Monday, April 27, 2015

‘We Are Romero’—the storm over the beatification jingle

Romero jingle artists 2015; USA For Africa Artists 1985.
Admittedly, the subject of this post is not the most important thing happening around the upcoming beatification of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero on May 23rd.  That distinction should probably go to the news that El Salvador’s gangs may give upcrime for the occasion.  In the alternative, the fact that up to 12 Latin American leaders, including all the Central American presidents (and perhaps even Joe Biden) will attend might be the top story.  Other news, such as the 1,400 young people who turned up for a meeting of event volunteers on Sunday, or the Apostolic Nuncio’s call for Ciudad Barrios to be declared a pilgrimage site by the bishops’ conference, might be more interesting to pilgrims coming to the beatification.
None of these stories were the most commented topic among Romero followers this week, though.  The most popular—and contentious—issue was the new beatification jingle.  On Wednesday April 15, 2015, an ensemble of Salvadoran commercial artists revealed the generic-sounding tune, reminiscent of an 80s commercial jingle (think “Coke Is It!”), with lyrics intended to be, most of all, inoffensive and uncontroversial.  A sampling:
Only one El Salvador singing in one voice
Neither forgetting nor begrudging
The voice was the poor’s, he did it for love
He left us a legacy, he returned right and dignity to all
Loving life till the end, Romero was a martyr for love 

Reactions came fast and furious.  Despite the occasional apologist, most opinions were overwhelmingly negative and a few were downright scathing.  Five jingles that are better than the one for Archbishop Romero” said one editorial, while another knocked the jingle’s “decaffeinated Romero.”  One Twitter user posted that, “There is a special place in hell for the ‘talent’ who wrote the music and lyrics” for the jingle.  One of the more creative critiques was a variation of the “Hitler Finds Out” meme (based on outtakes from the 2004 German film Der Untergang in which the dictator goes ballistic when he learns that the final counter-offensive against the Soviets that he ordered has not been launched) whose uproarious premise is that even Hitler would vehemently object to the jingle.
Criticisms of the jingle follow three lines: (1) objections to the producers and cast behind the song; (2) objections to the message/lyrics; and (3) objections to the quality of the song. Underneath it all, however, the controversy boils down to who is entitled to define Romero—and who is not.  The most passionate critics allege that commercial artists who were nowhere to be seen when Romero could have used their support have been awarded the limelight in the jingle project, while lesser known artists who sang from the heart about Romero before it was in vogue to do so were unfairly left out.  Similarly, there are accusations that the Salvadoran Television Corporation (TCS, for its Spanish name) has been given a monopoly over coverage of the beatification and that their overly commercial sensibilities dictated the stylistic and production choices surrounding the jingle.  All, contrary to what Romero was all about.
The first two criticisms (about the production and content) seem to miss the mark.  To critics, the publicity campaign seeks to celebrate that Romero is a martyr by concealing why he was made a martyr (i.e. the campaign seeks to whitewash social discord).  But the flip side of the issue is that a beatification is not, as Romero’s postulator has pointed out, for the sake of Romero (or his followers): it is for the good of an entire society.  Accordingly, it is important for the Romero beatification to avoid, as the old adage goes, preaching to the choir (in this case quite literally) and, instead, it should seek to expand and optimize the appeal of Romero so that his message reaches those it has never reached before.  The argument about unfairness to Romero followers is compelling but, ultimately, a beatification is not a victory celebration.
In a high-minded editorial in the archdiocesan weekly on Sunday, Msgr. Jesús Delgado waxed philosophically about who has the right to speak for Romero.  Delgado pointed out that even Romero’s faithful followers can unwittingly project their own views and agendas on Romero and he likened it to the divergent points of views about Jesus in the four Gospels, which sometimes reflect the theological thesis of the Gospel writers.  We run the risk,” Delgado warns, “of having thousands of portraits of Archbishop Romero that are very diverse and even contradictory, if not altogether false.”  Although Delgado does not address the controversy over the song, the assertion that Romero’s admirers have painted an inaccurate picture undercuts the argument that they alone should be allowed to sing his praises.
These considerations also cloud the last point—the question of whether, in the final analysis, the song is simply not very good.  Concern over commercialism can filter into consideration of merit.  When a group of 44 United States musical acts got together in 1985 to record the charity single “We Are the World,” journalist Greil Marcus complained that the song sounded like a cola commercial.  In the realm of contextualization,” he wrote, “'We Are the World' says less about Ethiopia than it does about Pepsi.”  He noted that the constant repetition of phrases like “There’s a choice we’re making,” together with the fact that the ensemble included Pepsi-contracted artists, conflated charitable values with commercial interests.
In a “various artists” ensemble—like “We Are the World” and the Romero jingle—in which the artists come from various bands, playing in different genres, to different audiences, the style of their collaboration is typically nondenominational and bland.  Consequently, the biggest problem of the Romero jingle is that it has no soul.  That’s why it rings noncommittal and tepid; a thematic mismatch for Romero, who spoke clearly, even stridently at times.  Concerns about commercialism and exclusion, to the extent they have a point, make matters worse, but the principal problem is that the song is, for the reasons stated, subpar.
Postscript.  If the canonization office is looking for a last-minute substitution, there is a song that is commercially viable and has a lot of heart.  It is available in English and Spanish and there is an audio recordings and even a video for it.  “Romero” by The Project, comes without the baggage of Salvadoran culture wars, and has tens of thousands of hits on the Internet; it has been favorably reviewed by numerous magazines, hundreds of blogs (including this one), and gotten play on radio and podcasts, including  Most recently, it was scored and performed at Romero celebrations in London featuring Cardinal Vincent Nichols.  It has even been played on radio and television in El Salvador.  Just sayin’.
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