(DISCLAIMER: I’m focusing on groups that have been primarily marketed to religious audiences and are generally considered part of the CCM “scene.” This excludes groups like U2 and Johnny Cash, who sing about god and religion and who have definitely influenced religious artists, but who have not at any point been a part of the CCM industry in terms of labels, festivals or retail locations).
Why is it that rock starts die in plane crashes? I’m sure there’s a rational explanation that has to do with statistics. I’m sure they fly in planes more often than us normal people, so it’s just more likely that they will die that way. But it seems poetic, somehow, more grand than dying on the earth. Falling out of the sky like Icarus seems the perfect metaphor for larger than life figures.
Normal people die in car crashes.
Gods die in the sky.
CCM music as we know it today began with the death of such a larger-than-life figure, though he would’ve been hated to be remembered that way. His name was Keith Green and he died in a plane crash on July 28, 1982.
Keith Green was the most influential of the “Jesus People,” a hippie inspired movement that preached a non-materialistic zealously evangelical doctrine. Keith Green epitomized this movement by eschewing capitalistic wealth, being suspicious of politicians, and openly critical of the established church.
He saw his music as a “ministry” – and not in the way that everyone religious calls what they do a “ministry.”
He organized, budgeted, and administered his resources as if he was a charity rather than a musician. His small
suburban home became a free shelter to anyone who needed or wanted it, at one point supposedly housing 75 people. He released his later albums with no set purchase price, asking the recipients to pay whatever they felt was right (or nothing at all).
This approach was not due to a lack of experience in the music industry but rather a conscious rebellion against it. Green and his wife Melody were both staff songwriters for CBS records and Keith had released an earlier “secular” record when he was a teenager. Keith Green would probably never have become a superstar, but he did have talent both in lyrics and on the piano. Musically his songs fit right in with the folk scene of the day and he was not without friends in that larger scene. Bob Dylan even played the harmonica on one of the song “’Pledge My Head To Heaven.”
One of Green’s most well known and striking songs is “Asleep in the Light,” a scathing indictment not of the secular world but of the church.
“Bless me, lord!” / You know, it’s all I ever hear!
No one aches / No one hurts / No one even sheds one tear
. . .
And you turn them away / As you smile and say,
“god bless you! / Be at peace!”
And all heaven just weep,
’cause Jesus came to your door, / You left him out on the
. . .
How can you be so dead? / When you’ve been so well fed
Jesus rose from the grave, / And you! / You can’t even get
out of bed!
When Green died, it changed the Christian music scene profoundly in three ways. First of all, Christian music during Green’s life was seen as something at odds with both church tradition and mainstream culture.
He and others like Larry Norman positioned Christian music as a part of the “protest songs” world, even if what they were protesting went beyond being anti-war and struck at a perceived social callousness of the American church.
After Green’s death, CCM began to court rather than reject the religious establishment. Second, CCM music moved away from the folk inspired singer-songwriter approach and toward the synth-based melodies that were popular on early MTV. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the recording and distribution model of Christian artists became indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. While Christian concerts would continue to have “altar calls,” the signing, recording, booking, representing, and compensating of the performers moved
firmly from “ministry” to “industry.”
For the next decade, CCM was dominated by two parallel lines of development: guitar driven “metal” (sometimes metal in name only) and keyboard driven pop (never quite reaching anything innovative enough to be called new wave). The keyboard world was ruled first by Amy Grant, whose song “El Shaddai” (written by industry stalwart Michael Card) is a prime example of the transitional moment.
While the tune has roots in the folk scene, there is nothing challenging or particularly innovative either musically or lyrically. Of a similar strand are the songs of Sandi Patti, whose songs really want you to think they are saying something novel but at the end it is hard to point out anything you haven’t heard before.
Regardless, both singers have undeniable vocal talent and scratched an itch for a market that looking was looking for music that complemented the comfortable and self-assured Reagan Christianity of the 1980s. For a slightly younger crowd, Amy Grant’s keyboardist Michael W Smith eventually struck out on his own.
