The “requisite sincere looks”

One of my favorite Southern Gospel bloggers unintentionally stirred up a firestorm over the weekend with this post on Ernie Haase & Signature Sound. Most of the post was favorable, but one sentence drew criticism from a fan or two:

I can understand why more traditional(read “older”)quartet fans have a hard time watching SSQ…their entire stage presentation is an exercise in “glitz”…from their mannered vocals, to their requisite “sincere” looks on their faces when they sing songs with “deep” lyrics, to Ernie’s mike antics, to bass Tim Duncan’s borrowed stage theatrics when singing.

Now if it is assumed that every performer will have some look on their face when they perform a song–and I think that is a safe assumption–I’d much rather they put a sincere look on their face than an insincere look!

That’s the quick answer. But there’s more to the question.

You see, Signature Sound follows a practice followed by most Southern Gospel groups. They select some exciting songs that should get their audience going, and they select some “message songs” that should touch their audience.

How do they typically know that a song will touch their audiences? It will probably touch their audiences if it first touches them. I would venture to say that Doug Anderson has been deeply moved by the message in “Forgiven Again,” Ernie Haase by the message in “Oh What a Savior,” and Ryan Seaton by the message in “Then Came the Morning.”

I have found out firsthand that a song that touches you deeply and expresses what’s on your heart will always be meaningful to you, but will not always produce the same reaction it did the first time you heard it. I cried the first time I heard “Calvary Answers for Me.” I’ve played it or sung it hundreds of times since. Have I cried every time? No, I haven’t. But that song is still incredibly meaningful to me, and if I was touring, I’d probably sing it every night.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. When an artist records a song that touches hearts, every concert audience will have a decent percentage of people who have never heard them perform those “message songs.” Sometimes by request, and sometimes in anticipation of a song that would otherwise be requested, an artist will typically perform their most popular “message songs.”

Does it still touch them every time the way it did the first time? No, of course not, though it is still undoubtedly quite meaningful to them.

So what is a performer to do?

I assert that a good performer should perform a song in the way that best reaches their target audience. If “putting on a sincere look,” or, to put it in a nicer way, “looking sincere,” is the best way to communicate a serious song, would it not be best for a performer to look sincere?

Honestly, would you rather go see a group of performers who look and act sincere during the serious songs, or a group of performers who goof off and tell jokes during that key climactic solo?

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10 Letters to the Editor

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  1. I would have to agree with the blogger in this case. Again this all comes down to personal preference. I have said on other message boards that I have been a fan of EHSS music but I have not been a fan of their ‘stage shows’. And it doesn’t have to due with age as the blogger mentions. It comes down to what you personally are looking for when you go see an artist in concert.

  2. I agree with the blogger also. They do have great harmony, but, no rhythm when it comes to “dance”. I always say they dance like I would….I enjoy their music when I am out of the room. We just got the “Give it Away” DVD and it is amazing the difference in GVB vs EHSSQ. I know they are two totally different quartets, but, GVB seems to be more professional when it comes to stage presence. It all boils down to ones preference and what you enjoy. Everyone talks about EHSSQ reaching the younger crowd and this may be true, but, I still prefer less jumping and dancing. To me, I get distracted with all the moves and jumping and whistling. I can’t concentrate on the words when all that other stuff is going on.

  3. One thing that I always consider (coming from a theatrical background) is that it is important to give that “illusion of the first time.” That is, perform it like this is the first time that a) you have ever performed it and/or b) the audience has ever seen it. (This idea assumes that the “first” performance is done well after much rehearsal before the debut.) Granted, every audience is unique in that it is likely the only time that group of people in that current frame of mind will ever be seated together in that way. Since Ernie Haase comes from a show choir background, I assume he is quite familiar with the concept. So, I agree with Daniel J. Mount–a sincere look is important. Indeed, if a group tires of a song, but it is openly requested, then it is necessary (I think) to present some semblance of that “first time” because “every concert audience will have a decent percentage of people who have never heard” that particular song (from Mount’s post above). Of course, in our genre, we have the added facet of whether this is a truthful look of sincerity. Though SSQ adds a whole lot more “big” theatrics (e.g. choreographed movements, programmed jokes) than a lot of groups, it is not much different from what I see a lot of groups do anyway. We all have our scheduled jokes and programmed moments in performance, just perhaps to a less exaggerated extent than EHSSQ.

  4. Finally, someone from a performing background who understands precisely what I’m getting at! Thanks for stopping by, LSJ.

  5. Another thing to keep in mind is that at a live performance, the audience is not going to be just a few feet from the performers the way a video camera is. The singers have to emote big enough that people in the back rows can see them. From close up, they may appear to be laying it on a bit thick, but from a distance, they still look expressive.

    An aside on personal preference: I like SSQ because of, not despite, their theatricality. They interest the eye as well as the ear. My attention will wander mid-song no matter how tight the harmony if they don’t keep me involved.

  6. Daniel, you all are keeping me busy with this one! Thanks for the mention!

    But I must comment on your final question…it is a curious leap in logic(or lack of same)to make the assumption that if I might not be a fan of the “requisite sincere look”, that I would prefer an “insincere” look(whatever THAT is), or worse, inattention and bad bass singer jokes from the rest of the quartet.

    The double adjectives merely refer to a look that, in practice, helps “sell” the song to an audience. Not that that’s a bad thing, or that other singers don’t use that very same device in an effective way.

    I wasn’t trying to make any sweeping generalizations about SSQ when making that reference, merely referring to the use of a device that, IMO as I was watching the performance(after all, I was only relating my impressions AT THAT MOMENT), appeared manipulative on the group’s part to sell itself more so than the song…that’s all.

  7. Well, I guess that basically, my question comes down to this: If they don’t have a sincere look, what kind of a look would they put on?

  8. I would think if I wanted to see a sincere look, and there was none there when I was looking, that THAT is the kind of look I’d like to see…ya think?:-)

    And since such things are in the eye of the beholder(s) anyway, would you agree that further analysis of this along those lines is futile?

  9. It is fairly subjective, and my original intent was to post this as a comment on your blog and leave it at that. But one thought led to another, and I thought that this could spark a general (and informative) discussion of performer’s difficulties to re-create the feeling that it is the first time they did the song, even though they may literally be sick and tired of it.

  10. Hmmmmm…another tricky issue. I think the original comment was kind of over-the-top, but I can imagine cases where it seemed like the performers were “laying it on too thick.” To me though, that complaint seems much more applicable to other groups…

    I think Daniel made a good point when he said that in general, it’s a good bet that “signature songs” have had a deep impact on the singer himself. This enables him to deliver it with a level of conviction and true sincerity that would otherwise be lacking. I know Ernie has said many times that “Oh What a Savior” is the song that has had the most impact on him personally. He certainly wouldn’t be able to sing it with as much passion if it hadn’t touched him so deeply.