Recently, George Clooney took a rather retro stab at the Haiti crisis by bring back what many considered a dead medium: the telethon. Jerry Lewis is perhaps the best known celebrities associated with the telethon model: taking over the broadcast space for a focused period of live entertainment. Part of what always made the ‘telethon’ such winning event was the strange alchemy of star power mixed with ‘live TV’ coupled with kitsch-y low fi-ness within the context of a cause beyond anyones ability to solve on their own. Growing up in the 1970s amidst the golden age of the Variety Show – that granddaddy relative to American Idol (remember the Donny and Marie Osmond Show, the John Denver Show, the Johnny Cash Show, or (shudder…)the Brady Bunch Hour?), the Telethon was the logical extension of the Variety show: putting stars in live broadcast where “whatever happens, happens” creates a sense of excitement, uncertainty and anxiety that offers something of the transcendent (well… that and the polyester jumpsuits…)
The Hope for Haiti telethon and subsequent benefit CD revived this model quite well and it was astounding how many people viewed this as a ‘new thing’. The hot lights of a live set framed the stars is a harshness that couldn’t be airbrushed. Given the short time frame to plan and execute the event, the celebs involved we obviously reading text off the teleprompter without any prep – it was true live television in ways that so-called reality TV could never approach.
The musical numbers that peppered through the event were evocative in two ways throughout the telethon that deserves some theological reflection – the role of nostalgia as secular lament and how the Gospel genre with the semiotics of the “gospel choir” in the background is secular culture’s bookmark for God. First, the musicians all seemed to reach into their back catalogs quite far (at least those older than Taylor Swift) to the Beatles or for some or for others twenty years back into their 1980’s catalog. What was fascinating about Madonna lifting out “Like A Prayer,” Stevie Wonder covering “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or Sting reframing “Driven to Tears” was the way that when we are devoid of methods for lament and loss, we replace it with nostalgia. “Nostalgia” comes from the Greek roots νόστος nostos “returning home” and άλγος algos “pain”, to refer to the pain a subject feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again. Popular culture is framed by the perpetual state of nostalgia as the method to elevate suffering – triggering instant occasions for longing and loss without sufficient means to satiate this longing. For example, fandom culture surrounding everything from sports teams to popular culture conventions (i.e. Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) consist of attempts to reconstruct false memories as present realities through communal collusion. Shared clothing, shared chants and songs, shared material artefacts that ground these memories are key and yet never fulfilling, hence the need to endless repeat the activities – another year, another convention or opportunity to see the team we support play the same game with the same rules. These moments of nostalgia provide a secular culture a context within which to grieve in ways that are communal as well as distance ourselves from the true and abiding ache of loss: we can chuckle at Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock singing “Lean on Me” but in the same instant tear up and find our lower lip tremble a bit as we silently mouth the words along with them. Another aspect of the telethon and the music choices in particular was how Gospel music as a genre has become the official secular mode of hyperlinking spirituality and transcendence into music. In short, add a Gospel choir and Madonna moves from the dance floor to the sanctuary without missing a proverbial beat. Whether is was Beyonce’s backup for “Halo” or Stevie Wonder’s mash up of “Time to Love/Bridge Over troubled Water” or Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” – the context of the transcendent was in the Gospel genre pushing these meager offerings by pop singers above their appointed station and into another realm. Sure, we can be cynics and scoff at such attempts as merely sentimentality for a cause, but there was something more here. In watching the Gospel singers – and here I am especially thinking of Madonna’s performance of “Like a Prayer” (here is the youtube.com clip of the performance) – there was a force born from a genre that came from a place and history so foreign and so beyond the reach and depth of the pablum that these pop songs (and their respective singers) had to offer that it was like watching a 20 foot wave crash on top of a sand castle. Madonna’s performance was probably the clearest example of this – she is literally seems to be playing a game of “Frogger” with her backup choir and comes close a number of times to being an 80’s roadkill. If CS Lewis’ line in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in regard to Aslan can be riffed on here, it is that Gospel music is good… but it certainly isn’t tame. This is the amazing thing to watch as these stars want so much to evoke something beyond their grasp given the tragedy that they face, but to roll out a genre and think that it will only add some character to the mix is misguided. Sure, you can tune it down in the studio recording… but the space of the live broadcast is where the Church has always done its best work and certainly the place where God shows up. This was certainly apparent throughout the night… there was a spark flashing always in the choirs that kept these polished performers looking over their shoulder quite a bit.
Lastly, perhaps the part that truly framed the event as a viewer was the stillness and quiet as the editor jumpcut from set piece (Madonna or Coldplay) to Anderson Cooper live in Haiti, to another actor reading stats like Morgan Freedman or Ben Stiller. There was no sound bed, no montage clips – just a raw jumpcut from one event to the next. It was this stillness and silence that evoked a deep spiritual ache – you could honestly say that given this tragedy there was nothing to say – no amount of words nor images that could ever fill the pit of loss and humility the event caused. For two hours, some of the most beautiful, talented, gracious and even ego-bloated people fell silent… after they sang their song or said their bit, there really wasn’t anything to say. Words would only stain the void left by so much chaos and uncertainty. The fact that the show allowed us to feel the silence and lack of polish proves that their is hope after all. That even with the ‘best laid plans’ of mice, men, and George Clooney… God can show up.
(BTW – as a matter of endorsement… say a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Haiti and buy a CD – it is really good. And yes, as hard as it is to admit, Justin Timberlake and Charlie Sexton covering “Hallelujah” (that sacred song of all Cohen lovers everywhere) is really pretty amazing. No, it isn’t Leonard Cohen nor Jeff Buckley, but it is magical in all the ways you would hope.)