Pitbull, Mediocre Music, and the Call to Create Good Culture. . .

So tonight, Pitbull is going to let the world know on a CNBC special (“Pitbull: Fame & Fortune”, 10pm) how to make a boatload of money and status in today’s world. . . particularly in the world of popular music. When he explains that the blueprint for success in the music industry is “90 percent business, 10 percent talent,” we need to sit back and ponder whether or not that’s an approach Christ’s followers should pursue or flee.

While I’m not a fan of Pitbull’s music, message, and methodology, I am a big fan of his honesty. . . at least in this case. What he says justifies and confirms thoughts and leanings I’ve been chatting about with like-minded friends for some time now. We lament the state of the popular music industry. For us, popular music has always been a place where worldviews are communicated, which in turn calls for engaged discernment on the part of the listener who wants to glorify and follow God. Of course, the discernment process always yields evidence of truth and lies. Contrary to what some people think, it’s not all bad. For those of us who long for the “good old days” of  the music of our youth, we have to admit that keen discernment has always been necessary. That fact hasn’t changed.

But there is something markedly different. . . a steep decline you might say. . . from the music of our youth to the music of today. Music used to be a form of expression that required musicians to work hard, developing their songwriting skills and musical talents. Music was a creative venture that typically produced something new. Now, as Pitbull admits, it’s more about the business and branding machine. Music is formulaic. Song-writing is formulaic. The road to commercial success ($) is formulaic. The creative process in today’s world is one that has paved the way for virtually everyone to be a creative. . . talent or no talent. . . thanks to digital tools that allow us formulate and distribute both music and self.

A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Live From Daryl’s House, a fun little music show where Daryl Hall and his band invite other musicians into his personal studio for sessions and songfests. On this particular day, it was guitarist Joe Walsh who joined Hall. Their musical collaboration is fun to watch, but there’s a point in the show that’s quite telling. Walsh converses with the camera and talks about how the music industry has changed. His perspective on Pitbull’s admission is a good one. Take a look at the video below. . . moving ahead to the 19:00 minute mark to listen for 90 seconds to what Walsh has to say about today’s music. Wow!

Rather than leave this at the point of critique, there are some takeaways. . .

First, Pitbull’s admission of what we all already knew issues a challenge to understanding our own humanity. If we are truly made in the image of God, then it is our ability to image God through our creativity that sets us apart from everything else God made. In fact, He gave us everything He made so that we might in turn make things. If all we’re doing is tapping into cookie-cutter formulas, we might make some money. But are we bringing glory to God? I love Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Andy says that “culture is what human beings make of the world.” And what we make of the world should be good, true, honorable, and beautiful. As Christians, we should be taking the lead in developing new forms of culture that reflect and point to the goodness of our Creator. Xeroxing and marketing what already has been done can make us some great money. But should that be the end? And does that result in true creativity that images and glorifies God?

Second, our culture’s current approach to creativity is not only lacking, but is extremely self-centered and narcissistic in its goals. It’s about promoting the holy trinity of “me, myself, and I” rather than making good art to the glory of “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It’s about exploitation of the consumer rather than glorification of the Creator. It’s about the branding and glorification of one’s self rather than humbly creating music as an act of worship and praise. Thanks be to social media for giving us another “creative” outlet for our love of self.

Finally, rather than pointing fingers at the outside world we need to pause and deeply consider how these approaches and ideas have made their way into the church. More precisely, we might wonder about how we’ve embraced and even promoted these strategies. Do we focus on branding ourselves? Are we about presenting ourselves in the best light in order to grow a dedicated army of followers? Does our music and art employ the same formulas? Do we make music and art to the glory of God, or are we creating with an eye to marketability? Why does our worship music sound so formulaic? Why does so much of our worship music lack theological depth? Sadly, the jury would have no problem answering these questions if they would look at and listen to so much of the recorded evidence. Am I being too hard on people here? I think we as the body of Christ need to be hard on ourselves in these matters. How we understand and engage in the creative process is making an impression on the young among us. We need to be sure that the legacy we leave is a good one.

No doubt. . . we can and must do better.

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