Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jesus Music, Part II: Market Forces

Sometimes, I get a little depressed about my blogging career.  Why am I doing this?  Is anyone reading it?  I know the counter says I'm over 500 hits now, but most of that is just me refreshing the page myself, right?  Does this thing have any effect on anyone?  Sometimes, I feel directionless.

But then, sometimes I get texts from Elliot at 4:41 AM that say:
Jars of Clay are hot garbage.  I will respond to why I don't like most Christian rock on your blog, once I get back from Mexico.
So today, obviously, we are here to talk about Jars of Clay.  Is there a Christian rock band you hate enough to text me about it well before sunrise?  I'll write about them, too.

***

Jars of Clay were, for a time, the one Christian band it was cool to like.  On the surface, they seemed like the one Christian band everyone, religious or not, could agree on.  Looking deeper, though, they may have been a band without a real home, a band truly supported by no one.

Unlike Switchfoot and P.O.D., discussed earlier, Jars of Clay's assault on the mainstream wasn't a calculated career move, in the proud tradition of "Here are our Christian albums, they were popular, so now we're going to sign with a mainstream label and write songs with a mainstream fan base in mind."  Instead, their crossover was immediate, and probably damaging in the long term.

"Flood," the first single from Jars of Clay's 1995 self-titled debut album, hit for everyone at once.  The blatantly Christian album was a huge success on the Jesus side, eventually going triple platinum.  I will probably reference several albums as the definitive, seminal release of my Christian rock years, but this one probably deserves the honor as much as any other.*  The less overtly religious "Flood," at the same time, reached #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  The video received significant MTV airplay.**

* To be honest, maybe not as much as dc Talk's Jesus Freak, but Jars of Clay has the advantage of not being embarrassing to listen to years later.  Like any good therapy session, it's going to take a little time before I'm ready to discuss dc Talk.  Let's not dig too deep too soon.

** I remember it featured a lot of water and a lot of muted grays and blues.  It was very literal. 

I had a snarky paragraph here which basically said, "Jars of Clay's success proves that it was a good time to sound exactly like Matchbox Twenty," but I went back and looked up the dates, and "Flood" came out more than a year before "Push," so I can't really knock the band for sounding similar to band's who came after them.  Jars of Clay fit snugly within the post-grunge alternative sound of the time, sure, but "Flood" was at least original by the standards of the genre.  I don't think anyone would claim their success was undeserved.*  So what would happen next?

* Except, obviously, Elliot.

Jars of Clay, unwittingly, taught me a lot about the world, and certainly not in a good way.  This might be me imposing a framework of meaning on events after the fact, but I think you can trace the seed of my mild disillusionment with, well, basically everything to the world's reaction to Jars of Clay.

Oh man ... I had such high hopes.  I knew that, by listening to Christian rock, I was setting myself apart from mainstream culture, making myself into a little bit of a weirdo.  I expected a few insults, some weird looks, general confusion on my behalf.  I expected this, but I certainly didn't want it.  I didn't want that distance at all.  Jars of Clay's crossover, and continued success, could have been a huge thing for me.  It could have been my trump card, used in the following situations:

Skeptical Friend:  Dude, you listen to Christian rock?!?  Why?  I've heard dc Talk, man ... they blow so hard.  Why would you do that to yourself?

Me:  Hey man, I can't speak for all of it, but some of this stuff is pretty good.  What about Jars of Clay?

Skeptical Friend:  Oh yeah, I saw their new video on MTV last night.  I guess they're pretty solid.  dc Talk still blows, though.

And I would have been fine with that.  I didn't need unquestioning acceptance, just a little recognition that what I was doing wasn't completely insane.  I could have moved closer to the kid who was really into reggae, or jazz or something ... different, but not necessarily inferior.

And Jars of Clay tried.  They were on the road touring with No Doubt, the Goo Goo Dolls, even Sting.  They tried to keep it together.  Their Christian roots, their mainstream success.  They really tried.

