Monday, May 17, 2010

Jesus Music, Part I: Every Generation Gets the Crossover Christian Rock Acts It Deserves

So I really do want to talk about late-90s Christian rock on this blog. I think a lot of you figured I was joking about that. Well … sorry. I promise to label the posts appropriately (see, it says "Jesus Music" right there in the title), and we'll get back to some 100 Songs for 2010 Contenders soon enough,* but … um, I really do have a lot to say about late '90s Christian rock.**

* Maybe I'll even finish that Broken Bells – "The High Road" post that was originally Contenders Series #3, but keeps getting pushed back because I'm trying to work in a review of a book I didn't like.

** If it matters to you, we're looking at the time period running from 1994 (roughly coinciding with the release of Newsboys' Going Public) through 1999 (Third Day's Time). I have marginally good reasons for using those dates and albums, and I may even explain them at some point. You are on the edge of your seat.

Originally, I thought we would do it the way we do the Contenders Series: I'd start with a link to one song, and then explore whatever tangents seem appropriate. We'd all chuckle knowingly at my witty references, and we'd all use our shared cultural experience to belittle the obviously derivative wasteland of late-90s Christian rock. After thinking about it, though, I see three problems with this plan:

(1) I don’t think we have any shared cultural experience here.
(2) I can't really explain why this kind of music would be "obviously" derivative.
(3) I actually still like a few of these songs.

So it turns out we're going to do this on a more issue-based schedule. Today, we're looking at problem (1) above. What do you really know about Christian rock?

***

I grew up in a small town filled with pickup trucks sporting Confederate flag bumper stickers. I went to a high school that had an informal "Ride Your Tractor to School" day. Of the five or six constantly-going-out-of-business FM radio stations in the area, at least two (and usually three) were devoted to country music. So I have SOME experience with country as a genre. I still maintain some fondness for what I believe to be its heyday (eww … no farming pun intended) of Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and a whole host of rock-influenced frontmen who were not primarily concerned with belittling my political viewpoints.

That being said, I haven't actively listened to even a single country song in the last ten years, maybe longer. And yet, I still have an opinion on modern country music (it is not a positive one).

Along these lines, I have NEVER actively listened to R'n'B. I've dabbled in hip-hop, sure, but sweet, soulful rhythm and blues? Never. And, again, I still manage to have an opinion on the genre. Again, not real positive.

So, with this as a background, I guess I'm saying that I understand why the vast majority of you reading this (1) instinctively mock Christian rock as an all-but-oxymoronic concept and (2) have never really listened to any of it. Stereotypes really save time.

But I'm serious … how much Christian rock is the average person exposed to in the course of a lifetime? I'm guessing you didn't spend your teen years picking through the demo racks at Shepherd's Voice Bookstore in Onalaska, Wisconsin. I'm guessing you didn't subscribe to the excellent but short-lived 7ball Magazine. I'm guessing you didn't obsess over the lineup for the year's Cornerstone Festival in rural Illinois, dreaming of one day immersing yourself in Christian rock for an entire long weekend.

So what are you basing your opinion on? Knowing my readership, it's tempting to say this all comes from the South Park episode where Cartman starts a Christian rock band to win a bet with Kyle. And yes, that episode is hilarious, and almost always completely spot-on in its dissection of the genre, but I'm guessing that episode wasn't anybody's introduction to the idea that Christian rock is stupid. Instead, I think a lot of people were laughing out of recognition, pleased that Matt and Trey had chosen for ridicule something they themselves had already spent plenty of time mocking.

So where does that come from? I don't think there's a specific answer here, and I don't expect to find one. I think it's a kind of societal shorthand that evolves outside of anyone's control, that there are a few things that just become punchlines, and most deservedly so.*

* In fact, as I write this, The Onion puts up an article mocking Christian rock. And the circle of life continues.

I just wonder how much of this scorn actually comes from the music itself. How many Christian rock acts are you familiar with (and this isn't a rhetorical device, I really do want to know … please leave comments)?*

* For our purposes here, and this may need to be explained further in later posts, we're talking about bands from Christian record labels, bands that exist within the Christian rock subculture. It's not enough to be a mainstream band with Christian themes. So no, Creed doesn't count. But U2 doesn't count either.

