This past week I celebrated Darwin Day by going to a JTM (the artist formerly known as James the Mormon) and Jay Warren concert at the Cache Venue. I'm sure JTM is working on changing his name once more to JTMOTCOJCOLDS, but these things take time when you've got a following on several social media and music streaming platforms. Yeah, so I'm not sure if this post will be of much interest or make much sense to anyone not familiar with the religion that they and I share, and I'm sorry about that but I have to write about these things sometimes. You can skim up to the paragraph beinging with "So, the concert" in bold letters if you think that will help. I wouldn't want you to miss out on my exciting experience.
I'm not the biggest rap/hip-hop person, but it's a music genre and I like every music genre. I barely ever go to concerts, but the tickets were on sale when I saw them and I think very highly of JTM as a person and am happy to support his endeavors. His role in the music world performs two important functions. First, it makes rap and hip-hop music accessible to people who are turned off by excessive swearing, drugs, and misogyny. There's nothing inherently wrong or tasteless about rap and hip-hop as a genre, but for some reason its lyrics struggle to rise above the level of high school boys desperately trying to act cool. I die a little inside every time I have to exclude or remove a really catchy specimen from my playlist because of its content. Second, it helps to legitimize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a serious world religion. But what is this blasphemy? Hear me out on it.
A lot of LDS entertainment has traditionally centered around mocking the idiosyncracies of Utah (and especially Wasatch Front) culture. And that's fine, because those things deserve to be mocked. But it can get out of hand. It makes them quirky cultural artifacts with very limited appeal. Take, for example, the mediocre LDS comedy film "The Singles' Ward", which is not as good as "The Home Teachers" but light-years better than "Church Ball". Any movie with more than one funny line is better than "Church Ball". Same with "Suits on the Loose". The concept of escaped convicts impersonating missionaries is comic gold, yet the funniest part of that movie was that a friend saw the DVD in my dorm room and he thought it said "Sluts on the Loose" and that became an inside joke. And what is "Napoleon Dynamite"? Does it even count as LDS or comedy or a movie? After a lifetime of hearing it quoted out of context and being led to believe that it was some kind of masterpiece, I finally watched it a couple years ago at a friend's house, and afterward she was like "Now you understand our culture" and I thought to myself, Your culture is stupid.
Anyway, at the time I watched "The Singles' Ward", I myself had been in a singles' ward in Utah for four years. But instead of thinking "Wow, this is so relatable!" I mostly found myself thinking "Wow, Provo Mormons are freaks." No offense to any who are reading this. I'm just being honest about what the movie made me think at that time. Imagine, my dear Utah peeps, how much less relatable this film is to an LDS viewer who's never left Wisconsin, or Paraguay, or Zimbabwe. Now imagine how incomprehensible this film is to literally anyone else on the planet. And now, if you didn't already, you can probably grasp why the rash of like-minded films in the early 2000s will soon be even more lost to time than they already are. I should say that I do think "Mobsters and Mormons" is still really good. Because it's specifically about a mobster being relocated to Utah, the jokes about Utah's idiosyncracies are justified, and because it follows the perspective of a confused outsider family whom we're supposed to sympathize with, the potential confusion to viewers is also justified. And the mobster has no filter and no tact and he's hilarious. I wish I was him.
But there are what I regard as high-quality LDS films available - not without flaw by any means, but far more accessible and far less dated than the ill-advised comedies, such as "God's Army", "God's Army 2: States of Grace", "The Saratov Approach", "Ephraim's Rescue", "Freetown", "The Cokeville Miracle", "Jane and Emma". One time I said I liked "God's Army" and my dad said he didn't really like it and I said at least it's a lot better than "The Singles' Ward" and my mom said she doesn't think "The Singles' Ward" was actually intended to be a good movie. Instead of making jokes that implicitly equate an ostensibly global religion with Provo, these ones aren't shy to explore universal themes that anybody can take something away from. That doesn't mean they have to be "serious" all the time. Most of them have some lighthearted moments. "God's Army" even has some rather juvenile humor derived from immature missionaries that doesn't detract from its overall thoughtfulness. I don't even object to the concept of LDS comedies, but I think they could be done better and have broader appeal to justify their existence and stand the test of time.
So what does any of this have to do with JTM? This is what any of this has to do with JTM:
In case you can't be bothered to indulge in this cultural experience, the song drops as many LDS buzzwords as possible, separated by the occasional "Morrrmon! Mormon rap! Do the Muh-Muh-Mormon rap!" Okay, so it's a bit of cute, harmless fun. But if this is all we have to offer, it sends a message that these often localized stereotypes are what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. It precludes the possibility that some Saint in India who's never eaten green Jell-O or attended BYU is every bit as "Mormon" as the protagonist of the song. It certainly makes it more difficult for an ignorant outsider hearing the song to consider that possibility on their own. Perhaps even more concerningly, if this is all we have to offer, it tells the world that all the Restoration has to offer in terms of culture is parodies and jokes. And look, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with parodies and jokes. (I love the work of Cal Grondahl, Pat Bagley and Robert Kirby, for example.) I'm not saying this is a terrible song. But I'm saying this is where JTM comes in. And boy, did he come in. This was my first exposure to him, way back in '15:
We gon bring it back for ya baby more dreams
And if you got questions then you know you gonna see
So imma bring it back for ya
Know I'd go to bat for ya
I know where you at when you go to your knees
Hmmm. I sense a shift. In this one, JTM and Jay Warren unironically yet uniquely relate the story of Joseph Smith's First Vision. So what does this one tell the world, besides the story's own obvious message of heartfelt questioning and prayer? It tells the world that the story of Joseph Smith is incredible enough to inspire legitimate works of art, including rap and hip-hop. It tells the world that the restored gospel - not just the unfortunate culture that's grown up around it, but the restored gospel itself - is fertile ground for multiple genres of creativity. "We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves." If we don't strive to reach that point, if we're content to just laugh at a stereotypical subset of ourselves for generations to come, then how can we expect anyone else to take our religion seriously when we don't? JTM and Jay Warren gave us what is, as far as I know, an unprecedented leap forward in this area of that regard.
