Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Carman’s “A Little Bit More Conviction” as Guilt Rock (IT'S BACK...)
I originally posted this some years ago, after writing it for the "Guilty Pleasures" edition of the EMP Pop Music Conference. In the weird way things happen on the Internet, it soon evolved into what I assume was the world's largest message board about Carman's love life, with thousands of messages and no input from me. (Hate to add to nu-Idolator's hit count, but Dan Gibson preserved a little of it here.) I took it down a couple months ago, since it had turned into an outlet for people to be mean to one another. But it still reads pretty good (like mah girl cousin whose a teacher!), so I'm bringin' it back. Besides, it was a real golden goose for my blog traffic.
JUST KEEP IT CLEAN, CHILDREN! HE'S A REAL LIVE DUDE!
First, an invocation: “I’m telling you something’s wrong when the holiness don’t belong in living day to day, cos it ain’t fun! I wanna see me a godly man who’s not afraid to stand for what looks right! I wanna see me some--A LITTLE BIT MORE CONVICTION!”
Now, an accusation: the author of those words, Mr. Carman Licciardello, is a fundamentalist nutcase. He’s a flamboyant showman, merchandising huckster, author of romance novels and devotionals, and stager of the largest Christian concert (71,000 people) in history. Like all your favorite fundamentalists, he prefers things like Messages and Truth to Art, both when he’s reading the Bible and when he’s making his music. But somehow--and this is what I love about music--from this carnival barker springs the best pop song of 1985, “A Little Bit More Conviction,” from the album The Champion.
The song’s an ultraconservative jeremiad against what we Christians like to call “backsliders,” folks whose upright walk with the Lord has slid into a morass of temptation and sin. The song’s lyrics are barely articulate, its worldview absurdly uptight, its idea of what constitutes “sin” hopelessly square. How on earth can this song be so good?
To answer that, some justification. I currently value art that, above all else, communicates directly. In fact, I want art to communicate so directly that the concepts of “art” and “communication” fall to the side, and all that’s left is me and the work, whether words or performance or music or whatever. I don’t necessarily demand that the work speak clearly--any number of nitwit singer-songwriters can do that--but that it work some chemical change on me, get inside my mind, so that the work and I can chat with one another, confer back and forth, argue violently and come to blows if it seems like the thing to do. (If you’ve hung out with Ennis Del Mar in the movie of Brokeback Mountain or Nathan Zuckerman by way of Philip Roth, you may see what I mean.) Why would I merely wanna sit back and appreciate a piece of music, as though sagely and solemnly sucking on a pipe in my den, when there exists a different piece of music I can really interact with? This aesthetic criterion is nothing new and I don’t claim to be making Great Strides For Art here. I don’t even claim that this is the best way to evaluate art, or the only good way to live with it. I just wanted to let you know where I’m coming from before I start going on about Carman and this song of his, “A Little Bit More Conviction.”
So how can this song be good? The answer is partly instrumental--this song totally rocks. The drums slam, the rhythm guitar is evil, and the background vocals provide an eerie momentum, as though urging the persevering listener up through several levels of hell. Special credit goes to producer/keyboardist Keith Thomas, who would later produce the Amy Grant color-explosions “Baby Baby” and “Good For Me.” Here, his thundering keyboard riff and arpeggios echo the Rocky-ish triumphalism of the Champion album’s title song, which depicts the ultimate boxing match between Jesus and Satan. (That song could probably justify its own guilty pleasure conference.) Structurally, Thomas uses these individual components to build a precise, calculated, yet almost violent backdrop to Carman’s proclamations.
While unquestionably rock, the song shares little with other rock from 1985. It’s not guitar-saturated like the Replacements, Husker Du, or John Mellencamp; it’s not loose and jammy like the Mekons, the Fall, or Tom Waits. If anything, “A Little Bit More Conviction” most closely resembles the reduced-and-rockin’ ‘85 rap records from Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Like those, this song succeeds largely on the strength of its lead vocal, which can best be described as hard. Check out Carman’s growl when he gets to the second verse, “I saw two brothers go…” His persona here is a furious street preacher, so angered by the behavior of his Christian brothers and sisters that he hardly has time to form a cogent thought on the subject. Let’s listen.
