Jazz music can no longer be exclusively claimed by one group or another. While its roots as African American music cannot and should not be obscured, the genre has for many decades been undergoing a process of globalization. Ever since jazz left the United States and transplanted itself in Europe, the music has grown a global audience. Many of the stylistic permutations of jazz have come from places beyond the United States. See, for instance, the advent of Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin jazz, bossa nova, the Afrocentric revivalism of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane’s borrowing from Indian musical forms, the recent avalanche of jazz releases from Scandinavia and Israel, and on and on. Jazz’s rapid development and complexification in the 1950s and 60s mirrored both a politically nervous and globally assertive America and a world increasingly connected and leveled by international capitalism and emerging “Third World” nationalist movements. This globalization has transformed jazz from merely a blues-derived voice for Black America to a genre of music with much more variety but less particularity than it once had. Indeed, a consequence of this globalization is that it has been difficult, I would say foolhardy, to draw clear boundaries around jazz as a genre.
Sons of Kemet is a London-based collective of musicians led by clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Shabaka Hutchings. Hutchings, born in England and raised and educated in classical clarinet in Barbados, expresses through his music a deep connection to the popular music traditions of the Caribbean. Unusually for a jazz group, he is joined by both a tubist, Oren Marshall, and not one but two drummers, Tom Skinnard and Seb Rochford. This unconventional arrangement creates tracks thriving with percussive energy, with Hutchings’ compositions ranging from rhythmically complex but relatively straight-ahead jazz pieces to songs deeply rooted in reggae, dub, and calypso. The band’s pieces on Burn tend to be defined by two conversation partnerships. First, Skinnard and Rochford lay down the beats and rhythms in a remarkably coherent fashion, exchanging ideas and playing off of each other with agility. Second, Hutchings’ various woodwinds engage in a sort of dance with Marshall’s tuba. In the opening track, “All Will Surely Burn,” Marshall largely plays a part similar to that of a bassist, anchoring the composer’s more free-form saxophone improvisations. Most of the album is boisterous and rowdy, with the exception of “Adonia’s Lullaby,” “Song for Galeano,” and “Rivers of Babylon,” the latter of which greatly resembles New Orleans brass band music and features Marshall in a much more dynamic role. Much of the album is produced in a reverb-heavy style reminiscent of dub music, and the long echoes provide a sense of space often missing from the busier tracks. With two drummers, though, even the more contemplative pieces feature distinct and complex rhythms.
Burn is, above all else, an exciting glimpse into how various streams of music can be synthesized and juxtaposed to beautiful effect in the hands of skilled musicians. Drawing on classical training, jazz’s improvisational tradition, and the fiery legacy of Caribbean musical traditions, Sons of Kemet (the name comes from one of the earliest names for Egypt) puts the British Empire’s residue to excellent use. Contextualized with apocalyptic themes and presentation, the album’s fierceness cannot be read as a merely personal expression of anger but as an infectious, carnivalesque protest against history. “Babylon,” as some might know, is in the reggae tradition a pejorative name for the United States. Jazz’s global reach is not neutral, but a sign of American cultural hegemony, which has both enriched music across the world and brought its own share of hardships. Colonial history, which brought so much suffering and conflict, and which still lingers today, paved the way for art like this to happen. While music alone doesn’t point the way toward any lasting reconciliation, it at least shows the flexibility and contested nature of culture, the means by which artists can critique and reconceive their situation. At such a critical time in human history, when the phrase “All Will Surely Burn” has more than a metaphorical urgency, we need music like this.
At last, we return to the world of Spire Comics, that font of unintentional surrealism masquerading as evangelical propaganda. While the last fruit of their labors we studied, Archie’s Sonshine, has, as you might guess, an explicit connection to an established comic series, Spire also created original work. This work tended to be even more explicitly didactic–i.e. it dispenses with any pretense of having a narrative and just shoves the messaging in your eyes. One such example of this is the child-friendly treatise on the divine known as God Is…
While also being written and drawn by Al Hartley, the son of a union buster who composed Sonshine, it acts as more of a teaching tool implicitly targeted at parents who want to explain to their children who God is. Even though I am a tiger and by virtue of that not religious, I admit that I am somewhat fascinated by the idea of God. And I knew that this comic would butcher any account it tried to give of the divine, so I figured this would be one of the more hilarious entries in the Spire Comics canon. I was exactly right. I know, I’m a prophet, but what can I say? Feline intuition.
