A Layperson’s Appreciation of BET’s "Sunday Best"

Sunday-best

I am not Christian. I was not raised in any church. I am not African American. I do not regularly listen to gospel music. So I consider it a reasonable question to ask:

Why have I become such a fan of BET’s talent competition Sunday Best?

The reality television hook for Sunday Best is so simple. It’s American Idol for gospel singers and that’s about it. What’s more, the show’s recently inaugurated fourth season confirms just how assiduously it follows AI‘s talent competition formula. An audition episode seeks talent in a few different cities before rewarding a sizeable group of finalists the opportunity to perform on stage before a panel of industry judges. That larger group of finalists is abruptly cut to a smaller group and, over the succeeding weeks, the remaining finalists perform through challenges and weekly eliminations until one contender is named Sunday Best and receives a formidable prize package (consisting, here, of a car, some cash and a recording contract).

Indeed, there is little that is innovative about Sunday Best in terms of genre, form and style. It’s a talent competition program, pure and simple. The singers are uniformly strong and comfortable within the show’s preferred (and appropriately narrow) musical spectrum, one that reaches all the way from traditional gospel to contemporary urban gospel. This particular musical spectrum is also measured by the judging panel. (Minister Donnie McClurkin represents a somewhat more traditional flair adjacent to sisters Erica and Tina Atkins-Campbell, of the musical duo Mary Mary. The Atkins-Campbells along with the charismatic host – and program co-producer – Kirk Franklin are prominent figures in the urban contemporary gospel movement.) And like the best reality/talent competition judges – think Project Runway‘s Nina Garcia, Next Food Network Star‘s Bob Tuschman and So You Think You Can Dance‘s Mary Murphy – Sunday Best‘s judging panel arrives to the task both with serious professional chops and also an evident passion and commitment to the work that the competitors aspire to do. But even this just makes for a “very good” reality/talent competition program. Why is Sunday Best special?

For me – as a viewer who is not Christian and not particularly invested in the gospel tradition – I think what captivates me so about Sunday Best comes both from its embrace of spiritual feeling (or affect) in performance and from its effective articulation of how such a quality is conveyed in performance. To be successful on Sunday Best, a singer must possess an extraordinary vocal instrument and a knowledge or sense of how to use it. But in addition, each performer must also convey their passion for using that gift and skill in service of religious worship. It is not uncommon for the panelists to assess a particular performance as vocally imprecise while celebrating it as one of the night’s best for its expression of religious feeling. And vice versa. In the world of Sunday Best, the most meaningful compliment is not to be hailed as a “great singer” but to be praised as an “anointed singer.” Here, when a judge says “I didn’t feel it,” it’s actually clear exactly what they mean: that the sensation of the singer’s spiritual experience while singing was not authentically shared with the audience. As one outside the faith tradition Sunday Best is rooted in, I have come to appreciate and understand this term “anointed” as a specialized shorthand to describe the sort of spiritual feeling or affect so valued by the judges. In most cases, when I hear the judges apply the word “anointed” to a performer or a performance, I know what they’re talking about because I felt it too. The frontrunners of Season 3 – winner Leandria Johnson and runner-up Elder Goldwire McClendon – conveyed the lesson of “anointing” with memorable clarity. Johnson was about as urban as McClendon was traditional. Both possessed extraordinary and distinctive voices. And both conveyed the authenticity of their spiritual convictions as they sang. They both had the “it” that Sunday Best seeks and their expression of “it” became appreciable to even a layperson like me because the show so efficiently rehearses “anointed” as an appropriately descriptive term for the “it” elevating both Johnson and McClendon each time they sang.

To be sure, I do experience frequent challenges watching Sunday Best. As I watch, I recognize that many if not most of those on the show would encourage me to pray away my gay. Moreover, it is complicated, to say the least, for me to turn off my “gaydar” and to simply accept each person’s self-identification as their expression of who they truly are. And I completely understand that my utter lack of a religious upbringing means that I arrive to Sunday Best with few religiously inflicted emotional scars. (I categorically do not recommend this program for anyone pained by fervent expressions of Christian sentiment.) Yet, as one more talent competition on television, there remains an integrity to and something perhaps unique about Sunday Best. Many talent/reality shows encourage competitors to perform from their heart and to truly express themselves. Sunday Best remains one of the few such programs where the performers do just that and, in any number of ways, are celebrated for it.

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