He was the anointed golden child of CCM’s new alliance with the moral majority, peppy enough to be theoretically enjoyed by the young people but without too much of that root of all evil: the electric guitar.
As funny as it may seem now, in the 1980s there was a very large segment of the American church that still felt that rock’n’roll music was of the devil. Long treatises were written on how the ¾ beat (which was claimed to be rock music’s sole defining characteristic) specifically activated the sex drive of teenagers as well as vibrating their body in such a way as to make them more prone to demonic possession. Music theory being too
complicated for casual listeners, however, the theology of demonic music soon reverted back to a more gut-based reaction – anything with too much guitar was probably evil. This was not a unanimous
opinion. The most famous of Christian metal bands, Stryper, performed on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club in 1986 and was also invited to the Dove awards (CCM’s award ceremony, originally for gospel music).
However, televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart led the anti-rock movement, writing books like 1987’s “Religious Rock ‘N’ Roll: a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” to warn the masses that Satan was after their children’s ears and souls. While intended as an attack, the books remains a cult classic today for how laughable his charges are in retrospect, but also because he (and his “staff”/ ghost writers) did document the scene on a level that had not been previously undertaken. His targets included:
Ramone wannabes The Altar Boys
Mylon LeFevre, one of my favorites when I was 9
Rez Band (who were clearly Motorhead fans)
Amy Grant’s husband Gary Chapman.
Undercover — perhaps named so because they seem to wish they were covering The Smiths?
Bash-N-The Code — a group controversial for its supposedly androgynous look. (Um, I think in this case that’s just mean.)
The Choir — which is honestly one of the best groups to ever come out of the CCM festival scene but whether you can see it in their first album is a matter of opinion
Leon Patillo, formerly of Santana
DeGarmo and Key, who managed to get into MTV rotation with this song
Randy Stonehill, who’s songs range from quite listenable to incredibly embarassing
Steve Camp, who is not bad if you like early Rod Stewart
One Banned Pig, who at least knew what punk was supposed to sound like
The 77s. This one stands out.
even squeaky clean Carman, who’s songs seemed calculated to be turned into skits at church camp.
But Swaggart held special contempt for leading bands like Petra and artists like Steve Taylor.
Petra was one of the longest running Christian music rock groups in existence, having existed in some form or another since 1972. For all intents and purposes, the original band had disbanded after two albums in 1978 and had struggled to find a consistent line-up until 1981, when a new drummer named Louie Weaver heralded a
heavier and more dominant percussion sound which led to Petra being known for rhythmic, almost militaristic songs about fighting the devil and the secular world.
Steve Taylor was a more enigmatic figure. Like Keith Green before him, the battles he picked were more likely to be against the church than the secular world. Unlike Green, who was a picture of earnestness and passion, Taylor preferred to operate with snark and humor to reveal how two-faced and hypocritical televangelists were. It’s no wonder that he earned their ire. Swaggart claimed Taylor’s 1987 album I Predict 1990 was a testament to Satan. At the same time, people who didn’t understand satire thought his song “I blew up the clinic real good” was a call to violence rather than a repudiation of it.
These two fronts torpedoed his audience on both sides of the already narrow evangelical spectrum, and he transitioned to primarily being a producer and songwriter rather than performer. As much as I love the guy, this was not the worst decision in the world as he never had a voice that could match his lyrics. He did however also spend a brief time as the lead singer of an ostensibly “secular” band.
Christian rock and pseudo-metal continued to be a target of preachers looking to get worked up about something, but an onslaught of lyrically conventional and theologically orthodox singles made this hard to
maintain (it’s hard to argue that Christian music is unbiblical when one of the best selling singles of the time was almost word for word from the book of Revelation).
When Swaggart admitted to visiting prostitutes in 1988 and fellow televangelist Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud in 1989, for all intents and purposes the war between Christian television and Christian music was over,
and the music had won.
Tomorrow, we’ll see if having won over the fundamentalists, Contemporary Christian Music uses its breathing room to experiment creatively. Don’t count on it, but leave room to be surprised.