The comic is thirty-two pages long, excluding the cover and some back material, and most of the pages take a stab at defining God in some way, starting with the phrase “God is.” Let’s experiment a little bit here. Pretend that we have never heard or read anything about God in our entire lives. Suppose that we are intrigued by this character because he (and for the purposes of this article I will be suspending my usual policy of using non-gendered language for God. The God in this comic is definitely a dude.) has been mentioned around you once or twice. You go up to a friend with a puzzled look on your face and ask, “Who is this God?” And your friend beams at you, pulls this comic out of his or her backpack, and pats your shoulder while saying, “All will be made clear to you. Just read this.” I intend to discover who God is using only this comic, which should end up giving us a fairly, shall we say, distinct view of the divine one.
Are our minds thoroughly cleansed? Have we reset our views of God? OK, now it’s time to learn who God is.
The best surprise package I ever received was a pig carcass accidentally FedExed to me from the local slaughterhouse because of a clerical error. I suspect that the comic does not mean this literally, though, since the visuals convey a rather different sense of “surprise package” than the best lunch I ever had.
Well, this is just the first statement. If we don’t take it too literally, we can see that God is something or someone we don’t expect, as well as superlatively good. Apparently, we also “receive” God, so we have some kind of personal relationship with it/him/her. Quite a difference from my relationship with pork chops. I’m sure the comic will clarify in subsequent pages.
The author contrasts God’s unsurpassable greatness with the flaws that other gifts have. Giant sweaters, exploding tricycles, and purple cows with mind crush powers (Seriously, look at that child. That cow’s iron stare is merciless!) are certainly no match for God. Whatever God is. Well, the comic complicates matters by stating that God is a gift but also something or, probably, someone who gives perfect gifts. God is also love. In these first two pages, God has been described as an object, a person, and an abstract concept which names a whole complex of affectionate, romantic, and innumerable other aspects of relationships between people. This love is also a drinkable substance, especially by children with their own coffee mugs. Unfortunately, this page does little to actually clarify or build on the earlier characterization of God as a surprise package. Really, it’s just muddled the issue, though we do know that God is probably a person, albeit one that is very easy to pack up and ship on a rainbow express.
At this point, we still don’t know much about God other than that God gives perfect gifts and is also the best gift we’ve ever gotten. That doesn’t amount to much other than “God is good.” A start, I suppose. Let us continue.
This page is just setup. We know that this God, who is love, a perfect gift-giver, and a great gift, is being contrasted with people who do magic and the racists who come out to watch Arab stereotypes getting summoned from a magic lamp. The next page will solve this riddle.
God possesses immense magical powers. So not only is God the best package we’ve ever gotten, but he’s got those chintzy stage magicians outclassed by a country mile. His powers are rather vaguely defined on this page, however. We can see plenty of animals, but most of them are just chilling, doing their animal things without much interference. Not only this, but we haven’t actually seen a picture of God yet. We can probably infer from the picture that God can magically grow a baby into a mature human being as well as a seedling into a flower. OK, I’m impressed. Never seen either of those at a school pep rally. And if we’re supposed to believe that the lightning is God’s handiwork as well, I agree that we’re dealing with at least an Order of Merlin second class here.
Now we get more detail about God’s immense magical power. God is forcing all of these poor oblivious animals to wag their tails, standing in place helplessly while a car careens toward them from the background. Page five also implies that the animals we saw doing their normal business on the previous page might not be immune from the mind control/blood bending prowess of this mighty magician.
“Who is making that goat stand there on that rock? God is!”
“And that fish? God made it leap with so much love!”
