Why LDS musicians? Or, Learning to Live with Dissonance

I have been asked on numerous occasions why Linescratchers features LDS musicians. One of the earliest forms of this question came from extremely early on in Linescratchers history – before I even published my first post. I had sent out a bajillion emails to various and sundry musicians to try and find active Mormons who were musicians. One of the random folks I sent an email to wrote back and said something along the lines of (I don’t have the email anymore): “I have some friends you should interview! They’re not Mormon though. But they totally deserve a little publicity!”

And I responded to them by saying, “Well, that’s awesome and everything, but really the point of this website is to feature Mormons only.

And they responded by saying, in effect, “That’s pretty unfair and judgmental that you would only feature Mormons, there are lots of good musicians out there who need publicity who aren’t Mormons. You shouldn’t judge them just because they’re not Mormons.”

And I responded by saying, in effect, “…”

It seemed obvious in my head that I would be accomplishing something very specific and important by only featuring LDS musicians. I was completely caught off-guard by the idea that this was judgmental and unfair, and I didn’t have much of a response to that. Now over the years, I think I’ve refined my message a bit, but in a lot of ways the response I got that day has stuck with me. I have asked myself more than once, “Why LDS musicians? What’s the point?”

First of all, Mormons are fascinated by other Mormons in the spotlight. A lot of it has to do with a sort of tribal loyalty, and another big component is our need to be assimilated into American culture (we want to feel like we’re normal). This has given rise to plenty of rumors about which celebrities are Mormons/have taken the discussions/owned a Book of Mormon/burned garments on stage/were baptized as children but stopped going, etc., and I’m here to tell you right now that those stories, for lack of a better term, are stupid.

However, I believe that there are deeper reasons to find out what kind of art Mormons out there are creating. In short, being a Mormon these days is tough.

Mormonism requires a great deal of faith. As much as we like to forget this fact, we are in a high-tension faith in our culture. We want to feel assimilated and normal, but on the other hand, we constantly point out the ways that “the world” is collapsing and degrading. We whine when orthodox Christians don’t call us “Christian,” yet we vociferously complain when breakoff Mormon sects try to call themselves “Mormons.” We want to embrace and defend our history while simultaneously distancing ourselves from it. In short, we are indeed a “people of paradox.” This isn’t easy. It means we’re also a people of cognitive dissonance.

A very interesting thing happened when I took a New Testament class at the University of Kentucky. It was a secular class, and the professor strongly used modern secular Bible scholarship, but it was full of southern Evangelical Christian students. The interesting thing for me was that, as I read the New Testament for what I thought was the hundredth time, verses and stories popped out at me that I swear I’d never seen before in my life. Colors, flavors, and historical details were unfolded in ways that never happened in Gospel Principles or Sunday School. It was bittersweet. I felt like I was reading the New Testament for the first time.

We discussed the Sermon on the Mount in that class, and the professor pointed out something very interesting. Matthew and Luke shared very different versions of this event. For instance, for Matthew, Jesus preached on a mountain. His apostles sat below at his feet. The common people stood afar off. Images of Moses standing on the mount and calling to the iniquitous below were conjured as we read Matthew’s account. On the other hand, Luke painted a very different picture. In Luke, Jesus wasn’t on a mount at all – he was on a plain. There with him, all standing on the same level, were people of many nationalities, mingling together, and Jesus healed them all as equals. Here, Jesus brings together all different kinds of people and teaches them on the same level.

Now an apologist might twist himself over backwards trying to reconcile these two accounts. Maybe he was standing on a plain next to a mountain. Maybe these are two different accounts of two different times the same speech was given. Possibly. But think about Matthew’s audience. He was writing to the Jews, and to the Jews, prophets stand on mountains and preach down to the people, just like Moses. If Matthew was trying to make the case that Jesus was a prophet, one would expect him to do what Moses did, and that’s exactly how Matthew wrote. On the other hand, Luke was writing to a gentile audience. For Luke (and possibly the mind behind Luke was Paul), it was important to emphasize that Jesus taught people of all nationalities, and that he considered them all equals. Thus, it would make sense for the sermon to be on a plain. The fact of the matter is, you don’t even have to reconcile the stories once you realize that the message is basically the same, it’s just packaged in two different ways, tailored to two specific audiences. What really happened? Well, that seems less important to the authors of the Gospels than the message they were trying to convey.