Then the backlash hit.

Really, it wasn't a huge thing.  There was no newsworthy event, no groundswell of public sentiment.  I'm probably overselling this.  At the time, though, I felt like I had uncovered some kind of universal truth:  No matter what, there are people out there who seemingly only exist to ruin the things you like.

The mainstream backlash made sense.  As described in this article, it's nothing major.  Mainstream bands who toured with Jars of Clay made snarky comments from the stage.  Drunken concertgoers heckled.  I remember hearing that some radio programmers felt lied to when they discovered that Jars of Clay were a Christian band, and some pulled "Flood" from regular rotation.  Yeah, whatever, fine.  If you can't deal with a few drunken idiots and reactionaries, you shouldn't be promoting your art to the masses.

The Christian backlash, though ... really made me question everything I believed in.  It was exactly the opposite of how I thought people would react.  The band was touring the country, playing songs from what, as I mentioned earlier, is a blatantly, overwhelmingly, "awkward to play for your non-Christian friends" album.  It has a song called "Love Song for a Savior."  It has a song that starts, "Dear God, surround me as I speak."  It has near-constant references to Jesus, and the cross, and every unquestionably Christian image and phrase you can think of.  The band's name comes from a Bible verse.  They prayed onstage every night.  This wasn't a band selling out and toning down the content of its lyrics.  These were the same songs everyone loved when the band was playing shows in churches.  This should have been the greatest thing since the "Urkel Goes to Church" episode of Family Matters.

And yet a significant number of powerful, respected people in the Christian community were all but tripping over themselves in a rush to tell me how this was all a Very Bad Thing, how Jars of Clay were corrupting themselves, not to mention all of their impressionable listeners, by touring with mainstream bands, and playing mainstream venues, and (it seemed) by interacting with the outside world at all.* 

*It got so bad that Big Tent Revival, a moderately successful Christian rock band, wrote a song called "Rivalry" which can be summarized thusly:

"Jars of Clay are awesome (the song mentions the band by name).  They write great songs, and they love Jesus.  So why are we giving them such a hard time?  Shouldn't we be supporting them?"

The song, sadly, was not very good.  But their hearts were in the right place.

Well ... what was the band supposed to do?  And what was I supposed to do?  I interacted with the outside world every day.  Was that wrong?  The whole thing brought me far too close to the strain of absolute separatism that runs through fundamentalist Christianity, and I didn't like it at all.  I'm going to cut off this part of the discussion a little bit, because I really do want these essays to stay closer to the music and not delve into my own personal problems with Christianity.  Let's summarize:

I wanted to listen to Christan rock, but I didn't want to make myself an outcast.  I wanted my friends to understand and respect my listening decisions, even if they did not agree with them.  Jars of Clay seemed like they had the potential to make that happen.  Instead, prominent Jesus people told me (by telling the band) that I had it all wrong.  I shouldn't be playing Jars of Clay for my non-Christan friends.  I shouldn't even have non-Christian friends.  I should take my Jars of Clay CD ( ..."and you're lucky we even let you listen to music with drums"), hide in my room, and wait for the rapture.  This was the role of the Christian rock audience.  Anything else was asking for trouble.

***

Again, this may be projecting, but Jars of Clay seemed to take that message to heart as well.  Follow-up album Much Afraid toned down their alternative tendencies, instead favoring a more acoustic approach, once with absolutely zero crossover potential.  It's still a fine record, but it's made for people to play in the background at church picnics.  At some point, they released a collection of modern hymns.  By the time 1999's If I Left the Zoo came out, they had lost me, or I had lost them, or something.  I bought the album, and I remember playing lead single "Unforgetful You" on my show on the high school radio station,* in between the Phish and Beck and Talking Heads I was into at the time, but it seemed like more of a favor to them, a muted parting of ways on largely ambivalent terms.  Wikipedia claims the band has released several more albums since then.  I have not heard them.

