The Mormon market and the passion/pop gulf

Last month, Seth Godin wrote a post that both illuminates and complicates the realities for Mormon arts and culture. He outlines what he calls the passion/pop curve (make sure you click on the figure in the post to make it bigger so you can actually read it). The curves live on two axes — the first is the number of users/customers/fans. The second relates to content and brand. One one end you have edgy/obsessed and on the other you have vapid/trite. As Godin explains:

That bell curve to the left represents acceptance by the focused/excited/tastemaking community. Those are the people who love microbeers and haute couture and Civil War memorabilia. Like all market curves, there’s a sweet spot. Go too nutsy on us ($90,000 turntables, for example) and even the committed will flee. Go too pop, though, and we’ll avoid you as well.

And…

The bell curve on the right, you’ll notice, is bigger. This is a second market, a bigger market, the market of pop. These are the folks who go to the Olive Garden for a nice Italian meal instead of the authentic place down the street. They too want something that’s not too edgy and not too (in their opinion) trite.

And here’s the kicker

The reason you need to care is that gap in the middle. Every day, millions of businesses get stuck in that gap. They either move to the right in search of the masses or move to the left in search of authenticity, but they compromise. And they get stuck with neither.

One of the issues for the Mormon market is that we layer on a limiter to the graph — that is, not only do you have to deal with the passion/pop curve, but that the number of users is limited to those who buy into the Mormonism of a product (or of the product’s creator) as a viable category. Or in other words, the numbers on the y-axis go down. You have the same edgy/vapid issues that come with the x-axis, but it’s harder to hit the target because the y-axis has shrunk. This is less of an issue for those hitting for the pop curve because it’s always bigger, and this is definitely true of the Mormon market, e.g. Deseret Book. But even there, you still have to make the case to the consumer: you need this particular product because it appeals to your tastes AND it’s Mormon.  You have to sell them (and reassure them) on both aspects of the product. Continue reading “The Mormon market and the passion/pop gulf”

The illusory allure of clean culture

The online magazine Slate recently posted Hanna Rosin’s review of Daniel Radosh’s new book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. Her (and Radosh’s) descriptions of Christian attempts to create safe knock-offs of popular forms of culture and entertainment will sound strikingly familiar to anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge of the Mormon market.

For example, Rosin writes:

A Christian can now buy books, movies, music–and anything else lowbrow to middlebrow–tailor-made for his or her sensibilities. Worried that American popular culture leads people–and especially teenagers–astray, the Christian version is designed to satisfy all the same needs in a cleaner form.

The review is a must-read for Mormons. And it sounds like the book is too. I have already ordered it from my local library (I’m not alone in my interest in it though — I probably won’t get my hands on a copy until June). I’m going to get to some of the more choice bits of the review in a moment, but first a reminder: Although it’s tempting to write off the Mormon cultural project as a weak imitation of the Christian one (and in some areas it is just that), there are important differences. I’m not going to go into a lengthy treatment of them — but AMV has been exploring them throughout its’ whole history. Not so much in contrast to the Christian market (although we have done that from time-to-time), but more in the more positive vein of pointing out examples and exploring possibilities of a unique, yet not disconnected form of Mormon culture that both celebrates and critiques our own history and practice and beliefs as well as those of the broader American (and other) culture(s). Continue reading “The illusory allure of clean culture”

Mormons mourning Postum: a consumer culture post

My youngest sister recently shared the distressing news that the toasted wheat drink Postum has been discontinued. Created by Seventh-day Adventist health foods icon C.W. Post, the drink would appear to be a victim of the continued caffeinization of America. From what I can tell from Internet searches and anecdotal evidence, it would seem that the only people that drank it are Mormons, health food nuts (although Postum was hurt in this market by alternative toasted grain drinks that aren’t quite so American and mass-produced), and coffee lovers that were forced to go with a non-caffeine and/or gentler-on-the-stomach hot drink because of health issues. Continue reading “Mormons mourning Postum: a consumer culture post”

Why we need Mormon Culture

A week ago the Washington Post took the unusual step of writing about the LDS Church in Nigeria, and in the process made a very interesting characterization of the Church there:

Many scholars say the Mormons’ decision not to adopt more local customs — such as incorporating African drumming or dancing into Sunday services — is one reason the church has not experienced the same remarkable growth as other denominations. Pentecostals, a lively evangelical Christian movement, can draw half a million worshipers to their all-night services here.

