could hear his heart, and though I wasn't a fan of the style in general, his genius made the music effective anyway. I can also hear genius and a substantive message in Phillip Glass, even though I detest minimalism.
Art/style can also provide the compelling power to an idea that logical words seldom can. Many years ago, while taking a 20th century music class, I listened to "Sinfonia" by Luciano Berio for an assignment. I had never read a word of existentialism in my life. I probably would have found it really dry at that time. (It's still kind of dry!) I'm sure I would have disagreed at the time with the message that "life has no intrinsic meaning." But the third movement of that piece ("in ruhig fließender Bewegung") pulled me right in to the heart of existentialist meaninglessness. I was so there. Alone. Irritated by a perplexing array of choices. Forced to sit with my own agency. Resigned to the absurdity of life. (By the way, run, don't walk, to find a copy of that work and listen to it! Make sure you're sitting down… somewhere where you don't mind if people see you get emotional.) That's one of the pieces of music that changed my life forever. Eight years after that experience, I read the Wikipedia article about Existentialism, just out of curiosity, since I'd never actually learned what it is. I recognized it in a flash. I had already traveled to that land back in college. Berio had taken me there for a little tour, shaking my world in unspeakable ways. (This time I decided to stay.)
I do think-- to put a bow on this-- that ideally we should strive to have style and substance both be of highest quality. Myself, I'm pretty good with substance but weak in creating style, and that's where I know I need community, people who are stronger in that area, to help me out.