The Hartford Advocate, August 20, 1998
Is MTV-styled Christian music designed to appeal to the sinners or the saved?
by Jayne Keedle
Four years ago, Stephen Mason was just another star struck fan waiting to meet Sarah McLaughlin and hoping to slip her a demo tape of his college band at an in-store CD signing at Tower Records. The next time Mason saw her they were both in line -- waiting backstage at the 1997 Grammy awards.
Jars of Clay is a long way from the college band they once were, and Mason is long over the days he spent living on Ramen noodles and skipping class to write songs. Between then and now, the group has paid its dues, logging thousands of miles on a "sticky floor club tour" and pushing its demo on anyone who might listen.
The group has been rewarded with a hit song, heavy airplay on modern rock radio and MTV. But just because Mason's prayers seem to have been answered, doesn't mean he has stopped praying. When times get tough, he asks himself WWJD? -- What would Jesus do?
"God gives every good gift, so definitely, we think that this is divine," says Mason of the band's success so far. "Ultimately the goal is to communicate our faith."
Forget everything you think you knew about "Christian" music. Jars of Clay and a growing number of pop proselytizers are speaking to a generation of Christians who don't sit around campfires singing "Kumbaya." These fans are as likely to sport shaved heads, dreadlocks or tattoos as any of their non-Christian peers, and they're as manic as the next person in a mosh pit. Today's Christian rockers play songs by Ozzy Osborne, dream of opening for U2 and making the pages of Rolling Stone.
Watch MTV and see if you can distinguish the Christian rockers from the heathens. There's Joan Osborne wondering "What if God was One of Us?" -- and she's not considered part of the Christian rock movement. Then there's dc Talk, a rap/rock group who had a Christian music hit with a cover of "Jesus is Just Alright With Me" -- though no one considered it God's music when the Byrds or the Doobie Brothers recorded it.
Even traditional gospel music is shucking off its choir robes to "have church" in the House of Blues. "We can be stylish, hip, and saved," say members of Trin-I-Tee 5:7, a new gospel trio on the B-Rite label. "We want to be what we didn't have when we were younger. We didn't see women in gospel that got our attention, that looked like us, that were young, and fashionable."
Indeed, there's unquestionably a market for music that's hip within the Christian community. Virgin/Forefront recording group dc Talk's breakthrough album, Jesus Freak, went gold within 30 days of its original November 1995 release. Contemporary Christian music, according to CCM Magazine, which has been covering the industry for 20 years, is now a $450 million industry.
But not everyone is thrilled that the secular (not to mention sinful) music world seems so willing to embrace these holy rock 'n' rollers. Sure, when mainstream musicians announce a conversion to Christ, the Christian community welcomes them with open arms. CCM Magazine lists Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming as one of the Top 10 Christian music albums of all time.
The second a Christian musician moves toward the mainstream, however, the tune changes. Then, says musician-turned-Christian-record-label-executive Eddie DeGarmo, "there would be a lot of people who think he's sold himself down the river. Sometimes it's easy to get shot in the back by your own troops."
When it comes to separating the sinners from the saved, though, this new wave of musicians presents a problem. With the MTV generation pushing the musical envelope playing rap, punk, ska and rock for Jesus, how do you define contemporary Christian music? Christian fundamentalists are divided in their opinions, but they seem to split into two distinct camps: those who see contemporary Christian music as the ideal ministry to reach today's youth, and those who see contemporary Christian musicians as Satan's spawn.
When DeGarmo founded Forefront Records 10 years ago in Nashville, it was with a clear mission in mind. He wanted to make good Christian music that the 12- to 19-year-old "MTV audience" would want to hear.
"The world of Christian music has grown into an industry and the music, I think, is as quality driven and competitive sounding as anything in the general market," says DeGarmo.
As a business, in fact, the Christian music industry differs very little from its mainstream counterpart. DeGarmo is inundated by demo tapes from kids who want to be stars. He listens for a unique sound that he thinks he can sell to the Christian and often, the mainstream market. That's not hard to do because most Christian music labels are affiliated with major market record companies -- a necessary evil if they want wide distribution.
One of DeGarmo's main concerns, in fact, is that Christian labels run the risk of becoming a "farm team" -- a feeder for bands looking for more mainstream success. "I'm very clear when I sign an artist, 'You don't need to be with Forefront if your goal is to be on popular radio,'" says DeGarmo. He's quick to add, however, that "it doesn't mean we don't send our records to popular radio."
