I have often heard or read conversations that go something like this:
Mormon 1*: I wish we didn’t have to confine ourselves to the green hymnbook in sacrament meeting, but at least we won’t have to hear anything by Janice Kapp Perry!
Mormon 2: Yeah, I hate Janice Kapp Perry!
In this post I will attempt to defend Sister Perry from these insulting and unfair attacks.
Now, I don’t claim to be a musical expert. I play a few instruments, but none especially well, and my singing range is limited. Except for BYU, I haven’t lived in the “Mormon corridor,” so I have mostly escaped exposure to the sacrament meeting pop ballad. I’m not familiar with most of JKPs extensive oeuvre, and I’m not even going to try to defend her slightly disturbing collaborations with Orin Hatch. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that she has gotten a bad rap. I will make three points:
1. She’s actually a talented song writer.
At least, in my opinion. I have myself directed two songs by JKP in sacrament meetings during the last year. You see, I’m the primary chorister, and those two songs were “A Child’s Prayer,” and “Army of Heleman.” People seem to forget that she has written several of the best of the recent primary songs. She also wrote “Love is Spoken Here,” (which is fancy without being showy), “I Belong to the Church of Jesus Christ” (which works much better than you’d ever expect), and others including “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” and “I Love to See the Temple.” These are not hymns, but I did not find them inappropriate for worship service. The church leaders seem to agree, since her pieces have been included in several recent sessions of general conference. These are the JKP songs that are sung in our wards more than any others.
But even beyond her primary songs, my limited experience with her pieces is that they have excellent melodies, very nice piano arrangements, and singable words. It’s not J.S. Bach or Vaughn Williams, but it’s no mean feat either.
2. Over-the-top performances are not her fault
One concern that both church leaders and intellectual types seem to share is that musical performances in church should not over-emphasize the performer at the expense of the message. I entirely agree. But I don’t think that JKPs songs require, or necessarily even invite, such performances. For example, if someone chooses to sing “In the Hollow of Thy Hand” at a missionary farewell, I think they are singing it because of the message, not to show off. I don’t have any problem with that, and I see no reason why it should drive away “the spirit.” It’s quite possible for someone to go over-the-top playing a Bach postlude, too, but I don’t want to banish Bach from our church.
3. My personal tastes ≠ Eternal Truth
Like some of you, my personal tastes tend towards traditional high-church style hymns for worship service (e.g. “All Creatures of Our God and King”) or similar hymns from the Mormon tradition (“Redeemer of Israel”), preferably played nice and loud on a pipe organ. Outside of church my tastes range from Karen Carpenter to My Bloody Valentine. But I recognize that my tastes may differ from others, and I’m not willing to say that what I like or what I find spiritual should be what everybody likes or what everybody finds spiritual. Styles and tastes always change over time and space, and what one person finds beautiful and moving another person might find bland or even offensive. Saying that people who like JKP are somehow deficient just strikes me as snobbery. I am not arguing that nobody should ever criticize music—there are many hymns and primary songs that I find lacking because of their clumsy words or forgettable melodies. But JKP songs are not bad, they are actually very good examples of their style, that’s why people respond to them. Besides, what’s important in this context is not merely aesthetic standards, but finding things that work for the community.
In short, I think it’s unfair to Sister Perry that her name is used as a symbol for whatever we don’t like about middlebrow church culture. Maybe I’ll change my mind after listening to the Orin Hatch collaboration, but I doubt it.
[* Post was edited to remove reference to Mormon “intellectual snobs,” which touched a nerve I hadn’t intended to touch. Please know that I didn’t have anybody particular in mind. I consider myself as much of a pseudo-intellectual snob as anyone, and I intended the designation to be essentially toungue-in-cheek. ]