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Music: Fluttery fatherhood

Music | Crossover hit offers sentimentality, not biblical wisdom

Issue: "Taking the Bait?," July 12, 1997

There are two kinds of people: those who think the late Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" makes a profound statement about fatherhood, and those who think the song makes Mormon family-values public-service announcements seem deep by comparison. The first kind cry every time they hear the song; the second kind get sick.

That the teary-eyed outnumber the ill should surprise no one. Our overwhelming preference for emotion over thought is well documented. And now, with the runaway success of Bob Carlisle's song "Butterfly Kisses," Christians have their own anthem to fluttery fatherhood.

"Butterfly Kisses" takes "Cat's in the Cradle" and turns it upside down. In "Cats," a father ignores his son at every crucial wonder-year stage, receiving from him the same neglect in the end. In "Butterfly," a father lavishes hugs and kisses on his daughter at every crucial stage, receiving from her the promise of abundant hugs and kisses to come though her marriage doth them part.

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Mr. Chapin's fatal flaw is that he telegraphs his irony, and irony so baldly telegraphed renders whatever moral the song may contain obvious from the beginning. Mr. Carlisle's fatal flaw is that he telegraphs his complete lack of irony, and a narrative with no irony at all is predictable.

The problem with an obvious or predictable moral is that no one takes it seriously. Which isn't to say that millions of people won't shell out for one anyway. If TV ratings, box-office receipts, and bestseller lists are any indication, wasting money on the obvious and predictable is our national pastime. Even such an exception as the success of the high-cultural Mount Rushmore known as the Three Tenors is belied by the fact that it took all three of them at full volume to overcome our deafness to music that requires patience, intelligence, curiosity, and taste.

The Butterfly Kisses album originally appeared in 1996 as Shades of Grace, and under that name it did what most contemporary-Christian albums do in the mainstream market: nothing. Its transformation into a best-selling mainstream album came about as the result of its distributor's astutely getting copies into the hands of mainstream DJs just in time for the faux holiday Mother's-Day-Graduation-Day-Father's-Day-Wedding-Season season.

One wonders, though, if sales of the album would be as strong if people didn't have to buy it to get the title song (as of this writing, the "Butterfly Kisses" song is unavailable as a single). Mr. Carlisle has a pleasant but indistinct voice-a blend of the Michaels Bolton and McDonald-and material to match. With the exception of "It Is Well with My Soul," everything else on the album merely recycles over familiar pop-Christian bromides to slick but run-of-the-mill instrumentation.

One also wonders if Christians who want to write songs about parent-child relationships from a biblical perspective will ever consult the Bible itself. Much of the book of Proverbs, for instance, consists of a father's advice to his son and is surprisingly unsentimental. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine the top-40 confection that could turn an exhortation to love wisdom into a million-selling tear-jerker, but that probably says more about the value of top-40 radio and jerked tears than it does the value of Proverbs.

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