Friday, March 4, 2011

Jesus Music, Part V: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

I've had a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine for longer than I can remember, and I don't know that I've ever paid for it.  I don't think that's part of their profit model.  They may be a charitable organization by this point, for all I know.  They just keep sending it.  Even if I did have to pay the twelve dollars a year, I think I'd keep getting it.  Matt Taibbi's work is worth the price of admission alone, and there's enough good random long-form writing (usually something about the Mexican drug war, or that kid who steals airplanes) to keep me coming back.

However, I do not read Rolling Stone for the reviews.  RS reviews on a five-star system.  In almost any given issue, every record reviewed (literally every record) will receive between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half stars.  It may as well be a "Yes, No, Meh" system.  Four stars and above are reserved for veteran acts making triumphant returns (U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc).  Two star and below is the domain of the "can you believe these guys are still in business?" joke reviews.  If Smash Mouth re-unites, that album is getting one-and-a-half stars.  If they release it under a fake name, it will receive a minimum of two-and-a-half.  That's how the system works.

So the question could be ... what happens to art when no longer held accountable by critics?  In fact, that WILL be the question, but not quite yet, because, really, Rolling Stone has a very small sphere of influence in pop music.  Out in the blogosphere, it's still a dog-eat-dog world, with sites like Pitchfork more than ready to crucify or hype any band they see fit.  Pop music is absolutely still held accountable by an ever-growing horde of bloodthirsty critics.  Rolling Stone just isn't one of them anymore.

But ... (I'm sure you're asking) ... what about late-90s Christian rock?  That's why we're here, after all.


My Christian rock universe was often shaped by the short-lived but actually pretty decent 7Ball magazine.  It was glossy, major-label-ad-heavy, spun off from a monolithic publishing empire, and (above all) Christian, but it had just a shadow of the DIY punk zine ethos, and this made it an enjoyable read.  It was occasionally random for randomness' sake, always disarmingly self-deprecating, and never imposed itself as the arbiter of cool, though that's what it was for its unique demographic.  I would purchase back issues of this magazine if I could find them anywhere.

On the other hand, 7Ball was also unabashedly in love with every Christian band who ever existed.  The thing with the Christian music industry is that, deep down, everyone is on the same page.  Every band (Christian or otherwise) wants to take over the world, but these guys actually have a commandment from Jesus to do so.  From the bands to the labels to the promoters to the press, this whole enterprise is about saving souls first, making art second.  Your negative review could keep one kid from discovering his favorite Christian band, from discovering Jesus.  Your one negative review could quite literally damn that kid to hell.  And so I never, ever, saw a negative review of anything in 7Ball.  Even when I was a part of the subculture, this struck me as odd, and more than a little unhelpful.  I only had $15.  I couldn't buy every CD on the rock/alternative rack.  Some must have been better than others.  7Ball refused to help me narrow it down.  After all, those bands were all god's children.  Who could choose from among them?

In my first Jesus Music post, I set forth the things that everyone knows about Christian rock.  Prominent among these mostly-accurate stereotypes is the idea that Christian music is almost comically derivative of mainstream pop culture, a watered-down copy of everything that was hot five years ago, like how isolated Eastern European satellite republics get American TV decades later.

This notion of a copycat culture is absolutely, totally true.  The brief ska fad of 1997 (Reel Big Fish, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, etc.) hit the Christian rock landscape so hard that I now honestly think of ska as a predominately Christian genre.  I would bet that the O.C. Supertones are still one of the best-selling Christian artists.

And then there's dc Talk.  Oh lord, dc Talk.  Will Leitch, one of my Midwestern-boy-makes-good role models, pretty well distilled the essence of dc Talk in a Deadspin column back in 2008:
I'm not sure where I'm going with this; it's almost Thanksgiving, and holidays always get me thinking about being all religious as a kid. It lasted longer than I think it did. Sometimes people will ask — you know, at parties, social occasions and other events I find myself trying to avoid more and more as I get older — which band I've seen in concert more than any other. I'm three R.E.M. concerts away from toppling ... D.C. Talk. D.C. Talk was a Christian rap group in the early '90s, when Vanilla Ice was popular, and then turned into a Christian grunge group when Nirvana hit. I suppose no one thought to call them sellouts, considering they were still into God and everything. But it was difficult not to tell the difference.

There's no question Leitch was being charitable in that description.  dc Talk did not so much become a "Christian grunge group" as much as they simply re-recorded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a song about Jesus

That album sold more than two million copies.  It featured six number one hits.

John Jeremiah Sullivan delved into the derivative nature of Christian rock in his fantastic 2004 essay "Upon This Rock," (and really, if you're going to read one long essay about Christian rock today, it should be that one):
For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2's "All I Want Is You." It was bluesy.

