“Christian rock?” I asked my friend Adam as he proudly pointed toward the new Stryper poster adorning his bedroom wall. “They can’t be real Christians!” I exclaimed.
“Yes they can!” Adam protested back. “They’re Christian rockers!”
I remained deeply suspicious, secretly knowing these Maya-the-Bee-cartoon-character-knock-offs in multi-colored tights were undercover agents of the Devil.
It’s kind of funny looking back on it. An eight-year-old, conservatively raised, Church of Christ preacher’s kid growing up next door to a much more expressive, nine-year-old, Pentecostal preacher’s kid (okay, so they weren’t really Pentecostal – they were non-denominational, but definitely with charismatic leanings).
More than once I’d told Adam it was a safe bet both he and his family were on their way to the hot place (I mean, several of them had mullets and were fans of Benny Hinn for goodness sakes). This whole “Christian rocker” thing was simply another log on the fire.
At first, I had no real frame of reference to compare Christian bands to, but as I grew older and was introduced to other more well-known “secular” bands – Beck, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Sublime, Alice in Chains, 311, and more – I realized just how sub-par Christian bands tended to actually be. They were several steps below the mainstream showing no real signs of improvement.
And so, after being into DC Talk as an eleven-year-old (after getting their Free At Last album for Christmas), I eventually became disenfranchised with “Christian” music. Not coincidentally, this move away from Christian music coincided with my move away from all things Christian – for many years I lived as an unbeliever.
But when I came to Jesus in my early twenties, I never returned to Christian rock. My foray away from faith for a few years had led me into the mainstream music industry working at several radio stations as a modern rock DJ (not that a Christian can’t be a modern rock DJ, but I certainly wasn’t). An expert, if you will, on the then-current rock music scene.
My taste in music had been refined. I’d observed enough as a working professional to recognize talent and distinguish the difference between a good band and the unfortunate alternative. As skill went, most secular bands didn’t make the cut, and Christian bands barely had a chance since, in their musical culture, real talent had largely been a missing key ingredient for years (you can accuse me of over-generalizing, but deep down you know I’m telling the truth).
In my estimation, bands were signed to Christian labels, not because they had the right “stuff”, but because they had the right message – the right lyrics. In Christian rock, the message in the lyrics had always been more important than the technical skill involved in creating a great track. This always irked me, because I believe an artist’s display of technical skill is part of the message of their art.
If a song is technically sound, that says a lot. Whoever produced it is saying, “I’m passionate about this. I care about this a lot. I care about what I’m saying in this song so much, that I want to do everything right to make sure you listen, because what I’m saying is really, really important. What I’m saying is close to my heart, and I don’t want anything to get in the way of the message of this song or the experience I want you to have in listening.”
Conversely, if a song is technically unsound and put together in a shabby way, that communicates a lot too. It says, “I’m not very passionate about my music. What I’m saying in this song isn’t incredibly important because I’m going to let all these other things distract you. Off key? No problem. Cheesy chorus? Check. Lyrics that could have been written by a first grader at recess? You got it. But hey, I’m in a Christian band, so the Christian label signed me because of my professed faith – not because of I have high level skill. Now listen and enjoy!”
Okay, so maybe I’m being a little harsh, but this is seriously where my mind goes when not enough attention is paid to detail by a “professional.” What they’re saying without knowing it is, “This really isn’t the right profession for me” (to be clear, I don’t apply this type of thinking to amateur musicians – just professionals or wanna-be professionals).
This is on my mind today because I just finished reading Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock by Andrew Beaujon for a class I’m taking at Fuller. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book, but after diving into the first chapter a couple of days ago I knew the rest was going to be good and it was.
Beaujon is an excellent writer and regular contributor to The Washington Times, Spin Magazine, and several other noted publications. In addition to that, he isn’t a Christian, so reading his book covering the Christian music scene gave me an outsider’s perspective – something I really appreciate when it comes to any aspect of faith.
Beaujon, like me, believes that most bands active in the Christian music scene aren’t worth listening to, and (also like me) believes the reason most of them get signed to a label is because of their squeaky-clean image and the content of their lyrics – not because their musical talents and skills are outstanding. There are exceptions, however, and many are noted in his book.
I know Christian rock music has come a long way since the 80s. You people who listen to Jeremy Camp, Hillsong, Kutless, or Casting Crowns can put down your sticks – there are some good bands involved in the Christian music scene today, BUT they are few and far between. I believe the industry will remain this way until Christian labels and bands alike resolve to place the same amount of value on technical skill and production quality as is placed on message and band image.
Until this happens, Christians bands will continue to stink. But times are a’changing.