Notes from Zion

March 22, 2004 | 24 comments
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I’ve just returned from a week-long stay in Utah, my longest visit to the Mormon Heimat in quite a while. My observations follow:

1) There was an African-American woman behind the Avis desk at the Salt Lake Airport when we picked up our rental car. She looked tired and stressed (but then, it was 10pm on a Saturday night). Six days later I saw an African-American man on the BYU campus. He looked glum (but then, he was dressed in a dark sweatsuit, and it was 70 degrees out). These two were the sum total of all the black persons I saw in a week of wandering around Salt Lake City and Utah Valley. (Live in the South for a while, and you begin to notice these things.)

2) The Sunday March 14th edition of the Salt Lake Tribune included a wonderful special section titled “Living the Principle: Polygamy on the Border”. It included a dozen fascinating articles, on the historical evolution of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the current authoritarian leader of the church, refugees from the main FLDS body and colonies they’ve established, and much more. It was excellent journalism. I can remember when the Tribune started all its investigations into Utah polygamists back in the early 90s; frequently, those articles often struck me as exploitive, and primarily designed to shine a spotlight on events or issues that someone presumably hoped would make mainstream Mormons feel uncomfortable (and thus sell papers). That’s not the case with more recent news stories, however; I think people have come to appreciate the integrity of and the challenge posed by the lives of the fundamentalists themselves on their own terms. Clearly, they’re not going anywhere. Just today the Tribune ran a story examining some of the ways in which the gay marriage debate is spilling over into the issue of plural marriage; however that debate is settled, I think it is indisputable that polygamy is going to be significantly “normalized” in the years to come. How church members will react to that development will be revealing and fascinating to watch.

3) The dating and mating rites of the young, horny and moral (and yes, I myself was two of those three once) in Utah Valley has merged with the internet economy in some pretty impressive ways. While driving to Provo, for example, I noticed a billboard for LDSDanceInfo.com; the billboard’s tagline was “MEET THE OPPOSITE SEX!” This struck me as an important and timely message for the youth of the church, and I hope a lot of young people respond to it positively. I was also moved by the ads for HotSaints.com (tagline: “Chase and Be Chaste!”).

4) During opening exercises while attending church with one of my brothers at his Sandy ward, Melissa had to take our middle daughter Caitlyn to the bathroom. The sacrament hymn began and ended; she didn’t return. The sacrament was passed; she didn’t return. She and Caitlyn didn’t make it back to our pew until the ordinance was over, but not for lack of trying–apparently, in my brother’s ward the doors to the chapel are locked at the beginning of the sacrament hymn, so as to impress upon the members the need to get to their seats and stay there. Melissa came to the foyer just as the hymn began, and so was prevented from entering (and no, they didn’t take the sacrament outside the chapel doors). Needless to say, she was annoyed. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of locks on chapel doors before. I guess it works as a policy, though.

5) Salt Lake City always has been a surprisingly good radio town, and I discovered during this visit an amazing station: KJQ, serving up “classic alternative.” Oh man–in a single afternoon I heard Information Society, Spandau Ballet, Alphaville, Duran Duran, The Human League, Elvis Costello, REM, The Police, Madness, New Order, Thomas Dolby, XTC, Thompson Twins, Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, and more…and the good stuff too, not just overplayed hits. It got me thinking about pop music in Utah. I’ve long thought that early alternative found an odd kind of home in Mormon culture; years later the sound and playlist of the 1980s seemed to continue to dominate Provo and SLC social scenes. I’ve no idea why this is; perhaps there is some interesting sociological factor behind it (that it lends itself to exuberant, non-contact dancing? that the Holland/Kimball era was the closest Mormon Utahns ever came to the mainstream before a retrenching retreat from pop culture set it? that it’s just about the whitest genre of music known to man?), or perhaps it’s just an accident of history. I don’t think it’s an illusion though; the week I visited Utah, SLC clubs were graced with a visit from Psychedelic Furs and the Church. Thank goodness I never threw out my thin ties…

6) Walking around the BYU campus was an odd experience. I found myself weirdly interested in snatching up a copy of the Daily Universe and reading the opinion page, hoping for some bonehead letter to the editor to mock. When we walked down the old mall of trees–about half of which are gone now–between the law school and the Talmage Building, I had to stifle a sudden desire to explain to my seven-year-old how the grounds crew vacuums up the dead leaves to prevent them from falling to the ground. I realized that I was actually suspiciously paying attention to the length of the shorts of the students around me, and counting the number of not-quite-goatees I saw. In other words, I felt my inner judgmental, paranoid, smart-ass self beginning to emerge. Fortunately we didn’t stay long. Weird. I wonder if it was just a flashback due to long absence, or a permanent part of my character? I hope the latter isn’t the case. But then, maybe you can take the boy out of BYU, but can’t take BYU out of the boy.