God is also still either invisible or just able to use his magic over a long distance. I guess since he’s making the dogs wag their tails “with so much love” we can feel a little less guilty about animal abuse, but I still find this a petty use for such power, not to mention somewhat cruel and pointless. Maybe what we need is a more critical voice in the comic.
Luckily, the next few pages pose some important questions.
Hold it right there! God has undergone quite the promotion from the first page. At first, God was just the hulking pig corpse lugged onto my front porch. Now he has gone from embodying the concept of love to an animal-controlling, mighty wizard (of love?) to the ruler of the entire world. If what this kid is saying is correct, that means that our entire world is owned and controlled by a wizard with a fetish for manipulating animals’ minds. I suppose we have to trust the breathless praise for this guy we heard earlier in the comic, but it’s hard to reconcile a lovely surprise with a global ruler who ordained that some animals would get a free ride and others have to haul scarf-wearing Mexican stereotypes on their backs. The goggled one’s questions weren’t really answered. God’s arbitrary decisions about the distribution of animal labor are just inherently trustworthy, I guess.
So now the comic takes an even darker turn. The maniacal magus, that warlock with the obsession over dog tails, is now the one who made us. Entirely through arbitrary decisions, God has established that some animals get better deals than others. And we are not meant to question this being or try to understand it in any situation. Got it. Also, I find it curious that all of the people who are driving vehicles are the ones with the questions, while these little kids are the sure and certain ones. People, I think that the children may be delusional. I am starting to suspect we have an unreliable narrative voice here. The next few pages continue this theme before explaining what our creator has in store for us.
At least, in this cruel and bizarrely random order that this grand wizard has established, we are the favoured few! This God, who lives in a deeply strange miniature golf course castle (probably a conscious choice given what we know about his somewhat insane aesthetic preferences), has a special plan for us. At this point, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for being less than enthused upon reading this. At least when the slaughterhouse made that clerical error, it was the exception to the rule rather than the norm. Also, we finally see the end result of this God’s inhumane treatment of animals. Disembodied heads, all set up for unknown purposes, intentionally blocking our path because of this magic-wielding sociopath.
If that was God’s Magic Door, and the wagon is also God’s, would that make the man in the Seussian top hat and epaulets God? The comic strongly suggests that this is the case. We also see that ugly old people are not immune to God’s decapitation habit, nor are hippos. Not only this, but God, if that is God, is sending mere children in a rickety wagon down a treacherous path of certain death. So we can add child endangerment to the rap sheet. I suppose this is done with “so much love” as well?
The next panel shifts the focus back on us, the readers. It reveals another aspect of God’s personality.
Well, since I’m a tiger, I think I’m fine. Pigs, foxes, bears, dogs, goats, and apes seem to be less fortunate. Since this book is intended for human consumption, though, I have a hunch that the focus of this page is on the negative attributes rather than the specific animals. Since dogs have a hard time reading, this seems like a strong hunch. Also, blonde mustachioed Viking with pigtails and gigantic striped pants. Just saying. I wonder if God is saying that he doesn’t want us to look like him, not the animals. Apparently, God is a stickler for proper hygiene and personal image. I would suggest to him, were I not trembling in fear, that he ditch the epaulets. They’re just gauche.
Good! More information. So God, our less-than-benevolent-though-still-perfect creator and overlord, doesn’t want us to fight or be sad, mad, afraid, or lonely. No doubt he wants us to be happy with our lot. I mean, it is his work, and as a fellow artist I can understand being peeved when your creations start accusing you of giving them a bad deal. That said, I think expecting little kids to never be afraid is like expecting tigers to never eat little kids. Both depend on one another, you might say.
Two pages later, the plot twists yet again.
Shellshocked. Not only is God the best package ever, a mighty wizard, love itself, our creator and master, and obsessive over appearances, but also a serial adopter. I guess it’s technically true that if we all got adopted by this madman we would be brothers and sisters. Still, this entire situation is getting more uncomfortable with every turn of the page. I mean, why does the little boy leading a camel around on his own need a minibike? Why not offer the poor white child with the blue helmet a drink of water instead of his livelihood and beast of burden? I guess God would be able to figure this one out. Psycho.
