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Ever since Elvis jumped onto the music scene, rock 'n' roll has been an American pastime. In its early days rock 'n' roll was shunned by many religious people and was said to be "the devil's music." Much to their dismay, however, young people of every persuasion liked it anyway and rock's popularity continued to grow.
These days, rock doesn't have quite the scandalous image it had in its early days, and it's no longer frowned upon by many religious people as the "devil's music." Not only do many Christians listen to rock, but some Christian musicians have begun using it as a way to spread the word about their faith. Over the last 15 years the Christian rock genre has been "blessed" with impressive record sales and new audiences.
|"Alive" by P.O.D.
And now that I know you
Now the lead singer either has a crush or conviction. From the lyrics, one may think the song is definitely about God, but in the video, the lead singer is making out with an apparent love interest. Hmmm.
The Christian rock scene has attracted a large following, and in the same way that underground punk and hip hop bands will blow up and hit the mainstream, many Christian rock bands are outgrowing the underground Christian rock scene and are beginning to cross over into the mainstream.
In 1997, for example, the Florida Christian rock band Creed entered the mainstream with their debut album, "My Own Prison." Two years later, they released "Human Clay," which appeared on the Billboard charts at #1 and was accompanied by a slick, Matrix-style video on MTV. Creed's lyrics are typical to Christian rock; they are ambiguous at first but obviously religious once you know the artists are Christian. In their #1 smash single, "Higher," for example, Scott Stapp sings:
Can you take me higher?
To a place where blind men see
Can you take me higher?
To a place with golden streets
At first some listeners may have assumed they were talking about drugs. Or a new girlfriend? But, there are plenty of clues (like the biblical reference to blind men) and if you pay attention, you'll soon figure out that they're talking about heaven and addressing God. For some listeners it was kosher, for others it was confusing. "How can a band be so popular and be singing about God?" people wondered.
Set the calendar back 13 years before Creed and you have Stryper. Dressed in yellow and black spandex, this mid-80s metal band was known for throwing out Bibles at their concerts and for their catchy Christian-friendly songs. Stryper was openly and proudly Christian, and although they experienced commercial success (their second full-length album, "To Hell With The Devil," went platinum), they weren't considered cool by many metal fans. Stryper was always known as "that Christian metal band."
But the nineties were a different story. Christian bands became wiser to the forces of marketing and PR. Not content to stay within the Christian music market -- and wanting secular validation -- many bands began making the leap into the mainstream. Now they're taking cues from Stryper on what not to do; they're downplaying their Christianity.
P.O.D. (short for Payable on Death) is just one of the many bands that have followed in Creed's footsteps. In the '90s they sold 40,000 copies of their first three albums on Rescue Records. Atlantic Records signed them in 1998 and soon P.O.D.'s videos "Youth of a Nation," "Boom," and "Alive" were being played on MTV.
As with Creed, P.O.D.'s Christianity isn't obvious. There's no direct mention of God, church or prayer on their website, and you only pick up hints of their religion in their lyrics. They don't carry around Bibles, they rock hard, and they, well, don't exactly look like church-goers. But then again, what are church-goers supposed to look like?
In addition to P.O.D., there are a number of Christian bands and musicians in the mainstream right now such as Chevelle, Lifehouse, and Switchfoot -- bands which seem like any other music act being played on the radio and MTV, except that they have ambiguously Christian lyrics and/or got their start in the Christian music scene.
And waiting for mainstream success are Christian underground bands like Big Dismal, who play at Christian venues and gigs and have a mostly Christian following. Big Dismal has gained success in the Christian world, although Eric Durrance, their lead singer, claims that it was unintended. "We never set out to be a Christian band. We're all Christians in a band. The lyrics put us [in the Christian market] naturally." Like Creed and P.O.D., Durrance downplays his Christianity and places an emphasis on his music.
He makes a point, however, not to deny his Christian fans. "We'd definitely never turn our back on that market but we definitely want to be in the mainstream," he explains. "That's where you can have a really long career. That's what we want. It's music for everybody. We don't necessarily want to be put in one market."
Durrance is right. Being pigeon-holed as a Christian band will only get you so far in the music world, and many bands are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, playing distinctly Christian music gives a band an automatic "in" or niche market. "It's a blessing that we came through this way," says Durrance. For Big Dismal, Creed, P.O.D. and other Christian bands, Christianity is a faith and a religion, but it's also a market and a network of contacts. As Durrance explains, "We've had a lot of really great contacts and shows that we wouldn't have gotten coming in through the secular bar scene."
On the other hand, the Christian niche market can limit you from becoming a real -- in other words, rich, famous, and critically acclaimed -- rock star.
In some ways, this dilemma of whether or not to build an audience through the Christian scene has given rise to different sects within the Christian music market: Christian rock, non-Christian Christian rock, and lack-of-faith-identification Christian bands. Just compare and contrast them. If you're as confused as I am, you're looking in the right place.
