Quality Vs. Appeal in Worship Music

February 15, 2012 — 5 Comments

[This post is part of the Revamping Christian Worship series]

Consider this an appendix, or better, clarification, on an important aspect of How to Worship When You Think the Songs Suck. Based on the feedback, it seemed like many people didn’t like my criteria for determine a song’s “suck” factor. To quote myself for some context:

If you don’t possess the artistic ability to write new worship songs that don’t suck, then just keep your mouth shut. Also, if you can’t write songs, you probably are not the best judge of what sucks and what doesn’t when it comes to music. However, if you’re like me, and you can and do write music, and are therefore qualified to critique the musical merits of worship music, I would still say, if you can’t contribute to a solution, you’re just creating another problem. If the quality of the songs bothers you that much, then write new ones.

As you might guess, the part that is now bold was deemed the most offensive. So, in continuing the series, I decided it was best to defend this position by making an important distinction.

I think at the core, this discussion is a good illustration of what happens when objective criteria and subjective preference are confused. Though not every one was guilty of this who disagreed with me, the point I was trying to make hinged on a distinction between the two.

To put it differently, what I was arguing, and am clarifying here, is that if you are not a musician, you are not the best person to judge the objective merit of a song. You may have an opinion, and may even be correct in your assessment of a certain song, but you probably will not be the best person to explain the issue with the song.

On the other hand, musician or not, you can certainly have a valuable opinion on the subjective appeal of certain worship songs. As a few commentors pointed out, it is perhaps this perspective that counts for more since the majority of people are not trained musicians. As a worship leader, you may play objectively awesome music with no subjective appeal to your congregation and therefore alienate rather awaken them to worship. A prime example of this would be a praise band that decided to only play technical death metal worship songs. If executed well, it would be objectively awesome music, but subjectively, it would probably be what Matt Chandler calls a “space-maker.”

All of this is to illustrate that often in cultural tastes, people confuse objective quality and subjective appeal. Rather than mean “This song isn’t good,” saying “This song sucks” usually means “I don’t like this song.” This isn’t always the case, and there is certainly some overlap between the two categories I’ve presented. The point is that we use the language of “suck” to refer to things we don’t like and it is important to remember that what we don’t like doesn’t necessarily coincide with what isn’t “good.”

Or, to put it the other way around, we often like things that are objectively speaking, not good. I think pop music more or less proves this point. Musical quality and popular appeal only rarely culminate in a Grammy (Adele’s recent triumph notwithstanding). We tend to assume though that our own personal tastes are the best judge of what is good and what isn’t, but what registers highest on the pop charts seems to undermine this notion.

What I think we all need to learn to do is separate the two assessments. I learned how to do this with country music, so that would seem to suggest that indeed with God all things are possible. After years of hating on country music, I came to realize that what I really objected to was the instrumentation (or more technically, the timbre). The song structures and even the lyrical themes to an extent were really not that much different than the indie rock that I loved. I just didn’t like the genre itself (meaning how the music in that genre sounds), but that’s a far cry from saying it sucks. Particular songs within the genre are open to criticism, but for me to say “country music sucks” was really just a way of saying “I don’t like it.”

In all honesty though, I’m actually in the same place when it comes to contemporary worship music. Much like my experience with country, it’s not the song structures or lyrical themes that are objectionable (although let’s be honest, there are some objectionable praise chorus lyrics). I just don’t like the way it sounds. I rarely if ever listen to it in my spare time for two reasons: (1) I listen to music for how it sounds, (2) I generally don’t care about the lyrics.When you find an entire genre of music that produces songs that don’t subjectively appeal to my aesthetic senses and I rarely listen to music for the lyrics, then you’ve just found a genre of music I won’t listen to often.

Interestingly though, when it comes to worship music, the particular songs that I do like, are almost always related to lyrical content. It is tempting to try to make the case that because I am so learned in theology that must mean that the songs I do like on the ones that are, objectively speaking, the best lyrically. But, to do that would just be the pot calling the kettle black. It is at least interesting then, for someone who likes music, the majority of the worship songs I do like have little to do with the music, and the reason I don’t usually listen to worship music has everything to do with the music.

All of this is important for me, as I tend to be rather critical, and should not criticize worship songs on the basis that I don’t subjectively like them. Though I don’t think he would completely agree, it is hard to read T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns without getting the impression that he really just can’t stand contemporary worship music and that drives some (though not all) of his critical approach to it. In doing so though, he makes every attempt to connect his subjective preferences to objective criteria, and that was more or less where he lost me in his argument.

I hope I’m not often guilty of doing the same, but you know what? I probably am. I just might guess that you are guilty as well from time to time. But, at least now you have a different way to frame the question: Is this song really poor quality, or do I just not like it? The original post I think answers what to do when you don’t like it, so all that’s left is another post on what to do when it is really is poor quality songs.

This however brings up the need to make another distinction, this time between the quality of a song, and the quality of a particular worship band’s performance of said song. That however, will have to wait for another post.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

5 responses to Quality Vs. Appeal in Worship Music

  1. I think you’re right on here in these thoughts… As I read, I was reminded of a book I read earlier that didn’t really sit well with me. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about the book that I didn’t like, but I just didn’t agree with the author. (then you nailed it on the head, when you mentioned the book!)… I can appreciate Gordon’s passion for placing God’s glory at the center of worship, however, I felt like he was forcing too much. As I read your post, I was reminded of an argument he used in his book: He was talking about how he was not a singer, or really all that musically inclined, yet he wanted to make a point about how Frank Sinatra sang off pitch… My thought immediately was, “Who are you to comment on Frank Sinatra’s singing?” All preferences aside, one cannot make an absolute statement without being a part of said statement. I would argue that Sinatra singing off pitch was what made him Sinatra in the first place! So, I say it’s all about personal preference and tastes…

    I would also agree that at some point, we’ve all “been there and done that”. And the point, I think, is to grow from it & learn to debate and disagree in meaningful ways.
    Just some thoughts.

    • Jeremy,

      Good thoughts, glad I’m not alone with feeling Gordon was just a tad off in his approach. I’m open to hearing him out, but in the end, it seemed like he was just making an absolute principle to support something he didn’t aesthetically like. And that is what gets us in trouble.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

      Nate

  2. Some music can be a bit like some TV adverts – extraordinarily well crafted for a dubious purpose. My music tutor pointed to “Show me the way to Amarillo” as an example – lightweight, poppy, cheesy, but by avoiding any minor chords and dropping a fascinating key change into the middle it keeps everything upbeat and moving along.

    I share your gut-reaction to country music (what do you get if you play it backwards?) but at the same time I have recently been finding it more enjoyable than the stereotype I had covered it with. (Up with split infinitives we will not put. – Churchill)

    If you are in the position of choosing what music should be used in church worship then you have a balancing act – can’t please all the people all of the time, but can please most of the people at least some of the time. And pleased they should be – it’s their church too! But at least you can weed out the ones with heretical or irredeemably naff lyrics and / or appalling tunes….

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Weekly Recap 2.18.12 | Marturo - February 18, 2012

    […] Quality vs. Appeal in Worship Music All of this is to illustrate that often in cultural tastes, people confuse objective quality and subjective appeal. Rather than mean “This song isn’t good,” saying “This song sucks” usually means “I don’t like this song.” This isn’t always the case, and there is certainly some overlap between the two categories I’ve presented. The point is that we use the language of “suck” to refer to things we don’t like and it is important to remember that what we don’t like doesn’t necessarily coincide with what isn’t “good.” […]

  2. Revamping Christian Worship | Marturo - February 20, 2012

    […] Quality vs. Appeal in Worship Music […]

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