The Gospel Gestalt: From Joyful Noise to Whitney Houston

Remember the movie Joyful Noise, the Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah flick about a small-town gospel choir from the South competing for national recognition? The film emerged back in January just long enough to be peppered with rotten tomatoes and then remaindered to cut-rate run-down dollar theaters.

Okay, so maybe you didn’t go see it on opening night, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie lately—particularly in the wake of Whitney Houston’s death.

No, really. 

I’ll stipulate that as popular cinema goes, the movie isn’t half as good as Houston’s worst music. But like Houston’s career (she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards by those who thought she’d sold out to white mainstream audiences, and perceptions of Houston as pop-music race-traitor persisted throughout her professional life), Joyful Noise is tangled up in a longstanding debate embedded in gospel music about race and cultural authenticity in American religion.  

The film’s main plotline involves a deep-set personal rivalry between Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) and G.G. (Dolly Parton) for control of the sound and style of the church’s choir, which is trying to make it to Los Angeles and the finals of the Joyful Noise national gospel choir competition. Vi is perceived as a traditionalist for her alleged love of old-time gospel; G.G. (and her sexy/sensitive, congenitally truant, musically gifted grandson) argues for something more along the lines of Gospel Glee.

Along the way, there are several subplots and narrative cul-de-sacs (for more complete synopses of the film see here and here) that involve much interracial, intergenerational conflict that is resolved in the end through a burst of what David Edelstein calls “gospel-pop-funk fusion.” 

Edelstein is being generous. In fact, the gospel dimension of Joyful Noise is almost entirely rhetorical and gestural: we know this is a movie about gospel because it has lots of flashy robes and swaying (mostly but not all black) singers, because it takes place in a rural Southern church, and because its main characters deliver themselves of pious paeans to the sweet, sweet spirit summoned by soulful singing in the gospel tradition.

As for music that sounds recognizably like what most people would consider “gospel,” there is very little to be heard here. Which to say, Joyful Noise is not so much about gospel music as it is energized by what I’ll call a gospel sensibility.

I’ve written in these pages before about gospel as spiritual lingua franca in American culture. This notion is widely dispersed throughout the popular imagination and rests on a belief in gospel music as a universal language of deep spiritual feeling that, paradoxically, derives from and transcends racial history in America (incidentally, I recommend Gerardo Marti’s most recent book, Worship Across the Racial Divide, if you’re interested in an insightful exploration of how race and music function in contemporary evangelical worship practices). 

Thus, the conflict at the heart of the film’s plot involves a wealthy, white woman of social prominence in the rural South, and a working-class, (sort of) single black mother who profoundly, instinctively dislike one another without ever once openly countenancing race and American race history as a possible explanation for their troubles.

Instead, they play out their conflict through their fight over the future of gospel music in the Pacashau, Georgia Sacred Divinity Choir, which, in addition to having the most gifted singers and kick-ass band of any rural church I’ve ever been in or heard of, is a place of astonishingly peaceful integration of blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics at various socioeconomic levels. Kumbaya.

Is Post-Racial Possible?

It’s easy to ding the film for simultaneously indulging in a prolonged race fantasy (rural Georgia as model U.N. seasoned with a dash of Broadway) and for relying at a deeper level on normative views of whiteness to resolve the multiracial social conflicts motivating the plot. Thanks to the largesse of a rich white widow (G.G.), the choir is able to travel to L.A. to compete in the national championship. And thanks to the widow’s prodigal grandson and his visionary insight into gospel reappropriations of Usher and Beyoncé in place of Vi’s outmoded traditionalism, the choir wins the competition. Thank Gawd for white people!

Yet viewed another way, the movie manages, however blunderingly, something like a post-racial take on the way matters of race, class, geography, and religion get mediated through gospel music (and I’d say these even if I weren’t a lifelong fan of Dolly Parton and an adherent to the purity-in-artifice approach to the Parton aesthetic around which the film is organized). Ultimately Vi comes to understand that she and the choir can embrace new sounds and styles without surrendering access to the gospel sensibility.

And in turn, Vi’s realization is also the audience’s: gospel isn’t betokened by a particular set of formal musical features, nor must it be descended from a specific cultural heritage. Rather, gospel is a gestalt.

Sure, her character (along with every other one in the film) is asked to carry far more symbolic and semiotic weight than the screenplay can support. But I’m drawn to Vi’s transformation in the film because it embodies a version of an insight that is taking hold in some quadrants of gospel music studies: namely, that we need a post-racial understanding of gospel music as a confluence of various and sometimes conflicting styles, voices, experiences, and historical forces—religious and secular, black and white, northern and southern, here and abroad.

Some of these confluences have carved out deep channels of recognizable musical expression that have historically been talked about—whether implicitly or explicitly—in terms of race (black gospel, Southern gospel, white gospel convention singing, and so on). But gospel has always been more racially complex and culturally polyvocal than most narratives about the music typically allow.

In the case of Joyful Noise, complaints about the film making a “mockery of gospel music in the black church” rely on a view of blackness in relation to gospel that is, in its own way, as normative as the film’s underlying representation of whiteness as the corrective to Vi’s old-timey traditionalism.

That’s not to say gospel hasn’t often been used as a cultural cudgel. Which brings me back to Houston and her struggle against the persistent charge that her musical migration to power-pop somehow betrayed her roots in black gospel and its secular cousins, R&B and soul.

The trouble with this view is that Houston succeeded not by abandoning her gospel sensibility, as some of critics charged, but by infusing it into mainstream American pop music. As one commenter insightfully put it in response to something I wrote about Houston’s death,

You hear Whitney Houston and you know in your heart that our ideas about genre don’t work very well. Neither does our readiness to make the most salient classification of a song, a style, or a performance its association with socially constructed ‘race.’ She sings, and those who have ears, hear. Anything else is just commentary.

Just so.

Gospel’s power isn’t primarily in demarcating the borders of ethnic or socioeconomic or sectarian identity.

This is one of the most overlooked and unlearned lessons of cultural productions as various as Houston’s music and Joyful Noise. At this late date of postmodern no-brow mass-market American culture, the gospel sensibility is as likely to show up in “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” (my favorite Houston song) as it is in a church-choir musical comedy directed by an openly gay Jewish guy from Queens who saw in Queen Latifah’s character a way to reanimate childhood memories of his mother drilling him to rehearse for Hadassah choir.

Indeed, the gospel sensibility can be found just about anywhere music summons the solitary voice embedded in social struggle, places it in musical conversation as part of a community of concern united in song, and—at least when it’s good—thereby transforms a range of idiosyncratic identities and life experiences into a heaven of harmony.