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24 Responses to Notes from Zion

  1. Bob Caswell on March 22, 2004 at 3:08 am

    KJQ is a nice edition to Utah radio, I concur. So how often does your smart-ass self emerge? :-)

  2. Bob Caswell on March 22, 2004 at 3:08 am

    KJQ is a nice edition to Utah radio; I concur. So how often does your smart-ass self emerge? :-)

  3. Bob Caswell on March 22, 2004 at 3:26 am

    How embarrassing! I suppose we’re all entitled to one “double post” mistake.

  4. Aaron Brown on March 22, 2004 at 4:28 am

    Utah…

    Where AC/DC’s “Back in Black” is a DANCE song (believe it or not), and “One Night in Bangkok” is STILL in the Top 40 (and probably will be for time and all eternity)!

    ONLY in Utah.

    Aaron B

  5. Russell Arben Fox on March 22, 2004 at 8:51 am

    “One Night in Bangkok”! Wow. You know, now that I think of it, I’d like to hear that song again. That, and Taco’s “Putting on the Ritz.” Sometimes a body just needs to listen to a synthesizer-drum machine combo.

  6. Stephen on March 22, 2004 at 9:09 am

    Well “of locks on chapel doors before” probably violates the fire code rather substantially.

    Interesting report.

  7. Grasshopper on March 22, 2004 at 10:08 am

    I imagine that the doors would open just fine from the inside; they were just locked from the outside.

  8. Adam Greenwood on March 22, 2004 at 10:39 am

    What is the meaning of ‘heimat’? The more I say it, the more I like the sound, but I can’t ignore function in favor of form entirely.

  9. lyle on March 22, 2004 at 11:03 am

    re: #4. Grasshopper/Stephen: Does it violate the fire code? Yes. Does the fire code violate the free excercise rights of those congregants? Yes. Civil disobedience anyone? Or does that conflict with that nasty/lovely Article of Faith?

    Russell: Yes, the “core site” of Mormondom is still strong & vibrant. I too returned (for the Smith Fielding/SMPT/UT College Republicans Conference + BYU Law awards banquet/ball). re: your observations:

    1. I grew up in UT, and until I went to the Domican Republic on a mission, and latter lived in DC, I never noticed race. I still don’t. I’m happy to live in a color-blind body; and hope that what has been labelled “white guilt,” will lose its “master needs to look out for the poor oppressed former servants . . . many of whom were never poor oppressed former slaves” attitude.

    2. I’m glad to hear SLTrib.com can do integrity & principled based journalism. Maybe UT MOs are too thin skinned; but many can’t stand to read a publication that delights in mocking the sacred. I wonder if this is a market-based, instead of a governmentally required regulation, solution to the SLTrib’s current fight for its subscription base as the Desnews.com is now a morning also?

    3. Steve Aimes (whoever he is), the long-time producer of dances marketed to LDS singles [he bought the rights to hold dances at the UT state capital before the collectively impaired BYUSA could act a few years back!] has long collaborated with HotSaints.com (associated somehow with UT curmudgeon Eric Snider).

    I was similarly struck, moreso, by the MeridianTrips billboard. Are some Mormons turning inward, in social isolationism, while others are turning outwards in zion-spreading form? If so, forget my labelling terms and let’s all welcome this as a fabulous pluralistic enrichment of our Core Site society.

    5. I dearly miss UT radio. KJQ originally existed back in the Jr. High/High School days of the current late 20s/late 30s crowd. Russell, while you posit this as a conjoinder of Utah Mormonism embracing pop kulture, I present to you my rejoinder/alternative theory:

    I love how Utah Mormons take up the challenge of ‘translating’ secular, often anti-religious, inspired/intent driven musik…and turn it into an expression of joy and/or worship. Kinda like Paul Atreides and the Water of Life. Rather than be turned off by the themes of violence & prostitution in MurrayHead’s “1 night in bangkok” or getting plastered in the song re: “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down…” Utah Mormons have shown amazing sociological resiliance in making these songs doctrinally correct by thinking of them in terms of the wonder of modern culture, I’m going there on a mission, and I’m not going to be a quiter, etc. So…Utah Mormons are NOT embracing pop culture, they are defeating it on their own grounds. Hence, the current phenom of LDS MOs watching THE PASSION in such large #s [esp. those that whine re: the show, but then turn into its biggest fans after watching it objectively and being moved by its depiction of the Savior].
    So…the true challenge now, how to translate ‘Wild Sex in the working class’ into a good Mormon dance tune. Anytakers?

