For my sister, Naomi
I almost gave up making music two years ago. There was something about doing it that I just couldn’t connect to anymore. I used to think it was having been too involved in the business side of things. As someone running their own label, taking responsibility for everything from distribution to publicity, in addition to working full time as a magazine editor, journalist and a doctoral student, I became convinced that my inability to write songs was a product of how overburdened I had become. That really upset me. Finally, I’d let the pressures of being an adult sublimate my creativity into my day to day work life. I became horribly frightened at what this might portend for the future because for me, remaining creative has always been my way of being political.
However, my need to express myself artistically has always found its most natural vehicle in music. I spent months agonizing over why I couldn’t project my impulses in that manner anymore. That is, until I finally realized that what was preventing me from moving forward was the nature of the material I had always worked with: spoken word text culled from Christian talk radio programming. Being a Marxist, a Jew, and a satirist, what I’d always found seductive about this material was how religious talk radio shows rationalized people’s suffering. I built a musical career based on making the audio equivalent of monographs of this culture. Year in and year out, for almost an entire decade, I excavated the detritus of this horror story laden network of syndicated programming in order to make a new type of protest music, one which distinguished itself not on the basis of polemics or didacticism, but rather documentary recordings.
Over the course of three albums and three singles, I used my own religious-studies-educated ear to lay the inner workings of Christian radio culture to bare. In the process I got to reassert the scientific primacy of traditional leftist criticism of religion within the context of the new sampling and collage musical culture which came of age during the rise of electronica, hip-hop, and techno dance music during the 1990s. And I had the perfect alibi with which to promote my work without seeming like I was a careerist: My band’s music was all about raising people’s consciousness about how religion uses technology to further mystify personal experiences of political disenfranchisement. The results spoke for themselves: Within a seven year period, we’d been written about in every major underground music magazine in North America, not to mention having received regular airplay on at least two dozen American and Canadian college radio stations. By the time we broke up this spring, even Details magazine had run a feature on us. Having penetrated the mainstream, I couldn’t help but call it quits. However, I’d been contemplating pulling the plug for a while.
While I was pleased with the results of my efforts, by the time we finished our third record, I started to feel constrained by the source material we were working with. There was something about it that felt terribly deadening. Sometimes I’d record conversations such as one in which a woman who’d been raped by a man she’d met at Bible study asked a radio minister if she had a right to judge this man for his actions, or whether she should defer to God’s judgement. Such conversations were easy to work with. Just make a few edits, and build a piece of music around it. Other spoken word pieces I’d employ had less of a documentary feel to them. Their meanings were less obvious, requiring a certain degree of excavation, such as one monologue I encountered about a parent’s responsibility to be in charge of their child’s sex education. A little digital editing, a lot of patience and voilà, you’ve got a vocal part whose subtext is raised to its foretext, so to speak.
Getting to the point of having such source material at one’s disposal, however, is another story. For every iconoclastic three-minute vocal part I would end up using, I’d spend at least a week having to listen to Christian talk radio all day, with my finger always ready to hit the record button. I don’t know how I put up with it for so long, but after seven years of doing this, I finally lost my patience. I gave up. I stopped listening to Christian radio altogether.
I’m not entirely sure why I quit. Perhaps it had to do with being sick of hearing people tell similarly horrible stories all the time, such as one conversation I heard where a woman called a talk show while I was eating dinner. As I ate my pasta, I listened to her describe how she’d finally discovered that the reason she gave birth to a downs syndrome child was because God did not favor her. I nearly choked when I heard the radio minister happily agree with her. Or perhaps it had something to do with having found a way to artistically bring to light how it is certain kinds of religious persons condone such unfortunate circumstances, and feeling like I’d done a good enough job demonstrating that. Any more work with such material would be tantamount to exploiting their tragedies, I reasoned.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t continue to do such work, because fundamentalism still poses an enormous threat to American democracy. This threat is best manifest in conservative religious media outlets, such as the ones I used to plunder for my source material. It all has to do with the kind of propaganda that they disseminate. Such radio programming succeeds in drawing vast audiences because its never-ending, personal encapsulations of private tragedies helps numb listeners to the pain in their own lives – especially because most people who listen to such programming never experience a quarter of the difficulties that they hear about on the radio. Nevertheless, they regularly listen to such broadcasts in order to reassure themselves that their own very real difficulties are things that they simply must accept, because they are nothing compared to what other less fortunate people have to go through.
