Letter 23: When Keely Smith Sings the Beatles

keely-smith

Last night, I was listening to a most peculiar album, “Keely Smith Sings the Music of Lennon and McCartney.”   In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about it. Ms. Smith was a second tier singer of standards during the 1950s, and like so many singers of her ilk, the coming of the Beatles brought a significant career challenge. Hitherto, while rock and roll laid a strong claim on popular attention, they often drew from the same sources for material, and there was much overlap, and the two existed side by side. Now, however, the old standards were pressed to the background, and only the first tier talent was still drawing attention.

What to do? The curse here, was relevance. Top stars of the older generation, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, could pick and choose what current songs they performed, including some Beatles songs. But in the main, there was little change. People still came to their concerts and bought their albums, though it was now mostly an older audience, those on the edges did not feel so out of date.

The second tier performers found it much harder to attract an audience. One could choose to set up shop in Vegas, or hit the country fair circuit, or try to re-invent one’s self. Thus Keely Smith turned to covering the Beatles. It made for a strange marriage.

Smith was a good singer, who had refined her pop sensibilities through years of live and recorded performances with her then husband Louis Prima. But it was the pop of a different era. For some of the songs it works. For others, it leads to something utterly unrecognizable, a once poppy tune turned syrupy and saccharine. Yuck.

As an aside, the real irony is that these days aging pop stars have found refuge in the old standards that were once Ms. Smith’s stock in trade. Ms. Smith herself has followed that path. I am not sure if the old songs are simply easier to sing, or just better fit superannuated singers.

There may be a lesson in this sad tale for us. The “Worship Wars” that so many of us had hoped were now past now seem to be returning with a new twist. Young people are decrying contemporary worship as superficial, empty, and worst of all, “inauthentic.” When they experience modern worship, they are apparently picturing Keely Smith singing Beatles’ songs.

So what makes worship “Authentic?” Does it require use of archaic language? Must it possess an ancient pedigree? It seems we keep circling back to the question of what is worship, and what we should be trying to accomplish in worship and through worship.

Outside of the sacrificial system, which we believe to have been fulfilled and abolished by Christ, the one place were Scripture regularly demonstrates worship is in the Psalms. The Psalmist engages in a conversation with God. He describes both his experience of God and the state of his soul. He declares the truths about God, and offers and account of walking with God, both its ups and its downs.

Using this model, our worship should be both descriptive and normative. What I suspect strikes people as “inauthentic” is our tendency to be descriptive when we should be normative and normative when we should be descriptive. Authenticity comes from trying to balance the two aspects of worship. We should be honest about the state of our souls at the same as we declare the great truths about God, because they are not always the same.

Church probably shouldn’t look or feel like anything else, either.  We are, after all, trying to connect people to a reality that transcends our world.  It will always be imperfect and messy, but a church service should never be mistaken for a talk show, or a concert, or a TED lecture.  That, too gets smeared when Keely Smith sings Lennon and McCartney.

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