And Thus We Were Manipulated

And Thus We Were Manipulated
Why Mormon Pop Music and CES Videos Bug Me

A while ago, on my way home from church, I was listening to a mix CD of Sunday music. When the song “His Hands” came on, I quickly pressed the next button, but unfortunately it was too late… the other person in my car had identified the tune. “I LOVE that song… why did you change it?” they said. So I was forced to go back and let them listen to it.

It took the rest of the trip home to try and explain the following:

Growing up, I listened to a lot of Mormon pop music. A lot. It mostly grew out of the fact that I often sang in church, so I tended to listen for new material, and to be part of that universe. I was practically an authority on all things Perry or Cope.

Mo-Pop exploded in the late 80’s and 90’s with a plethora of really, really sappy songs.  “In the Hollow of thy Hand” comes to mind.  These songs seemed to take the religion out of the music and put in all the emotional pop elements.  They focused on love and human relations rather than God, Jesus, and our ability to transcend this existence through them. Many were created specifically with the EFY (especially for youth) program in mind, thinking they could more easily get a young person to feel something if they just put in some guitars and drums.  Music in our services took a sharp turn for the worse during this time as people broke away from the rigid old standards and embraced this funky new pop music, while still trying to tame it for the old people’s ears.

Then I went to college and my world started opening up. I quickly learned how one dimensional my world view was, and how incomplete my understanding of human diversity was due to the level at which I had been saturated by Mormon Pop Media.  What do I mean by this?  When I would read something, I would pass a quick judgment based on my world view that was often very reductive.  In other words, I didn’t really take into consideration all of the possibilities and nuances of the totality of the situation.  I would just reduce it down to some nugget that my simple head could digest, and call it good.  The problem was that all of my papers, performances, and classwork was coming off as notoriously one-dimensional with broad overuse of stereotypes and generalizations.

Eventually, higher education (especially humanities and literature classes) forced me to actually consider and digest people and situations that were outside of my world view.  It took a while, but eventually I was no longer looking at the world through a rose-colored lens, and I started seeing things that were central to my own worldview in a whole new light.

I realized how manipulative my church music and videos were, and grew to violently resented art that manipulated me.

A little more history…

In the 1970’s, when my church was first learning to use film and media, they decided to make several films that were ‘morality plays’, vignettes which took a sympathetic protagonist and basically did something very awful to them or with them to teach a lesson.

For example, Cipher in the Snow was about a teenage boy who was overweight and ugly who everyone ignored.  At the end of the movie we see him collapse in the snow in a moment of suicidal depression.  Apparently, this movie was supposed to spur a discussion on how you can be a better friend and include others.  Really it was just confusing, sad, and frankly disturbing.

My all time favorite was “I’ll Build you a Rainbow”, the story of a young boy who has the coolest mom in the world.  She plays football with him and his friends, and life is just grand.  She is his best friend.  Then she dies of cancer.  Everyone is all choked up as she is whisked away in the ambulance until the little boy comes over to his dad, tugs at his jacket and says, “It’s all right Dad, families can be together forever.”  Music swells and chorus refrain sings… “I’ll build you a rainbow… way up high above!”  Cue the audience sobbing.

So what makes something manipulative?  It’s a fine, fine line.  In my definition, manipulative media is such that is requires you to feel or react a certain way rather than asking you to.  It forces you to cry.  It begs you, “please please please cry at me.”  It often violently swings between emotional extremes to push you over the edge.

Thankfully, the church media department has since seen the error of their ways, and since the late 80’s, we’ve been creating video that is much more honest.  I think we reached a new high on this venture with the church’s recent ad campaign, which is one of the most honest, human things I’ve ever seen them produce:

[flashvideo filename=/video/lds-ad.flv /]

I’ve really picked on my church here in this blog, mostly because they’re an easy target based on my long history with them.  But these same principles apply to all media out there.  As a society, we consume media too much like we consume fast food – without any care as to its actual contents.

I get sick of TV shows and films which require me to think or feel a certain way.  The extremely didactic Michael Moore documentaries and a plethora of other TV media come to mind.

So my plea?  Don’t be a blind consumer of media.  Don’t just sit back and bottom feed on whatever sludge is thrown your way, no matter how much you trust the source.  Become a fine media connoisseur, just as you might become a connoisseur of fine foods.  Don’t settle for mere table scraps.  Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by something.  Question it.  Poke at it.  Ask it if it’s being honest with you and the universe.