The only reason why I know this is because I realized that I had started to become one of those people. I first became conscious of this when, stuck in traffic on the way home from work, I must have subconsciously assimilated at least three stories about women who died from botched abortions, and I didn’t let them get to me. I simply accepted them as being matter of fact, the same way I’d digest any other news, thanking the stars I wasn’t as badly off as they were, and moved on. It was only later, after I realized that I hadn’t bothered to pull out the tape recorder that I always carry with me to record such events, that it sunk in. Fundamentalism wasn’t making me angry anymore. And I was starting to react to its media manifestations in the way that I criticized its faith-community adherents for reacting to it. I got scared.
At that point, I resolved to take a break. I recognized that I had started to become immune to the very kinds of propaganda that I had consistently sought out in order to raise other people’s consciousness of suffering. This really upset me, because it made me question my own political priorities. It made me ask myself whether or not I still thought Fundamentalism was a threat to democracy, and whether I was still committed to the so-called radical cause. Finally, I had to stop myself. What nonsense! Of course I was. Then what was my new lack of sensitivity all about? To put it simply, overexposure.
No matter how politically progressive they might be, artists who traffic in horror always risk losing touch with the objects of their critique. Depicting so much pain, suffering and exploitation in order to raise consciousness of the destructive nature of religious ideologies has a boomerang effect. At the same time that it may acquaint those who take religion seriously with how faith may inoculate people from their own distress, overexposure to such narratives has the tendency to make its critics equally unfeeling. It creates a condition of over-familiarization, in the same way that people who watch too many violent television shows, films or newscasts end up getting their senses dulled.
This was a quandary that I never expected to find myself in. My biggest concern was that any sustained practice of ideology criticism, artistic or otherwise, always ends up turning the critic into the subject of their own critique due to how intimate they have to become with what it is they despise so much. This possibility upset me greatly, because I felt as though I had developed enough things to do with my life, such as my schoolwork and my editing, that I always got the breaks I needed from not only doing art, but also those matters I used it to focus on.
After some reflection, I realized that I was totally wrong, because I had misunderstood the centrality of my artistic practices to the rest of my life. All of my other work flowed from it, because my need to make music is rooted in my own life instincts, hence its historical mobilization against what I’d always discerned as being metaphorical forces of death. In order to recognize this, I had to get to the point where both my life and my death instincts became indistinguishable, because every authentic struggle for social justice is made with the knowledge that the struggle to illuminate the difficulties of other persons’ lives always involves losing oneself in both of them.
Anything less than total identification with such persons leads to work which may be empathetic, but is less than genuine, if not outright trite; perennially sympathetic but unable to articulate what it must be like to be “truly screwed”. This was what had always distinguished my work from more traditional protest music with its slogans, its hyperbole, and its top-down pedagogy. Even though I found such work to be practically ineffective over the long term, I now understood why more people did politics that way, and why so many artists were able to make lifelong careers out of it. It doesn’t reproduce the actual conditions of oppression that such music criticizes in the same manner that mine has always done. But without doing that, its impossible to inspire people to recognize what needs changing, regardless of the price you have to pay to get it done.
It’s not as though I never knew any of these things prior to going through this crisis of creativity. I’ve always been the kind of person who has done work like this precisely because of how it makes the political so thoroughly personal. Somehow, I reasoned, if I can survive coming to grips with the process of doing this kind of work, it would prove to be as instructive and educational as it would succeeding in getting the art out there and forcing other people to pay attention to it.
