Last week on American Idol, the contestants were asked to do music of the 21st century. To put it gently, it didn't work well. I'm actually not sure it was the singers as much as the music. After the show, I cleaned out my ears and found myself thinking about why pop music matters to me in the first place.
Many years ago, I was bicycling across the country, and the Unitarian Church of Roanoke, Virginia hosted my group. At the dinner, our hosts seemed a lot like us - informed, good hearted, and ultimately sort of chatty and pleasant. I know I’m insulting the very fine folk who are serious Unitarians, Universalists, and Congregationalists, but particularly in the south, they struck me as people who needed to appear to go to church, but didn’t necessarily have strong beliefs about any particular doctrine. These people would never lead you into the Crusades or any other kind of war for that matter, but they quite possibly might never lead you into heaven and certainly not sainthood.
At the end of the dinner, the Unitarians had invited a black gospel choir to serve as the evening’s entertainment. The effect in this room full of real estate agents and middle-aged professionals who happily chatted about mortgage rates and healthy diets was palpable. The gospel choir had a deep abiding faith that emanated through their music and resonated through the building. “The spirit matters and really great music tells us that,” was the only lyric that I remember.
At the end of the performance, I pulled aside one of the soloists and said “That was incredible. Do you ever do any secular songs?”
Obviously, it was a stupid thing to say and I guess my only excuse was that I was thinking about Aretha or maybe confused this with some 1987 equivalent of Idol, almost like “Don’t you want to make big bucks off your voice?” The woman stared at me, a la Mandisa at Paula and Simon post her song of praise to Jesus (talk about weirdly Biblical names for judges), and said politely, “No, we only sing for the Lord.”