Chances are, it’s not.

8 thoughts on “And Thus We Were Manipulated”

  1. Amen and Amen and AMEN! This one of my favorite subjects, and you have summed it up excellently. I think the church has come a very long way during our lifetimes, but still seems to have a weakness for final shots. Case in point the new Joseph Smith film: Great acting, interesting cinematography, beautiful narrative, and a true story! After the martyrdom I was actually on the verge of a real tear when suddenly…what is that? Joseph’s profile rising out of the clouds? Breaking across the frame like the sunshine? Ok… Well, lets go take the conference center tour, again.
    So close. So very close.

  2. Sam, I think you know my views on this subject. I would just like to throw Michael McLean in to the pot/fire. And say that I do enjoy some Kenneth Cope. When I am by myself and no one knows.

    All the church film subject evokes for me is Lifetime. I watch that channel to laugh – not to feel genuine emotion. On a sad day I need to laugh openly at Tori Spelling or Tracey Gold to part the clouds. And the same is true of church videos too. How sad is it that what was supposed to be spiritual is so canned cheesy that I watch it to mock. Sad. Who on EARTH watches Johhny Lingo at this point to have a heartfelt lesson on the worth of a woman? Ha.

  3. This subject and the effects it has on people, especially some members of our church is one of the largest turn offs for me as well. Looking back at my childhood and the blind manipulaton I ignorantly endured makes me want to distance myself from these thoughts and ideas that became “trendy” in mormon culture, I believe that the modern lds church has become too clubby and really should be more socially diverse and accepting. Who wants to go to another Ice Cream social?!
    I do like this ad I think your description of it as being human is very fitting.

    If I ever see Saturdays Warrior on tv again I am running for my sledgehammer.

    I strongly agree with your plea and I will try to do better.

  4. That’s why it’s so fun to go on missions to places where the church is little known. You see the pure essence of the church and gospel, without all the trappings culture/media/etc. It’s really quite lovely in it’s simplicity.

  5. I must be really behind, because the two church videos you talked about are not even registering as something I’ve even heard of. I didn’t (and obviously still don’t) watch a lot of church videos. I did go through a major Kenneth Cope, etc. phase for a while, but that is O-V-E-R and has been for a long time (although like Erica, I still have a couple of songs of his that I like, but I’ll deny that in public).

    I hate Michael Moore and anyone who is like him, whether I agree with what they’re saying or not. I don’t want to be told what to think by anyone, least of all a celebrity or the media. Ugh.

    Oh! And almost every year, they show the teachers in my district this film about “Little Jimmy” (or something like that), and how he struggled, and his teacher helped him despite her initial disgust with him, because she found out his mom died, and Jimmy sent her cards as he grew up, and you get the point. I have a split reaction to this video every time, A: I HATE IT because it is so freaking cheesy; it makes me want to yack, and I get super annoyed, but then B: I cry. Oh, I try not to, telling myself that it is a poorly made piece of crap, but nope, I cry anyway. I think it’s because I usually see it when sleep deprived from setting up for the year or packing up from the end of the year. Well, that’s what I’m saying it is, cause if that’s not it, the only conclusion I can come to is that I’m getting weepy in my old age. sigh.

  6. THUS WHY I HATE THE MOVIE/BOOK CHARLY. What person has a heart so cold as ice that they aren’t going to cry when a dying mother is laying on the floor bawling and begging her baby boy to say “mama” before she bites the dust? I mean that’s not good cinema or story telling that’s just thorough tearful manipulation.

  7. I always say, “just because it’s mormon, doesn’t mean it’s good” regarding mormon pop music et al. I don’t like “His Hands” either. I love real, honest to goodness hymns. Let’s not fancy them up too much. I feel the same way about people putting too much of a spin on the National Anthem at sporting events. I hate when they try to take the focus from the words of a very important song and make the focus their Mariah-Careyed-up vocal stylings.

  8. My favorite is when someone asks me if one of those mormon comedy movies are good (i.e. The R.M. or The Hometeachers or Mormons and Mobsters). Most of the time I just tell them that it’s good wholesome fun because that is my job, but in reality I think they are stupid and they make me feel trite. And it kills me that they sell for $20-$30 because half of the time it looks like BYU student A and BYU student B borrowed the family video camera and enlisted their FHE group in a project. And just so you know, I have always always hated christian rock music. It gets on my nerves. I did however go through a Cope/McLean stage in life of which I do not regret but will never re-live. 🙂

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