The best and brightest of those registered with the American Gospel Music Association recently celebrated the 50th annual GMA, Dove Awards.
The Gospel Music Association began in 1964, with the purpose of ‘serving as the face and voice of the Gospel/Christian music community, dedicating itself to exposing, promoting and celebrating the Gospel through the music of all styles.’
The first Dove Awards ceremony was held in 1969. The awards showcase G.M.A talent and provide a window into the world of Christian music for the broader culture. There are 5 divisions catering for 38 categories, all helping G.M.A ‘accomplish its mission by publicly honouring those persons who have demonstrated excellence or significant accomplishment in the field of Christian/Gospel music.’
Over the years categories have merged, been revised or eliminated, presumably because of style changes or lack of admissions from a particular genre.
For a 50th Anniversary event, things were for the most part uneventful. There were replays of bloopers from previous presenters in between breaks, but the only tribute was a quasi-quartet performance which included a sampling of work from MercyMe, Shirley Caesar, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Ce Ce Winans and Amy Grant.
Despite applause on the night for its wide diversity, some categories from previous years were noticeably absent. “Hard Music” and “Modern Rock/Alternative Song of the Year” were nowhere to be seen. Neither were any performances to mark previous winners who fell into those categories. Such as, in-the-world-not-of-it heavy weight’s P.O.D., who won Hard Music Recorded Song of the Year for Satellite, from their album of the same name.
The lack of any hard rock, alternative or heavy metal categories was compounded by how contemporary “worship” music dominated the night. Showing that feel-good, polished worship, sells far better, than hardened lyrics from a broken heart, vomiting out a sigh towards God, by Spirit-led convicted individuals. I now better understand why Audio Adrenaline decided to ditch alternative rock for the contemporary worship bubble, and why Kevin Max parted ways with them over creative differences.
Now before I get accused of being an organ loving, grumpy curmudgeon, nostalgic for the 90’s Jesus Freak revolutionary era, hear me out. I like Kari Jobe, I’m a fan of Crowder, and I was among the first to predict how huge Lauren Daigle’s album was going to be (just ask my wife).
My problem isn’t with contemporary worship songs, even if that part of the art-commerce-ministry industry, is now largely dominated by cliché sounds, repetitive lyrics, visible tattoos and skinny jeans. The problem is a lack of depth in the diversity of music considered worthy of a Christian’s heartfelt attention.
As Kanye West proved with the content and straight-up release of his latest album, ‘Jesus is King’, depth and raw, well thought out lyrics win.
Carefully placed tattoos or all the right buzzwords in lyrics, skinny jeans, and a safe cliché sound, are no guarantee of authenticity or theological legitimacy. It sells, and as such may help you win a Dove Award.
The absence of metal, alternative and hard rock categories undermine the diversity of the awards. Bands may have rejected invitations, but if the excuse is that artists who could fill these categories couldn’t be found, I’d say the G.M.A organisers didn’t look hard enough, and I’d question if they’d bothered to look at all.
Back in the late nineties my coming-of-age, Guns n’ Roses, loving self would have seen the Dove Awards as a sanitised, narcissistic celebration of privileged talent, and tuned out. By all appearances, the awards lend themselves to a theology of glory, a world away from the grit and sweat in what Lutherans rightly call a theology of the Cross.
There was little to no sanctis cry de profundis which screams through the darkness, a holy cry up from the depths.
The kind of music Charles Spurgeon called startling and stimulating, saying, ‘my heart, be not thou always craving soft music…life is a conflict, and thou needest battle music to thee up to fighting pitch.’ For there is a ‘time for the trumpet and the pipe!’[i]
One of the only exceptions to this was Toby Mac and Ledger, who kicked off the ceremony with the Neon Feather, remixed, collaborative version of T.M.’s song ‘The Elements’.
Where were Narnia, Skillet, Lacey Sturm, Stryper, Guardian, Jars of Clay, Kevin Max, Sleeping Giant, Thousand Foot Krutch, Theocracy, or Decipher Down, among others?
Despite the applause for diversity, the Dove Awards wasn’t as musically diverse as it could have been.
Asked why Heavy Metal, Hard Rock, Alternative and Progressive Rock categories are absent or never have been, Director of Sanctuary International, a vibrant multi-platform Christian ministry to the Metal Community, Pastor Bob Beeman, said:
The Christian Industry stopped being about real ministry a long time ago. Somewhere along the line we replaced the real hard-core ministry aspect of it with “feel good” lyrics and musical style. Christian Metal doesn’t sell as well either. Not in Christian Book Stores anyway. It is difficult to promote there. Many Mom and Pop Christian Book Stores still have a problem with it. It is the same thing we have dealt with since the beginning in the 80’s. But honestly, I am happy we are not included in GMA. I have always felt our strongest ministry is OUTSIDE of the Christian Industry. That is why we have fought so hard all of these years to work with secular record companies to take the music where it really needs to go!
The same “ethic of niceness”, its smiles, hi-fives and its polished bumper sticker version of Christianity, that I rejected in Churches as a teen, who showed no care or interest in me because my baggage didn’t fit the profitable profile, seems dismally alive and well. The kind of Churches where putting on a good show is more important than follow through or theological substance.
As for diversity, there was a lot it, both ethnically and musically. However, I walked away with the impression that G.M.A could have done better.
As if to make my point, Dove award winner and long-time member, Kirk Franklin, was angered when the televised version ‘cut out his outspoken remarks on Atatiana Jefferson, the 28-year-old who was shot and killed in her home by a Fort Worth police officer.’
Franklin is now said to be boycotting the event over the decision. For which, GMA President and Executive Director Jackie Patillo, ‘apologized’, even though she made it clear that the edit wasn’t racially motivated. The decision was ‘due to an attempt to fit everything into a 2-hour broadcast window.’
The 50th anniversary of the Dove Awards was a diverse city, just not musically diverse enough. I like the Dove’s, I always have. The sad fact is that this year’s anniversary in no way showcased the wide range of musical talent the Church has had to offer over the year or since the creation of the G.M.A. With the absence of artists to fill key categories, it’s fair to say that this year’s awards didn’t reach the full potential of its own mission statement.
The 50th Dove Awards can be streamed for free from the Trinity Broadcasting Network app, upon signing up for a free account.
(Special note, acknowledging the tragic loss of Toby Mac’s son, Truett, and Mary Stampley, daughter of Gospel singer, Micah, and Heidi Stampley. Caldron Pool staff extend heartfelt sorrow to them, and stand in solidarity and prayer with them during their time of grieving).
“For a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17, ESV
[i] Spurgeon, C.H. 1883. Flowers from a Puritan’s Garden: The Trumpet & the Pipe.