Wednesday, May 5, 2021

"Praise the Lord With Your Feet!": Deceased Artiste Carman

For close to 25 years now I’ve been paying tribute to Christian kitsch on Easter episodes of the Funhouse TV show. One of the individuals whose work I returned to a lot in the ’90s and a bit of the 2000s was Carman, the Christian pop singer, who died on Feb. 16 at the age of 65. Carman’s music videos were little marvels that contained imagery, tropes, and cliches from music-vids of many different genres (each video seeming to “capture” the genre it was mimicking) and demand repeated viewings.

But who was this guy Carman anyway? Born Carmelo Licciardello, he was a Sicilian-American from Trenton, N.J., who reportedly found Christ at an Andre Crouch concert and then became a proselytizing singer espousing Christian values in his lyrics and performances. (From this point on I’ll use the abbreviation “Xtian,” as it makes things simpler.)

The New Jerseyness generally disappeared from Carman’s public persona — he acquired a Southern accent when preaching, never performed songs that referred to his upbringing (his mother was part of a girl group that often played Atlantic City), and became an all-American presence who was as patriotic as he was Xtian. He was noted as “bringing Vegas to Christian music” but he also, according to his official website, had his own ministry. On the site you can sign up to be a “monthly partner.” (“Our partners are the lifeline of our ministry. Your monthly contribution allows us to win more souls to Christ.”)

He was also clearly a guy who worked out a lot — he appeared muscular and startlingly groomed even shortly after he recovered from a battle with cancer in the mid-2010s. In his songs and videos he often stressed fighting the Devil and depicted it as a physical fight. (An “enforcer” for the Lord, if you will.) Of his four acting roles in feature films, two were self-penned vehicles in which he played a tough guy — the more prominent of the two being Champion (2001), about a boxer who must come back to the ring for one last match (and ends up fighting more fiercely outside the ring – with MMA moves rather than the Marquess of Queensbury).

Rat Pack Carman.
Before I get to the catchy songs/perfect approximations of genre music videos that are Carman’s major legacy, let’s touch on his political side, since that fed into the evangelical tack he took in his religion. The best introduction to this aspect is “Revival in the Land” (a 1990 song), a spoken word piece done in full costume and a Hellscape set. A demon (voiced by Carman) checks in with Lucifer (also voiced by Carman) about how things on Earth are going. He mentions a problem (the spread of Xtianity, of course!), but the Horned One first must query his minion, “Is there something wrong with my abortion clinics?”

The response, “We eliminate human life in the name of convenience” and comparison of abortion to the Holocaust probably was a fusion of Carman’s holy roller adult beliefs and his Sicilian-Catholic upbringing. The video, directed by Stephen Yake (more on him below), is an Xtian Reefer Madness for the George H.W. Bush era. If the propaganda won’t getcha, and the fully styrofoamed Devil figure doesn’t, surely the end explosion will. (Satan’s throne blows up real good.)

 

Carman’s patriotic side was a strong component of his work. At these moments he would forget about singing — only a sternly-worded lecture would do. In “America Again” (a 1993 song; Carman is credited with writing or cowriting all of the songs from his “boom” period in the ’90s), one of his finest-ever complaint lines gets an airing: “When it gets to the point where people would rather come out of the closet than clean it, it’s the sign that the judgment of God is going to fall!” (I have gloried in that line for years — turning from a metaphor for queer identification to sanitary reality in the deft, deranged turn of a phrase, we learn that the downfall of this country will most assuredly be not only homosexual behavior but also cluttered wardrobes.)

 

Carman’s concern about people’s gender preference is manifested in depth in an episode of his 1993 series Time 2 (Dir: Stephen Yake, 1993). A full playlist of the episodes on YT can be found here. Most episodes were named after a societal problem — psychics, new age spirituality, single-parent families, drug abuse, cults, “singleness” (!) — and the most politically grounded is homosexuality, in an episode called “Confused Affections.”

Here, although Carman notes that it is possible to “separate the person from the sin,” he also declares that this sin is considered grievous (as illustrated by various Bible passages). In fact, “If God had a stomach, he would vomit at these practices.” The question thus becomes “Is it an alternate lifestyle — or a perverse and deadly sin?”

The buff Carman.
Here we learn about the fact (according to studies unmentioned) that most gay people had “very troubled childhoods.” An interview subject notes how he was called “sissy” and was indeed gay. Now, his lovely wife keeps on the (very) straight and narrow. It is even noted by this ex-gay man (this unbidden by Carman) that, if a naked man were to appear in front of him, he wouldn’t care. Carman closes out his earnestly sincere plaint by noting that gayness can result in a “physical penalty” — from altered speech and mannerisms to diseases like AIDS.

