Okay, so it’s silly to call them the king and queen of Catholic pop.
But the professionalism and the contemporary sensibility of Marie Bellet and Father Stan Fortuna are such that it would be even sillier to give anyone else those titles. They both sing in formats that are top sellers at the moment — country and hip hop — and they both have released the best CDs of their careers in time for Christmas 2006.
“Careers” is the wrong word. Neither is a career musician.
is a mother in
Bellet has an MBA from Vanderbilt, an economics degree from Swarthmore — and is in the middle of raising eight children. Bellet writes articulate, spiritually deep lyrics about life among the back-pack littered hallways and scattered-Cheerios kitchens of large Catholic families.
Father Stan Fortuna is a priest in
Bellet’s new release is called “A New Springtime,” and it’s the most balanced of any of her four CDs.
Her first, “What I Wanted to Say” was a revelation to Catholic audiences. Her two follow-ups showed that she had staying power. But if “Ordinary Time” was all too serious (as Bellet has said she thought it was) and if “Lighten Up” was all too bright (by design, to compensate), then the new CD is just right.
Bellet’s fundamental message is that the faith elevates a woman’s ordinary daily concerns into a Christian’s extraordinary, eternal concerns. Nowhere in her work does she sum this up more succinctly than in the song “Closet Space”: “I am a woman who worries about closet space, and one day I’ll be dead.”
Other perennial Bellet themes are covered here in fresh ways. There’s the clever “It’s All You” in which the “you” in the chorus changes in the way we all hope it will in our own lives. And no one sings about the conflicted feelings a Catholic mother feels at a positive pregnancy test like Marie Bellet. “Nine More Months One More Time” honestly records tears, regret, elation and gratitude.
My favorite is the melancholy
nostalgia of “This House Is for
For those of us whose children are still cluttering up the place, the song allows us to share now in the future glory that nostalgia will lend to these events.
Rounding out the CD is the Catholic mothers’ anthem “We Are the Cavalry” and two great couple songs: the catchy “I Can Only Do So Much” about quarreling and “Are You Ready, Freddy?” about making up. And there’s more, too — 13 tracks in all.
Usually, I roll my eyes when I see 13 tracks on a Catholic CD. One gets the impression that the artist recorded everything she had and put it all out there. In this case, the material doesn’t get tiresome.
Hip Hop Hosannas
Father Fortuna has a more difficult task than Bellet. Her fans share her circumstances and, increasingly, are likely to be fans of her musical format.
Father Stan’s CDs attempt something new. Hip hop is a place many Catholics simply won’t go (his is the only rap I, for one, have listened to), and religious material isn’t likely to appeal to rap fans. But he (and rapper Righteous B) are the only significant Catholic artists delivering the Church’s message in an idiom that is popular in the Evangelical Protestant market.
Father Stan has recorded many CDs with several kinds of music, but “Sacro Song 3” is only his third rap CD. The first of these was a bit tentative, with a few experimental tracks thrown in. The second was more confident and featured the best of all Father Stan’s rap pieces, “Everybody Got 2 Suffer,” and the truly inspiring “Dame Tu Luz.”
But while other pieces on that CD are excellent, there is an asterisk to the praise, at least for me. “Unborn Victims of Violence” is an inspired diatribe and “Cell 91 (JPII)” is a vigorous homage to Pope John Paul II — but both pieces test the limits of the genre. Is it possible to parse the weakness of legislation in rap? Is it possible to describe a conclave’s inner workings and aftermath in rap?
These songs make as strong a case as possible that it is.
“Sacro Song 3” is different, though. In 2006, Father Stan has taken a step toward the rap idiom, and the idiom has taken a step toward him.
Rap songs feature a strong element of humor. Father Stan now seems more comfortable with the self-deprecating aspect of rap. And while mainstream rap used to deal almost exclusively with ribald tall tales, Kanye West and others have been hailed for finding a way to use it to express more sophisticated sentiments.
As a result, even while “Sacro Song 3” has dropped the PG-13 nature of some of his earlier pieces — “Zipper Zone,” “Everybody’s Got 2 Suffer,” “Say Yes to Sex (Theology of the Body)” — the sound is more “authentic.” “Got the Mike On?” is a particularly catchy piece, delivered in a mocking voice.
In “Jesus Talks,” Father Stan answers Kanye West’s song “Jesus Walks.” West created a stir recently first by popularizing a song about how everybody needs Jesus, then by dressing himself up as Jesus and talking about how everybody needs Kanye West. Father Stan has some sound advice for him, and ends the song by quoting U2’s Bono, whose Christology is better than West’s.
The CD has 18 tracks, which makes it very long, and it includes a couple of dialogues that might not bear repeated listenings, but is packed with surprises. Where else will you hear “Jim Caviezel” rhymed with “divine diesel”?
“B16 Bomber” is the biggest surprise on the CD. It’s made up of a loud, insistent rhythm, a chorus about the Pope (the song’s title is its nickname for him) that sounds almost like a stadium chant. This is interspersed with a long quote directly from the Holy Father about the Eucharist. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The quote is filled with insight that takes on a chilling intensity in this setting. That piece, along with “Peace Shout Out” and other tributes to John Paul on the CD, manages to cast the successors of Peter in the role of subversives of pop culture. (But if Pope Benedict were to pick a personal favorite, he would undoubtedly choose the classical, harpsichord-driven track “Bach Me Up.”)
So our country-pop mom and hip-hop priest have produced two CDs that are sure to raise eyebrows this Christmas. But as good as they are, I think their significance is even greater.
As one listens to both artists’ CDs, the first thing to marvel at is the very fact that they exist. Not long ago, hearing high-quality productions of songs with explicitly Catholic lyrics would have been impossible. Catholic productions were associated with mediocrity and Catholic artists seemed embarrassed about their faith.
These artists are signs that the Church of the Second Vatican Council has matured past its rebellious stage and is ready to do what the Council asked: speak eternal truths in contemporary languages. These CDs are, as Marie Bellet’s title points out, signs of a “New Springtime.”
Maybe the next generation, after growing up exposed to first-rate artists like these, will surprise us even more.