How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

worshipJournalist Leah Libresco discovers that contemporary Christian music always keeps on the sunny side. CCM lyrics, it turns out, are so excessively happy-go-lucky that they rarely even mention the darkness of sin or the pain of human suffering–themes that are pretty important to Christianity.

From Libresco’s piece:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”

If you’ve listened to Christian pop/rock for any amount of time at all, this shouldn’t surprise you. Turn on your local Christian FM station and the odds are good that what you’ll hear will be a distinctly American mixture of therapeutic spirituality and Christianese self-actualization. In other words, there’s nary a difference between most Christian music and most Christian publishing.

Why is this, though? Why does contemporary Christian music fail so egregiously to capture the range of human–heck, Christian!–experience? As Libresco notes, this hasn’t always been true of Christian music. You don’t even have to go back as far as she does to find evidence of a more honest lyrical culture in Christian musicianship.

In 1995, two albums released on Christian record labels went platinum, an unheard-of feat at the time. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak was a grunge-tinged, hip-hop spiced rock record with brazenly vulnerable lyrics. Look at the words of one of the album’s biggest hits, “What If I Stumble?”

Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows

If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar?

Here’s another hit, “Colored People,” one of the most well-known CCM songs about race:

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure.

These songs weren’t just deep cuts that Christian retailers ignored and superfans enjoyed. Both of these songs are some of the most famous performances from the band. You could probably not find anyone who listened to contemporary Christian music in the 90s or early 2000s who didn’t know these choruses by heart.

 

The other album that went platinum in 1995 was the self-titled debut by Jars of Clay. In my opinion, this is one of the finest Christian albums ever made. One reason: The songwriting on Jars of Clay is poetic, introspective and often gut-wrenchingly honest. Is there anyone who can listen to “Worlds Apart” and not think that Dan Haseltine is speaking for them?

I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same
Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die.

If you’re an aspiring Christian band recording your first big-label album, a song about child abuse is probably not on your agent’s checklist. But that’s what Jars did with “He,” a painful and hopeful ballad that captures the emotions of abuse from a child’s point of view:

Daddy, don’t you love me?
Then why do you hit me?
And Momma don’t you love me
Then why do you hurt me?
Well I try to make you proud, but for crying out loud
Just give me a chance to hide away

Again, these aren’t artists and songs from the iron vault of Christian music lore. These are two of the most successful groups and albums in the genre’s history. Do these lyrics sound like they would get airplay on today’s “positive, encouraging, and safe for the whole family” airwaves? Or would they be rejected by record label execs and station managers because they don’t immediately affirm the listener’s comfort and pleasure?

So what changed? What’s the difference between the CCM of 1995 and today? I have 2 answers for this:

1) In the last 20 years, Christian music has become less about artists and more and more about the product. You would hard pressed to find people seriously knowledgable about Christian music who would argue that there is any sort of healthy artist culture in the industry right now. Instead, the industry’s goal is to ship music that can morph like an amoeba into any shape that buyers desire–background noise at youth camp, soundtrack to a PowerPoint presentation, etc etc. That’s why so much of CCM sounds alike right now. So much of what’s being created isn’t actually art–it’s musical copy, meant to be accessorized for the sake of maximum profit.

2) In the last 20 years, Christian music’s “least common denominator” theology has stagnated the music. Because contemporary Christian music seeks to serve an incredibly diverse American religious landscape with what amounts to a single industry, the thinking for a long time was that the best way to make the music accessible was to make sure it didn’t actually say anything. Vague generalities about “grace” and “love” could be received by Presbyterians, Methodists, Anabaptists, and 7th Day Adventists alike. The fear of alienating an audience led many Christian groups and labels to mute theology in their songs. Fortunately, this trend was being reconsidered in the early 2000s through a resurgence of hymns; artists like Jars and Caedmon’s Call released successful hymn projects. But much of CCM never turned from this notion, and that’s why groups like Jars still stand out so far from the rest of the industry.

The decline of CCM is something I grieve. I still have somewhere dozens and dozens of CDs from local Christian bookstores, CDs filled with music that I loved. At its best, CCM was a conduit for expressing the complexities of life in the world and yet not of it. Its artists could poignantly elevate audiences to think that Jesus Christ cared about all of life. Somewhere, though, CCM lost its way, and I have trouble believing that the same industry that gave us dc Talk and Jars of Clay can survive.

How to Save Christian Music

Let me tell you about a recent Christian concert I attended.

There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville, whose lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a famous contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence; they won over the audience quickly.. From what I could tell, most of their lyrics were either about relationships or the general angst of life (think Foster the People). These weren’t Sunday morning worship songs. I’m sure most people at the show had no idea who the singer’s father was, or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.

The rest of the artists were the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock band, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to an impressive light show.

This was no pseudo church service or youth camp showcase. It was a rock show. But it was, obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.

There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.

All of this made an impression on me because  I realized, as a lifelong “insider” to contemporary Christian music, that Christian pop and rock can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian belief to intersect with one another, and sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever together. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”

I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last few years with music that’s produced and promoted merely because it manages to appeal to a particular target demographic that some “Christian record label” executive is trying to slice into. When it comes to quality, the secular acts have a monopoly. The goal is so often not to produce something outstanding in its own right, but to  convincingly ape a superior artist, adding only watery, non-denominational jargon.

The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Christian FM radio is banal; historic music festivals for Christian artists are going bankrupt.  Many of the Christian retailers who were formative in building the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the CCM industry.

But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard at my concert came to their audience as entertainers, song writers and storytellers, rather than worship leaders or evangelists. Their Christian identity was not located in what label represented them a  or what retail chain sold their LP; rather, it was in the art itself. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.

I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.

If CCM is to survive, it needs more than performers. It needs artists. Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What a contrast this would be to the spectacle of half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with all feminine references simply swapped to more metaphysical ones. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.