Like many LDS Church members, I’m not bothered by the lack of dancing and drumming in Sunday services — quite to the contrary, I suspect I would roll my eyes at such affectations, or feel uncomfortable somehow. It doesn’t seem worshipful to me, but then its not my culture.

But I am curious about what the decision means about our doctrine and culture. Continue reading “Why we need Mormon Culture”

Guest post: Eugene Woodbury on humor and the literary novel

Eugene Woodbury recently sent in an e-mail to the AML List reacting to a recent commentary on the modern literary novel. I was taken by his ideas and asked him to expand a bit on the e-mail for an AMV guest post — here is the result (Wm Morris):

“What is wrong with the modern literary novel?” asks Julian Gough in the current issue of Prospect Magazine. “Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?” The problem, he argues, is that we’ve forgotten that comedy is the true, default state of how art should react to the human condition, not tragedy:

At the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life. But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high . . . And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.I find this perspective highly amenable to a Mormon theology that posits a God possessed of human empathy. The Mormon God must have a rich sense of been-there, done-that humor to understand the human condition. But we’ve been seduced by the same temptations: “If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode.”

This leads Gough to the one major error in the essay, when he states that, “The Bible, from apple to Armageddon, does not contain a single joke.”

This is an understandable mistake. The Bible is full of wry and bawdy humor. But we’ve been programmed to ignore and misinterpret it. In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood notes that “we habitually think of [Jesus] as mild in manner, endlessly patient, grave in speech and serious . . . [but] a prosy literalism misses the wry humor . . . and the point of the teaching.” Continue reading “Guest post: Eugene Woodbury on humor and the literary novel”

Pop: Mormon cricket mating habits

Or proof that you never know what a Google News alert will drag in…

From a round-up review of children’s books that appeared in the Oct. 9 edition of the Globe and Mail — an example of one of the facts included in the recently-published Animals and Their Mates: How Animals Attract, Fight for and Protect Each Other:

“Female Mormon crickets fight each other, vying to be the one to receive the ‘choosy’ male’s sperm package.”

Pop: Mormons are très Canadian

The October 2004 issue of In Focus (a publication of the National Association of Theatre Owners [hey! Trade mags are ultra-hip so you can keep the snide comments to yourself]) features an interview with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The interview ends with this exchange:

“Between “Orgazmo” and the “South Park” Mormon episode, do you fear layovers in Utah?

MATT: No. Mormons love us. Not all Mormons, but Mormons love it. They’re like Canadians — they just like being paid attention to.

I am fascinated by Mormonism, and I think we’ll probably end up doing a movie or something about Mormonism, because it’s just too good. It’s too funny.”

Yes, I admit it. I do indeed yearn for the attention of Messrs. Stone and Parker. Because I’m too good, and too funny, and darn it I deserve a marionette of my own.

My thanks to Clark Goble of Mormon Metaphysics for the link.

ALSO: I have no comment on the whole Canadian comparison.

Pop: Mormon artists and membership status, part II

The days have slipped by, but I finally have found the time to take up the third question I posed on my initial post on Mormon artists and membership status. That is: Should an artist’s Mormon-ness be a factor when a Mormon decides which artistic products to consume?

I’m going to answer this question by laying out three different position, well aware that in so doing I will probably end up misrepresenting all three (including my own).

It does matter: The world is filled with art that is immoral and objectionable. Hollywood has gone off the deep end. The standards that used to keep objectionable things off of broadcast TV have eroded away. You just can’t trust most non-LDS artists to produce works that are consonant with LDS standards. Although there may be a few non-LDS sources of art that are okay, most are not, and it’s simply safer to stick with art that is produced for the LDS and/or ‘family’ market. Therefore, the best thing to do is to limit yourself to works created by trusted sources and sold by trusted retailers [chiefly, but not limited to, Deseret Book and Seagull Book & Tape].

Just as important: LDS artists create work that is inspiring. Why wouldn’t someone want to partake mainly of art that affirms gospel values?

This type of Mormon consumer does seem to exist — or at least so the LDS market suggests in terms of what works sell and how publishers and booksellers market their products.

I think it is a valid stance to take. I personally believe that Mormon consumers should be as omnivorous as possible in terms of the type of works they consume — and especially in trying out genres and modes of art that they don’t know very well. It’s easy to get stuck in only reading speculative fiction or only listening to country western music, etc. However, I also understand why some consumers set rather narrow boundaries on the type of content they consume although my personal opinion is that art with a certain amount of explicitness can be just as moral as art that is sanitized.