I'm doing this for a few reasons. One, Creed sucks and I don't ever want to associate with them, even in a project where I will mostly gently mock bands I no longer listen to. Two, during the time period in question, I only listened to bands on Christian labels. And this blog is about me. Three, the Christian music subculture is extremely segregated. No one on the inside would consider a popular band with a couple of Christian themes to be a "Christian" band. In fact, an insider would be incredibly suspicious of that outsider band. Could be a tool of Satan. Wolf in sheep's clothing, you know? Finally, it's just a convenient place to draw a line. A LOT of bands use religious imagery. We’re not here to talk about the Hold Steady ("How a Resurrection Really Feels") or Drive By Truckers ("Too Much Sex, Too Little Jesus") or even the Doobie Brothers ("Jesus is Just Alright") … or anyone else on a mainstream label. Except to say that Creed sucks. And they always have. And they always will.

So I think we have to start this by looking at the Christian rock acts who successfully crossed over. And we could go back to Amy Grant, or, I dunno, Stryper, but I think that's probably ancient history by now. Let's look at the two most recent examples: Switchfoot and P.O.D..

The thesis of this essay, if you're ready to stop reading now, is this: You are correct to hate both of those bands. The fact that they suck now, however, is kind of your fault.

***

As a genre, Christian music is strange from the beginning, since it is the only genre sorted by lyrical content and not musical style.* There are a lot of things I'm not quite ready to discuss on that topic,** but the underlying point is obvious and (I think) non-controversial: if you had an instrumental track from a Christian rock band, with no lyrics at all, it would not be a "Christian" song. It would just be a rock song. Keep this in mind. I'm going to outline a process, and you're going to say, "Well, that sounds incredibly stupid. Why would anyone do that?" But remember the principle in play. If you took a Christian rock band, and changed all the lyrics, they would cease to be a Christian rock band.

* I have long suggested that "drug music" is basically a genre, too – that that distance from Snoop Dogg to Sublime is closer than the distance between just about any two Christian bands – but that categorization hasn't really taken off yet.

** But we're going to have to, if we want to get to any kind of "point" there might be to this whole series. So I'm going to compliment your patience in advance. Thank you.

***

Before we go any further: There was a time when Switchfoot and P.O.D. were awesome. You have to believe me when I say this. The reason they crossed over, the reason they signed to major mainstream labels and sold hundreds of thousands of records and became the big, stupid, butt-of-jokes bands we know now is that, at one time, they were really, really good. Looking back, this is what got them into trouble in the first place.

Switchfoot's debut album, The Legend of Chin, came out in 1997. It was, for some time, my favorite record in the world. They played pop-punk, at a time when this was about to become a very lucrative profession (Blink-182's Dude Ranch came out in 1996, vastly more popular than any of their previous albums, and 1999's Enema of the State would, of course, light the entire world on fire just two years later). Unlike nearly everything on the Christian rock scene, however, Switchfoot was not merely a poor-quality rip-off of whatever the mainstream was doing. They had a playfulness all their own, an off-kilter bounce that set them apart, a little bit of surfer ethos in a skate-dominated genre. And they were a Christian band, sure, and they wrote some songs with comically over-wrought Christian themes, but they also wrote songs about growing up, and trying to make sense of the world, just like all pop-punk bands do. Lead single "Chem 6A" is a brilliant ode to teenage apathy, complaining that "I don't know who I am," but also realizing that it could be a painful and time-consuming process to find that out. Maybe it's not worth the trouble. The song is not capital-C "Christian," there's no thesis-statement assertion that Jesus will solve all your self-image problems. There's nothing about Jesus at all. But it's not UN-Christian, either. The distinction almost doesn't make sense in this lyrical context. Worried about fitting in? That's just a universal. There isn't a side in the culture wars that can claim that one.

