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Your Own Kind of Music

When going through some of my mother’s papers, I discovered a very old church newsletter she had kept.  That particular issue featured a column in which the members of the preschool student school class had been asked what they liked best about church.  Various pious and Jesusy answers were to be found, of course—and then (the reason presumably she had kept it) there was my answer: “singing and cookies.”

I’m not sure much has changed.

To this day, one of the things that ministers most to me is singing in church.   There’s just something about singing with other people (and by singing, I mean listening as well, especially when folks around here produce such robust harmonies.) Congregational singing—the music, the lyrics (and the theology embedded therein), the doing it together—is fundamentally church for me.  It’s no mistake, I think, that one of the only activities that seems guaranteed in heaven is making music together.

So, I went with some eagerness to see a recent documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, a fascinating examination of the lives and careers of several back-up singers.   (You can watch the trailer here).

One of the great pleasures of the film is the showcasing of these women and their incredible voices.  But there’s a tension: while the film wants to celebrate the undeniable talents of these women, it also seems to want us to lament that they “didn’t make it.” 

And it’s true: one wonders at the vagaries of gender, race, connections, timing—and sheer chance—that seemed to work against these women being more widely known.  Why did stardom elude them?  Especially when their talent is so incontrovertible.  It doesn’t seem fair.

But maybe we’re asking the wrong questions?  Isn’t that really saying that one job is more significant (because it gets more recognition) than the others (or a version of the disgruntled foot in 1 Corinthians 12–which doesn’t feel valued because it’s not a hand).  Are we saying that those that work in the background are somehow less because the spotlight doesn’t shine on them?  That singing lead is more worthy than singing together?  At one point in the film, Stevie Wonder humorously demonstrates how his music simply wouldn’t work without the singers who surround him—it would just be a series of random “uhhs” and “ahhs,” not the rich call and response they all achieve together. 

And what is “making it,” anyway?  The film implies that because (with one notable exception) none of the women had long solo careers, that because none of them had achieved “household name” status, that there was something sad in what they have done.  So fame is the standard? 

One woman in the film complicated that easy narrative, however—and she emerged (for me, at least) as the most inspiring person in the film.  It is indisputable that Lisa Fischer has an incredible voice.  (Have a listen here, for example, or here).  She has sung with pretty much anyone you can name.  She has won a Grammy.  She tours with the Rolling Stones—and has on every tour since 1989. 

More importantly, though, of all the women profiled in the film, she was gracious and clearly at ease with herself.  She didn’t seem to have internalized that she was less talented (or less of a person) because she wasn’t the headliner.  She seemed full of joy.  And clearly loved to sing any time she got the chance.  Didn’t matter where or with whom. 

May the same be said of us.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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