So, the concert. It said it started at 7, but what it actually meant was that the doors opened at 7 and it started twenty minutes later. Whatever. There were three, count 'em, three opening acts before the guys that people actually came to see. They were all right, but I just couldn't get into them. I wandered around aimlessly for a bit, texted a close friend to rant about the unfairness of life and my anger toward God, and gazed longingly at the Cache Venue's overpriced menu items that were out of my league. Then Jay Warren came on, and I started to pay more attention. Then JTM came on with Jay Warren backing him up, and I was riveted by his infectious energy and enthusiasm. The crowd ate it up. I'm not sure which demographic was funnier to watch dancing and singing along - under twelve, or over forty. This despite the fact that he acknowledged his fame recently causing him the worst depression of his life, and disclosed a childhood filled with abuse. His main message, though, was that God loves each and every one of us no matter who we are. And coming from a rap/hip-hop star, it rang with its own special sincerity that drove the crowd wild.
After the concert, I lined up for the Meet & Greet. I was at the back of the line but that was fine because I was in a patient mood. Then some girls who didn't have Meet & Greet tickets lined up behind me. One of them had gotten to dance on stage. Two of them were the ones that I had looked at because I thought I recognized one of them from church but I didn't and then they saw me looking at them and I tried to avoid them for the rest of the night. And two of them were these goofballs that I met at a party in October and have seen a couple times since then. Let's call them Betty and Tamsen, because those are their names. So Betty and Tamsen were absorbed in their own little conversation and I just patiently waited for them to notice me. When Tamsen notice me, she squealed so loud and long that I started to get uncomfortable. How do you respond to that? The only other time I've gotten that kind of reaction from a woman was when I gave one something I wrote to read. I don't know the reason for it this time.
She was all like, "Where were you? You should have invited us!" etc. And maybe I should have, because then I wouldn't have felt awkward when my grandmother asked who I was going with and I had to say "Just me" because I wasn't quick-witted enough to say "The Holy Ghost, my constant companion." So then Betty and Tamsen did the thing they like to do where they both talk to me at once, from either side, not letting me get a word in edgewise, and then say stuff like "Are we bothering you? Are we peer pressuring you? Are we making you uncomfortable?" This time, it was because they tried to convince me to tell the guy in charge that they had to be in my picture. That was perfectly fine with me, and would have made for a better blog post, but they felt guilty and backtracked right away. They toyed with a few different ideas for getting in, and they toyed with the idea of giving up and going home. I said they could just bat their eyelashes at the guy and they said that was against their principles.
So they were still discussing that when I moved up to the front of the line, right by the mysterious curtain that divided us normal people from the celebrities, and I sat down on a conveniently situated stool and that tricked the guy next to me into thinking I worked there. Then the guy in charge was like "How many?" and before I could respond he ushered both of us in, and that's why a total stranger is in this picture with me.
It was a relief, actually, since I was starstruck and had no idea what to say and he did all the talking while I was awkwardly awkward. JTM didn't seem particularly thrilled to see us. I imagine he just wanted to go home, and I can't blame him and I'm going to be the same way when my adoring fans want me to autograph my books, but when you decide to become a celebrity you give up perks like that. It will be worth it for him, though, when my own fame has exploded and this picture is worth a thousand dollars. I think I'll Photoshop the shadows out from under my eyes as soon as I learn how. Also, please note the awesome shirt that my awesome sister gave me for Christmas.
So the random guy gave me his number and I sent him the pictures (this one and four even worse ones) and then I naturally assumed I would never see him again. I saw him again the following night. Inside my house. He came over with approximately two hundred other people to solicit a business that these other guys run from my new house on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 9 pm. They sell spaghetti toast and inside-out toasted cheese sandwhiches for five dollars each with optional chips and soda for an additional dollar. You can get it delivered somewhere in Logan or thereabouts for an additonal two dollars by texting 801-819-5517, but why not save money and get the full experience of music and loud camaraderie by picking up in person at 435 Boulevard, Logan, Utah? No joke, it's a party. Just please close the freaking door behind you like an adult and don't block the hallway to my bedroom. This advertisement has not been approved or paid for by anyone, but it should be.
Betty and Tamsen and their three compatriots got in behind me with no difficulty because it turns out the guy didn't actually even check anybody for Meet & Greet tickets. They spent considerably longer with JTM and Jay Warren than I did, even though I actually bought a Meet & Greet ticket. But that's okay. I'm happy for them. They owe me for convincing them not to give up and go home. Then Tamsen made me squeeze into the backseat of their car with three other people because she couldn't accept the fact that I like walking. But that's okay. I'm just grateful that because of her and Betty's endorsement, their friends were reassured that I wasn't a creep just because I looked at them. All things considered, I've had worse evenings.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.