* "Radio station" is a bit of a euphemism here, as it implies the actual transmission of radio waves.  What we had was a closed circuit of speakers rigged throughout the school, and a modified closet connected to one of the English classrooms where, if you signed up for the "Radio" class, you could play songs for an hour a week.  Theoretically, this "station" would be broadcast to the lunch room, computer labs, study halls, etc.  In reality, these speakers were almost always turned off, or turned down so low as to be inaudible.  Many, many times, I played an hour of music for no one.  This was, by far, the best class I took in high school.

***


Obviously, I don't know if any of the band's decisions were informed by their desire to avoid fighting with the powers that be of the religious right.  Maybe they really did just get sick of playing to heckling drunks.  Maybe they had always wanted to record a collection of modern hymns.  It's not impossible.  But I question that explanation, and I base this questioning on how often they tried to sneak back into the mainstream, and how far they were willing to go to make this happen.

***

Now that no one buys albums, or MP3s, or anything really, more and more bands are trying to place their songs in movies, TV shows, advertisements ... anywhere they can get listeners and a paycheck.  While this was once unquestionably an act of selling out, I think it's moved into a gray area now.  Even the most indie of purists knows, on some level, that this is a business.  That being said, here is an incomplete list of Jars of Clay's forays into the world of song placement:

- "Eli Stone" (television show)
- "Bones" (advertisement for television show)
- "House" (advertisement for television show)
- "Privileged" (television show)
- "Kings" (advertisement for television show)
- "Hard Rain" (movie)
- "A&E's God or the Girl" (television show)
- "Days of our Lives" (television show)
- "Drive Me Crazy" (movie)*

That's a lot.  And there's one more that we're going to have to talk about in more detail.

* I did not know this, which is surprising, since at one time I owned TWO DVD copies of Drive Me Crazy.  Long story.

***

The sixth song on Much Afraid is called "Five Candles (You Were There)."  You can read the lyrics here. On first glance, you will probably not make the connection that these lyrics neatly summarize the plot to the 1997 Jim Carrey film Liar Liar.  Look again, though ... it's there.  This is not a coincidence.  Jars of Clay wrote the song specifically to appear in the film.  It was later cut in favor of a blooper reel*

* I remember said blooper reel being one of the funniest parts of this film, as blooper reels often are.  So cutting "Five Candles" may have been the right call.  I'm just sayin'.

I know film soundtracks are big business, and I know everyone wants to advertise "Featuring all-new music by today's hottest bands!"  Commissioning a new tune for a soundtrack is not an unusual practice.  Taking over artistic control, however, is a much different thing.  It's a brazen move for a film executive to say, "We want a song from you, sure, but we want it to be about our movie.  You are to provide NO lyrical input.  None.  And we reserve the right to cut it for a blooper reel."  You're basically writing an advertising jingle at that point.  This almost never happens.*  At least they didn't work in a reference to "The Claw."

* The one awesome counter-example, I guess, is R. Kelly's "Gotham City," which, after listening to it again, really has nothing to do with anything.  Such a great song, though.

***

So what would you do if you were Jars of Clay?  Months into your career, you had everything:  a hit record, love from millions of followers on the Christian side, critical acceptance on the mainstream side.  You were making money, selling records, and preaching your faith to more kids than probably anyone else in the world. This was your ultimate best-case scenario.

Did you expect people from your own religious community to be the ones throwing the stones?  Did you expect "Love Song for a Savior" to be considered religiously suspect, a possible tool of Satan?  Wouldn't you start to lose it, just a little bit?

You know your music can be a force for good.  Turns out, though, that you can only use it for preaching to the choir.  Don't go out into that big, scary world.

