Monday, May 12, 2008

Christian Music's Dead

(sponsored by Yeungling)

Post #4: Christian Music's Dead

Jorma Kaukonen--"I Am The Light Of This World" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris (with Ricky Skaggs)--"Green Pastures" (mp3)
Blind Faith--"Presence of the Lord" (mp3)

Bill Mallonee, in his song "Punk Rock's Dead," argues paradoxically that

Punk rock died the day
The first kid said,
'Punk ain't dead.'

He's right, of course. The moment you find yourself having to argue how vital something is, that's the moment you should probably realize it isn't. The same kind of reasoning applies to contemporary Christian music: the second the first A & R man got the idea of marketing musicians as Christians, the first time a music store created a CD section entitled "Christian," the whole genre was toast. It doesn't take a genius to see why. At that split second, it all became about the money.

I'm not naive enough not to realize that all music is about money. Whether it is something Mozart wrote because it was commissioned by royalty or whether the hat gets passed in a Mississippi juke joint on behalf of the blues singer, music is commerce. But when you put the Christian label on the music and use God and Jesus the way Cadillac uses that sexy, but annoying, woman from Grey's Anatomy, you've stepped into holy doo-doo, in my book.

In 1974, I went with a friend to see Seals and Crofts (he had free tickets, I swear!). After the show, they invited members of the audience who wanted to stay around to hear about the the Bahá’í Faith. I think we stayed for a little while, but that isn't the point. We didn't go to the concert for religion; we went for "Hummingbird" and "Summer Breeze." Contrast this approach with going to a Christian concert to hear Christian bands play Christian music.

If Emily Dickinson is right that "[t]he soul selects her own society," then Contemporary Christian music overrides that kind of free will. I think that Billy is right that this kind of music isn't going to convert anyone. Instead, what it says is that if you are a Christian, this is the kind of music you should be listening to. It turns faith into a brand name so that it will be accessible for the masses. And just like when you order a Happy Meal at McDonalds and you also get Ronald McDonald, the golden arches, and the free movie tie-in toy, so too when you choose Contemporary Christian music, you also get the "traditional family values"agenda that goes with it--"Um, I'll have the Michael W. Smith Special; could I get that with a side of intolerance toward other religions, a double order of anti-gay inuendo, and an 'I Support The War' travel mug?"

But since this is mostly about the music, let's look at the real dark side of the Christian genre. They decided that the best way to sell Christian music was to try to make it sound as much like mainstream pop and rock music as possible. Ponder for a moment what a satanic bastardization of logic and musical styles this truly is. One of the strongest foundations of our traditional, national genres of music--folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rockabilly, rock and roll--is the gospel and spiritual tradition. You can hear the elements of gospel in everything from Elvis to U2. But you aren't likely to hear it in today's popular music, which relies on a blandness of vocal, instrumentation, and technology that has little connection with those traditions. So now you Christian marketeers are going to borrow the most obvious cliches from popular music so that young (and old) listeners will be lured to "godly" music with familiar pap? It's no wonder that no Contemporary Christian song has emerged as a classic, mentioned on lists of the greatest modern songs, or that very few have crossed-over to mainstream radio. Though as bad as that is these days, I like their chances.

I offer, in contrast, three songs by reasonably well-known artists (if you don't know Jorma Kaukonen, he played in the Jefferson Airplane) that are all Christian songs. Kaukonen came to "I Am The Light of This World" by way of his studies with fingerpicking master Rev. Gary Davis. When you hear it, you'll discover how the beautiful complexities of the music complement the lyrics. Emmylou Harris' version of "Green Pastures" is the definitive one for me, probably because Ricky Skaggs' harmonies take it even higher. At the time she recorded it, it was perfectly normal to include a beloved traditional or gospel song on a regular country album. Blind Faith's "Presence Of The Lord" comes in between Eric Clapton's Cream and Derek and the Dominoes years. In addition to Stevie Winwood's stunning vocal, I'm sure that if Jesus played the guitar and wanted to show us other worlds, he would have a wah-wah pedal as Eric does here.

I love Christian music, but I guess I never thought it had to announce itself as such so commercially.

All of these songs are available from Itunes on, respectively, Quah, Roses In The Snow, and Blind Faith. If our music server recovers, I hope you can sample them here.


Anonymous said...


A convincing argument. The Rev. Gary Davis' own version of "I Am the Light of this World can bring me to tears. I should post a list of my top ten secular Christian quasi spiritual songs. It would include Bill, Patty, Blind Faith (Can't Find My Way Home)and a host of others. I guess that pigeon holing music is as dangerous as pigeon holing any discreet part of any life. I'm a believer but I'm also a degenerate. Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

Anonymous said...

I'm in agreement. All classic/good music seems to relay something more than the obvious -- whether it's cool new sounds or great lyrics. Unfortunately, contemporary christian music rarely does this -- Aping tried and true sounds with obvious sentiments and relegating it to a Christian soundbite/commercial.

Discussed before - Danielson Famile

Steve Albini has a funny comment in the below trailer.

Haven't seen the movie yet, but plan to.

Bob said...

I'm hoping someday to hear a song like "God Made Me Gay (Now What Do I Do?)"

Bob said...

The Danielsons are definintely filled with the SPIRIT. There's no doubt about that!

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