Nov 18, 2014

Amy Grant and the tensions of 'mainstream'

In her memoir of growing up evangelical Addie Zierman writes that she learned the word "mainstream" the day Amy Grant's 1991 single "Baby Baby" came on the radio.
Baby, baby
I'm taken with the notion
To love you with the sweetest of devotion 
Baby, baby
My tender love will flow from
The bluest sky to the deepest ocean 
Stop for a minute
Baby, I'm so glad you're mine, yeah
You're mine
Listening to the song in the car, Zierman's mom "let it slip that the evangelicals were less than enthusiastic about the new album. It had to do with the shift in focus from sacred to secular, from praise to pop, from Christian to mainstream."

This was an interesting moment in recent history of evangelical cultural engagement. For Zierman and many like her, the controversy around Grant's popular success was a revelation about how invested evangelicals were in maintaining borders. It was experienced as a kind of warning. Crossing certain lines could be very consequential.

There is an "us." There is a "them." And you can fall over that line even without meaning too.

Amy Grant's compilation album was released in 
two formats simultaneously, one for new fans, one for old.
It's not like Amy Grant accidentally went mainstream, though. This was part of the plan. Grant was supposed to be, as one of her managers put it at the time, "an agent of change in an anti-moral culture."

Appealing to the masses was part of the evangelical project of cultural engagement. At the same time, evangelicals were deeply uncomfortable when efforts to reach the masses were successful. It felt wrong. It felt like it must be a betrayal of the core commitments of evangelical art if evangelical art actually appealed to non-evangelicals, even though that was also the purpose of that art, to appeal to those on the other side of that border.

There's an internal contraction here, but it's not a particularly unusual one. Think about how uncomfortable Jonathan Franzen was when his novel was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Of course he wanted people to read his book, but also if too many people did or the wrong people did or people did it in a wrong way, he worried that meant he had betrayed something, some identity. When Grant went mainstream, it wasn't unlike that.

Going "mainstream" brought attention to these tensions, and raised these anxieties.

For at least some of her crossover fans, though, this is what was why they loved Grant.

When people say that Grant "became the long-awaited crossover artist to accomplish significant sales outside the specifically Christian radio market," as David W. Stowe does in No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, the mainstream audience is an undifferentiated mass. This is partly true. "Going mainstream" meant Grant played on Dick Clark's musical special, Salute, and on Johnny Carson and the Merv Griffin Show. It meant she sold millions of albums in the early '90s. She sold albums to people who weren't buying the music because of their faith commitments. Those people were more specific than "mainstream" typically allows.

Some of them were buying albums because they identified with the feeling of tumbling over the invisible line dividing "us" and "them," the fear and danger of having your community see you, maybe suddenly, as someone on the other side of a border that needs to be militantly maintained.

As Grant herself said in an interview last year,
All of us sometimes feel disenfranchised or, for whatever reason, like we're just on the periphery or marginalized. People feel that for all kinds of reasons, and by the time you've lived any amount of life, I think anybody has had that experience somewhere . . . . Everybody is outside of some circle, but what I've always wanted to do is have a message of honesty and welcoming, and being willing to say this is the good, bad and the ugly. This is who I am. And if I'm saying that about myself, it's like, jump in, the water's fine. So I love that. I love that people connect to my music.
The interview was noted because it was Grant's first with gay press. Promoting her new album, How Mercy Looks From Here, Grant told Pride Source she's had a gay fan base since the early days of her career.

"If people come to my shows, this is what they say: 'Wow, there are people of all ages and lifestyles in your crowd,'" Grant said. "That is what they always say. But then someone will come up and say, 'You know, I say a guy with a boa on,' and I'll say, 'Oh yeah, yeah, I've always had a big gay following.'"

The reporter, Chris Azzopradi, may not have ever been "a guy with a boa on," but he did identify as part of Grant's gay fan base.

"On my Walkman, I'd bop down to the bus stop with 'Baby Baby' singing in my ears, no matter how unhip it was," he wrote.
As a kid who attended catechism and took communion nearly every Sunday, I connected to her messages of faith, compassion and being all-inclusive. I didn't care what she thought about homosexuality then, only that hers be the voice that help me come to terms with it. I clung to those messages of 'love conquers all' when things got hard, when I felt like ending my life. And I thought about it plenty of times. But I'd close my eyes and listen and hear that voice of comfort and faith filling my heart. She was the big hug in my headphones.
This is what was meant by "mainstream" when Addie Zierman learned the word listening to "Baby Baby" on the radio. But also, it's not really. For evangelicals uncomfortable with the mass audience, that mass audience was very, very vague. Azzopradi and the guy in the boa surely would have counted as being on the other side of evangelicalism's border, but no one was really being specific.

But the experience of a fan is specific. Sometimes it's specific in the same way that learning about that line between a community and those the community defines itself against, and learning the horror that one could slip over that line without wanting to or meaning to, is very specific.

The experience of becoming a fan, after all, is not just discovering that you love something, but that other people will interpret that love. To others, it will be meaningful, how uncool it is. How over that imaginary line it happens to take you. It can be alienating, as you realize that it's not just you watching your favorite pop artist, but being watched while you're watching, and being judged.

Imagine: as Addie Zierman was learning the word "mainstream" and all that entailed, the comic book artist Jackson Guice, from Grant's own home state of Tennessee, was being sued for drawing Grant's face on the cover of Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #15. And that was part of "mainstream" "crossover" too.