I have previously tried to describe some of my frustrations with Christian music, but I couldn’t put my finger on the basis of that frustration. Michael Gungor, one of the really good guys and artists lays out his take…
I don’t necessary agree with everything in his post, especially the use of Jesus’ first miracle as the mass basis of thought, but I do agree with the general sentiments…
When you are in a touring band, there is a lot of time that is spent waiting. Waiting to board a plane, waiting for the bus to arrive at the venue, waiting for sound check…etc One of the many games that people in our band have implemented now and then to fill the waiting time is a little game we might call the “Christian or secular” game. Basically the game is simply playing a very short clip of music and having someone guess whether it is “Christian” or “secular” music. The person who is most accurate with his or her guesses is the winner.
This is surprisingly easy to do.
Especially when you talk about radio stations. It is easy for me to spot a Christian music radio station within about 3 seconds. Far before any Christian lingo is uttered to make it clear.
It’s weird. I’m always trying to figure out what it is that makes something sound like Christian music, because there’s definitely something… I’d love to get some of your thoughts about it. But for me (and I’m actually one of the better players of the game if I must say so myself), I find something very disingenuous about most Christian music. This is something I can simply feel at a gut level. If I hear a song, and I hear any sort of pretending or false emotion, that’s a good first indicator. I’m really not trying to throw mud here, I’m being honest at how I am good at this game. Christian music often has a sheen to it that other music doesn’t have. Some pop and country music has a similar sheen, but the Christian sheen is like a blander sheen somehow.
The vocals are always really hot in the mix because for Christian music, the words are the most important part. That’s kind of similar to country though as well, so you have to be careful there. Country has some of the same Nashville tones, players, and compression styles that Christian music has most of the time, but the twang is just a little deeper with the country side of things. There’s also a little more “humanness” or “soul” in Country to my ears.
The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the kind of emotions in singing that lyric that would lead to that style of singing. It’s that same kind of creep out that you feel when somebody gives a really loud fake laugh. It’s just weird and uncomfortable feeling.
An example of this would be a song that somebody sent us recently of an older song of mine called “Wrap Me In Your Arms.” The lyric is a very intimate and soft sort of lyric. “Take me to that place where I can be with you, you can make me like you…etc” This person did a hardcore/screamo version of this song. Not just like getting a little loud, I mean full out death metal sounding, demon-voiced screaming. It was so freaking weird mostly because it seemed so disingenuous. You would never speak such gentle words to someone you loved by screaming in their face like you were possessed by Beelzebub. That’s an extreme example, but it’s very typical of the basic premise of most Christian music to me, which is–use whatever musical style you wish as a medium to communicate your message. It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. So use whatever tools and mediums you have at your fingertips to do so. If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language. The problem with this is that emo music is not simply reducible to certain sounding tones and chords. There are emotions and attitudes of different genres of music that are the soul of the music. You can’t remove the anger from screamo and have it still be screamo. It’s the soul of that music, whether that soul is good or evil is not the point, simply that it is the soul. So when you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more “positive” lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie.
It looks like a human.. It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses it’s human body for its own purposes.
This is what I initially feel when I play the “Christian or secular” game. I look into its eyes, and I perceive whether the thing has a soul or not. And 9 times out of ten, I can do it very quickly and efficiently.
Why is this like this? I don’t know, and it makes me very sad. I don’t hate all Christian music. There are a few artists that I know in the Christian industry that are really trying to transcend the inherent limitations and zombying effect of the industry. But the industry as a whole is broken, friends. We call it Christian, but it’s certainly not based in Christianity. It is based on marketing. That’s it. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true.
We just were part of one of the biggest tours of the fall in the Christian music industry. To my knowledge, every night but one night was sold out, and that’s because they added a second show in the same city kind of last minute. The interesting thing about this tour was that it was pretty much in all mainstream venues. Clubs, theatres…etc It was awesome.
