Not long ago, I settled into my favorite corner of the couch with a book. I’d turned on the TV for background noise, but wasn’t paying it much attention until I heard a version of “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” Kind of a cool thing, right? How often do you hear a spiritual on TV? And then I glanced up and saw that it was an ad. And not for, I don’t know, anything vaguely spiritual. Or related to the song.
It seems our friends at Fresh Step believe that upon hearing this song, we’ll be compelled to rush out and purchase their Premium Cat Litter.
That whirring noise you hear would be the ancestors spinning in their unmarked graves.
I guess next a cosmetics company will be hawking lotion with “There is a Balm in Gilead” in the background. And even if that did happen, they’d be a step ahead of a company that links “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” with kitty litter.
Seriously, whose idea was that? Did some young idea person struggling to come up with a good way to sell kitty litter (a product that I imagine really sells itself) figure What better way to convince people to buy than to play a catchy spiritual tune in the background as kitty paws around in his litter box?
The commercial left me with a couple of questions. First, what was the rationale for this—the thought process someone went through in order to believe this was a good idea?
Young Idea Person: “Sir, how about this? I can’t think of a better way to sell our scoopable cedar clumping cat litter than to tweak this song a little bit. No doubt the masses, intrigued by our use of this familiar tune, will rush out to pick up their own box of premium, paw-activated odor control with the natural freshening and deodorizing power of real cedar.”
Sir: “Great work, Johnson! With a mind like yours, you’ll go far here.”
Second series of questions: How many people approved this idea before it made it to TV? I mean, I assume marketing research is involved as well as test groups and folks who schedule production and camera operators, et cetera. Did no one think, “Hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea, guys?” You’ve got to wonder.
It’s true, we all deserve a fresh house and a happy cat. And people can hawk their wares using whatever clever gimmicks they can come up with. But this use of gospel music just feels strange to me. It is, after all, sacred music—or music that was used largely for a sacred purpose.
I’ve had a few opportunities to think about this lately. I’m sure, by now, many readers have seen the new AquaVelva commercials. As you know, AquaVelva aftershave keeps your face firm, toned and fit. But is it just me, or does that commercial sound like an Andrae Crouch song? Again, it just feels kind of strange. And not long ago, I saw a fairly moving commercial for the Curves fitness franchise that used the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.”
I think this kind of use of gospel music points out one of the downsides of gospel music’s acceptance in the larger culture. As it’s become increasingly accessible and popular, some of the sense of its original purpose. I've reported and written on that issue here. I love the music, and I believe in sharing it with people. Despite my joking, I can’t imagine the kitty litter folks saying, “Hey, I bet this music, which people used for a sacred purpose, would be great for selling kitty litter.” I’d imagine the thought process probably went something more like, “This popular song, which people recognize because they sang it around the campfire at Girl Scout camp or wherever, is a hook we can use to sell our product.”
I recently spoke to Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, one of the preeminent scholars of the Negro spiritual, on this issue. When I mentioned the AquaVelva commercial, he commented that today, the term “gospel” refers to a musical sound that people relate to as often as it does a specific message As a result, people sometimes disconnect it from its original purpose, and it becomes popular music or folk music:
“ . . .Gospel music is a song, but it’s also a style. I’ve heard people say ‘give me a gospel feel on that.’ When you go to buy a synthesizer, they have a gospel rhythm—a gospel beat that you can punch in. Because they have a jazz beat, and they have a rock and roll, and a country beat. Gospel is in there, so that proves to you that gospel is popular music. . .People like gospel—and what they want from gospel is not the wonderful singing quality of a Mahalia Jackson or a Marian Williams. They want the wild, the raw . . .it actually makes people feel good about themselves for a minute, because there is something uplifting about that.
“[But] I came by this music as a confession of faith, and as a statement of my religious beliefs. . .In the 1950s we were working hard to get people, particularly educated black people, and white people to like this music, because we thought it deserved a larger audience. And so, we took it to non-sacred places, thinking that we would take non-sacred places, and make them sacred. And instead of making those places sacred, those places took the music and used it the way that they wanted to. So, we initiated it, and now we’ve lost control. . . It’s our fault, and I’m saying our fault meaning a bad thing only because it was a religious music and I’m still having difficulty seeing it used outside of that space.”
Dr. Boyer cites the Jewish and Native American traditions as ones that are more protective of their sacred or tribal musics.
So here’s what I’m wondering: Is it possible to protect the integrity of religious music and share it with others at the same time? Can sacred music be shared without ending up in kitty’s litter box? To be honest, I really hope so. I believe that music has an amazing power to bring people together. Perhaps as we learn to be better neighbors and respectful cultural tourists, we can partake of each others’ traditions without trampling them. Or selling each others’ cultural artifacts.
In the meantime, a quote from Howard Thurman on the spirituals, excerpted from his Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man at Harvard Divinity School, April 14, 1947:
“What . . .is the fundamental significance of all these interpretations of life and death? What are these songs trying to say? They express the profound conviction that God was not done with them, that God was not done with life. The consciousness that God had not exhausted His resources or better still that the vicissitudes of life could not exhaust God’s resources, did not ever leave them. This is the secret of their ascendancy over circumstances and the basis of their assurances concerning life and death. The awareness of the presence of a God who was personal, intimate and active was the central fact of life and around it all the details of life and destiny were integrated.”
--Source: Fluker, Walter Earl, and Catherine Tumber, eds. A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Or, He’s got the whole world in His hands.