Many people asked Bill Watterson the same question about Hobbes in his strip, Calvin and Hobbes. The question is, “Is Hobbes a magical tiger that transforms into a stuffed toy, or is Hobbes simply a figment of Calvin’s imagination?” The question always puzzled Watterson because he never thought of the stories in such dichotomous terms. For Watterson, when Calvin looked at Hobbes he saw a living, speaking tiger, and when anyone else looked at Hobbes, they saw a stuffed toy. It’s not about imagination or magic, it’s just about the fact that people see things differently, and that’s that.

I think we can learn a bit about life through paradoxes like this. The human brain really hates paradoxes. They puzzle, amuse, and enrage us, and cause us fits because we’re always trying to make everything fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. We just like things to be orderly and predictable, and paradoxes throw the Universe into disarray. However, anyone who has been paying attention to quantum mechanics, metaphysics, or philosophy over the years has made the same, unsettling, yet obviously true discovery: the Universe is not predictable and orderly. There’s no real objective world “out there” that exists apart from our subjective experience – the former must be filtered through the latter. And we all have our own sense of the subjective that differs in deep, fundamental ways from others’. The fact of the matter is, life is a paradox.

As such, instead of trying to fit the pieces together forever, we should probably just increase our tolerance for cognitive dissonance. So at this point you might be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with Mormons who play music? Where is he going with this?” The answer is that, if any of you have felt puzzled, confused, angered, or saddened while standing at the intersection of Mormonism, the rest of the world, and you as an individual, you’ve probably felt like you’re living at the nexus of incredibly irreconcilable worlds.  Now, more than ever, our youth are having difficulty finding a place for themselves at this nexus.  I think that one key to navigating a life at this nexus is to increase your tolerance for uncertainty and paradox.  Other Mormons are struggling in the same ways, and some of them have a God-given gift to create art forms based on this friction.  There’s something you can learn from those art forms, and our job is to help introduce you to the music created by those gifted people.  So enjoy the music you find here, and see what it can teach you about what it is to be Mormon.

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Why LDS musicians? Or, Learning to Live with Dissonance

12 thoughts on “Why LDS musicians? Or, Learning to Live with Dissonance

  1. Well said. What I always found odd about Linescratchers, however, is that you’ve always included LDS musicians, but rejected LDS musicians that actually play LDS music. That was a dichotomy that I never quite understood. “So enjoy the music you find here, and see what it can teach you about what it is to be Mormon.” …As long as it isn’t actually ABOUT being Mormon… Oh, well…

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  2. Mark, my point is that it’s ALL about being Mormon, whether the artists say it or not. Brandon Flowers’ latest album is spiritual from front to back, but it would never be featured on any “LDS music” list because it’s not Utah-brand, slick pop music.

    I think I’ve been pretty up-front about why I don’t feature LDS music, but the short answer is, 1) so far, it is of extremely low quality, 2) it is emotionally disconnected and out-of-touch with the spiritual realities of youth in the Church, 3) it is over-manufactured and over-processed, and 4) it keeps young people from actually discovering music that might help them. Once you listen to Low’s album Trust, or Brandon Flower’s album Flamingo, or Young Sim’s latest album Audio Diary, you’ll realize that these artists ARE writing spiritual music, you just have to work harder to figure that out, and the hard work pays dividends 100x greater than anything I’ve heard in the “LDS music” genre. I explain it better in the comments section here: http://shouldbefamous.com/2010/03/episode-10-lds-music-burn-it-or-build-it/

    I am always willing to give “LDS music” a chance, but frankly, none of it has ever impressed me. That’s the point of Linescratchers – to make people realize that there IS spiritual music out there written my Mormons that goes far, far deeper and explores territory that empathizes far better with the situation of our youth than anything “LDS music” has to offer.

