“He likes you because you’re really … real.” This was said to me about 20 years ago, not long before or after I was ordained to ministry in the Anglican church. I’d been at some party with family, and my brother-in-law fed the comment back to me about a non-Christian friend of his. It might seem like an odd turn of phrase, but it’s meant positively. He had expected a priest to be distant, removed, somehow inaccessible. He seemed to appreciate sharing a beer with a priest at a party, shouting a conversation over the loud (almost certainly Britpop) music, about football, life, death and other things. It’s a phrase and an idea that has kept coming back to me at different points over the last 20 years or so. How ‘real’ am I supposed to be? How vulnerable? How much of myself do I share in sermon and other ministry? How should I dress? Some people seem to think pastors are battery-farmed; should we be organic? Free-range?
Which brings me to this week’s #firsttimefriday (the viral sensation where I write about films I’ve seen for the first time). 3 films this week. Specifically, Netflix’s trio of exclusive concert films released over the last 6 months or so – Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Yes, dear reader; I watched all 3 of them in the space of 24 hours. Unashamedly, I had a blast.
On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Springsteen’s is one of his nights of residency at a Broadway theatre; him and an acoustic guitar and occasionally a piano. He gives a long, rambling, funny, moving spoken word autobiographical introduction to a song; which he then plays. It’s stark, intimate, brilliant and compulsively vulnerable; the nature of the show, and the idea of a long residency of Broadway shows, seems to be quite unlike anything such an artist has attempted before. He’s in his late 60’s, and never sounded better. The Taylor Swift film is at the other end of the live music spectrum. A solo female pop star, on the closing night of her tour, in her home territory of Texas. Her music is the sort I would have dismissed; but now I have a 10-year old daughter and I’m forced to pay attention. I don’t think Swift has the greatest voice, but when she gets a song right, she gets it very right. Some of her best songs are borderline perfect pop songs, with a gift for melody and lyric-writing that many artists would sell their souls for. She also shows an admirable ability to challenge herself musically, flitting between genres. The show filmed here is the classic big pop production; about a million costume changes; big screen videos; a band that manages to keep up (although it took me most of the film for me to realise that the keyboard player was not actually in a dark underground lair). It’s not a brilliantly shot or directed film; but you get a sense of what Taylor Swift means to her fans; and as I said, at her best the songs are irresistable. Then we come to Beyoncé’s film, Homecoming; a film of her already legendary show at American music festival Coachella in 2018. It’s frankly staggering. Laced with behind the scenes footage of rehearsals – it took 8 months to rehearse for one show – this is an adrenalised jet pack of energy, celebration and empowerment that leads to an inevitable sense that this show has changed something in the air. Beyoncé’s voice could be one of the natural wonders of the world; if weaponised, it could cause the planet to spin off its axis or bring about world peace. Or both. She’s backed by a brilliant band of percussionists and brass instrument players in a pyramid-shaped bleachers behind her; she also has a troupe of frankly astonishing dancers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and manages one head-spinning visual trick which convinces you her costume is magically changing colour (it isn’t – Google it).
Which of these you enjoy the most is really down to what your musical poison is. But I would suggest giving all three a go, the better to get a sense of how different artists and types of music function live. What links the three is, for me, a sense of what is real – and searching to make that available. On the face of it, Springsteen’s performance is the most ‘real’ because … well, he tells his story, there’s no big production. But from early on, Springsteen is keen to point out that, in his words, he’s fraud; he’s built his career on a magic trick. He’s seen as the great poet of the American working-class male, and yet he’s never worked a day in a factory. So is he really a fraud? I would argue not. In the story-telling, artistic business, truth is rarely literal. Springsteen connects because people see themselves in his songs. Take The Rising, a song and album written and released as a response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. The title track is performed here; written from the point of view of a firefighter killed in the attempt to rescue people inside the Twin Towers. Clearly Springsteen hasn’t experienced this; but is it truthful? Listen to it here, and judge for yourself.
Taylor Swift’s show is covered in performance and production, so she can’t be truthful, right? Well, not so fast. At one point she says to the crowd that what connects them all is that ‘we all like the feeling of something real’. This is, of course, to an extent part of the performance. But not completely. Listen to Shake It Off or Blank Space; watch a young girl respond to them, and you start to see that along with the melody and pop sensibilities there’s an invitation to something truthful and in some songs, a neat subversion of the expectations layered on women. If she’s a fraud, then so is Springsteen. But they’re both connecting with people who find something real in them both.
So to Beyoncé. In part this concert was significant even before it happened; the first black woman to headline one of America’s biggest festivals. But in conception and performance, from the way cultural tropes and traditions are appropriated in to the show, to the choreography and musical arrangements, to the songs themselves, everything is about celebrating black (female) American culture in the days a white supremacist sits in the White House. At one point I found myself thinking that some of the dancers looked to be far more ‘normal’ and varied body shapes than I am used to seeing on a stage like this; then in one of the interludes we hear Beyoncé say ‘I want every person who has ever been dismissed because of how they look to feel like they’re on that stage.’ For all the dazzling production, that’s real; I found it so refreshing to see people with normal bodies on stage. Why does it all matter? Because here, on one of the biggest stages in the nation, a black woman was taking control and making things bend to her will; not being who people think a black woman should be. Her lyrics and choreography are at times explicitly sexual; she is often criticised for this (usually by white men) and told she can’t therefore be a feminist. Which, as far as I can tell, is to miss the point. For myself, I didn’t find it erotic; the whole show was just a joyous, intoxicating sense of someone being only who she wants be, not defining herself by what others tell her that her sexuality, her politics, her anger, her relationships, her art should be. Take the remarkable Formation (with ‘adult’ lyrics), a highlight of the show for an example.
All three of these concert films present us with performers who are in different ways a layered in artifice and production; yet each of them are their own kind of ‘real’, connecting with people who see themselves in the show in front of them. Back to being a real pastor; what do people want in pastor? In my experience, it’s someone who’s both real and yet not; strong and weak; vulnerable and strong. I don’t really have an answer; I do know that when I am open with my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some people are helped, and some are troubled. In recent weeks I have done some of my preaching from a sitting position due to elevated levels of my chronic pain, and it changes something in the room. No doubt it’s good for some, not so good for others, neutral for still more. Ultimately, our example is one who is profoundly real; who takes on flesh and moves in to the neighbourhood, as one New Testament translation puts it, that God may have a body that sweats and bleeds and smells and everything else normal human bodies do. I’m no Jesus, and neither is any other pastor; and whilst there must be an appropriate awareness of context and self-care of keeping some things for just a few to know, the example of Jesus – and these 3 performers – is to allow myself to be seen for who I am, not project a version of who I’m not or would like to be.
For me that involves little in the way of singing, absolutely no dancing, very few costume changes; but the simple reminder that I am here to help people Jesus, and that it’s promised that happens best through weaknesses rather than strengths and successes. It’s likely to attract far fewer crowds and rather less money; but the ripples will run longer and further and deeper, and are gloriously independent of my skills and abilities.