Because we’re different on the outside but the same on the inside, God sent his (presumably biological) son Jesus. And this Jesus is supposed to teach us about life. What confuses me is this: who is Jesus in this picture? I presume it’s going to be one of the white people, especially if that guy in the epaulets is God, and the baby seems to be central to the picture, but babies make notoriously poor teachers. Then again, considering God’s track record thus far, I wouldn’t put it past him to put a baby in front of a classroom, shove a piece of chalk in its mouth like a cigar, and tell it to reveal life’s mysteries to us.
I suppose the next pages will clear us of any doubt.
First, this page offers a definition of Jesus: “God With You”!!! with requisite trio of exclamation points isolated from the quotation marks. We certainly know that Jesus was the white baby on the previous page. Jesus is also “the way to know God,” which, I have to complain, is fairly vague. Does that mean that we can only get to God’s office by first getting the thumbs up from his son, who is also like his press secretary?Does that mean that Jesus is a kind of mediator between us and God? Hard to say, but we know that he was a pretty healthy, well-adjusted youth and, once he grew up, the holder of a fuzzy beard. Not only this, but he hangs out in verdant subtropical climes to arbitrate the disputes between brawling little white boys. And possibly their dogs, though by the picture we can’t tell the canine’s precise relation to the situation at hand.
Not much to write on this page, other than that it seems Jesus transforms at night into a shapeless beast with a regiment of all-seeing eyes. Or a flashlight, but those two are not mutually exclusive. Jesus can also abstract himself into his own name and bulldoze mountains.
The dark, violent world of mid-1970s America is here rendered in a stunning and prophetic image. Still, considering the tumultuous events taking place outside, it would probably be safest to stay in the porn theatre, all things considered. Of course, adding the leering, gigantic Jesus to the situation makes everyone straighten up, though it’s hard to say that they’re being freely good if they’re subject to the omniscient judge of good citizenship and proper hygiene.
After all of that, we are left with that phrase again: “God Is!” Well, shoot. We knew that from the cover. The question is: who is this God? All of this comic tract’s depictions were either deeply ambiguous, plain weird, or self-evident to the point of obsolescence. An arbitrary and omniscient wizard who created us to serve his whims and manipulate us (and our dogs) for his own perverse pleasure, he enforces a The World’s End type utopia under the power of constant observation and the threat of punishment.
At this point, I am going to break character and sum up what we have learned from this. Because, though this seems a rather silly and innocent artifact of a deeply superficial “religious” culture, I would argue that this silliness combined with its banality and its intended purpose as an educational tool for children, means that it probably reflected and might continue to reflect a large percentage of people in their views of God. If such views as this are considered safe for children, we are in a great deal of trouble. The existence of this comic, the fact that those who produced it perceived and thought that they were filling a perceived need–even if it was only their own need to feed their families–means that these kinds of statements, this culture, had and still has a kind of mass credibility within Christian culture. Even Christians I know are likely to laugh at this sort of excessively goofy representation of their faith, and would never use it to teach their children, but in most cases the actual contents of their beliefs bear a disturbing resemblance to God Is…And this is why kitsch is so fascinating.
My title of “mister” is forever a badge of shame. I was meant to follow in the footsteps of Queen master guitarist and astrophysics PhD holder Brian May, but those dreams foundered when I was forced to take care of family members by playing gigs instead of pursuing studies. I don’t regret helping my family, and people in the band tend not to talk about it, but I like wearing the “mister” as a constant reminder of the hard choices I needed to make to get where I am. Now, selling my soul to the devil’s secretary in exchange for hardcore shredding skills–that might be more of a regret. Especially since my payments are coming due in only a few decades.
Bands that become surprise pop music stars tend to provoke concerned and eager questions from their audiences about their longevity. How the artists deal with their newfound commercial relevance in large part determines the narratives critics and audiences tell about them throughout the rest of their career. MGMT’s phenomenal single, “Kids,” launched them to stardom, especially in the UK. Since their first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, the two Wesleyan University graduates who form the core of the band, have shown little inclination to try to recapture their previous successes. Their defiantly uncommercial 2010 album, “Congratulations,” according to a recent cover story by Pitchfork and this reviewer’s own experience, is largely ignored by MGMT’s live audiences. Now the duo has released a self-titled release that delves even further into tangled psychedelia, making it both unlikely to attract much commercial success and a fascinating outlier in the world of rock music.