The episode ends with a rather curious footnote — a vignette in which a redneck Good Old Boy is seen crowing to his wife about how he and the local preacher “drove off” these two “light in the loafers… pansies.” We, the audience, realize that his wife thinks what he said is too cruel and against church teachings on loving one’s neighbor. 

But no such thought is expressed — we just see a “isn’t he a silly?” expression cross her face and a Bible quote appears onscreen (“Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother”). Thus, if you know an individual who is not acting Xtian to their neighbor and hating them for some aspect of their personhood — hey, just shrug it off!

 

Aside from his concerts (which were large, sell-out, stadium affairs in various cities — his website declares that his largest audience was 80,000 people in Chattanooga, Tenn.), Carman’s main vehicle for his pop ministry was the music video. And the best of these are indeed a wonder — as noted above, they not only seem like a performer trying out a “crossover” identity, but they work as encapsulations of the genre in question. If Carman made a country line-dancing video, it was the ultimate line-dancing video (every image, framing, and editing trope you’ve seen in those music-videos). The same for gospel, rock, white-boy rap, movie-soundtrack homages, bubble-gum pop, and even metal.

The young Carman.
The director of all the best of these videos is Stephen Yake, who has a quite lengthy videography of work for Xtian artists. His work with Carman is indeed extraordinary — and, even though I embarked upon showing these videos on the Funhouse TV show in the ’90s as a wise-ass Atheist confronting remnants of his Catholic past, I have always been impressed by Yake’s thorough “inventory of effects” (to quote the Big McLuhan) and the fact that his videos for Carman’s songs might seem like parodies of the genre (in the sense that a video for a Weird Al or Spinal Tap song is), but it was clear that, in each case, Yake would try to “grab” a genre’s music-video images and drop Carman in the middle of them.

A reviewer given to academic interpretations would, of course, call this kind of thing “deconstruction” of a familiar pop culture phenomenon; I will simply say that Yake and Carman knew how to target the demographic for each song. 

And the hooks! You can approach these videos as I do — again, wise-ass, intent on mocking the message of the songs and their visual presentation – but there is no way you won’t end up with these songs engrained in your memory for hours (and perhaps days) after hearing them. Thus, of course, the Xtian songwriter wins the battle, if not the war. Carman did indeed get the last laugh on me in the “hook so catchy you can’t lose the damned thing for a long while” department.

Celebrity Carman.
Case in point: his 1991 lamentation on the loss of prayer in schools, done as a metal song. This tune, credited only to Carman as a songwriter but performed with Xtian metalheads Petra, is basically just a hook with a song built around it. The video features Carman in an eye-grabbing blue suit that jars wildly with the nearly monochrome visuals of the “high school without Christ,” borrowed from any number of those damned metal and even grunge power ballads with little stories in ’em. (Yake puts in a number of evocative touches that would signal “hard rock” even in small snippets on “Beavis and Butt-head.”) 

Warning: You may indeed laugh at the earnestness of this message (again, the morals Carman taught us had a lovely Reefer Madness urgency to them), but you won’t easily discard the ersatz metal heard here.

NOTE: This embed works, but for some reason has no thumbnail.

 

And skipping straight to the most hook-heavy song Carman ever produced, there’s “Sunday School Rock” (Dir: Yake from this point on, 1993 song). The video is an “American Bandstand”-type 1950s affair, with all kinds of visual steals from Fifties and early Sixties TV clips and movies.

But the song! In an audio commentary with Yake found on YT, Carman notes he wrote it as a memory-aid for kids to remember the books of the Bible that had inspiring messages, but each verse is a little speech set to a catchy beat, with Carman at points reverting to his Sicilian NJ heritage (with tough guy hand gestures, even). The chorus is the dumbest, simplest thing imaginable — and thus it BURNS into the brain. In the commentary video, Carman notes it became a signature song he sang at every concert.

 

Jumping genres entirely, there’s “Satan Bite the Dust” (1991 song). It’s Carman doing “cowboy music” and acting out a “Sheriff cleans up the town” scenario in a bar setting. Again, Carman and his collaborators decided the hook was all that mattered, so the chorus is “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” with added-in snippets of very familiar Western themes — from The Magnificent Seven and “The Wild Wild West” to, of course, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

The fact that the Muppet-like villain who purveys “false religions” is wearing a turban and playing a foreign-looking stringed instrument is a nasty bit of inter-faith racism. But the catchiness of the tune and the “borrowed” elements make it rewatchable.

 

Now, onto the inevitable: Carman’s rap white-boy rap music. Here again, Yake reproduces all the visual “cues” for softer rap (think the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff) for a video featuring Carman (in shorts, even!). The lesser of the two Carman vids is “Who’s in the House?” (Answer: “JC!”) where he lets us know that “we’re kickin’ it for Christ!”