All of this came to a head late one evening as I prepared for a trip to visit the owner of my former record company in Seattle. On the eve of the release of our last record, a full six months after we’d finished recording it, I felt obligated to carry a new song with me in order to demonstrate that we’d already begun work on our follow-up recording. Having spent the last half a year getting absolutely nowhere, I felt desperate and apprehensive. “What if I showed up without anything to show for this person’s investment in my work,” I worried, as I paced around my room wondering what the hell I was going to do with only eight hours before my flight and not even a pithy sample loaded into my computer yet?
I opened a box of compact discs and 12″ vinyl LPs I’d brought home from a record store earlier that week. It’d been payday, and fearful that I lacked the requisite source material to kick out the proverbial jams, I’d gone to town and spent three hundred dollars picking up vintage political spoken word recordings from the 1960s, and compact discs of contemporary musique concret made with electric guitars. Frantically I fingered the vinyl titles first: A GI’s Tour of Germany: Documentary Sounds from the Free Side of the Berlin Wall, read the title of one record; Oedipus Rex, as Performed by the Amherst College Players read another.
I mused about what it might be like to sample Greek choruses, combining the voices of the Furies with the sounds of GI’s explaining what life was like on the free-market side of the Iron Curtain. But I stopped myself, reasoning that as interesting as this all sounded, it would be far too much work given the short period time I’d unfortunately allotted myself. Feeling like a student cramming last minute for a very important exam, I started to feel anxious. Finally, as my anxiety reached its apotheosis, it yielded the necessary results: Keep The Faith, Baby, a series of recordings of lectures by the former Harlem congressmen Adam Clayton Powell Jr., bearing the seminal speech about maintaining one’s dignity in the face of racism after which the album was named.
“That’s the fucking ticket,” I shouted, as I threw the album on my turntable. Silently, I imported Powell’s “Keep the Faith, Baby” speech into my computer, certain that even though I hadn’t listened to the sermon in years, that it would suffice. Within a matter of minutes, I’d located the other sample materiel I’d need for my purposes: a CD full of experimental guitar noise by Sonic Youth; recordings of dueling guitar synthesizers by Chicago post-rock musician Jim O’Rourke and Japanese punk guitarist KK Null; and a drum track I’d recorded several months ago, played by my friend Luis, drummer for the seminal gay punk band Pansy Division.
By the time the sun started to rise, I’d finished putting together the song. Powell’s voice thundered with words of encouragement and strength. Sonic Youth’s guitarists, distorted and processed beyond recognition, ebbed and flowed as though commanded by the power of Powell’s words, O’Rourke and Null’s instruments sounding as though they were a medieval church organ filling in for an absent backing choir. Luis’ Promethean drums followed, wrapping themselves around every single one of Powell’s beautifully articulated, inspired syllables, making them sound not only more forceful, but warmly received by an overly appreciative audience. Delighted beyond words with the results, I made a cassette copy of the track, popped it into my bag, and drove my truck at breakneck speed to meet my departing flight in Oakland.
That same evening, after playing the foghorn in the backing band for the cantankerous, drunk British rock critic Everett True, who belted out his one and only Sub Pop single “Do Nuts” in a thick Cockney accent to an equally inebriated and gobbing crowd of Seattle’s grunge elite, our label owner and I drove around town stoned, looking for a place to eat. “Pop the tape in Joel,” he said. “I want to hear the new song.” Proudly, I obliged. As our car careened over the top of Capitol Hill, the drums kicked in, followed by the synths, guitars, and finally the voice of Adam Clayton Powell. Rich’s eyes opened wide, his lips parted, and he turned up the volume as loud as it would go. “You did it Joel,” he yelled. “You finally wrote a song that’s uplifting! Not only that, but it rocks too.” We looked each other in the eye, let out a healthy chuckle and sped off to dinner. “There’s a lot more where that comes from,” I told him. “I’m not sure its going to be called Christal Methodists, but I think I finally found my groove again.”
Author: Joel Schalit is associate editor of Chicago’s Punk Planet magazine, as well as reviews editor for the oldest magazine on the web, Bad Subjects. In his not so spare time Joel writes a dissertation for York University’s Programme in Social and Political Thought, and infrequent articles for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Christal Methodists’ albums can be found at Insound.com, or can be heard at Kolazhnikov.com.