Thursday, April 21, 2016

Catholic Celebrity Is A Problem

          When I arrived in Nashville in the fall of 2013, I did so with all of the bare essentials necessary to becoming a successful rock star: my thirteen instruments, two pairs of skinny jeans (one medium, and one that could also double as compression tights in most hospitals), and finally an inflated ideology based on connection-making, due-paying, and image-faking. I’m originally from south Louisiana, a place known for its authenticity among other things, so it didn’t take long for me to shake off the fa├žade and begin making myself comfortable in my new home. Over time, I found myself having trouble doing just that, getting comfortable. Now, before I go on, I should clarify two things: first, I genuinely love Nashville and all of the people who made it home for me, and second, I was pursuing a career specifically in Catholic music (in contrast to country, pop, etc.). This piece isn’t a slight on the place or the art, but instead on a deeply infectious lifestyle I encountered there within the industry: celebrity.

            Ok James, you self-righteous know-it-all, what’s so bad about becoming a celebrity? What’s wrong with pursuing my dreams and seeing them through to fame and influence?

I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pursuing one’s dreams. I don’t believe that it’s wrong to be recognized for being influential and really great at what you do. However, I’ve been in this industry long enough to recognize that there are those in the Catholic ministry and music industry, as well as those pursuing careers within the industry, who are preoccupied and enamored with the goal of becoming well-renowned and celebrated. It’s a pitfall, one that I fell into myself. I was ultra concerned at the time with how I was presented on social media, and also with marketing myself based on “perception-making”. I wanted the whole world to know whom I was playing for, which artist I was opening for, who I “casually” ran into backstage, or even how many people were about to see me play. The issue with this lifestyle is that I wasn’t involved with the secular music industry at the time, but instead, the sacred music industry. At what point in that time was I giving glory to God in action and word? Why was I so focused on how people saw me, and not how I was seeing people?

I’ve had so many conversations with aspiring worship leaders who are utterly distracted by what the key players in the industry are currently doing and saying. They rehearse for interviews instead of performances, and study trends instead of sounds. It’s as if the only way these artists could possibly hope to enter the market is by imitation and uniformity. For example, I can recall accompanying a particular artist on the road for a short time. This artist's career was young, but so was mine, and in our defense…we both had a lot to learn. When we would play festivals opening up for the premier Catholic worship leaders and song-writers (I wont name them here, but you can figure it out…there are only like 5 or 6), I can remember how this artist's disposition and interpersonal skills would change. For example, when we were featured to lead worship for small parish events, this artist’s focus would be on the people and relating to the congregation. We would be free to pray, and by doing so, would lead others in prayer. In contrast, at the festivals and large events, we would only focus on relating to the headlining artist. We would make sure that we were “seen and heard”. We would anoint these headliners with questions regarding industry personal and marketing strategies… “Who does your screen printing?”, “How can I get in touch with your manager and producer?”,  “How can I set up a co-write with you?” These headliners are regular people; don’t you think they want to talk more about faith, family, and life? Presumption over perception, superficial relationships verses dignity, and commotion versus peace. All this, and when did we find time to pray before the set?

Celebrity hardens and entitles self-giving hearts, and blinds those eagerly searching for truth. If God wanted all the artists and speakers in the Christian music industry to look and sound the same, wouldn’t he have given us all the same exact talent? For every different person who has the gift to glorify God for the masses in word and song, there is a different and particular gift God has given for us to do so. Celebrity is the culture of sameness and comparison, not individuality and freedom. Who are we as Catholic artists to act as though our every inspiration does not come from the Holy Spirit?

Saint John Paul the Great wrote in his Letter to Artists, “I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”

              The great saint reminds us that the function of art is to glorify God by connecting the truth of the gospel to the heart of man in a way which he can understand as an individual created in God’s likeness. Finally, to quote Twentieth Century Fox’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”