Most independent rock bands that have achieved some commercial success tend to build their songs around tense buildups to massive crescendos. Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, and even more eccentric outliers like Bon Iver, use tension as a means to a more thunderous end. While “Oracular Spectacular” had its share of danceable pop numbers and even “Congratulations” tended to develop its songs in relatively straightforward ways–”I Found a Whistle” was basically a campfire sing-along–MGMT jettisons progression for metamorphosis. In short, the songs rarely if ever centre around big moments or rousing choruses. Only one song, “Introspection, even has a chorus, with the rest of the tracks evolving in a slow and intricate fashion, usually accumulating an incredible amount of sonic density along the way.
None of these songs, therefore, have much immediate appeal. Their virtues lie in their detailing, and their appeal is more like the slow unfurling of a mystery than a grand revelation. This unapologetic lack of pop signifiers is complimented by the band’s signature sense of irony and detachment, both in time and space. In the final song, the vocals lend us some insight into the album: “The signs keep changing on me/ Like a shimmering bell/Long waves enveloping me/ And my plastic mind/ So chewed and shrieking all the time/Feels it whirling by.” These sounds and lyrics evoke a shared sense of both dread and playfulness, the former exemplified by the percussive “Cool Song No. 2” and the latter by “Your Life Is a Lie” and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea.” By no means has MGMT lost its sense of humor, and the control of mood and meaning here makes the album worth sticking to even after a dispiriting first listen.
The band’s instrumental palette is relatively unchanged from “Congratulations,” featuring a similar array of organic and synthetic drum sounds, savagely distorted guitars, and creeping bass. With his voice largely cloaked in effects and buried in the mix, VanWyngarden has no trouble sounding as alienated and strange as the extraterrestrials from the opening song. Unlike older songs like “Flash Delirium” these songs can feel not only meandering but almost sterile, and the way songs draw out tension can strain and irritate more than intrigue at times, especially when the tracks merely fade out rather than offer any kind of clear ending. The album’s thornier, more imposing surface obscures some of its own virtues just by being so dense. While it is heartening to see the band continuing to pursue its psychedelic muse, there is undoubtedly a degree of listener satisfaction lost or at least deferred here as well.
After the album’s hazy close, however, I felt a certain emptiness. The songs here are overfull, claustrophobic, and at times bizarre, but while they never entirely cohere they are also fun and surprisingly listenable. This is especially true after several listens, when the overall purpose and thematic thrust of the album becomes more apparent. Dealing with aging, time, love, and loss, MGMT is a worthy successor to Congratulations and even surpasses that work in some ways. The way you feel about that other record will indicate whether this is something for you or not.
This is the first entry in which I get to write about Arcade Fire. In many ways, this is a moment for which I have been waiting for a long time. On the other hand, I have been waiting and biding my time for a specific reason: no way was this tiger going to opine about Arcade Fire until he heard what James Murphy’s production would do for them. My relationship with this Montréal band is clouded by none of the patriotic obligations of my Canadian editor, and my personal (tigernal?) detachment from most indie rock means that I don’t normally follow this band very closely. James Murphy, another artist robed in indie press acclaim, was an object of my suspicion for a long time. My discover of how subversively sensual his music is, and his collaboration with Gorillaz and André 3000 on “DoYaThing” both conspired to confound my expectations of him. Arcade Fire, the standard-bearer of cinematic post-U2, mid-2000s rock bands, has not had its own reevaluation. To me, they are still a largely sexless arena rock band fronted by a male vocalist who drives me to kill helpless creatures. Plus he’s not Canadian, so even my editor can’t defend him despite his patriotic obligation.
