Is gospel music singing a new tune?

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Don’t be surprised if the likes of Lady Gaga release a gospel album.

You may laugh, and it may even sound absurd, but according to industry executive Torrence Glenn, it is more of a possibility than you think.

“There is a lot of disagreement among our industry as to what gospel is and what it should be. Gospel can be whatever it wants to be musically,” said the director of Music Development for BET Digital. “It is all about the balance. It should not be all groups, all choirs, all rhythm and blues, or all pop. It should sound like a little bit of everything as long as there are some traditional things involved.”

Gospel music used to be the standard in the music industry, said Glenn. When an artist, of any genre, made their music as good as gospel they were considered to have arrived musically. Yet, that is not as much of the case today.

Today, many gospel artists are making music that sounds more urban and contemporary. Why?

Glenn suggests a number of factors have come into play to influence the change.

“There is no one cause,” he said. “Everything you could possibly think of has played a role. Some artists saw the success of more urban driven music like Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary and even Yolanda Adams in her hay day.”

In turn, some of them wanted that same success. But then Glenn references other artists, like Donnie McClurkin Marvin Sapp, who have had major success singing what is considered more traditional. For them, they stayed true to who they were as artists, therefore solidifying more success.

There are a lot of variables, according to Glenn. Some artists want to try new sounds; new stuff, but the label does not agree. As a result, all parties are in disagreement.

“We all have heard the story of the artist being frustrated with the label, but what we do not hear about labels’ frustration with the artist,” Glenn said. “In these instances, no one knows what to do so everyone is trying to out-do the other.”

Jonathan Landrum, a newsman for the Associated Press in Atlanta, believes the reason is reach.

“While the music has changed, the message has stayed the same; it has just become broader,” he said. “Artists like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary are simply attempting to appeal to more people. That is why you see the type of production where you might have a more secular sound, more of a Hip -Hop sound, or more melodic. They are trying to touch the souls of people who would not normally be touched by more traditional music.”

Landrum covers mostly entertainment reporting for the Associated Press. In his talks with numerous gospel artists, what they have told him is their concern has been more about touching a whole new crowd that did not consider themselves believers.

“It was a bigger thing than them. They wanted to touch people who listened to hip hop, R&B, etc.”

In reality, this change from traditional to contemporary is nothing new. Ironically, what we call traditional gospel today was at one time blues. When Thomas Dorsey, a blues musician and considered by most to be the founder of gospel, began to infuse his jazz and blues sound with

Christian music the 1920s, there was this same pushback.

People were not ready for what Dorsey was trying to do then, and the same can be said for today. When artists like Fred Hammond and Donald Lawrence hit the scene, many were not ready for what they were doing, said Glenn.

“But, no one would question it now. Music has a habit of being ahead of its time. Although it may not be authentic now, someone will consider it to be,” he said. “In the same way many questioned gospel and blues, now they are considered standards. Now, when we hear certain bluesy sounds and consider it gospel.”

As society changes, music changes, said Robert Darden, associate professor of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University.

Darden, a gospel music historian, said you also see a change in the late 60s.

“It was a slow change,” said the former gospel-music editor for Billboard magazine. “Soul music and R&B started transitioning into funk, and rock started to transition from pop to harder sound. Gospel artists started to feel as though they had to change to keep up.”

Artists like James Cleveland started incorporating more instrumentation. Andrae Crouch substituted soloists but also used distinctive traditional styles like the call and response format.
Darden does not believe what was taking place was a repudiation of traditional music. Audiences wanted more. Artists began to appease them, he said.

But is the change good? And are the changes diminishing gospel music?

Glenn believes music, in general, should be judged by its content; and gospel music even more.

“I am a big believer in maintaining the gospel tradition. It irks me to death when people do not know, or have an understanding, of what we know to be traditional,” he said. “I take issue because more young people are not familiar with traditional gospel music, but it is not their fault. Regardless of what we get now, I still appreciate the traditional.”

Landrum embraces the change.

“I think it is great actually. [The music] is all about God; believing and keeping your faith. Once you get to that positive message and listen to that message, you never know who you may touch,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t want change, though. People are accustomed to how things are and have been. Once something comes along that they consider radical and different, they push back.”

For Darden it must lyrically sound gospel and be about Jesus.

“Certain things set gospel music apart from other forms of music,” he said. “The intent of the message must be paramount and the beat must be secondary.”

Glenn hopes that the industry gets back to that standard it once held.

“I want for us to get our collective self-esteem back, if you will,” he said, “Where we make the music first and watch them try and sing, and sound like us. Part of that means bringing back some of those elements – like the growling and hard singing artists do when they want to prove it is real.”

The industry, he said, sometimes forgets that it used to set the standard for what was “good soulful music.