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  3. matt says:

    I have been frustrated or dissapointed at times with “straight up” LDS music and Christian music in general. However, over the last 10-12 years I feel that Christian music in general has become signifciantly better – better writing, better arrangements, better production, enjoyable to listen to beyond simply having a good message. I also think there has been progress in LDS music becoming more “mainstream” sounding, but not to the extent of the larger Christian market. Of course, the LDS market is a drop in the bucket of Christian music. What I hope to see with LDS music is this; I listen to and enjoy many non-LDS Christian artists who are doing Christian/Gospel/Praise music. I find some of it inspiring, calming,enjoyable and well…really good. I know many LDS members feel the same way. Mercy Me is a great example. My hope is that there will be more LDS artists who will find success in spreading our version of the message of Christ to the rest of the Christian world – having Catholics, Baptists, and others listening to and being inspired by LDS musicians – realizing that we share so much common ground, that we aren’t a cult, that we love and praise our Saviour Jesus Christ and worship him faithfully and are good Christians. I hope and pray that there will be widespread acceptance from non-LDS Christians to enjoy and support “Mormon” artists – not because i simply feel some need to be accepted, but because our message is so similar and if we put aside our theological differences, we can become more united in filling the world with good works and with the Gospel. And yes, hopefully many of these non-LDS listeners will find references in our LDS music that will raise questions, and that those questions will lead to opportunities to hear the gospel as we know and understand it and come to know its truth.

    So, while I share some frustration with the state of LDS music, I also find great hope in its future, especially considering the church has emphasized so often the need for LDS artists to share their good works with the world. I believe it is inevitable that LDS music will find greater and greater success in the future.

    I know I’m getting off topic a bit here.. I think we were discussing why Linescratchers’ focus is on more “secular” LDS artists. The easy answer is because the creator of this site had a desire to create a community around this, and he did something about it. We are free to create other communities or to help influence the growth and evolution of this community, but this was his vision and he has done a good job bringing people together.

    additionally, i do think that there are a lot of LDS musicians who might be somewhat afraid of being stereotyped by outsiders or LDS members who might not give their art a chance.

    I really don’t care about what anyone thinks. I’m LDS and proud of it. I write music that 99.9% is in compliance with gospel standards and teachings – speaking about hard work, honesty, family, overcoming adversity, and more. Yeah, i get a little guitar heavy at times, but I can address even dark topics such as pain, sin, and sorrow without having music that has a dark spirit to it. While most of my music would is clearly “secular”, I also write some music that bluntly speaks of the gospel – the great blessings i have been given, the wonders of creation, the majesty of our Saviour, and more.

    I hope to be successful both in and out of the “official” LDS music scene. Yes – I would like to see the site make some efforts to recognize LDS artists who are producing high quality work, and having success both in and out of the church. But, I also want to continue to have opportunities to be exposed to good LDS people making good music that isn’t necessarily “church” music. That is the emphasis of this site, and I have found some cool tunes through the site, and thank Linescratchers for that. On the flip side, I’m a musician and I’m LDS, if my secular music is worthy of mention on linescratchers, I would assume that the site is also open to some featuring or discussion of my more “church” music adventures, but if that is not the case i will not be offended and will market that portion of my talent elsewhere.

    wow…long ramble and i’m not even sure i said anything relevant LOL 🙂 Anyway, thanks for keeping the linescratchers site going, I support the efforts to improve the site, and i do hope that we can at least flirt with a little more exposure of non-secular LDS artists who are helping to improve the LDS music pool.