What made me put off ragging on these accomplished musicians just for James Blake? Mainly, it was one of the songs from their last album, The Suburbs, that I thought was genuinely great. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” showed me two things:
1. If the band could get off its addiction to crescendos, it would be much better.
2. They should be a dance band, for goodness’ sake!
Tense build-ups to staggering crescendos can only work for me if you build your entire band around them–see Godspeed You! Black Emperor–or are otherwise more creatively varied and less milquetoast than Arcade Fire. This kind of approach is an easy emotional short-circuit, a way to evoke emotions your music probably doesn’t deserve. See: Coldplay and their banjo-toting clones in Mumford and Sons. That said, “Sprawl II” shows what a great house beat might do for the band. It’s much closer to proper body music than anything else on that album, and in that way far more effective in its grandiosity. Combining the spectacle-driven overreach of a song like that with James Murphy’s production, I reasoned, and you might finally get a whole album I find more than merely palatable. An Arcade Fire that is more
Would be a gigantic improvement in my eyes. Plus keep Win Butler away from the microphone, or any recording equipment whatsoever. That last one was always going to be unlikely, but tiger wishes are supposed to be especially potent. But! Now we have the first single from the band’s new album, Reflektor, and it so happens to be the title track.
Its opening, a shower of distorted piano segueing into a techno track, shows some initial promise. That techno part sticks around, forming the skeleton of the entire song. Horn sections feature prominently, and Win Butler and Régine Chassagne (the good vocalist) harmonize a fair bit, which is certainly more pleasant than Butler’s plaintive, grating cries standing alone. Most of the familiar Arcade Fire elements are at work here, though I have to admit they sound much better against Murphy’s production. It’s still overblown, lacking in nuance, and earnest in a way that tries to be reflective but usually ends up just being sterile. That said, you can dance to it, and the substitution of a feverish pulse for the more stately rock the band usually employs makes all the difference here. “Reflektor” works well, and it makes a case for this new album being at least a noteworthy evolution in the band’s output. That, at least, is worth celebrating, even if the song isn’t quite strong enough to make me change my mind about its creators.
You know, it’s unfortunate that men are not allowed to appropriate women’s names or their clothing the way traditionally masculine clothing and names have crossed over. Tigers go around naked all the time; our fur is neither wrinkly nor embarrassing to look at, so we have no need of garments. That said, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the North American human male. At this point, the straight white man has built a sartorial gilded cage for himself, wearing almost nothing but suits and distressingly dull casual attire. I am fairly sure that the state of Hawaii has sued the shirt named after it in the International Criminal Court for defamation.
As a tiger, I’m befuddled by the persistent gender gaps in clothing. It’s not as though the male body–cis or trans, makes no difference–breaks out in hives if it touches something loose and flowing.
And probably the most pernicious effect of Western imperialism in the world–other than rampant economic inequality, the world wars, and slavery–is the universalization of the business suit. Ah, the suit. Probably the most practical, aesthetically neutral piece of clothing you are likely to wear. Oh, you work in banking? Let me guess, you wear a suit. At that point in the conversation, “blue or black” is the most meaningful choice you can make. I’m not saying that coloration and subtle stylistic differences don’t add up, but I think we could go for some more diversity in the male wardrobe. Instead of going out on the town wearing a grubbier version of the same clothes they wear to work, why not rock something more elegant but just comfy?
Men of all persuasions! Let us break out of our snarky t-shirt and business suit prison. The time to actually care about how we look is nigh. I want to see men shopping in the women’s section, making collage art with their outfits, rocking heels. Who knows? Maybe, in a few decades’ time, we can elect a male president dressed like this:
Next, we need to get the name “Ashley” back to being gender neutral. That’ll be on the agenda, I’m sure.
In this series’ first two entries, I discussed how the market for Christian kitsch is driven by two complimentary impulses: to reinforce and communicate religious identity and political or personal choices (think the purity rings), and to cloak evangelistic rhetoric in the guise of non-threatening secular products (like the weirdo Archie comics we examined). We will return to the beautifully surreal landscapes of the Archie universe next week, but for now I would like to investigate the phenomenon of Christian parody t-shirts. These products, which were commonly worn by members of my old middle-school youth group, reveal some particularly damaging aspects of Christian consumerist subculture as well as the difficult relationship that the church often has with clothing.