    6. I’m not olde enought to mourn the trees Russell (although I would if I had experienced them…I’m still sad that olde ‘tree branches date tree’ inbetween the Testing Center & the Maeser Building got tore down a few years back.
    However, I am younge enough to cry at the magnitude & beauty of BYU’s new athletic buildings, and more importantly, its almost completed Family Sciences building. WOW!

  10. lyle on March 22, 2004 at 11:30 am

    Adam, I don’t know; but guess that ‘heimat’ is similar to the sociological term of ‘core site’ which I have been using.

    A core site is: self-defining, i.e. a situs where an idea/movement/people, etc., congregate, usually physically, in order to replicate and reinforce their shared idea/belief, etc.

    So…Utah is the Core Site of Mormonism (become less so over time?) because many Mormons go to Utah to “learn” how to be proper Mormons (my mother did as a new convert of 20, visiting BYU for 1 year following her baptism before returning to CU-Boulder). I’m sure many will disagree, and I’m not advocating the above transmission belt for sociological entrenchment, but…it reminds me of the many statements re: BYU being valuable to the LDS church because it sets standards which are then followed when BYU grads/Utah MOs migrate to other states/countries and bring with them a shared standard (hopefully it becomes more Linux-based than the current Microsoft-Windows-based standard) that can be used to create a seamless global Kingdom of God.

    This is stage one of a sociological socio-eco cycle, which then leads to two other stages (which I can’t remember currently); and the writing of Habermas on system-world/life-world are also informative.

    How BYU standarizes the Church:

    “we shall keep these as flagships testifying to the great and earnest commitment of this Church to education, both ecclesiastical and secular, and while doing so prove to the world that excellent secular learning can be gained in an environment of religious faith.”

    How Utah standardizes the Church:
    isn’t that the topic of this blog? or a complaint?

  11. Kaimi on March 22, 2004 at 11:34 am

    This site:

    http://babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/tr

    Translates it as “homeland”

  12. Jeremy on March 22, 2004 at 12:35 pm

    I had very similar thoughts when we returned for a visit to Utah recently–about each of your observations. I’ll confine my comments, though, to the “KJQ Effect.”

    I’m a grad student in musicology, so I suppose my whole gig is supposed to be figuring out why a certain groups of people listen to certain groups of music. And I have to say early alternative rock radio on the wasatch front is something of an enigma. I think part of it might be that teenagers’ hardwired rebellious tendencies manifest themselves differently in Mormon kids, especially ones who more or less stay on the straight and narrow. They have to “authenticate” or “other” themselves somehow, and alternative music serves this purpose without worrying the folks too much, making bishop’s interviews too uncomfortable, or endangering one’s worthiness to enter the MTC. It also involves a different kind of “transgressiveness,” in which listeners either disregard or override any ideological content or intent in the lyrics that might be “morally problematic.” Or, they might remain oblivious to content altogether. (Example: I have one friend, married Mormon guy with three kids and a staunch record of heterosexuality, who was a huge fan of Erasure in high school. He was totally oblivious to their blatant homoeroticism until, during a concert he attended in Salt Lake, the lead singer came bouncing out from stage right in a pink tutu, while a huge dayglo green phallus emerged slowly from stage left.)

    At any rate, I think KJQ et al had a big impact on the huge “alternative radio” movement nationwide in the 1990s, which corresponded roughly with the concentration of corporate broadcasting into big conglomorate like Clear Channel, etc. The only evidence I have for this is anecdotal: when I came East for grad school in a town with a mid-sized radio market, I discovered a radio station that had been on the air for 2 or 3 years and had a playlist virtually lifted from KJQ or X96 (English Beat, UB40, The Cure, etc.); not only that, but (and this is the honest-to-goodness truth) the DJ’s voices and personalities sounded EXACTLY like those of two particular SLC alt radio DJs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wasatch Front “formula” was discerned and replicated by other alt radio stations (since this would align exactly withhow the radio conglomorates develop their markets these days).

  13. Randy on March 22, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Jeremy, I happen to love KJQ, and identify with your bit about Mormon teenage rebellious tendencies, but I am not sure I’m convinced on the direction of causation here. Was KJQ really a force for change in other markets, or did the market strategy used elsewhere happen to work particularly well on the Wasatch Front? What basis is there for thinking the former rather than the latter?

  14. Renee on March 22, 2004 at 4:02 pm

    Sounds like a great radio station.

