In a new commercial for Hershey's Dark Chocolate, people cheerfully unwrap chocolate bars with an especially joyous rendering of "Oh, Happy Day" in the background. If the voiceover is to be believed, we all have a reason to rejoice: Because dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, it's good for us.
Apparently we are to put down the remote and get to singing, swinging, making merry like Christmas and unwrapping healthful, delicious dark chocolate bars as quickly as our greedy little hands allow.
Granted, there are plenty of good things to be said about chocolate. It's good for baking. It smells nice. And dark chocolate is good for you. (But you knew that.) But I've never equated chocolate and religious ecstasy. (That may be because I so rarely have the really good stuff.)
OK, so I'm having a little fun here. But regular readers of this blog know that the use of gospel music in this way troubles me.
Part of it is that I hate hearing music I love used to sell stuff, period. I am not thrilled by the "It's a Wickes House" (Brick House) commercial advertising a local furniture store. I did not approve when "I Feel Good" was used to sell laxatives. (No, Godfather! Please!please!please!) And I regret that I owe my first exposure to the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugarpie Honeybunch)" to a Duncan Hines commercial.
But although each of those songs is meaningful to me and my fellow retro-licious pop culture nerds, not one of them is expressly religious. These aren't songs meant to celebrate God's goodness, to proclaim truths about his work in the world, or to encourage his people in the way "Oh, Happy Day" is. And that particular song is incredibly meaningful. Not only because it revolutionized gospel music, but also because, to me, it's a story of how God can use young people to change the world when no one's looking. It's a song that transcends culture and genre, one that never gets old to me. (Perhaps there's also some irony in being critical of the way a song known for moving outside church walls is, well, being used outside church walls.)
More generally, I'm troubled when I hear gospel music used in commercials (more examples here), because I think it trivializes the music, and, by extension, Christianity as it its practiced by African-Americans. It's another of those instances that makes me pause and consider what this music means in the public imagination. I realize, also, that African-American religion isn't the only form of belief taken less than seriously. Consider the casual use of the word "karma," or the widespread practice of yoga without much regard for its Hindu roots (I've got friends on both sides of that one, but I'm just saying).
It's not as though this is an uncomplicated issue. Gospel music is directly and indirectly involved in the selling of many things. Gospel music, for example. And movies, both decent and not-so-great. People (cough) get paid to write about gospel music. Marketers are realizing that it's just good business to take gospel music and its listeners seriously. There are labels, charts, ratings, etc. that all have do, in some way, with gospel music as a commodity. After all, when you read a gospel music review, the bottom line, nestled somewhere between all of the historical context about this particular subgenre and the literary allusions and the carefully nuanced phrases, crafted just-so, is someone's assessment about whether or not you, Dear Reader, should burn or buy, should pick or pan.
Gospel music is just so inextricably linked to African-American culture--and to African-American religious culture, that its simultaneously visible and invisible in our culture. It's everywhere, from the tragic melisma of American Idol (Ever started a run and realized you couldn't find your way back home? Mmm-hmmm. You know who you are.) to the hair-raising testimonials of those Tresstify commercials.
So sometimes I wonder if moments like this--when gospel music is distanced from its Christian context--aren't just part of the tradeoff for the music's mainstream acceptance. They may be inevitable. But that doesn't make them easier to swallow.
It looks like the spot isn't yet on the Hershey website. But keep an eye out for it. And let me know what you think. And if you're interested in another blending of music and chocolate, check out The Chocolate Vault.