part one: https://disqus.com/home/dis…
yesterday, we watched Contemporary Christian Music rise out of a marriage of religious and protest folk music and slowly transform from rebel prophet to establishment priest.
Despite having outlasted most of its critics, the industry was more careful than ever to be conservative in its content and marketing. Being interesting to the world was not nearly as important as being acceptable to Christian parents and Christian bookstores. The cautionary tale of Steve Taylor (see part one) had made waves even after Swaggart was gone. Unlike in Keith Green’s day when Christian albums were sold either mail-order or in regular music stories, CCM CDs were now primarily sold in Christian bookstores. And Christian bookstores had no interest in controversy. Groups that had any sort of hard edge to their music were strongly encouraged to add bible references to every song to “prove” that they loved Jesus enough. Bride, a Guns’N’Roses type group frequently suspected of being evil (mostly because they happened to be halfway decent) went above and beyond, mockingly including on their CD lines notes a random bible verse after every_single_line.
As Christian rock began to be tolerated and even accepted by the mainstream evangelical world, the ever-hungry outrage of the far right shifted their Sauron-eye from rock’n’roll to rap. The old silly arguments about certain rhythms being of the devil were trotted out again, this time presented as being a direct line to voodoo and pagan African ceremonies. The underlying racism of the attitude bubbled a little too close to the surface though, and for once this line of attack backfired. A black man was cohosting The 700 Club at the time.
African American Andre Crouch was an unassailable icon in both the Christian and secular music world.
The KKK history of the southern church was still a little too raw for anyone to really want to be reminded of it. At least for the moment, the evangelical strategy was to make a stab at looking racially egalitarian. Being explicitly and undeniably racist was no longer useful to the cause. Being anti-choice and homophobic was much more relevant and interesting. So when DC Talk released the anti-segregation (ooh! edgy!) song “Walls” on their second album in 1990, it was a perfect way for evangelicals to pat themselves on the back for how reasonable they were being.
DC Talk was so named because the founder claimed the city as his home, despite the fact that “Falls Church Suburb Talk” would have been a more accurate moniker. Having no shame or sense that music should be challenging, they soon changed the meaning to “Decent Christian Talk.” Could anything have more explicitly stated the role of CCM in upholding rather than challenging the status quo? (Maybe only the late nineties CCM compilation “Moms like us too,” though that album at least had some decent bands on it and I actually encourage you to check it out). Other safe options of the day included White Heart – a group that started as Bill Gaither meets Journey, hardened into a Stryper clone, and then softened again so parents could follow the lyrics.
Vocalists and vocal groups like Steve Green, David Meece, Take 6, 4Him, Wayne Watson, and Ray Boltz, who had been around for years and never strayed from a Phill Collins / Rod Stewart vibe, were rewarded for the
slow build-up of their older base with spots of prominence on the bookstore shelves. (Ray Boltz continued to be a big seller until came out as gay in 2008 and was widely abandoned by most of his former fanbase.)
I don’t mean to give the impression that all Christian music of the time was milquetoast. There was a burgeoning Christian “techno” (in the parlance of the time) bolstered by the relative self-reliance and therefore independence of creating music that way. Groups like Joy Electric, Mortal, Prodigal Sons, Deitiphobia, and Under Midnight created beats that were downright competent. Under Midnight went so far as
to make concept albums that were basically electronic dystopian “musicals” influenced by Tron and Blade Runner.
But the lack of distribution in the book stores and the fact that most radio stations (Christian or not) would not yet play a lot of electronica limited the marketability of the groups. The sole exception (and arguably the weakest link) was Code of Ethics, whose record label aggressively marketed them as the dance counterpart to DC Talk’s hip-hop.
Though he was once struck down, Steve Taylor returned to the CCM industry more powerful than anyone could have possibly imagined. Though he only made one album in the 1990s, it is considered one of the smartest of the decade.
His greatest hits and tribute album, both released about this time were also big sellers that showed that CCM was ready to embrace him again. (His tribute album really is the best place to meet him, since as I noted he is a better songwriter than performer).
He was also the driving force behind a number of the decade’s other powerhouses, including Newsboys (think New Kids on the Block with a gently sardonic writer) and Sixpence None the Richer (who is much better than their cross-over hit “Kiss Me” would suggest).
After Steve Taylor moved on for other endeavors (including eventually making the film Blue like Jazz), neither of these groups maintained the level of lyrical artistry he had helped them achieve. In fact, a dearth of
songwriting talent was growing more and more apparent. A true successor to Keith Green had never
really been found. Theologically impressive songs were sprinkled throughout the industry, written by people like
the aforementioned Michael Card and John Michael Talbot, but systematic theology wasn’t catchy. Long standing groups like Iona (who sounded like Enya and were sometimes more popular on New
Age stations than Christian ones) . . .
