Mormonism and genre

I’ve recently started a new job, which would explain my lack of writing on this website, but I wanted to put down a few words about a subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is, as usual, Mormon pop culture.

Does anyone remember this?

I have a hard time taking anyone seriously when they say they truly enjoy this song. I know even less people who have it on their playlists and honestly listen to it for enjoyment, not to cringe or roll around gasping for breath because they’re laughing so hard. However, when I was on my mission, the mocumentary movie Sons of Provo came out, along with their soundtrack of the faux band, Everclean. One of the zone leaders got the CD as a present and it was quickly disseminated across the mission, where most missionaries were under the impression that this song in particular was not actually a parody, but a real rap song some Mormons created:

I’ll admit. I’m not a fan of rap, but this song still makes me smile (and laugh) to this day. To tell you the truth, when our district got a letter back from a family member that this song was, in fact, a parody, we were shocked. It just seemed…so real.

So how did the parody become more authentic than the honest attempt to create a genre-based Mormon song? Aside from the cheesiness from the first Mormon rap, they appear to talk about the same things — they both make references to Mormon culture (Mormon basketball, the word of wisdom, Donnie and Marie), they both talk about being spiritual; so what’s the major difference? I pondered this for a long time, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.

One tries to interpret a genre into Mormonism, while the latter interprets Mormonism through a genre.

For all of its attempt, the first Mormon rap is didactic. It’s a laundry list of Mormon commandments squeezed into a funky beat and cadence (though some might debate on whether it is truly “funky”). The second rap, however, embodies the genre of modern-day rap exquisitely, which (according to my rap afficionado brother) is hubris. The entire rap reeks of it. The singer is obviously full of himself. He boasts of pioneer stock, his childhood of Mormon basketball and Scouts (with the help of his mom). There’s a sense of confidence (even overconfidence) as he talks about his Mormon-ness. After all, all his peeps be conformin’ cuz it’s cool to be a Mormon, or something. This is a rap song that happens to be about Mormons, not a Mormon song that happens to be rap (or try to be).

As Mormonism moves into mainstream media and culture (after all, we now have a Broadway show about us), it appears that our older, more established Church population, mostly centered in the U.S., is torn. On the one hand, we wish more Mormons were producing things about ourselves, so that we’d have fair ground (it’s difficult for a religion as young and painfully self-aware as ours to take any kind of lampooning). Why did it have to be those guys who write South Park, Family Guy, and Avenue Q (two of the three routinely condemned as examples of shows we shouldn’t watch) to write what has widely been hailed an affectionate ribbing and fawningly praising musical about us? Why couldn’t a Mormon do that?

Yet despite all of our yearnings to be appreciated and written about, our native attempts usually fall flat. Sure, most of it isn’t terrible and some of it is decent, yet a very few is considered Very Good, and when us Mormons do create art or pop culture that is critically acclaimed, it usually isn’t even about Mormons (like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or anything ever written by Brandon Sanderson).

Two things come to my mind, and this is the take away message (and thought of the day, perhaps week):

1. As Mormon creators, we need to stop warping a genre to fit Mormonism, but instead find ways to interpret Mormonism through a a genre. Integrity is involved, in order to prevent “watering down” our message to fit a publicly held norm (art is to challenge, after all), but so is a sense of boldness and appreciation for things outside of our immediate cultural circle. Pick any song on the soundtrack for Sons of Provo — they’re boldly written, and they’re lovingly crafted with each and every cliche and hook from the musical genre they pick. They studied their stuff; just as the creators of the Book of Mormon musical studied musicals prodigiously. There’s a trend here.

2. As Mormon creators, we must steer away from heavy preaching. Leave that to the General Authorities! As Mormon artists, we’re to interpret, depict, or simply tell what Mormon life is — ugly stereotypes, prejudices, warts, bruises and all. Because despite all of our wackiness, like Jana Reiss, a Mormon who reviewed the recent musical on Broadway, wrote, there’s plenty of beauty to talk about, too. If life contains an opposition of all things, our art must as well:

Where the show really nails Mormonism is in the ballad “I Believe,” sung by Elder Price when he remembers his call to serve and decides to head back to the mission field. “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes,” he croons. This brilliant song is at once a mockery of the genre of the inspirational ballad and an affirmation of the choice to remain Mormon despite the apparent irrationality of some of the religion’s beliefs: “I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” Elder Price sings. “I believe that God is on a planet called Kolob!*”

The production closes with a demonstration of Mormon commitment: although many other Christian missionaries have come and gone in the musical’s fictional village, the Mormons are determined to stick around and change the Ugandans’ social reality. They are not just passing out Books of Mormon, but standing toe-to-toe with warlords. In doing so, they bring hope. As one new convert sings, “I am a Latter-day Saint/ I help all those I can/ The only latter day that matters is tomorrow!”