[play the song]
So why do I like this song? Well, remember what I said earlier about directness. Carman works on me with this song. He doesn’t work on me rhetorically or morally; that is, I don’t really care what he tells me not to do, and I haven’t given his moral judgments the time of day for many years. Rather, his rhetoric creates a coherent persona that works on me aesthetically and, well, personally. When I listen to this song, I meet--as truly as I’m meeting people at this conference--a fascinating street preacher. I want to listen to him talk; I admire his cadence and the fluidity of his language; I like that, when he says “sexy movie show,” he’s refreshingly oblivious to any contemporary vernacular, even by 1985 standards. I like how the street preacher is against kids playing in the street, and how we don’t know exactly what he means by that: is he against gangs, or skipping family devotions, or kids getting hit by cars? Or is he just reaching back to some mythical golden age before the invention of TV? But didn’t children always play in the street back then? See, I really enjoy spending time with this incoherent bastard.
Since my enjoyment of this character is, admittedly, a little smug--essential to what I like about him is all the stuff he gets wrong--I can’t help but wonder how much he’d appreciate my appreciation. Because, let’s face it, the street preacher wants to evangelize me. Me!--a generally upright Christian guy who nonetheless drinks, dances, wishes his wife let him smoke, loves the “sexy movie show” Brokeback Mountain, and lets his seven-month-old son play in the street--this song, this guy wants me to set a better example! But do I listen? No; I’m back sagely sucking on my pipe in the den, or maybe just smiling and nodding during some meet-and-greet, appreciating the way the flamboyant preacher forces his agenda without actually heeding the Word he’s handing down.
Carman’s own extra-musical statements just make me feel more like an ass. As it turns out, Carman circa 1985 cared far more about his moral impact than his aesthetic impact. He told CCM magazine,
“You know, the fact that people are going to idolize you, the performer, instead of listening to the message you’re giving is unavoidable. It’s an occupational hazard. People come to concerts for all different kinds of reasons. Maybe because they like the way you dress, or the way you hold a certain note [that‘s me!]. When I’m on stage I can sometimes feel the carnal attitude of the people in the audience [that’s not me!], and I know I’ve got to work to turn that around.”
And in the liner notes of his previous album, Carman wrote, “This album is dedicated and carefully constructed to minister to the church by moving the inner man.” Assuming he and Thomas “carefully constructed” “A Little Bit More Conviction” the same way, does that mean the song succeeds or fails? It certainly moves my “inner man,” but only because I admire its construction, not because the construction moves my “inner man” to stop drinking, dancing, and generally setting what Carman thinks is a bad Christian example.
I disagree with Carman on many points, but he does embody a little of what’s best about American Christianity. His songs and writings advocate a personal, loving relationship with a god of grace who, in Carman’s words, “saves, delivers, and heals.” He realizes that Biblical scholarship and polite academic theologizing get you only so far, and so he strives to transform his life, and the lives of his audience, through direct relationship with Jesus. Essentially, he wants from Jesus what I want from art (and Jesus). He comes very close to advocating what Depeche Mode analyzed, a little facilely, as “your own personal Jesus, someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.” If you’re literary critic Harold Bloom, you refer to this tendency more positively as “American gnosticism.”
Of course, Carman would recoil at being called a gnostic, and he’d be right. Mostly he’s a fundamentalist, what Bloom calls “a parody of gnosticism,” and Carman is more reductive in his scriptural analyses than Depeche Mode could dream of being. It’s one thing to give your love for Jesus priority over your understanding of the Bible; Carman tends to avoid understanding the Bible, lest it not support the beliefs he espouses. He’s got an annoying tendency of justifying sweeping moral statements with isolated Biblical passages that have no business supporting his claims.
For instance, in his book Raising the Standard, Carman proposes, “If you expose your mind and heart to a constant stream of sex, violence and cursing, you will eventually begin to act the same way.” That’s a big, controversial claim, backed up not statistically or anecdotally but psalmically: “David wrote in the psalms, ‘I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing.’ (Psalm 101:2-3).” From this Carman concludes, “The first step to moral purity in your body is to deal with your heart. And one of the first steps to doing that is to make a ‘covenant with your eyes’ (Job 31:1). You have to determine that you will not expose your heart, mind and spirit to those things that are an abomination to the Lord.”
Set aside the question of whether Carman’s proposition--essentially, “garbage in, garbage out”--is true or not. Instead, look at how he uses Hebrew scripture. Though he says, “David wrote in the psalms,” Carman, like many fundamentalists, reads the Bible as One Big Book, Written By God. Carman essentially reads this psalm and Job’s words as words to emulate, commands from great authorities speaking on God’s behalf. Job and David were blameless heroes of faith who recognized this eternal truth: looking at bad stuff leads to a sinful heart and dirty deeds. So if both David and Job advocate keeping your eyes pure--well, doesn’t that prove Carman’s “garbage in, garbage out” claim?
