Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Unreflective Joy: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

Frequent readers of this blog know that I strongly disapprove of the use of gospel music in advertising. (New readers can catch up here, here and here.)

A quick review: I share the sentiments Dr. Barbara Holmes of Memphis Theological Seminary expresses in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church:

"Exuberance and social consciousness are only the most obvious contributions that the black church has to offer a history of human spiritual engagement. . .[W]hen these charismatic practices are deemed to be the quintessential expression of black worship, our view of the black church is reduced to caricature.

"The myth of unreflective joy is reinforced by the use of black worship to sell commerical products. . . .My discomfort with commercialized uses of Africana worship traditions is exacerbated by the implicit respect given to other ethnic traditions. Although I am aware that advertisers have free reign in a consumer-driven culture and that very little is sacrosanct, I also note that I have never seen a Muslim cleric touting the detergent that keeps his robes fresh, orthodox cantors singing antacid ads, or an American Indian emerging from a sweat lodge with a name-brand deodorant in his hand.

" . . . Moses Berry shares his grandmother Dorothy's caution about carelessly offering precious communal wisdom to the wider world:

'If you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try to reduce it to something that they can understand, and miss the sacredness. Therefore . . .don't let them know about your church music because they'll turn it into dance music or look at it like "folk music," and miss the point that it's the music of suffering people that lifted them from earth to heaven. It's not merely an art form.'"

Like Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, I think these uses of gospel music are part of the downside of gospel's increased mainstream popularity. Still, I want to believe that sacred music can be shared with those who will treat it and its religious roots respectfully.

But this hasn't been the best week for that.

First, I saw an oddly sensual commercial for Lipton White Tea that features the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine." As far as I can tell, it doesn't have a whole lot to do with spirituals. Or with tea, for that matter.

Then, I discovered Nivea's new campaign for their Goodbye Cellulite product. The ad (and website, which you can see here) features a "Goodbye Cellulite Choir."

From the product description:

"Praise be for NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite. Containing L-Carnitine, this smooth, non-greasy formula moisturises and visibly smoothes dimpled skin. . . .Smooth NIVEA body Goodbye Cellulite on problem areas such as thighs, buttocks and stomach once or twice a day and you could be enjoying visible results in just 4 weeks.

And that is something to sing about!"

(No, it's not. Consider yourself warned about the content of the video.)

This is beyond annoying. It's scandalous. Whether or not you take a look at the campaign website, it's easy to see why some people in the UK's gospel community have called the campaign "racist and blasphemous." From the "shouting music" you hear upon clicking to the dancing, raunchy lyrics (shades of Saartjie Baartman/"Hottentot Venus," anyone?), and stereotypes you can read about in the "Meet the Band" section, it's one ugly misrepresentation of black music, black worship, and black Christians, specifically black Christian women. (There's not much I can say about the Goodbye Cellulite Hip-Hop Band video, because it actually resembles some of the mainstream hip-hop videos I've seen.)

According to news reports, the ad agency approached Ken Burton of the London Adventist Chorale to assemble a choir for the ad campaign, and he refused. "The context of having black people walking around slapping their hind thighs in a church whilst people shout Hallelujah (which means I give highest praise to God) is highly blasphemous,” he told the online magazine United By One. (It's worth noting that Burton doesn't object to the use of gospel music in ads, but is concerned that the context be respectful.)

The Voice reports that Beiersdorf UK LTD (which manufactures Nivea products) released a statement saying “The campaign was not intended to show disrespect to either the genre or faith of gospel music, or to any part of African culture but rather a celebration of gospel music and its joyful attitude.” A representative of Staniforth, the PR agency that worked on the campaign, added that " . . .the use of gospel music was intended to create a fun and joyful atmosphere."

A particularly flagrant perpetuation of the myth of unreflective joy. Apparently, it didn't occur to anyone in those organizations that gospel has religious and cultural significance--that it's more than fun music to be appropriated for any commercial purpose.

Finally, I'm particularly troubled by the (mostly black) crowd of actors and actresses who sang for the ad and filmed the scene. Beiersdorf and Staniforth couldn't have made this mess without their complicity. Where's their sense that the living artifacts of African(-American) culture are not to be shared recklessly?


In the next day or two, I'll be writing a polite letter of protest to Beiersdorf UK LTD, submitting a copy to the Nivea Products website, and contacting Staniforth, the PR firm that worked with Nivea on the campaign.

Video Pick: Sing, Sister, Sing!

This last week, I've been enjoying Gayle F. Wald's Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Look for a review here in the next week or two.)

I've been interested in Tharpe's life for a few years now, and I'm taking my usual approach to learning about a musician/artist: immersion (a Baptist thing, maybe?). Friends of mine recall the Summer of Marvin Gaye (2004) and my James Brown Period (summer 2006-present). I bought a 4-CD box set of Tharpe's work just before Tower Records' demise, and I've been listening to her music as I savor Wald's book. This video is of a 1960s-era performance on TV Gospel Time with the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir.

Here's an NPR report on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, featuring an interview with Wald, Maria Muldaur, and Marie Knight.

My take on the project Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.