But you know what made me sad? That empty bar every night.
Even though these shows were all sold out, I would imagine that the bartenders at all those clubs were like “oh man, Christian night… that means no tips for me.”
Sometimes the promoters would just buy out the bar so there wouldn’t be any liquor sales at all.
I’m not saying that I wished that everybody was getting hammered at the show… But for crying out loud, buy one beer. Or heck, if you don’t drink beer, buy a Coke.
But here’s what is super weird about this situation. I bet you if you took all of those Christians that came to the shows and split them up and had them go to “secular” shows, A LOT of them would have bought a drink. It’s the fact that there is this assumption among all of the Christians there that having a drink at a Christian event is sort of a questionable thing to do.
Why is this?
It’s certainly not because of the Bible. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding. And not just any wine. The kind of wine that made people think they saved the very best wine until the end. And you preachers who pervert the scriptures with your own extremely biased interpretations, here’s a news flash, people at parties don’t think the best wine is non-alcoholic grape juice. Religious people didn’t call Jesus “a glutton and a drunkard” because he ate communion loafers and grape juice all of the time.
Sheesh. It’s just so ridiculous to me.
And here’s the thing. I don’t even drink very much. I’ve never really been drunk, and I’m not advocating that people should just be foolish with their drinking or eating habits. But for crying out loud, this whole spiritualizing of alcohol being an inherently bad thing is so annoying. It’s mostly just an American thing, by the way (as well as places where America has exported these ideas with our missionaries). If you go most other places in the world, or anywhere else in history for that matter, Christians drink alcohol. Ever heard of a little thing called Communion? You know, the bread and the wine? That’s a pretty big deal in Christianity. Jesus didn’t pour out a cup of grape juice.
You know what the alcohol thing is based on? You ready for this? You sure?
Old people are the people that give the most money to Christian organizations like religious media outlets. And old people grew up in a time where alcohol was seen as a taboo social reality. Just like dancing or playing cards or “mixed bathing” (swimming). It’s based in an era of prohibition. These are old American values that we’re dealing with, not Christian values. It’s the old American people that have money that the Christian organizations do not want to offend. So they create an environment where drinking is seen as evil. If you want to start a television ministry, you can’t have it known to your donors that your staff likes to go out for drinks after work. So you implement rules for them. Do you know how common this is? I have friends that have lost their jobs over crap like this.
Do you see the irony of this? If you had been a disciple of Jesus and drank some of the wine of his first recorded miracle with him, you would be fired from a lot of the churches in this country. Shame on us.
So the point? (I haven’t forgotten) The point is that the industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing then Christianity. They are marketing to the mixed bag of values that has created the Evangelical Christian subculture. It’s a mix of some historically Christian values, some American values, and a whole lot of cultural boundary markers that set “us” apart from “them.” This sort of system makes us feel safe and right, and it makes some of its gatekeepers very wealthy and powerful.
The effect is then the filtering down of this subculture to people that don’t necessarily want to think through the viability of every one of these boundary markers, but in their simple desire to belong to what they consider the good guys, they acquiesce to the rules handed to them. At least in public. As the joke goes, why do you take two Baptists with you when you go fishing? Because if you only bring one, he’ll drink all your beer.
Here are some of the actual effects of this subculture though.
1. It makes us dishonest
When the foundation of the market and music you are trying to make is pretense, it’s very hard to be honest and successful. There is an unspoken assumption from most of us that we really want the people on the stage or on the book or album cover or on the radio need to have it together more than we do. Because we are messed up, we need them to be a sort of savior and hope for us. The result of this is that it’s often the people who are really good at pretending that they have it all together that make it to the stage and the book or album cover and the radio stations.
So Christians that would normally buy a beer don’t because they are in the Christian concert. Christian bands that smoke (which a lot of them if not most of them do, including some of my players) have to duck into back alleys as to not offend anybody. I think smoking is stupid. But I think it’s stupid because it smells bad and it kills you. I don’t use my religion to judge other people about it.