It wasn't much of a plan, but at least it was a plan.  You would get your music out there as innocuously as possible.  You would own the backgrounds, thirty second snippets of montages and trailers.  You would take what you could before the fundamentalists could catch you.  If you had to write gimmicky songs on spec for zany physical comedies, you would do that.  And if they cut you from the film, you would soldier on.  Because maybe some kid would hear your song over the closing credits for some show, and slowly discover your back catalog, and maybe sit up one night playing "Worlds Apart" over and over again and contemplating his place in eternity.  Did this ever work?  Maybe.  It's unlikely.  But at least it was possible.  This was all you had.

Was this the way one of the best and most-loved Christian rock bands of all time was supposed to reach the masses?

Was this where it all started to fall apart?

I can't speak for them.  It was for me.

6 comments:

  1. Aaron, I'm really enjoying your blog posts, especially the new "Jesus" series. Trying to make sense of the Christian world we came from is really damn hard. Your take on the Christian music scene is refreshing. I look forwards to hearing more.

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  2. Brandon! I'm excited that you read this. And it has taken me far to long to craft a response to your comment because I really never thought anyone would read these essays who actually had any idea what I was talking about. As I write more of these (hopefully soon), I'd love to hear more about what you think.

    For now, though, my big question is about tone. I feel like, for the most part, these essays are going to give people the wrong impression. I worry that anyone reading these will think one of the following things:

    (1) Ha ha ... I liked it when he made fun of those stupid Christians.
    (2) Oh boo hoo ... privileged kid whining about the one part of his upbringing that he doesn't think went exactly perfect. I bet you think your childhood was SO HARD.
    (3) (Gasp) This guy was raised in some kind of cult! His parents need to be arrested! Thank god he got out!
    (4) Well look at you ... you think you're so cool now that you listen to music that occasionally has cursing.
    (5) Stop trying to talk me into listening to Christian music. You're just trying to sucker me into finding Jesus, aren't you?

    And I'm not trying to convey any of that at all. I just think subcultures are fascinating, and this is one that I was a part of.

    So ... you came from a similar background (probably even more so, being homeschooled and everything), and you don't seem upset with me. I guess that's promising.

    How do YOU talk about this stuff?

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  3. Awesome that I used the incredibly pretentious "craft a response" and, in the same sentence, used the wrong form of "too."

    This is why blogs get a bad rap.

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  4. I didn't see you responded...awesome that you did. I honestly have no idea how to talk about this stuff. I write a lot, but don't finish much, and have been keeping a pretty low profile last few years. I like to think I've been "incubating".

    Your worries about tone didn't apply to me. I'm reading it more as "guy trying to figure out what happened, and what to do with it all." I guess I find that most of the "promises" that were made to us as youth turned out to be more like an empty hope, a Pygmalion project applied to our whole generation. Feel kinda messed around with. And there's not a lot of people to really talk that through with.

    I can understand the fear though, as I become more vocal, the backlash really has me question whether it's worth while or not. I think it's neat the way you can talk about things through the Christian music scene. I was never really that familiar with it.

    Now that I think about it, it was with you in your car when you played Moby's "Porcelain" that I fell with my first song/album/artist. Was that at Copeland park? Anyway, that became my gateway drug to secular music, or, music with lyrics in general. Good times.

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  5. Oh...I've been asking around who's "in" in Christian music these days, curious if it's changed much. TobyMac is the definitive answer, and I need help articulating why I can't stand it. Ideas?

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  6. This is super interesting & I don't mean "hmmm, interesting" like a judgement. More like "spot on". As a current christian music listener & not much of a music connoisseur (I had to look up how to spell that). Music - to me - is like wine (also, to me): If I like it I like it. Christian music is more of an encourager to me. Although I actually (don't shoot!) like country music, too. Along with anything that strikes a chord with me: to dance to, to sing to, to bob my head to....

    I really just connected to your comments on living in the real world & the ridiculousness of "those christians" avoiding it. Silly. Impossible. It makes me sad that people get in the way of purpose.

    I'll read your next installments after I actually get some work done today...

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