In recent decades the term ’embedded’ has been used to describe a situation where journalists are integrated into political, humanitarian and military operations in order to bring stories from distant, unpleasant and dangerous places back to the comfortable media consumer. Crucially it connotes the agency of higher authorities that perceive power in the narrative that reaches us, and value in being able to control as well as facilitate it.
Music and text offer an interesting parallel to this practice: both can carry embedded ideas and images of great power – sometimes placed at the behest of authority, and sometimes of the creator(s) (if indeed they are not one and the same). Today, let’s look at two strikingly different examples within our Black History Month-long focus on the Spiritual.
‘The Lily of the Valley’, a serene, and wistful testament to Jesus’ beauty, heaven’s riches and the seemingly mundane subject of shoes(!), is almost seemingly a propaganda piece for the slavery institution. It bears the striking allegory of Jesus as a pure, white flower (the lily is associated with beauty and purity both within and outside of the Biblical tradition, but its Easter connotation appears to be a 19th century invention), of heavenly riches beyond imagination, and the suggestion of shoes (typically denied to slaves for the enablement they provide to escape) as a mark of elective holiness and obedience.
In contrast ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho’ might seem nothing more than a well-loved rock-’em, sock-’em Old Testament story of God’s triumph on behalf of his people. But burrowing a bit deeper it is a striking tale of a hopeless-looking attack and surprise vanquishment of a greatly-fortified enemy, wrapped up in the blasting of judgment-day-style trumpets. No ‘gospel shoes’ for the submissive subject here! The story of course came to enslaved Christians from the imposed Bible, but it is interesting to look at that story from their perspective, and perhaps imagine them daring to identify with the Israelites freed from bondage and led to victory.
In most cases music supports the embedded power and purpose of text; in the serenity of the ‘Lily’ example geared perhaps at submissive passivity, or the vigorous rhythms of ‘Joshua’ conveying the sound and feelings of battle.
We have become accustomed to suspicion of the authority-crafted narratives embedded journalists bring us from troubled places; music too deserves our scrutiny, especially where (as in the church) we seek to take it on as an expression of ourselves. Keep this in mind the next time you see war reporting broadcasts in western media – the reporting may be telling you what to think, while the music tells you how to feel about it. If ‘The Lily’ contains some sort of hidden agenda it in no way invalidates the notions of Jesus’ beauty and purity, heaven’s riches or the value of wearing figurative ‘gospel shoes’ – but, as music often does for me and I hope for you, “It makes you think.”