We’ll look at the latter first. It should come as no surprise that clothing is a topic that Christians in America tend to either neglect or address poorly. Clothing is intimately related to the body, that fleshy shell that most American Christians would rather discard for harps and lyres in heaven. Probably the best indication of this broken conception of clothing is the idea of “modesty.” Censuring and criticizing people, overwhelmingly women, for not being “modest” enough is an accepted practice in most churches. As many writers have shown in critical work on the subject, modesty both arises from and reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are in some ways common property, to be controlled by mostly male church authorities the same way they would manage their their children’s sugar intake. Worse, by making women responsible for drawing men into “lust” with their clothing, the church relieves men of their responsibility to respect women’s bodies as well as for inexcusable activities like catcalling and sexual assault. Most of the time, when mainstream Christians in the United States (a problematic generalization, but I believe this is borne out) address the problem of clothing, they will be saying that women aren’t wearing enough.
Accompanying this sentiment is a culture-wide bias in favor of “inner beauty.” People who think of wearing clothes as a craft or sartorial expression as an art form are criticized for being shallow. People who wear outlandish clothing or spend more for quality are admonished and told to be simpler in their tastes. There is very little appreciation of the potential beauty and pleasure to be found in wearing clothes. After all, beauty and pleasure are corrupting influences and lead people to spend too much money on pretty things and not enough helping the poor or paying the pastor’s salary. My contempt for this point of view should be evident by now, so we can move on.
Where do Christian parody t-shirts fit into this scheme? One fascinating aspect of Christian consumer culture is that it tends to condemn secular products, especially certain forms of music, dress, and art. However, the culture only needs to coopt and “baptize” these products in order to package and sell them to Christian audiences that are weary of not being as “cool” as their secularized adversaries. Parody t-shirts are to snarky online-store-bought apparel as CCM is to rock and pop music. That is, they are secular products with a youthful appeal and an aura of “coolness” that Christian kitsch companies hope will sell to young people who aren’t allowed to act out except in specifically church-sanctioned ways.
These shirts tend to take brand logos and meme-friendly catchphrases and twist them in some way. The idea is that people’s eyes would be drawn to the shirt by the instant familiarity of the shirt’s imagery and, only at that point, realize what the shirt actually said. If the shirt works, the secular passerby will appreciate the wit of the message even if the content is unappealing. Even better, people might notice and ask about it, cuing up an evangelistic opportunity. In reality, of course, the parodies are almost all witlessly obvious, obnoxious, and unfunny. Some of them also cross over to become explicitly militaristic and nationalistic. These specimens seem to be marketed towards men, and some of their references for parody are a bit dated. Is C.O.P.S. that popular with the high school Christian set these days?
What’s truly entertaining about these shirts, though, is the way that some of the retailers package them. Their framing is often so out of touch that it far eclipses the comedic value of the products they’re hawking. For instance, read this explanatory bit of copy from Kerusso, one of the more prominent Christian kitsch retailers online:
“In using lighthearted tongue-in-cheek designs, parody T-shirts give readers the truth about the gospel and offer an easy way for them or you to start a conversation…which could be the beginning of a relationship with Christ, all because of the graphic on your parody T-shirt.
No matter what happens or how many conversations you have, you are making an impact. By wearing a Christian parody T-shirt, you have opened the door to conversations and are, at the very least, sharing the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world around you. And that is worth it every time.”
Why is this so funny? Because it’s taken deathly seriously. Evangelical Christianity can justify anything if it might save souls for Jesus, including these insults to graphic design. What’s truly sad is that there is more artistry and integrity in the original designs–which, I remind you, were solely created to sell consumer goods in the first place–than in these shirts, which are supposedly intended to do the work of God Almighty. What we have here, in a nutshell, are products that operate on stealing brand images and brazenly appropriating them, ultimately, to sell another product. Only in this case, it’s a trusted, ancient brand, Jesus, the only one who can complete me. And I thought “Jesus is my boyfriend” language was safely quarantined in CCM hell.