His first big crossover success came with rap/rockers dc Talk. These guys are Jesus freaks -- and they're not ashamed to say so. The lead singer often opens his concerts by screaming "Welcome to the Freak Show!" and frequently stage dives into the seething mosh pit. Okay, so the religious connection is not always obvious, but its success certainly is. The group has been featured on Entertainment Tonight, on the Tonight Show and has videos in rotation on VH1 and MTV.
Dc Talk has two platinum albums, two Grammy Awards and awards from Billboard. But can a band that shares a producer with mainstream alternative rockers Nine Inch Nails be even remotely Christian? Well, dc Talk also won seven Dove Awards, given by the Gospel Music Association. And that is one of the many signs that Christian music is being redefined by these young groups.
In 1995, the Gospel Music Association expanded the number of categories in its annual Dove Awards. Reflecting the most recent Christian music trends, members now vote for best Urban Album and Urban Recorded Song of the Year, best alternative/modern rock album and song of the year; best Rap/Hip-Hop and best Metal/Hard Rock.
This new wave of contemporary Christian musicians also has some pretty powerful boosters. Tiffany Arbuckle, lead singer for the contemporary Christian group, Plumb, remembers being at a Billy Graham revival where dc Talk was a featured performer.
"Billy Graham said when he goes to Africa or China, he has to have an interpreter because he can't speak the language," recalls Arbuckle. "And at one of his crusades there were 70,000 people, and all the youth were in the audience because dc Talk were there. He said, 'I've brought in dc Talk because that's my interpreter. I'm 60-some years old and there's a big generation gap.'"
Arbuckle remembers, too, his words to parents having problems with their teenagers' preference for rap or rock. He told them that if the lyrics were good and encouraged them to follow Jesus, he didn't care how loud the music was.
No one would ever accuse Graham of not knowing a good thing when he sees one. Like a growing number of "postmodern" fundamentalists who are holding church services in bars and building skateboard parks to attract worshippers, he knows Mohammed must sometime come to the mountain.
Not all fundamentalists have been as keen to embrace contemporary Christian music, however. In fact, many believe these bands have been sent by the Devil to infiltrate the church and corrupt young souls -- and they're pretty outspoken about their beliefs. "I've heard everything," says Forefront's DeGarmo. "From our artists are sensual, to they perform in beats that drive people insane."
Indeed, the Internet is crawling with Christian music critics. Former fans who have seen the light "testify" on the Dial-the-Truth Ministries home page that "This music eventually led to rebellion and moral failure." Like recovering addicts, they talk about the need to move to harder and harder rock.
"The 'Christian rock' dominated my life for over a year until I could not get the same satisfaction I received the first time I heard it ... It was not long until my desire grew to 'hard rock' and 'progressive' stuff. I started getting into drinking and going to dance clubs. Minor recreational drugs came in and soon my life was going down the drain," writes one 18-year-old from Oklahoma.
They have no doubt that "the music made them do it." But who made the music? The Fundamentalist Association's website offers a theory about that.
Its members point out that Christian metal group Stryper likes to wear yellow and black -- colors that, according to medieval legend repeated in Wedeck's Treasury of Witchcraft, are the "Devil's Livery." They note dc Talk has openly admitted to being influenced by Ozzy Osborne -- and even recorded the former Black Sabbath leader's hit "Crazy Train." Could there be any greater proof of Satanism at work?
Contemporary Christian musicians have been called sinners for their sensuousness. But in reading these Web pages, one has to wonder, was six-time Dove award winner Michael English's biggest sin that he confessed to having an affair with Marabeth Jordon of Christian rockers First Call? -- or was it that he later went on to open for the secular band Foreigner?
According to Christian critics, musicians are deflecting the adoration of their fans from God onto themselves. Michael W. Smith's fans react to him the same way George Michael concertgoers might to the song "I want your sex." Of course, rock stars have always been idolized, but encouraging people to worship false idols is a sin, critics say -- one of many associated with rock 'n' roll.
Even contemporary Christian musicians who always refer to the Lord by name and aren't the least bit sexy come under fire. That's because the root of the problem is the rhythm -- the driving rap or rock beat that makes you want to move to the music. Swaying, toe-tapping that's almost involuntary, according to Christian critics, is evil.
"Many times people equate the sound with something they believe to be not becoming to God," says DeGarmo, whose own sound is very similar to John Mellencamp's and he's not afraid to wiggle his hips, either. "You find you're in a position of trying to decide what kind of music God likes. I don't want to be the one to make that decision."
So how do people define Christian music? "A lot of people have different theories about what makes a song Christian," says Jars of Clay's Mason. "As songwriters, we express our experiences in life and a lot of that incorporates our faith, because our faith has been a big portion of our life. There are a lot of people that have had no communication, or a bad experience, with the church and are turned off by a lot of religious speak."