That's the last thing I'll be saying about the bands.

Or, no, wait, there's this: The fact that I didn't think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn't be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It's message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what's more, it operates under a perceived responsibility—one the artists embrace—to "reach people." As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies—"If you like Drakkar Noir, you'll love Sexy Musk"? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that's proper, because culturally speaking, it's supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that's because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please…while praising Jesus Christ. That's Christian rock. A Christian band, on the other hand, is just a band that has more than one Christian in it. U2 is the exemplar, held aloft by believers and nonbelievers alike, but there have been others through the years, bands about which people would say, "Did you know those guys were Christians? I know—it's freaky. They're still fuckin' good, though." The Call was like that; Lone Justice was like that. These days you hear it about indie acts like Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado (or P.O.D. and Evanescence—de gustibus). In most cases, bands like these make a very, very careful effort not to be seen as playing "Christian rock." It's largely a matter of phrasing: Don't tell the interviewer you're born-again; say faith is a very important part of your life. And here, if I can drop the open-minded pretense real quick, is where the stickier problem of actually being any good comes in, because a question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot (who played Creation while I was there and had a monster secular--radio hit at the time with "Meant to Live" but whose management wouldn't allow them to be photographed onstage) take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that this is the surest way to connect with the world (you know that's how they refer to us, right? We're "of the world"). So it's possible—and indeed seems likely—that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.
And he's right, but I'm not sure he really answers the "Why?" part of this.  I would never question the statement that Christna rock bands are off-brand copies of secular acts.  But why does the Christian-rock universe look to the secular at all?


Years ago, Dave Eggers (coincidentally another great Midwestern idol of mine) wrote a column for Spin Magazine.  As part of a larger point about, I think, Joanna Newsom, Eggers told the following story:
In high school I had some friends who were starting a band. I wanted so badly to be a part of it, but I had less talent than would seem mortally possible. Instead, I nudged my way into the role of a manager. Producer. Consultant. Irritating hanger-on.

I tried to have some influence. But when the band's initial lineup was decided upon and the heroes were established--the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, the Smiths--I was shocked to discover that these people, my friends in whom I had limitless faith, planned to use the standard guitar/bass/drums configuration. It seemed like the most horrible sort of cop-out. Starting from scratch, with all earthly possibilities available, it was just wrong to reinvent the idea of a band from the instruments on up. Why a bass? Why a gutar? Why drums? Why not bang on skulls? Why not have 30 drummers and a singer who stutters? Why not have 30 children singing at once, with eunuchs slapping their own asses for percussion? There were so many things that had never been done! To use the most obvious building blocks was the ultimate act of laziness, and I told them this. They looked at me, blinking with displeasure, and banished me from all practices, meetings, and casual discussions on the way to laser tag.
The obvious answer to Eggers' question, to why not do those things is simple:  a lot of people would hate them.  Pitchfork would tear you apart.  Complete strangers on Twitter would say terrible things about you.  Hipster Runoff would turn you into some kind of meme.  You would never live it down.

It's been said that the unlimited freedom of the internet actually stifles creativity, and I believe in that principle absolutely.  The music blogosphere was supposed to be a place where everyone could shine in their own weird niche.  Instead, we found out what the cool kids were listening to, and that became a status quo much more firmly cemented than anything MTV or Top 40 radio foisted on us.  It can't be that all of these bands just independently sound like Animal Collective.  That wasn't the sound echoing in the head of every kid in Brooklyn, longing to burst out into the world.  It's a sound that's buzzworthy, and so you get a showcase at SXSW and then a Volkswagen commercial and then you can quit your day job.  Can't knock the hustle, but no one is living up to Eggers' dreams of unlimited creativity.


I don't want this post to spin off any further into the hopelessly abstract, but it's worth noting that the question underpinning all of this is, "Well, why does anyone do anything?"  The incentives of life have become hot political issues.  Tax a corporation even one percent and they will forever abandon the process of innovation.  Give a man unemployment insurance and he will spend the rest of his life on welfare.  Regulate markets and soon enough we will all be standing in bread lines.

So what incentives are necessary for art innovation?  Fear of critics?  Desire for wealth and fame?  Dreams of immortality?

Well, not necessarily.  I would never argue against the mainstream as a whole (no one more mainstream than the Beatles, after all), but if you gave me an album and said nothing other than "This record sold a million copies," I would bet against my enjoying it.

And, if you want a stronger statement about this process, I can guarantee that great art never followed the sentence, "What would Pitchfork want to hear?"


Let's set out a few principles.  Maybe you could argue them.  They seem pretty straightforward to me.