. . . were allowed to do their own thing, but more and more new artists were forced into very narrow lyrical corridors.
Eventually and inevitably, the industry finally realized that the safest and most profitable route was simply to merge the CCM genre with the sing-songy mantralike praise and worship genre. Groups like Delirious? traded in what is known as “Vineyard music.”
Vineyard is a denomination that is known for its musically immersive emotional worship services (Hillsong is a very similar Australian equivalent).
Keith Green was very involved with Vineyard back in the 1970s. In the years since Green’s death, however, the music of the denomination had developed the signature “let’s repeat the chorus twenty times” that eventually made the songs incredibly simplistic.
Christian music of this type has no room for personal storytelling or as a vehicle for outstanding talent, as it is meant to be sung monolithically by a large group. It has no room for deep or innovative arguments, as it is meant to be a rallying cry of unity and emotion rather than conversation. It has no room even for witty
humor, as that’s too subjective.
One of the unwitting victims of this unfortunate trend is Jars of Clay. Known primarily for their crossover hit “Flood,” Jars of Clay doeswork hard on creating meaningful lyrics. But the choruses of such songs as “Love song for a savior” and “(Faith) Like a Child” were the ones that really caught on in the religious community and became standards in youth groups.
These songs were licensed (yes, churches do actually pay a fee to an industry agency for the right to throw lyrics up on a wall) and put in rotation along with much older but still popular songs, including the work
of one Rich Mullins.
Rich Mullins is best known for some of the most grating choruses to ever be sung around a church campfire, most notably “Awesome God.” This is really too bad, because he had a lyrical talent that far surpassed mere refrains. His lyrics were intelligent, funny but never mean, and always imbued with a love for mankind that emulates his personal hero, Saint Francis of Assisi. His song “Elijah” manages to talk about his hope for heaven without being a sales pitch.
“Jacob and 2 Women” is such a concise character study it is like a novel in three minutes. (I’ve cheated and embedded the tribute album version)
“We are not as strong as we think we are” could be first draft of a mountain goats song.
I could go on. Even though I’m no longer a believer, listening to his songs is like hearing the heart of a friend who I don’t agree with but deeply love. Conventional theology , yes. But always honest.
Rich Mullins was the best post-Keith-Green songwriter CCM had to offer, and a tremendous witness to what the best of us hope a Christian would be. He spoke out boldly and fervently against hate in all its forms, including homophobia. He believed like Keith Green had that material goods were a temptation, and that the best use of money was to give it away to people in need. And like Keith Green, he died in a crash. A car crash. On September 19, 1997 He was thrown from his jeep and a semi-trailer truck ran over him. I know, I started this by saying that stars die in the sky and men die on the ground. I couldn’t actually leave it that way, you know. Neither Keith Green nor Rich Mullins would have it. The link between them is that neither of them saw themselves as anything special. Neither of them wanted to be rock stars. And in that rawness – combined with their undeniable unique talent – they reached higher than the scores of CCM artists who followed the whims of the industry and the ideological strangleholds of the market.
Epilogue: The focus on highly repetitive mantras fortunately faded as the years went on. Groups like Hawk Nelson, Reliant K, Thousand Foot Crutch, and older groups that reinvented themselves like Switchfoot – as well as the revival of Newsboys, which is more like a Newsboys / DC Talk merger — have returned things to the
mid-nineties level of safe but more individualized storytelling in songs. Post-hardcore groups like Underoath and
Thrice have walked a tightrope between secular and Christian audiences. The boldest songwriters in recent memory are probably Stephen Christian of Anberlin, Steve Hindalong of perennially underrated The Choir – a group that deserves its own spotlight but in lieu of that has received a pretty extensive video history on youtube –
– and Derek Webb (formerly of the group Caedmon’s Call).
Webb made a name for himself with candid non-party-line struggles of a complicated faith. Unfortunately, his involvement in an affair has probably ended his CCM career.
CCM will always be defined by what it does not allow. Things other than music, like an artist’s sex life or ecclesiastically unapproved opinions about invisible beings, are going to get in the way. But even though there are non-musical concerns, that doesn’t mean every thing that does make it in is bad. I hope that in these two articles I’ve been able to show you that some very popular CCM is spectacularly and inexcusably awful. But I hope I’ve shown that there are also gems that can be found, enjoyed, and maybe even carried forward.