    Are you trying to make a connection between the perceived sadness of these 2 black people and living in Utah?

  15. Clark Goble on March 22, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    I thought KJQ, at least back in the early 90′s, kind of had way too much fringe music. i.e. lots of kind of weird music. I thought X-96 was much better when it more or less morphed into that. 107.5 was a little more mainstream although the change in what the record labels has been putting out has been hard for them. (IMO) X-96 could adapt to that sort of nu-metal and neo-punk stuff of the late 90′s early 21st. Of course every year I think music can’t suck any worse and it somehow manages to.

    I notice that a lot of the folks from 107.5 have started up a new KJQ which is basically akin to a classic rock station which plays classic alternative from the 80′s and early 90′s.

    Personally I’d love to see X-96 simply abandon the kind of playlists that the record labels have been putting out and *look* for more music on their own. But I doubt it will happen.

    The problem is that most music has gone over into pop-country or hip hop. Its not that I hate those genres, but a lot of what is done within them really, really sucks. (i.e. for every Jurrasic-5 or Aesop Rock there are 30 or 40 crappy bands)

    Best place for music now is downloading with iTunes and checking out diverse stuff. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that never makes it on the radio.

    Still, after being in Las Vegas, LA, Seattle, and a lot of other places. Utah still has among the best stations. Even if a lot of the people are more than a tad naive.

  16. lyle on March 22, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    is anyone interested in building a profitable, yet cheapter, way to help folks download musik that would also be legal? yes…this is a MML ad. j/k. but i’m serious…Clark brings up a great point re: the problem with corporate playlists. I want to put the power of musik back into the hands of the people, help them be honest, and make a tidy fortune at the same time. takers?

  17. Clark Goble on March 22, 2004 at 5:32 pm

    LOL. I think that’s a lost cause Lyle. Right now the best best is to load up on diet Pepsi and get free downloads at iTMS.

  18. Lynn on March 22, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    For those who truly are KJQ fans, they are one of the few radio stations that still stream live and online. You can find them at http://www.kjq.com and just click on listen online.

  19. Logan on March 22, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks, Lynn! Alternative music is sadly under-represented here in New York City. My wife will especially be glad to hear that online.

  20. Jeremy on March 22, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    Randy,

    As I understand it, the wasatch front was ahead of the wave with alternative/”alt. classic” radio. (There was an article about it somewhere a couple of years ago–City Weekly?) A lot of the stuff that got played in Salt Lake wasn’t on the radio an awful lot elsewhere, except on college stations.

    The KJQ sound-alike I heard on the East Coast had only been around a couple of years, and the DJs and playlists they sounded like from Salt Lake had been around since the mid-80s, well ahead of the Clear Channel McDonaldization of alt. radio.

  21. Nate Oman on March 23, 2004 at 11:42 am

    “The dating and mating rites of the young, horny and moral (and yes, I myself was two of those three once) in Utah Valley has merged with the internet economy in some pretty impressive ways.”

    Come on Russell! I am sure that EVEN YOU were young once…

  22. Russell Arben Fox on March 23, 2004 at 11:57 am

    I didn’t say youth was the one out of the three characteristics I lacked.

  23. David Matthew Parker on March 25, 2004 at 3:57 pm

    The KJQ formula was established well before KJQ played alternative music. It started out as a radio station with a smaller range, KCGL, in my hometown of Bountiful, around 1983, and played nothing but alternative music (Punk, New Wave, etc.). That station was sold (a sad, sad day) and all the dj’s moved first to a temporary home (I don’t remember the station) where they played only on weekends (weekdays might have been Country, but again, I don’t remember) until they found a more permanent place at KJQ. When that station decided to change their format (another blow to the fans), the loyal group of dj’s found another home at X-96. I’m thrilled now that KJQ gave up on top forty and decided to go back to the good stuff. And I’m glad I can pick it up on the Web, being in North Carolina, a little bit out of the station’s range.

    It wasn’t because I wasn’t quite rebellious enough to listen to Heavy Metal that I was attracted to the alternative music played on KCGL/KJQ, but because I spent my high school years (graduated ’83) in a musical quandary, not knowing what I liked, but not liking anything in the top forty. I stumbled across KCGL the summer of ’84 and thought, hey, this is different. I really like it.

  24. Bryce on June 16, 2004 at 12:30 am

    I sooo miss KCGL. In fact, googling ‘KCGL’ is how I found this page. Why can’t a radio station like that exist today? Oh yes…that’s right…money. Can’t play a song unless it’s ‘popular’. So much for the ‘alternative’.

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