I’m oversimplifying a little--I’m sure Carman knows plenty more than I do about certain aspects of Biblical scholarship. But I do know that’s no way to read the Bible! First of all, Carman’s quotes come from vastly different sources. David’s psalm, while it has its liturgical uses, is the prayer of a 10th century B.C. king striving to get his country in order--a couple verses later he says, “One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy,” and later still, “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land,” statements we probably shouldn’t emulate. (Carman, to his credit, does not advocate the killing of gossip folks, or even abortion providers.) Job’s statement, on the other hand, is part of a painful drama that addresses the insolubility of human suffering and manages to make it beautiful. At one point Job insists to his three snarky holy-roller friends that his suffering couldn’t have been caused by anything he did, and as a miniscule fraction of that plea mentions this “covenant” with his eyes. When Carman strips these words of their context and lumps them together, he succeeds only in rendering them meaningless. This sorry excuse for an argument only demonstrates why you read the Bible, but you don’t use it as evidence.
But Carman doesn’t want literature, drama, or imaginative thought from the Bible. He wants theology and morality, and reads every book for its applicable message. Likewise, he constructs his songs to give me an applicable message, a moral force. In doing so--and this is another thing I love about art--the song “A Little Bit More Conviction” gets away from him and garners aesthetic force. Who knows how many authors, in the Christian canon or otherwise, have started writing a moral treatise and ended up turning out art that rewards contemplation?
Ironically, Carman’s very zeal to spread the Word may have helped him out aesthetically. In his desire to turn hearts and minds from backsliding, he accomplished the sort of direct communication that, while not guaranteeing a song’s success, sure as hell sets it on the right path. For fun, consider a statement from Chuck Eddy’s The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n‘ Roll. Chuck is analyzing the success of early rock music, which polite academics have been known to criticize for being manipulative, cynically profit-driven, and not proper art:
“Producers screwed around with voices and instruments in the studio until they got a saleable sound… [T]he profit motive made rock better. Short songs, tight arrangements, and gimmicky hooks helped sell records, but also made the music more immediate, and constituted a more vigorous revolt against outmoded urbane standards.”
Compare that to my favorite Britney Spears bitching in a 2003 Rolling Stone: “Anyone can write a boring artistic song. Pop music is the hardest shit to write.” Now apply those statements to Carman. Like early rockers or Britney, Carman’s goal is communication. I’m guessing Carman isn’t motivated by sales like many secular rockers, or by popularity like Britney (I doubt money has been her motivator for a while). Instead, he’s motivated by evangelistic message. Where Rick Rubin or Lieber and Stoller could measure their communicative effectiveness in terms of sales, Carman measures his in terms of souls. And since the stakes are so high, the message better be direct.
So what we’ve got here is not a failure to communicate; I get the message loud and clear, and I just sort of bat it aside. Instead, it’s a completely successful communication of something you often find in great art--an interesting, believable self. I want to leave you with a fun exercise to explore that self. Like Carman’s Bible thumping, this exercise employs texts from two vastly different sources; unlike Carman, you can use the entire texts, along with some total collective unconscious zeitgeist voodoo type shit. Sometime before you die, listen to “A Little Bit More Conviction” again, and immediately chase it with another ’85 tune, Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumors.” As you listen, pretend both songs have the same street-preacher narrator. Only when Depeche Mode catch up with him, he’s witnessed a teenage girl attempt suicide and find Jesus, only to get hit by a car and wind up dying on life support. Imagine this zealot finally realizing god’s “sick sense of humor,” and you’ll get a sense of the real spiritual usefulness of the Psalms and Job. Plus, you’ll discover a way of enjoying Carman’s tune 100% guilt-free.
JUST THE FACTS
He writes and performs for audiences who pay only a free-will offering to see him, but charges $19.95 for a monthly membership to Carman.org, which gets you access to his family photos, the audio devotional archive, scheduled online chats with the man himself, and discounts at something called the “Megastore.” In the essential Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, theologian Mark Allan Powell marvels at Carman’s “penchant for over-the-top histrionics, … remarkable aptitude for media manipulation, and…frequent espousal of questionable theology…”, but wryly admits that the guy’s a great entertainer and that “he is considered to be extremely good-looking.”