The Captain Marvel I Remember

The Captain Marvel I remember was a black woman. I started collecting the Avengers comics in the mid-80’s. In 1987, Monica Rambeau (as Captain Marvel—she later became “Photon”) was chair of the Avengers. I remember Storm being leader of the X-Men. And in the New Mutants (my favorite team), Danielle Moonstar was the leader. As an adolescent white dude in the mid-80’s, comics were about the only pop culture media in which I remember seeing women of color in leadership.

I stopped collecting for awhile, and I missed the major Carol Danvers story. So “Captain Marvel” for me has always been Monica Rambeau. If I were to pick a superpower for myself, it would have been her ability to transform into multiple kinds of energy. When they introduced Monica as a little girl in the recent Captain Marvel movie, I couldn’t help elbowing my wife and whispering “she’s going to be badass.”

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Captain Marvel gets nominated to lead the Avengers — The Avengers 279, May 1987, page 5

I’m not in any way saying that this deprogrammed me or counteracted the enormous implicit bias I was trained to have. Nor am I dismissing all the sexism and lookism and tokenism that comics geared toward adolescent boys often reinforced. BUT these stories embedded themselves in my imagination and subconscious. 

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Doctor Druid and Thor showing their fragility.

I’m sharing this because I remember this stuff from my childhood. It reinforces the importance of representation in our imagination and the stories we tell. Superhero movies, as Mr. Glass says, are our modern myths—they tell us who we aspire to be. When we are doing science fiction or fantasy or superhero stories, we’re engaged in subtle acts of resistance to the dominant narrative. We’re imagining that the world could be otherwise.

And the reason it causes so much backlash among fragile white dudes is that they correctly sense that it threatens the status quo. In the above panel, Doctor Druid and Thor both react in predictable ways, questioning Monica’s ability. Later on in the story, She-Hulk confides to Black Knight that she prefers a less hierarchical and more egalitarian form of leadership, and she hopes Captain Marvel will step up to lead the group. 

The comics I collected seldom mentioned race as part of the storyline. Danielle Moonstar’s Cheyenne heritage in The New Mutants is far more explicit than Monica’s blackness in The Avengers. In that sense, my favorite comics promoted the false narrative of colorblindness. But it also shows Monica talking with her parents about sidelining her desire to start a business. The story gives her a past, a family, and an internal life.

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Internalized oppression is a thing. Monica feels she needs permission to lead because she’s a woman. (The fact that she’s black is never mentioned).

It’s a comic book from the 80’s, so there are some dialogue choices and storyline choices that make me cringe. But I remember that these comics expanded my imagination in ways that I only now can appreciate. I am looking forward to seeing the Captain Marvel that I grew up with transform into a living beam of light and burn a hole through steel.

Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.