Rather than just being honest about where we are at and what we all struggle with though, we look to our gatekeepers to believe and live morally vicariously for us. That way we feel better about being part of the system of good, and the moral brokenness in our own lives is repressed like the fear of a child with her security blanket.
This sort of dishonesty is at the heart of much of what I and so many others find so repulsive about much of modern American Christendom
2. It kills creativity
I had a conversation with John Mark McMillan last night about something that I think is very interesting. By the way, I consider John Mark to be one of the ones I consider to be making a valiant effort in transcending some of these imposed limitations in this industry. But he mentioned to me how strange it is that people keep calling his new album “creative.” That word is actually one of the most used words when people describe our music as well. In fact, I bet some of you reading this have described as such. Here’s the weird thing about this…
Why do you find it necessary to say that?
Do you notice that nobody really uses that word about other types of music? I just was perusing some Itunes user reviews to see if this holds up. I checked John Mark and mine, and “creativity” is very often found. But it’s not often found in reviews of bands like Sigur Ros, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens or other artists who are certainly very “creative.”
Nobody goes to an art gallery and says, “boy, that painting is so creative.” Why? Because it’s art! Of course it’s creative! Why else would it be there? It’s very nature is creativity. Or like Lisa pointed out to me today, “that would be like saying, I love your house, it’s so architectural.”
But when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like “holy crap, listen to how creative it is!”
It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, “wow, look at how clean her face is! She doesn’t even have any blood on it or anything!”
I’m not slamming the people that describe our music as creative. I appreciate the kindness that’s behind the words, but it does make me sad that the idea of creativity is so foreign to our industry that we have to actually point it out when someone actually sees the art as art and not zombie propaganda. Ok, that might have been a little much. But I like the sentence so I’ll leave it.
So that’s why I’m good at the Christian or secular game. I’ve seen behind the curtain, and I know the little man that’s pulling the levers, and he’s not impressive. I recognize his voice at this point, and it’s all over religious media.
Why am I writing this blog?
Some of you have commented in the past when I’ve been critical of the Christian music industry that I’m being hypocritical by still being a part of it. I don’t see it that way. I actually love a lot of the individual people in the industry. There really are some amazing people in it, many of who share my weariness about the way things have been. And I also love you guys. I love our fans. I love the people that we get to meet and I love being able to get our music to them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to purify the systems that we are part of. I just want to be honest about what I see and call us to find better ways of doing things.
Two quick recommendations and I’ll stop this blog that has already gone on WAY too long:
Consumers: I would suggest that you actively support those artists that you love that the industry hasn’t necessarily bought into. The cards are stacked against people that actually want to do honest creative art in this industry, and the people that try really need your direct help and support to have any chance. For us, we’ve had one guy for instance that has been sending us a check every month for years because he appreciates what we are trying to do. Do you know how much that one family has helped us stay encouraged? Even if it’s not a huge amount of money or anything, just having people behind you in this sort of battle is really helpful.
Industry people: Stop being so afraid. I know you want things to be different than they are as well. I know you want creativity to be valued as much as “Becky” analysis, but we need some of you to have some balls and make some decisions based on that value system. Yes money matters. But so does beauty. Art actually makes a difference in the world. Have the courage to actually make decisions on values and not simply on past numbers and trends. And for crying out loud, if it really is good, the numbers will follow eventually anyway.
Artists: Take heart. I think the tides may be turning. The recent attention and success of our band speaks to it I think. People are growing weary of the status quo. The machine and its sheen have seen its strongest days. So I encourage you as well to not be afraid. Your art is worth making even if the industry around you isn’t quite ready for it yet. Make it and let them catch up with you. Your art is sacred. Be honest. Be brave. And don’t let the markets or the industry be the final filter on your art, let your heart do that. Ok that’s all from me tonight.