It doesn’t matter: Mormon consumers should judge a work by what it is — not by who created it. Art can be powerful and entertaining no matter the source — active LDS, inactive (or disaffected) LDS, or gentile.

The LDS market produces rather immature, sentimental and/or didactic works and all of those in a narrow genre range.

When it comes to artists who are Mormon, but don’t focus on the LDS market, well, who cares? If they are good and you like what they do, fine. But there’s no reason to support them just because they are members.

And an artist’s membership status definitely shouldn’t matter. After all, people can be hypocrites. Artists have lived double lives before in order to have a career in a certain market (like, for instance, Christian rock/country musicians).

I find this argument quite compelling, and I know quite a few Mormons who follow this model. And to be clear — this model is not simply one espoused by those who are academically-trained and are into ‘elite’ art. There are quite a few Mormons who ignore the Mormon market and LDS artists of any market and just go with what they like — whether that be Jane Austen novels, Wagnerian operas or the films of Steven Spielberg.

However, this is not the model that dictates my habits as a consumer of art.

It does matter: It matters to me. And not just because of some sense of ethnic pride or wanting to support other members of my tribe (although those factors probably play a role as well). It matters because I want to consume art that comes from the experience of being a Mormon — whether that art overtly deals with that experience or not. I’m a narcissist. I want to see traces of myself and my belief and culture in artistic works. Of course, I also hope that art created by Mormons will help me better understand myself and other Mormons.

I’m interested in works created for the Mormon market as well as those that aim for a national audience even though I have misgivings about both markets.

Now that doesn’t seem like that controversial of a position — but I’m going to take it a step further.

The artist’s membership status also matters to me.

Yes, I consume and take an active interest in art by artists who are no longer active in the church or whose Mormon background is mainly cultural. But I find that I’m most enthusiastic about art — and by that I mean those cultural products that have high aesthetic value (I’m not interested in didactic art ) — that is created by active, believing member (or at least those who appear to be so).

Essentially, I’m fascinated by the idea of literary discourse colliding with Mormon belief and practice and have this hope that they can do so in productive ways.

No, actually if I’m being honest with myself, my desires are a little more base than that. I have a deep passion for artistic discourse and at the same time I resent it. I also have a deep belief in the gospel. My hope then is that works that are created by a believing Mormon will subvert artistic discourse while at the same time being morally and aesthetically rich enough (i.e. successful as artistic discourse) to validate LDS beliefs and practices as a vibrant, legitimate source for art.

Now, as I’ve written before, I’m not sure about the whole idea of art and the Holy Spirit so I’m not speaking from a belief that LDS artists can create great art via inspiration — but I do think that an artist who lives in accordance with LDS standards puts him or herself in an interesting place for creating art, a place I hope to be in, a place that I hope can be productive.

All this is not to say that I would stop reading an author’s novels if I discovered she or he stopped attending church. Nor do I believe that artists who don’t live LDS standards are incapable of producing powerful, exciting, moral works of art.

It’s just that when I look deep down, as much as it bothers me at times, I can’t escape this feeling that it should matter, it does matter and it will matter. And because of that, an artist’s Mormon-ness is a factor in what art I choose to consume.

ALSO: The Baron of Deseret has responded to all three questions. As usual, his cultural commentary is quite good.

Pop: Mormon artists and membership status

Mark over at Mo’ Boy Blog has the news that rock musician Tal Bachman has publicly announced his request to have his name removed from the membership rolls of the LDS Church (Orson’s Telescope and Our Thoughts also have coverage). I’m not a fan of Bachman’s work so I can’t say that I took this news as hard as Mark did — other than the fact that I’m saddened to hear of anyone lose his or her faith (LDS or otherwise). But I find it interesting that Bachman felt it necessary to explain this change on his Website.

Here’s an excerpt from the announcement (which is part of his bio):

“Well-read, and a thinker by nature, Tal had become increasingly puzzled and disturbed by the mounting evidence suggesting that the founding events of Mormonism had been fabricated.”

The whole bio is an interesting read — Bachman is presented as going through this whole painful process of extricating himself from both his record label and his faith, but emerging stronger and re-dedicated and with (of course) a new album.