* Nothing angers me more than a mis-interpretation of the whole Kolob scenario. That is something I will not get into today, but it is something I will probably dive into soon.



Filed under design, life stories, music, religion, wordsmithing

3 responses to “Mormonism and genre

  1. dteeps

    I think one of the main problems is that Mormon artists attempt to be too Mormon. We recognize that Mormonism is not very well understood, and so we attempt to imbue Mormonism into everything that we do, so that anybody could look at any of our works and be converted.
    A Catholic or a Jew who creates art doesn’t have to explain the whole history of his religion, or the tenets of his faith to his audience. The world, as a whole, is generally familiar with these religions. But Mormonism, though, is widely not understood, or misunderstood, so the Mormon artist feels the need to use his art to teach Mormonism.
    I agree that our faith should naturally come out in our art, it shouldn’t be forced into art. For me, that is the difference between Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Not to offend any C. S. Lewis fans, but for me, he’s a little too preachy, a little overly didactic. It’s like every other page he pops out and says, “Aslan is Christ, didya get it? Didya?” Yes, Clive, we got it. You made it obvious enough.
    Not that that is a bad thing. He was attempting to write an allegory for Christianity, and so the story comes off as an allegory, with obvious symbols and meaning. Tolkien, however, never wanted to write allegory, he was simply writing a good story, and the allegory seeped through, because Tolkien was a believer. He had made his faith such a part of his life that he couldn’t write without it showing through.
    And as interesting as some Orson Scott card stories were, like his Alvin Maker series or the Homecoming Saga, I feel these tried too hard to fictionalize Mormonism in order to help it appeal to wider audiences.
    As Mormons we have a culture of wanting, if not needing, to share our faith with everyone, and so we share it, sometimes too overtly, through our art. Other religions don’t have that strong desire to convert, they simply want to express their faith through their art – and that, I think, is the crux of the problem. We, as Mormons, need to simply let our art reflect what we believe, rather than trying to make our art into missionary tools.

    • Ted

      I think another big difference between us and the Catholics or Jews is that while they care that they are represented fairly in media and pop culture, they also don’t throw a hissy fit whenever they are not. To say that the public understands what Catholics or Jews believe is a stretch (I’ve met a great many of people in my life who have no idea what they believe — and have some really odd assumptions to replace that knowledge). Simply put, Catholics and Jews have been around for such a long time that they just don’t care.

      When a Catholic or a Jew creates any kind of art that reflects their faith, they expect the participant to simply participate (and to do their homework). A good example is anything under the sun Michael Chabon has written. He’s a Jew, and so almost all of his protagonists are Jews, from post-Holocaust Sherlock Holmes fan fiction (no, seriously; it’s really good) to Medieval fantasy. He doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining Jewish culture; he expects us to know enough to follow the story. And even when someone does not know enough to follow the story (because honestly, he refers to really obscure things), he feeds the audience enough information to get along, and then the Jewish-ness simply seeps out of his characters and any intelligent reader will understand.

      You hit the nail on the head when you mention that we should let our art reflect what we believe, rather than trying to make our art into missionary tools. Every member is a missionary; we’re taught that since day one in the Church, and it shows in everything we do. When we fuss over whether or not a piece of work represents us “correctly” and “accurately,” what we’re really fussing over is that we feel it won’t lead people to the Church. Even when the creators of the Book of Mormon musical show they’ve done their research, we fuss that it makes us look like super nice, super committed to helping everyone, but also naive and superstitious and believing in weird doctrines. It misrepresents us, we say, even though from all the reviews I’ve read from both Mormons and non-Mormons, I feel that description aptly describes us. We are super-nice. We are super committed to helping everyone, but we are also very naive as a new faith and we are incredibly superstitious and our beliefs are intensely fantastical. We may be so used to the Restoration story that we’ve simply accepted the fantastical elements at face value, but a 14 year-old 19th century farmboy seeing God? Angels sending him into the woods to find a book make of literal gold telling the story of the ancient peoples of America who are actually Israelites and Jesus visited them and Peter, James, and John came back in resurrected form to literally give Joseph Smith the priesthood that Jesus supposedly gave them when they were alive and, and, and… you get the idea.

      We are self conscious, and when we try to gussy up the Church to make it more “marketable” and “believable,” we do ourselves disservice. Suppose the Book of Mormon musical had the missionaries recite the Joseph Smith First Vision story that every missionary memorizes with seriousness and gravitas. Would this appeal to the broad American audience? Never, never in a heart beat. They will mock it; they will tear it to pieces. But when people see Mormons as maybe a little naive, maybe a little innocent, maybe a little weird, but my gosh, they’re desire to help people is sincere and driven and pure and powerful, and it may just help change and save the world for the better, could we ask for any more accurate depiction of who we really are?

  2. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, April 1, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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