Aural Fixation: What Really Constitutes A ‘Joyful Noise’?

Aural Fixation - Large

Whether or not you are not a fan of gospel music or are even well-versed (har) in the genre, almost everyone has experienced the transcendent nature of music, no matter what style you may have been listening to at the time. For some, that experience comes from listening to a choir of people praise God, for others it can happen in the middle of a Muse concert when Matt Bellamy hits that opening refrain on “Butterflies and Hurricanes” (or maybe that was just me.) While gospel music certainly has its own distinct sound, the feeling it works to evoke in its listeners can be felt through almost any type of music, making gospel an almost fluid genre that many different styles can run through. Even if you prefer rock or rap, it’s more than likely you’ve heard a gospel tune or two over the years, or at least heard the presence of a gospel choir.

Popular music has long been a fan of bringing in gospel choirs to accompany performances to help elevate the experience for audiences. And it is hard to deny the impact and effect hearing a group of people singing in harmony can have on one’s ears. One of the more popular songs featured in writer/director Todd Graff‘s Joyful Noise is Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” which is fitting seeing as the lyrics have a message of selflessness and bettering yourself as a person. While the beat and instrumentation (and Jackson’s performance of it) made this song a hit that is still played on the radio today, it also works as a gospel song and it was hard to listen to Olivia (Keke Palmer) performing it with her choir in Joyful Noise and not get goose bumps. Even Jackson himself had a gospel choir back him up when performing “Man In The Mirror” at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Paul McCartney’s more pop-styled “Maybe I’m Amazed” also worked as a gospel duet between Olivia and Randy (Jeremy Jordan), but one in which you would need to interpret the lyrics as being amazed by a higher power rather than another person.

Shows like Glee have made choirs a bit more mainstream and Fox’s weekly trip to the high school choir room has made mash-ups of songs (like Gene Kelly’s “Singing In The Rain” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) popular (with the iTunes download history to prove it). In the beginning of Joyful Noise, newly appointed choir director Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) and Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) are wary of performing more popular songs for fear that it will send the wrong message and Vi Rose even reins in her own daughter (Olivia) when her solo gets a bit too “Christina” [Aguilera], noting that she should be an instrument of God and not put the focus on herself when performing.

While I think certain pop songs can work in a gospel choir setting, I certainly agree that others would not be an appropriate fit. Which is why discovering that the choir’s final performance suddenly featured not only Usher’s “Yeah” and Chris Brown’s “Forever,” but the song’s lyrics had also been changed, leaving me more than a bit shocked (and this time not in the “I suddenly got goose bumps” way). Of course changing the lyrics to popular songs is not a new tactic, but taking a song that is originally about picking a girl up in the club and taking her home and then altering a few key words to make it seem like the song is praising God left me feeling uncomfortable rather than moved.

“Forever” (as sung by Dolly Parton) was a bit more of an easy pill to swallow, especially since the song has been immortalized via YouTube as the entrance song (and dance) for one couple’s wedding. But again, the song ended up taking me out of the moment rather than drawing me into it. A gospel choir singing, “Up in the church with my homies, trying to get a lil’ praise on” (instead of, “Up in the club with my homies, tryin’ to get a lil’ V-I”) will always sound wrong to my ears. Granted this medley was set up around Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” which is a song whose music (and lyrics) work in a gospel setting, but the pop music that was mixed in (and altered) took away from the overall impact of the main song.

Certainly everyone has their own taste and style when it comes to music and a gospel hymn that may lift one person up may be a feeling that is found through industrial metal for someone else. But for a film that nearly had the record scratch to a halt when Randy dropped the word “bitch” in the middle of church, I was shocked when barely an hour later they had him rolling around on stage singing about being “ready to blow” and then dropping to his knees. Feeling the spirit or feeling moved by music (no matter what the style) is a fairly universal experience and I do think certain styles can cross over and be interpreted by gospel choirs, but taking a song meant for the club and throwing it into the church may be stretching things a bit far.

The soundtrack for Joyful Noise is available through WaterTower Music.

  1. “Not Enough” – Dolly Parton & Queen Latifah
  2. “Man In The Mirror” – Keke Palmer
  3. “Maybe I’m Amazed” – Jeremy Jordan & Keke Palmer
  4. “In Love” – Kirk Franklin
  5. “Fix Me Jesus” – Queen Latifah
  6. “From Here To The Moon And Back” – Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson & Jeremy Jordan
  7. “I’m Yours” – Keke Palmer, DeQuina Moore & Angela Grovey
  8. “Mighty High” – Karen Peck
  9. “That’s The Way God Planned It” – Ivan Kelley, Jr.
  10. “Higher Medley” – Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Angela Grovey, DeQuina Moore & Andy Karl
  11. “He’s Everything” – Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan, Andy Karl & DeQuina Moore
  12. “Joyful Noise Suite” – Mervyn Warren

What does gospel music mean to you? Do you mind if the original lyrics of a song are changed to fit the point of view of the performer or style of music they are singing?

Allison has always been fascinated by the power music has when paired with an image – particularly its effect in film. Thanks to a background in recording and her days spent licensing music to various productions (including, of course, movies), Allison can usually be found sticking around to see all the songs noted in a film’s credits and those listening to her iTunes inevitably ask, “What movie is this song from?”

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