Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production

Hey there! This article was written in 2009.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

Tribalism in music

Posted 25 June 2009

It seems like there is a lot of tribalism in the Christian music that I've acquired in the past 15 years, and I'm frankly disgusted with it. It's to the point I cain't hardly put my music player on shuffle. (I'm not well read on the topic, so everything here is my cursory understanding of the topics, and my opinions of the Christian culture I grew up in in the Bible Belt.)

Tribalism is the tendency a culture has to define itself by common characteristics or beliefs, perhaps in direct opposition to another competing culture. The propaganda that the culture generates regarding itself and other cultures can often create Fear of the Other, an Us vs. Them mentality that generates willful ignorance and outright bigotry. I have two examples off the top of my head from my own experience. A few years back I was seated in church, lamenting the disintegration of a friendship I had had with a fellow up here in Chicago. The man I was talking with immediately questioned why I cared:

Him : "Are you gay?"
Me : "What? No."
Him : "Laughs awkwardly Good! Because I'd kill you myself just to put you out of your misery."

Another time a friend of mine was visiting me from Oklahoma, and after ordering at Chipotle we saw very few tables available. Luckily there was a two-seater available, but as I started towards it my friend caught my elbow and gestured with his eyes toward the table next to it, at which two well-dressed men were seated. "I don't want to sit next to the gays."

So you can see that, given my experience, I think there is a tribalism in my background (some of the more ignorant propaganda of which I unfortunately have inherited as an albatross around my neck which I still struggle with). The leaders and members of the tribe polarize topics, sometimes using straw man arguments or misinformation for the purpose. I perceive this, rightly or wrongly, in arguments regarding abortion, evolution, and homosexuality. At my home church I've actually heard denunciations against genetic research from the pulpit on the grounds that, quote, "They are turning sins into predispositions! Homosexuality cannot be a sin if it's a genetic predisposition! Theft cannot be a sin if it's a genetic predisposition! "Kleptomania is a condition, not a choice"?! No!"

These thoughts have bubbled up in me from time to time, but recently while listening to my infernal music collection on shuffle, an old song by Ginny Owens popped up, in which she paints a picture of a terrible world Out There:

There's a young mother with three children
Got a stable income and a faithful husband, too.
She's searchin' for her life's meanin',
So she says to her shrink, "I'm leavin' home soon!"
Just decided that she couldn't take it anymore,
Didn't look back, she just snuck out the back door.

What is wrong with this picture?
We applaud this behavior
Admire how she breaks away
Oh, it's so clearly cloudy, here in the land of the grey.

The stage is set ironically: she's placed herself in the Land of the Grey, aligned herself with the mother, and applauded the mother's actions. Obviously, we realize, things aren't so great in the Land of the Grey, where godless hedonism creates strife. Good thing We live on this side of the fence, where the grass is always greener, we conclude! (Did you also notice the jab against psychiatry, represented by the complicit "shrink" in the verse?)

Here's another song, this time from Big Tent Revival:

This here's a song about two sets of Joneses
Rothchild and Evelyn, Reuben and Sue
Just for discussion, through random selection
We've chosen two couples who haven't a clue
Rothchild was lucky to marry so wealthy
Evelyn bought him a house on the beach
Reuben and Sue, they had nothing but Jesus
And at night they would pray that he'd care for them each

And the rain came down
And it blew the four walls down
And the clouds, they rolled away
And one set of Joneses was standing that day

The song discusses all of the hollow success of Rothchild and Evelyn, and the joie de vivre that Reuben and Sue experience. It so clearly demonstrates the tribal mindset that I don't think I need to give another example. Wait, scratch that, I just remembered that it's possible to divide the "good" from the "better", as Todd Agnew sarcastically and antagonistically demonstrates:

Pretty blue eyes and curly brown hair and a clear complexion
Is how you see Him as He dies for your sins
But the Word says He was battered and scarred
Or did you miss that part?
'Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church
The blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet
But He reaches for the hurting and despises the proud
I think He'd prefer Beale St. to the stained glass crowd

The point is that I'm frustrated with the music I own if for no other reason than the association that has formed between it and the intolerance, prejudice, and ignorance that I have come to recognize in a small number of people that I know back in Oklahoma. Luckily, I've an ever-growing number of fantastic songs that I can still love listening to.

(I want to emphasize again that I'm not well-read on tribalism and fear. I have tried to limit myself to personal experience and opinion, but I have likely overstepped my limited knowledge while writing this. I also want to say that "my background" refers to the Christian culture as represented by some of my old friends, and more importantly the oftentimes subtle (sometimes overt) message that I've heard coming from pulpits in churches I've been in.)