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.