And Switchfoot, I'd like to think, could have kept making music like this. They could have risen to stardom alongside Blink-182, riding their coattails, sure, but not in a "blatant rip-off" way, but in a "Hey kids, if you like that, try THIS" kind of package deal. But something happened.

***

P.O.D. caught a lucky break as well, timing-wise. Long a staple of the Christian hardcore scene, their Fundamental Elements of Southtown album was released in the summer of 1999, a very good time for rap-metal (Limp Bizkit's Significant Other came out a few months before, Rage Against the Machine's Battle of Los Angeles a few months later). They were at the forefront of a new genre (one that would eventually lead to many, many crimes against music, but we couldn't know that at the time). Lead single "Southtown" was a rep-your-hood anthem that could have come from any mainstream act. While a glimpse of the band's spirituality permeates the song, it's worded in the kind of Bob Marley, "one love, jah" Rastafarian language that we've culturally decided is not Jesus-lame, but is actually kind of cool, at least until frat boys start appropriating it. Again, there are no scary Jesus lyrics here. There is just a good song that anyone can enjoy. P.O.D. was poised to ride the rap-metal wave until it broke (which, thankfully, was just a few years later). They could have been a smarter Papa Roach, a more accessible System of a Down. But, again, something happened.

***

Let's say you're an executive at a major mainstream label. It's the year 2000, and CD sales are at an all-time high. This is great, but it also means that the pressure on you is also at an all-time high. You need another multi-platinum release. You don't really want to go out to crappy little shows in hopes of discovering the next big thing. You'd rather find something that is already selling well and appropriate it for yourself. And you know that Christian rock is big business among an ever-growing subculture of weirdos you would never associate yourself with. You will, however, take their money.

So you find out about Switchfoot. And you find out about P.O.D.. You probably don't actually listen to their music, but you get the sales numbers, and they are through the roof on all the important demographics. These guys could be huge for you. Bring that built-in fan base over to your label. Use your marketing machine to bring in some new fans. It's like printing money!

But you're worried. These guys are on Christian labels. They are probably all-Jesus, all-the-time.* That could scare away mainstream fans. No one likes being preached at. (Remember, you have apparently never listened to these bands, so you don't know what any of their lyrics are actually about). So now we're back to our one bedrock principle of all this: If a Christian band isn't writing songs about Jesus, they aren't really a Christian band, now are they? You are so smart, Record Label Executive. Now watch as everything falls apart. I can't wait until internet piracy puts you out of business.

* And, most of the time, you are right to believe this. Many Christian bands act like they're trying to fill some kind of Jesus quota in their songwriting. But not Switchfoot. And not P.O.D.. Which is why I'm so upset that you ruined them. "You," here, being a rhetorical construct I made up myself. So I guess I can't be TOO upset.

***

At my job, I spend a lot of time reviewing irrelevant documents. I look at people's junk email. I look at damaged files that just show up as computer code. I very rarely find anything relevant.

That being said, it could be worse. Everything I review has gone through some kind of filtering software first, searching it for various keywords. I get a lot of junk because sometimes the keywords are two- and three-letter abbreviations, which lead to a huge number of false positives. But every document I review has at least one keyword, according to the filtering software. There is some reason why I have it.

So, I have often thought, if you just removed all the keywords from your potentially litigation-causing documents, you could be above the law. No one would ever find your incriminating evidence. It's so simple!

The reality, though, is that there are a LOT of keywords in these searches, and if you removed ALL of them from your internal memos detailing your devious acts … you'd have nothing left. Your documents would be entirely useless. And, to the outside observer, they would seem pointless and weird. Some of you see where this is going.

***

So you've just signed a big-time Christian rock act to your major mainstream label. You have a plan. If you can just get them to tone down their Jesus-ing, everything will be okay.

So you're a big-time Christian rock act, and you've just signed to a major label. This is finally your chance to convert the heathen. You are going to get your message out there. This is, literally, your calling in life. You are going to PREACH!

This is not going to end well.

***

I don't pretend to know what kinds of negotiations go on behind closed doors. I do not have the facts necessary to call anyone a sellout. I do not have the facts necessary to call anyone an art-destroying, meddling empty suit. I do not know anything about anything. Not really.