The question for me is why Bachman felt the need to include his relationship with Mormonism in the narrative. Part of it may indeed be a sincere desire on his part to share his personal journey with his fans. But I would guess that part of it is also to give his Mormon fans fair warning. To sift the true fans from those who were mainly in to him because of his Mormon celebrity status.

Which raises a set of larger issues for me:

First: Why does an artist’s Mormon-ness matter to members of the Church?

Second: Why is an artist’s official relationship to the Church a matter of speculation and gossip (c.f. Neil LaBute)? Why does it even come up?

Third: Should an artist’s Mormon-ness be a factor when a Mormon decides on artistic products to consume?

I’m going to attempt to address the first two issues today and then follow-up later with my thoughts on the third.

The answer to the first question seems rather obvious. Like others, we want to support members of our clan because we feel in some way that their achievements reflect on our clan as a whole. Mormon artists validate our way of life. We also feel a kinship with them because of our shared values and history. Perhaps more importantly, our artists (and other celebrities) prove that a Mormon can achieve at a high level despite (in the eyes of the world) and because of (in our eyes) their Mormon-ness. In this, we are no different than any other ethnic group.

And as with other groups, the question of whether or not an artist should/can really be counted as part of the fold is a matter of speculation, discussion and gossip. The difference for Mormons is that there is a rather clear demarcation and one that is based on behavior rather than heritage. One is either a member of the LDS Church in good standing (or trying to be in good standing) or not. Obviously this demarcation doesn’t matter for some (and it must be a source of frustration for “cultural Mormons” who feel connected to some sense of Mormon identity and history, but not to the body of the Church). But the distinction can be made. And I think it goes beyond one’s status as active LDS or not. We also fret about actions and words by our Mormon celebrities that may signal that they are having trouble “living the gospel” (and I include myself in this — while I may be more liberal than many Mormon consumers, I am not immune to these concerns). I think of the worry over Steve Young’s unmarried status, Marie Osmond’s divorce, SHeDAISY’s (or any young, female actress or singer) attire, etc.

It’s very strange. But to be expected. After all, we are constantly warned about the temptations of the world and especially of the American entertainment complex. Of course we’re going to be concerned about those that enter such treacherous waters while at the same time hope for their success.

I’d like to dismiss these issues as the inevitablity of group dynamics, of building group identity. I’d like to be able to cavalierly state that I don’t care if an athlete, politician or (most importantly for me) artist is Mormon or not and what their membership status is. But I can’t. I still cling to the perhaps naive belief that being a believing Mormon has some sort of effect on the art one produces. That it counts for something.

More on that in part II.

Pop: An Un-faith-promoting story

Off-hand Mormon missionary references seem to be popping up in a lot of books these days. Or at least that’s what my seem to suggest.

My favorite so far occurs in a recent round-up review of travel books that ran in the New Zealand Herald. The following anecdote is included in the review for a book by Graeme Lay titled The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest: Travel Tales of the South Pacific:

“Escaping from the Miss Ha’apai beauty contest in Tonga – which is rather less exciting than the Miss Tutti Frutti — Lay finds himself confronted in the darkness by two ‘very large young men” demanding in menacing tones, ‘Where you goin’?

Thinking quickly Lay replies, ‘In what I hope passes for a Utah accent: ‘I’m on my way to church. The night service. I’m a Mormon missionary.’

A pause, then: ‘Yeah? Where’s your bro? Youse always goes in twos.’

‘He’s … ah … meeting the bishop.’

‘The bishop?’

‘Yes.’

There is silence for a few seconds. Then the two figures move aside, melting into the blackness of the night.”

I’ll admit to a moment of discomfort at this cynical misuse of the missionary mantle [Woah! Where’d that come from? Must be my recent readings of so many Elder Maxwell talks]. But that was quickly supplanted by a feeling of pride and moderate amusement. The encounter, after all, seems like the type of faith-promoting story a member of the Church would share. The missionaries are confronted by local toughs. They think about claiming to not be who they are, but instead boldly state that they are Mormon missionaries. The local toughs back down.

Of course, Lay gets the details wrong — night service? But even though this is an Un-faith-promoting story [it’s not an ‘anti-‘ or ‘contra-‘ faith-promoting story — it’s Un, like 7-up is the Uncola], it’s kind of cool that missionaries get respect from large, menacing young Tongans — granted this is Tonga we’re talking about. But still.

My only question — how come the local toughs have a New Jersey mob accent?