That video pales in comparison with “Addicted to Jesus” (1991 song), which Carman performs with the Xtian rap group DC Talk. If you want to take a time trip back to the early ’90s with a music video you’ve never seen before, this would be your ticket to ride. This time Carman wears a purple suit and the visual effects that signal “friendly rap song” flash by in very fast succession. He also dances with the DCT boys, showing off his steps and urging the slack-jawed viewer to “Praise the Lord with your feet!”

 

Now, the all-out strangest and most colorful video in this whole collection, Slam!” (song: 1998). This time out Yake delivered a powerhouse of strangeness — a video that takes Prince’s “Batdance” song and video and overlays “Rhythm Nation” dancing and imagery out of A Clockwork Orange. I will bet good money (well, at least five bucks) that this is the only Xtian music-vid that references that particular early Seventies classic.


It’s definitely the ultimate collaboration of the Yake-Carman team, since it’s a catchy tune showcased by a delightfully deranged video. This posting of the video has an audience clapping along (with girls cheering for sexy Carman), as it premiered as part of the anti-Halloween Xtian special Halloween 3:16, which Carman posted on YT in its entirety. (A show that really should have a Goth kid following, as it is the kind of thing that made them run away from church imagery and over to the darker side.)

Sample lyric, as the once again pugnacious-for-Christ Carman threatens to beat up the Old Scratch: “In my mind there is no fear/In my mind there is no doubt/Yes, I am that Christian that Hell warned you about!”

 

And while we’re on the subject of the Devil, one of Carman’s best-known videos is a spoken-word piece in which he, a Jesus-loving man of propriety, meets an evil witch-man (perhaps even… a warlock?) who wants to brag about his Fallen Angel rather than the Big G that Carman is pledged to.

In the piece, the witch — purportedly (per another preacher’s interview, found on YT) based on Isaac Bonewits, the only American to get a BA in Magic, from UC Berkeley (here called “Horowitz” to make him Jewish; Bonewits was an ex-Catholic) — invites Carman over to his stronghold. There Carman sees all manner of Evil Things: horoscope signs on the walls! A crystal ball!! A Ouija board!!! And (in case you needed proof this is the Eighties/Nineties) a “Dungeons & Dragons” book!!!!

The Devil-worshipping, pentagram-wearing, goateed nemesis of our man Carman taunts our hero with a scrapbook containing his accomplishments (including an article about a man dying of AIDS). Carman, naturally, tells off this sick 666-er and dramatically leaves his house. Illustrating once more the desperate Xtian need for the Devil — for if there is nothing to continually and persistently condemn as Evil, how can one continually and persistently show that one is Good? (Bragging rights count, you know.)

 

Although “Slam!” is probably the single most dazzlingly weird Carman video, I will end on the one that short-circuited my brain. Carman’s video “Mission 3:16” (a 1998 song) is a little mini-movie in which he is a James Bond-like spy called “Agent 3:16” who meets with his “M”-like boss and “Q”-like supplier of top-secret gadgets and weapons, then goes on a mission to topple a villain who is spreading a hopeless message (literally, with video billboards that say “There Is No Hope” and “Life Is Meaningless”) to the people of “the entire country” (which looks like an Eastern republic but is supposed to be America).

His mission is to defeat the villain by tapping into his “network” and supplying a different message. In this music video, the song is a nothing — a bunch of lines about being brave, punctuated by John Barry-like horn trills and Bond guitar chords The video, however, is an all-out action flick in miniature, with car chases, machine gun blasts, fistfights (more of Carman’s beating up evil), outrageous stunts, and elementary fx. The song is so unimportant to the final product that the audio from the chase-fight-defeat narrative nearly drowns it out.

But then – the guest star appears. Agent 3:16 (who never once kisses a woman — this is a very chaste super-spy) finishes off the bad guy and he hears the “message” that he was supposed to spread, as intoned by “Mission Control” (a Presidential seal, followed by a Presidential type in an Oval Office-looking room).


The message is John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world...”), and the messenger is an actual guest star — Tony Orlando! Yes, it’s the man who tied that yellow ribbon, who knocked three times, who ventured into the strawberry patch with Sally. Those who know me know that I have a great affection for Tony’s upholding of the old show-biz “give 110%” attitude toward showmanship and his fanboy appreciation of other artists — his NYC host segments for the Jerry Lewis telethon consisted of him bringing on his favorite artists from his era and later. (I in fact heard about Carman’s death from Tony’s WABC “oldies” show where he announced it and played a Carman song in the mix of Sixties and Seventies hits that have been long missing from NYC radio.)

To have this veteran of the Seventies TV variety show and the Vegas/Atlantic City lounge-nexis show up in a Carman video was without a doubt the ultimate sign that Carman was still, despite his ministry and preaching, an old show-biz type who basically knew, and proved, that packaging — well, it’s everything.

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