(1)        Great art follows an intellectual freedom to create (that is, when your favorite band says "We don't care what the critics say," you believe them)
(2)        Great art requires some minimal level of resources (that is, you are not recording your classic album after another nineteen hour day in the mines)
(3)        Great art requires a spark (that is, what is it that you have to say, and why is it so important to you?)

Twist those principles around however you want.  I've tried.  And I honestly cannot explain why Christian rock (at least sonically) is not consistently the freshest, most original music in the world.  It makes you wonder if the problems are systemic to the beliefs.


Let's go back to Sullivan's question above:
A question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock.
Well, what can Christian rock offer you? 

It can offer you a fawning press that will literally never pen a bad word about you.  Sure, you'll be somewhat limited from a lyrical standpoint, but as you are a hard-core Christian, that shouldn't be an issue.  If your song is about Jesus, you could literally re-create Eggers' 30 children singing at once, with eunuchs slapping their own asses for percussion dream and no one at any major Christian music magazine would bat an eyelash.

It can offer you a record deal that likely no one else can, in an industry which (I would guess) does not have the same problems with online piracy as its mainstream counterpart, in an industry where people think buying your record is something close to a moral imperative.  It cannot offer you Michael Jackson money, but it can set you up comfortably, and you will compete with a much smaller pool of artists for these perks.

It can offer you an opportunity to say exactly what you want to say, an industry whose goals match yours while the mainstream might squirm at your potential divisiveness and your questionable level of crossover potential.

I am not trying to make a contrarian point here.  I really do not understand why Christians on Christian rock labels are not at the absolute vanguard of art creation.  These are people who believe they have grasped THE absolute truth of the universe, something so ecstatic and wonderful that it can probably never be fully understood, but they will try.  And they will try to get you to understand, too.  And to do that … they absolutely pillage a song that was popular four years ago?  Why doesn't that last step follow the others?


Historically, of course, Christian artists (or at least artists working with profoundly Christian themes) WERE the ones breaking new ground.  Handel's "Messiah."  Michelangelo's "David."  The roof of the Sistine Chapel.

And now … dc Talk.

I don't have a conclusion to this essay.  Sorry. 

The cynical atheist answer is that this disconnect ultimately proves that religion is an empty vessel, and that many of the converted secretly know this.  If you knew the ultimate truth behind the meaning of life and eternity, are these the songs you would write?

A more charitable answer is that lowest-common-denominator pop music is always terrible, and that any attempt to glean deeper meaning from it will always leave you in a dark place.  Attempting to explain the millennium through Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park would leave any rational man with the impression that we never should have come down from the trees.  And someday I'll devote 5,000 words to mewithoutYou and hopefully explain why Christian rock DOES occasionally have fresh ideas.

In the end, though, if you value your belief in God, and the existence of "Jesus Freak" doesn't make you at least a little bit uneasy, then I would suggest you're not paying attention.


  1. Christian Rock music does have to answer to critics: the clergy/church types. If something comes off too secular, that band is dropped to the trash while the Bible Group Leader grabs one of the other mass of Christian Rock bands for their children to listen to in the car.

    The bands are essentially Drew's Party Favorites. They are not there to spur new creative thoughts about existence, they are there to give positive reinforcement of the messages already put forth. Those parents don't want their children to ponder if someone is buying the stairway to heaven from things that glitter but surely aren't gold, they want their kids to realize that the stairway to heaven is through repeating those mantras that have been said at church, at wednesday night bible study and daily devotion, etc.

    Some of the songs call to mind a sort of lesser Blink 182 covering the Hare Krishna chant.

    The bands are not writing to ask questions of why, they are writing to say, This is so. (God is great, your savior, your creator, etc.)

    HOWEVER, I think when secular artists try to incorporate faith, things can be much more interesting, (i.e. Prince "I Would Die 4 U") but maybe I just wanted to reference Prince.

    AND back to your original note about RS: you're right on. We talked about that back in college and it still holds true. Anytime Bob Dylan comes out with something, it's "a return to form, not 'Blonde on Blonde' but close," or if it's Pearl Jam it's that the new LP is "slightly better than Yield, better than anything since No Code," and if the Stones put something together everyone just fellates each other with stories of Mick and Keith fighting or doing drugs.

  2. Elliot - I agree with you as far as "new creative thoughts about existence," and I should have been more clear in the essay about the division here between words and music.

    But why aren't the most straightforward, dogmatic religious views at least set to MUSIC that is new and creative and original. Is the problem that you just can't combine boring lyrics with interesting music? Does the process of creating something new sonically automatically challenge you to a point where you are no longer able to stick to your mantras?

    I think I'm back to the roof of the Sistine Chapel here ... didn't break any new ground in terms of theology (as far as I know), but it did in terms of art. Why can't Christian rock be like that?