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  4. Enjoyed the presentation and also the comments provided. Among them, I find Syphax’s arguments very aligned with reality. My own experience has directed me to the same conclusions from the moment I started composing several decades ago, to the present.
    On one side, art – in all of its forms – is an immense realm. On the other side, spirituality is an endless territory. Naturally, the combination of these two spheres produces a limitless universe (of concepts, of emotions, of styles) for the spiritual artist, LDS or not, to explore.
    Why is it then that LDS music is, in general, so narrow in the concepts, emotions and styles it explores?
    In that sense, Linescratchers does what nobody has done before: To break this narrowness by bringing the “other” music written by LDS musicians to the attention of the world and the LDS community; both expanding musical options for LDS listeners and opening the world’s eyes to excellent, top-quality, non-LDS music created by LDS musicians.
    From the artist’s point of view, art is nothing but the expression of the spirit. An artist is someone who, besides the normal ways of communication (talking, writing, praying, etc.), needs to express her/his emotions and thoughts through art. Somehow, she/he feels that more can be expressed by composing, singing, painting, sculpting, etc. That is the nature of a true artist: the inescapable need to express everything through art. Fears, loves, certainties, pains, joys, doubts, mistakes… everything.
    Discarding certain subjects and styles that boil within the artist’s spirit just to avoid causing discomfort to certain sector of the audience equals to a personal betrayal. Saying what you don’t mean is as harmful to your soul as not saying what you do mean.
    Anyways, excellent topic of discussion.

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  5. Wommis says:

    All good discussion. I am currently working on a piece for LS about The Osmonds. They are the pinnacle of squeaky clean Mormondom, yet you would never hear a song like “Traffic in my Mind” on an EFY CD. EFY music is watered down singer songwriter music mixed with hip-hop beats and autotune, probably because Mormon youth buy it and missionaries torture their companions with it.

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  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) says:

    I have to say that I really enjoyed Felicia Sorenson’s two albums. Made me sad they did not have better success.

    I’ve gone out, searched Amazon, picked up Flamingo by Brandon Flowers l)

    I very much appreciate what you are trying to do, for what it is worth.

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  7. “Now, more than ever, our youth are having difficulty finding a place for themselves at this nexus. I think that one key to navigating a life at this nexus is to increase your tolerance for uncertainty and paradox. Other Mormons are struggling in the same ways, and some of them have a God-given gift to create art forms based on this friction.”

    YES.

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  8. Lonnie Shurtleff says:

    Have just stumbled across your site so I really know nothing about it. I hope it is not innappropriate for a grandfather to comment. Sites like this did not exist in ’67 when I discovered the church. I was already playing honky tonks and bars for a living and continued for the next twenty plus years. The “LDS” musicians that I encountered in the commercial environment were mostly in trouble. some of them survived, some did not. A couple of points.

    The comment, “LDS musicians playing non LDS music…”, misses the point somewhat. Because the restored gospel encompasses the entirety of our lives, what an LDS artist produces will be an expression of an LDS point of view. Period. If not, he must repent and fix his problem. I look at things I created years ago, and though it is painful, I discard them because they do not represent or declare the truths I have learned. They are not things that I wish to pass on to my grandchildren-or to others who may or may not know about the gospel at this point in there lives.

    The other point-I have discovered that the most powerful things I create actually work because they express some fundamental truth to which the Holy Ghost can bear witness. They do not neccessarily need to preach of the scriptures or religous matters. They may perhaps merely say, “be honest, truthful, and loyal”, or “treat your neighbors right and look out for one another”. Nevertheless, these are truths, and part of the gospel as much as anything we might hear in sacrament meeting.

    I am presently bringing together the few really good things I have written and seeking to put them in recorded form for the benefit of those who follow, and hopefully make a dollar or two. Maybe they will never go farther than to my family. Perhaps that is more important anyway, given an understanding of eternal families.

    Thank you for the insights concerning how things are done today, and for the effort you have expended generating and maintaining a site for the benefit of LDS artists around the world. It is much needed.

    Lonnie

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