During the past six days, leading up to the next six days, two different discussions from two very different outlets brought up topics that could be mutually joined by including Christmas in conversation. One discussion was more generalized and presented by the recently rescued, Australian classical music magazine, Limelight, asking the value of sacred music in a secular age. The other was a brief, televised interview segment presented by Varney & Co., fleshing out one (already very successful) woman and her decision to change careers –with the new direction being a route to success via the writing and recording of Christmas music. That woman is Elizabeth Chan and her current Christmas “startup” endeavor is with the album “Everyday Holidays.”
Returning to the article from Limelight and answering their question directly, I do believe sacred music still has value in today’s secular society. Additionally,I would venture to question why things still become somewhat hesitant among the general population, should someone suggest that sacred music could gain a more prominent spot of appreciation amidst every other kind of music – especially when it comes to music in the context of a celebration like Christmas.
Sacred music’s value in the world –practical, religious, emotional and artistic– could grow and its existence could be framed by a two-way door, rather than what often feels like a one-way door for the sacred to be sucked out but the commercial to be brought in.
Let’s elaborate on this:
Ms. Chan, who is extremely well versed in the business world, a strong marketer and holds a well of useful experience with complex professional relations after her time with Condé Naste, expresses the following sentiments around what “Christmas classic” means to her:
“I started my label like any startup. I had a passion for this product –in my case it was Christmas music– and I went after it.”
Interestingly, even though Chan sees enough leeway for potential in Christmas music that she wants to base a whole career off of it, when asked if she was “in this [project] for money or to make a mark,” Chan not only stated that with this kind of music, most songs won’t make the successful cut, but, she also approached them from a very finance-focused angle:
“I feel like, for Christmas music, you’re not going to have that big win, big hit, like most music songs or uh, singles do. Christmas songs are annuties and they really become classics over time.”
If Chan’s interview is watched through a business and marketing lens, it reveals timeless insight on how to approach this “product” she wants to explore. Beyond looking through this particular lens though, isn’t there something odd about the fact that the more sacred half of such music remains marginalized to the point of needing to question and evaluate its value in modern society?
(Side note: The tracks on Chan’s album are indeed built on solid hooks with catchy songwriting and the album’s ‘production with a polish finish,’ are nothing at which to shake a stick. This isn’t about calling the record itself a “bad” work and I give kudos to Chan for going after a personal passion.)
Several individuals, coming from different faiths and or varying degrees of religious devotion/lack thereof, chimed in on Limelight’s query and the range of responses makes it clear that sacred music can be appreciated for a variety of reasons; harking back to a song’s religious intents or not. A few excerpts below:
“…It is my belief that every human being can be touched by beauty. A non- believer, if touched by beauty, can be led to investigate where music and words lead us and can come to faith, knowledge and harmony. My personal faith deepens my musical experience because it leads me to find the perspective in which my whole life is led, and to see the beauty of music and the experience that goes beyond words.”
-Dennis Hart: Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne
“…At the more extreme end of the religious spectrum, music that has been written with a view to celebrate another divinity though [can be] a problem for us because it’s participating in someone else’s worship. Much of the music we listen to was written for our shared God and many of the people who were writing it were under the patronage of clergymen despite being profound atheists and hedonists themselves…”
Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence: Chief Minister of Sydney’s Great Synagogue
“The purpose of sacred music is to give delight and create drama. You don’t have to believe in Valhalla to be moved by the Ring. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be equally moved by the St Matthew Passion. I think the Crucifixion is the greatest story ever told, but it is a story, and it is not an accident that it has been the subject of some of the great art of the Western world. What gives it its power is the genius of artists to connect it with human emotions.”
David Marr: Author and social commentator
Unless a person’s aversion to sacred material comes from aspects like specific tempos, instrumentation or arrangements, or something relating to the functional application of the music itself, (e.g. music reserved for specific ceremonies not to be altered or paraded in non-relevant contexts) there are definitely individuals who look past societal avoidance of the sacred genre’s full colors, so, it would make sense that Christmas songs would be able to follow suit, one would think.
No one likes micro-analyzing semantics but if one calls it Christmas music, that designation has sacred origins. Christmas music is supposed to be rooted in connection to celebrating what is undeniably a crucial Christian holiday at its core. If the argument against that point is that, “Well, Christmas is celebrated by many people who fall along all levels of the “I am religious” spectrum; including non-religious folk, who still wish to acknowledge and celebrate universal positive values like love, peace and goodwill toward men, then what’s to stop more people, religious or not, from giving the same response when an appreciation or affinity for writing music of a more overtly sacred nature comes up? Essentially, depending on the words, imagery and people referenced in a Christmas song one might write, it can definitely take on a more or less intense, but still sacred, face.
Shifting back to the beginning of Chan’s interview for a moment, the question of, “What was Christmas about [your single “FA LA LA”] though? It’s all, “Happy holidays”?” Chan explains that she, “really wanted to pen a song that really spoke to how we all share the way that we celebrate holidays with family and friends.”
The above response prompts me to offer this thought that could go to both Ms. Chan and Limelight for future consideration:
What about making sacred Christmas music that gains more acknowledgement and new life in society as a type of hybrid but still stays true to itself?
There are plenty of Christmas carols* that irrefutably represent, and call attention to, sacred people, places and events but have become such staples in everyday space outside of churches and Christian services, that they are also accepted as commercial. Thusly, these songs are transformed on some level; coming to be regarded in a more secular, and subsequently more universal, way.
In the case of Ms. Chan’s create-a-classic aspirations, there is no reason a driven person such as herself could not eventually pen a new record that could both hit upon the marketing observations she mentions in her interview and remain firmly in a religious framework, all while still coming away with the ability to earn a lasting place among Christmas season repertoire for enjoyment in a secular environment. One great example of a song that manages this is Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene’s, “Mary Did You Know?”, first released in 1992, eventually to be covered and released by popularly recognized artists like Clay Aiken and CeeLo Green.
If an atheist walks into a church and sits in a pew, am I going to ask them why they walked in the front door? No. If a newly composed Christmas song describes religious elements of, well, Christmas, am I going to ask how religious you are, or aren’t, if you listen to and enjoy it? No.
So, regardless of Elizabeth Chan’s level of religious devotion, perhaps she is onto something in her quest and enthusiasm for writing within this niche of music. Should it be her and or others going forward, maybe more songwriters will eventually try their hand at crafting and marketing Christmas compositions but with less of a compulsion to stay within the societally created set of sacred/secular musical boundaries and the stereotypes personal appeal of either tends to generate. Then a revisitation to the question of, “What’s the value of sacred music in a secular age?” would really be interesting…