Big Dismal is openly Christian. P.O.D. doesn't seem to want to discuss it. Creed, interestingly enough, claims to have never been a Christian band in the first place. On their website under the FAQ section, it is clear that fans are constantly asking the band about their faith. Stapp responds, "No, we are not a Christian band. A Christian band has an agenda to lead others to believe in their specific religious beliefs. We have no agenda!" Although Stapp says that all band members believe in God, he sidesteps questions about whether all his band members are Christian, saying that it is a personal question. "Please do not limit this band to only dealing with spiritual issues," he adds.
And then, of course, there's Evanescence.
Fall from Grace
Evanescence started out as a band with a strong following in the Christian underground scene, then went mainstream with their single on the "Daredevil" movie soundtrack, "Bring Me To Life." They were one of the most successful Christian bands to cross into the mainstream -- but then they revoked their Christian status.
In an April 2003 interview with Entertainment Weekly, band member Ben Moody exhibited what some might call "very unchristian behavior" and shocked the Christian world by cursing and taking the Lord's name in vain. At around the same time, Christian label Wind-Up Records, which had released the band's album, "Fallen," began recalling the CDs from Christian music stores and radio stations.
According to a letter sent out by Wind-Up Records, "band members have made it abundantly clear that Evanescence is a secular band, and as such view their music as entertainment... the band is now opposed to promoting or supporting any religious agenda." Even though they had their roots in the Christian music scene, Evanescence was now making it very clear that they were simply a band that happened to have Christian members.
Distancing themselves from their original fan base could have been career suicide for Evanescence, but in a world of MTV and Entertainment Weekly, that didn't matter. They dove from Christianity into the safety net of secular fame and fortune.
The difference between Christian artists and artists who happen to be Christian may be small in many cases, but it's an important distinction. There are some artists who, because they are Christian, decide to make music for the purpose of praise and worship -- like Stryper and Christian rock staple DC Talk. These bands don't write or display images about sex, nudity or drugs, and they don't use words that would offend people. The central themes for the songs are God, love, and faith. The music itself is also often less harsh and easier to listen to than many harder rock groups.
There are also artists who are religious, but their music has nothing to do with their faith. Justin Timberlake is a good example of this type of artist. He is a Baptist, but as everyone knows, his songs are often kinky and sexy -- most definitely not acceptable in the Christian music scene. It's not that one can't be Christian and sing about sex -- artists like Prince, Beyonc, Lauren Hill and Outkast would argue that you can -- but he or she wouldn't be able to sell albums in the Christian market.
Creed, P.O.D., Evanescence, and Big Dismal all fall somewhere between Stryper and Justin Timberlake. Whether they are closer to Stryper or Timberlake seems to be something that each band is constantly negotiating with labels, fans, PR people, the press, and themselves.
While a number of Christian bands are having identity crises over how to present themselves, fans and audiences feel just as conflicted.
Traditionalist Pastor Tim Sneeden of Hamilton Square Baptist Church in San Francisco, California says that "to add new words to the rock sound does not make it Christian." According to him, there can be no such thing as Christian rock. It might be the beat that repels many priests and pastors because it can be seen as suggestive, or it might be that it is associated with other music and musicians that participate in behavior he doesn't approve of. Either way, he's definitely not alone.
Yet other, non-religious people make no moral distinction. 18-year-old Darla Walter Gary of Oakland, California, says, "Morally, I have no views on Christian rock or Christianity in general. Religion has always been a part of music and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be; there are a lot worse things to be singing about."
Some people, however, like music critic Christopher Handyside, say they are often less likely to take an album seriously if it comes from a Christian band. "I immediately ratchet up my critical ear," he says. Knowing a band is Christian doesn't keep Handyside from reviewing an album as honestly as possibly but, he says, "Personally, I'm less likely to play that record if I've flagged it as Contemporary Christian Music."
It may seem odd to some that there is a popular music genre based on a faith. As Darla points out, religion has always been connected with music, but it's rare to have a whole classification based on the religion of the musicians and the lyrical content of the music, versus how the music sounds.
Christian music seems to have come about as a way for certain young people and their parents to know they are buying music that their church will approve of. But with this safety net also comes sacrifice. With its safe lyrics and unoriginal musical style, it seems to be missing an edge. Obviously that's why so many parents like it, but it also often seems like Christian bands are presenting milder versions of secular -- and more controversial -- bands' work.
Christian bands trying to cross over into the mainstream face an interesting paradox. They have so many groups to please: religious communities who may find what they are doing immoral; their secular audiences, who might be wary of their agenda or find them corny; young Christians who will be disappointed if they become too mainstream; and music critics who find it hard to take them seriously. For many Christian bands that are attempting to straddle the secular and religious music markets, that often times means sidestepping the Christian issue altogether by refusing to talk about it, keeping lyrics vague, and trying to blend into the MTV videoscape as much as possible.
As Durrance explains about the mainstream and religious markets, "You gotta really keep both of those close to you rather than giving up one for the other. That's gonna be tough, but like I said. Just keep the music for everybody."
Nick Flanagan is a staff writer at WireTap.