Like a Prayer

Depending on whom you ask, Jaci Velasquez— the raven-haired, dark-eyed, 19-year-old queen of Contemporary Christian Music— is either the new Amy Grant or new Selena.

One thing's for sure: she's hot. She won the 1997 Dove Award for New Artist of the Year, and 12 months later she's up for best female vocalist, best artist, and best song— the latter for "God So Loved," a single so nice Myrrh Records released it twice, the second time in a stocking-stuffer version with "Silent Night" mixed atop. Her self-titled second album is still in Billboard's Christian top 20 after 35 weeks, and seven of her singles have hit No. 1. Setting love songs to Jesus to heart-melting melodies and state-of-the-art studio noises, she's the fourth-highest-selling teenage female artist in the country right now.

And she's not just hot commercially, either. Last spring, I played Myrrh's "electronic Jaci Velasquez press kit" video for my students at the Christian high school where I teach. The boys paid close attention while the girls, at whom Velasquez is overtly marketed as a role model, made dismissively snippy remarks.

Later, I asked one boy why he thought the girls had reacted so coldly. "Because she's hot," he said, "and they're jealous." As a teacher, I must admit that if Jaci were one of my students and ever stood too close to me, I'd probably start to shake and cough just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.

"The Complete Jaci Velasquez Web Site" has a close-up photo that could launch a thousand 1-900 ads, plus two "Need Prayer?" links. The top one gets you an error message. The bottom one gets you an e-mail form on which to list your needs. (The address is jmb-prayer@newcastle.nu. Someone please let me know if this works.)

Anyway, proving Velasquez is the new Amy Grant is easy (despite her absence from all three Prince of Egypt soundtracks, which include Grant and everyone else but the kitsch 'N Sync). Amy and Jaci are the two most aggressively marketed performers in the history of Contemporary Christian Music, and they both sing the most inane bromides and self-congratulatory sermonettes as if by doing so they could actually make a difference. Jaci's first album even has a song called "We Can Make a Difference," the lyrics of which paraphrase the Youngbloods' "Get Together."

Consider now Velasquez's status as the new Selena, a status that doesn't merely rest on both singers' being born in Texas to Mexican parents. If you doubt me, try comparing the Selena Foundation's "mission statement" with the contents of Velasquez's CD-sized 1998 as-told-to book, A Heavenly Place.

The Foundation: "Our mission is to motivate children to stay in school, live moral lives, have family values, have respect for human life, and to sing his or her [sic] own special song."

Velasquez: "I'm home-schooled now"; "I know if I save myself until I'm married, it's going to be especially meaningful"; "I think the quality that best defines my family would be our love for each other"; "I love people." (Not to mention this confession from page 75: "I had my first kiss when I was 15 years old. He was 17 and a Calvin Klein model." "She's bragging!" shouted a jealous girl in senior English when I read this to the class, as if she herself wouldn't have kissed and told.)

Velasquez even has an all-Spanish album slated for release this summer, to be codistributed by Sony Discos. On the other hand, not only has she not been murdered by the president of her fan club like Selena, she also hasn't had her albums— their token Español content notwithstanding— included among the 333 titles from which new members of Columbia House's Club Musica Latina may pick their 12 free selections. (Elton John's Love Songs, of course, is Selection #168625.)

So who knows— maybe what Velasquez really is, is the new Madonna. For one thing, in songs like "Paper Tigers" she uses Madonna's seductive whisper as naturally as if she were to the mannerism born, albeit for strictly evangelical purposes; with her, neither virginity nor prayer is a euphemistic simile. For another thing, she's hot.

As moral pop by barely legals goes, she definitely holds her own. No wonder Myrrh is happy: she's probably just what the label needs to fill the Bible-bookstore-sales void likely to be opened by Amy Grant's recent separation from her husband of 16 years, Nashville Network personality Gary Chapman. To record execs, Jaci must look less like another pretty face than like a prize calf in need of commercial fattening. Her ability to score with every demographic of the CCM sales-and-radio charts proves her multiformat likability.

Odd, you say, that Christian companies should be so concerned with sales. Not really. Xtian pop is always going in the direction of money, and I don't say this cynically— like all "ministries," CCM companies are only as spiritual as they can afford to be. That's why they never pass up the chance to sell Andy Griffith hymn collections and new renditions of "Butterfly Kisses."

And maybe you can't serve both God and Mammon, but then again not every God-fearing teenager is cut out to be Mother Teresa. Not that Jaci Velasquez wouldn't look great in a sari.

 
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