All I know is that, after signing to major labels, both Switchfoot and P.O.D. began writing the most clichéd, empty, passionless, unrelatable, faux-inspirational lyrics this side of a motivational poster of a sunset or a whale or something. All I know is that, after signing to major labels, both Switchfoot and P.O.D. abandoned their unique, popular sounds and started striving for something from the "U2 and Coldplay present: My First Anthem" series. These are the songs you heard. This was likely your introduction to these bands. P.O.D.'s "Alive." Switchfoot's "Meant to Live." And for this, I am sorry.

***

All I can do is speculate. I can only assume that there was a meeting where the band said "We need to get as much of our religion into every song as we possibly can, even though this will likely ruin us as songwriters," and the label said, "Fine, but here's a list of words you can't use, even if your songs don't really make any sense without them" and so you get songs whose respective choruses are:

I feel so alive
For the very first time
I can't deny you
I feel so alive
I feel so alive
For the very first time
And I think I can fly (fly)

… and …

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside
Somewhere we live inside
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

I know that the Evangelical Christian church believes our salvation come from faith, and not through works, and so this probably means that no one is going to be damned to hell solely on the basis of writing terrible lyrics, but … wow. That is worse than nothing. That is turning off Christians and non-Christians alike. You are losing everyone.

I just … are those Christian songs? Explain how. The general idea of hopefulness and believing in something bigger? Really? That's it? This is your career-defining moment? This is what you believed you were called to do?

***

It's an inter-office email stripped of all possibly incriminating words. It is totally devoid of all worth. It is the antithesis of the authentic, personal songs both bands used to write as a matter of course. It is passing through the filters, but who cares? You won … so now what?

***

I guess that's it. If you choose to hate Christian rock because of these two bands … well, that's probably the correct decision. It is. But this is how mainstream culture chose to present these bands to you. The Christian rock subculture offered up two of its best … and you destroyed them. Just know that.

Because, soon, we'll start talking about Christian bands that never crossed over, and maybe even some bands that couldn't even sell on Christian labels, and you will think, "Well, these guys are terrible. Why are there no GOOD Christian bands?" Well … sometimes there are. But then something happens.


5 comments:

  1. My first "real" concert was a 1998 show at UCI's Bren Events Center. P.O.D., The Orange County Supertones, and Switchfoot were the main attractions. I also at various times listened to the likes of Jars of Clay, DC Talk, Relient K (mostly their first CD before they "broke out"), etc. I had a lot of Evangelical Christian friends in junior high and early high school who roped me into listening to some of that stuff. Orange County is, I think, a bit like much of the Midwest in terms of religion. (Not as many Lutherans as Minnesota though.)

    One band who I think bucks the trend slightly (at least for their genre) is MxPx, although they were never that "big." I always thought they were pretty decent as a slightly pop(pier as time went on) punk band--that started as a "Christian" band. One of my favorite bands of my "formative years."

    But yeah, as my Lutheran youth director (after I moved to Northern CA) said to me once, "Just because they're Christian, doesn't mean they're good." I can't remember the exact band that we were discussing, but it doesn't really matter.

    Entertaining post.

    Colin

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. Stellar picks. Seriously great stuff.

    And there is a sad truth in your examination of their later works. Many bands can't handle the switch from little music makers to insanely rich "I think I'll have lobster poptarts today" stars.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Next time we hang out remind me to explain to you, Aaron, why between 1997 and 2002 Punk, Metal, Trance, Christian Rock, and Emo were all the same if you were a suburban white middle class teenager.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Colin:

    Ahh, the Supertones. I spent so long thinking ska was cool. I DO hope to talk about them at some point in the future. And (shudder) dc Talk. The last Christian show I went to (as a college freshman) was Relient K, the Supertones, and Switchfoot (think the Supertones actually headlined, could be wrong), so we have very similar references here. And I agree that Orange County probably IS ideologically similar to the Midwest, though I think both sides would resent that comparison.

    Jerry:

    Somehow I knew you'd have a theory on all of this. I look forward to hearing it.

    ReplyDelete
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