That explains, in part, why Jars of Clay opts for a subtler approach -- and why it's easy see that it might be more at home on MTV, sandwiched musically somewhere between Toad the Wet Sprocket and Marcy Playground, than on the Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club.
But while Mason calls it power pop with a message, these songs with their roots in contemporary culture and modern life dilemmas rarely mention God by name. Yet as DeGarmo defines it, "Christian music is probably the only music described by its lyrical content."
Currently, there's a debate among Christians raging over how many times a song should mention God or if it's necessary to refer to Jesus by name. Plumb's songs, for instance, often make no overt reference to Jesus, but focus instead on social issues, such as sexual abuse.
"I don't just want to be the typical, cheesy, preachy, Christian music," says Arbuckle. "Just real, honest music with a hopeful message. This has mainstream potential. I don't think there's anything wrong with preaching to the choir. We'll continue to do that because that's our foundation. But our main focus is to reach a different group of people. I hope they enjoy being entertained, maybe they leave with more hope in their heart."
But can a singer replace the words "I love Jesus" with "I love Him" -- and justify calling the song Christian music? Some people think not.
Amy Grant was one of the first Christian musicians to cross over into the mainstream. Her albums have been dually marketed by Christian label Myrrh and secular label A&M since 1985 and her widespread success and sexy stage presence have always made her a little controversial. But it was her most recent release, Behind the Eyes, that highlighted what seems to be the greatest current debate in Christian music.
"The complete absence of explicitly Christian lyrical content on Behind the Eyes has renewed a debate in the CCM industry about what constitutes Christian music," declared Christianity Today in an article entitled "Where's the Gospel?" last December. The article then goes on to quote Grant musing, "I don't know if Behind the Eyes is a Christian record. Being able to label it Christian or non-Christian is not the point for me."
In fact, many Christian recording artists would rather not be saddled with the Christian label. "There is certainly a large quantity of people trying to say this is art, this is music and anybody should be able to listen to it," says Plumb's singer, Arbuckle.
She cites a study conducted in a mall. A sign placed over a bunch of CDs on a table that read, simply, "Music to Listen To." Then that sign was replaced with another that read, "Christian music." Arbuckle says the number of people walking up to check it out decreased a dramatic 60 percent. That's partly why Arbuckle was happy that Plumb was signed by Silvertone, a mainstream record label.
"My intention is not to be in the mainstream for money or fame," she hastens to add, "but because people are lost and don't have Christ in their lives -- those are people I want to reach."
Jars of Clay also wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, always hoping its records would be sold not just in Christian book stores, but at Kmart and Strawberries record chain, too. And Jars of Clay didn't just play church youth groups -- the equivalent of the club circuit for Christian rockers -- but like Plumb, they played secular clubs and regular rock festivals.
The modern rockers played 300 dates in 1996, including an opening stint for superstar Sting. This year they turned down a spot on the HORDE tour because they make more money filling arenas by themselves. So while winning seven Dove Awards presented by the Gospel Music Association was a thrill, winning a Grammy "legitimized our presence beyond any of our expectations," says Jars of Clay's Mason.
"We haven't come in militantly to start preaching at people, because that's not how we feel our ministry has taken shape," Mason explains. "We need to communicate the Gospel, to help people see love from us and not judgment. That's kind of our perspective on it. We're there to play music and hopefully get an opportunity to share faith."
To many fervent believers, those priorities need reordering. It's something DeGarmo tries to keep in mind, too. As long as the musician is coming from a spiritual place and is motivated by ministry as well as music, that's fine by DeGarmo. But he worries that many contemporary Christian groups, wooed by mainstream labels, are intentionally downplaying their religious beliefs. "We lose the right to exist if we continue to wash out," he says.
So while it's possible to be a Christian and a musician at the same time, that doesn't automatically merit the title Christian Musician. Still, new bands playing everything from hip-hop to punk and singing songs about sex and drugs with nary a mention of Jesus, consider themselves to be playing Christian Music.
Perhaps these pop proselytizers will manage to make believers of modern rock fans who never before gave God a second thought. Whether they can convince the old school Bible thumpers that this is a "God thing" remains to be seen. But there's a whole lot of soul searching going on as their music moves into the mainstream. The answers, perhaps, will come from within the musicians themselves.
"I find that, for me, our music seems to work best on all levels when it is cause driven, when the writer or performer has a reason -- more than just being an entertainer -- to convey their lyrical contents," says DeGarmo. "The mission of what we do is very simple -- to carry the message of Christ."
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