Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Confessions of a Christian Music Fan

It was a hot Kentucky afternoon, and the spacious canopy of a white vinyl tent was only a fragile barrier between us and the unforgiving skies. Maybe the heat was part of why some festival-goers chose to shelter in the tent that my friend Joy and I had started fondly referring to as “the hipster tent.” We were sitting on ground that was by this point more dirt than anything else. I could feel the few remaining strands of coarse grass against my sunburned legs as I leaned back against a support pole and listened to a skinny, unassuming artist standing with his acoustic guitar on the barely-raised stage.

“This is a song I wrote to a pastor,” he said, the slightly mischievous tone that often colors his words brighter than usual. “A pastor of a specific church, that has some ideas...”

Derek Webb’s small circle of fans started laughing, mostly in anticipation. Derek never said any names, but within the first few lines of the song it was obvious who he was singing about. The song is a rather wry piece poking very pointedly at a particular church’s reaction to homosexuals. It’s subversive in the best way-- we can laugh at it, but at the same time it has an edge, a slightly uncomfortable taste that pushes us to reconsider how we view people, what it means to love.

The day before I’d seen a band that would probably have sent most Derek Webb fans running for cover in the nearest fair trade coffeehouse. Building 429 put on a fantastic show, full of slick production, shimmering lyric videos, and a showmanship that filled every inch of the main stage they occupied. Jason Roy owned the stage with a style reminiscent of a sanitized Bono. His powerhouse voice rolled out over the waves of smooth guitar tone while hundreds of people screamed along, hands raised, eagerly cheering to affirm the bands’ well-crafted gospel statements. It was like a megachurch meeting on a gravel field.

Welcome to the dichotomy.

As someone who has spent the last few years of my life traveling to multiple states, chasing tours, catching festivals, volunteering to do merch for half a dozen or so bands, reading legal documents and news stories related to music, writing for a major Christian music website, photographing shows, and listening to several hundred Christian bands... I see a lot of contrasts. Christian music has become almost impossible to define. I think we can all agree that Casting Crowns falls neatly in that category, but what about Underoath? They play clubs where people throw beer cups at the stage, where some audience members end the evening wearing significantly less clothing than they started with... and yet they sing things that are true. Do they get the stamp of approval?

And what about the prodigals? Derek Webb is one of them, a disillusioned child of the CCM industry who found his beginnings in the clear-cut Christian band Caedmon’s Call. Kevin Max is another-- we all like to talk about his role in the groundbreaking DC Talk, but when someone in the CCM press alludes to his recent indie career, graphic novel authorship, or his odd habit of wearing pink feather boas, we act almost like we’re embarrassed.

Amidst all of this, there is a whole group of artists in the category of Christian music who spend their entire career trying to avoid being counted as such. They feel like the term limits them, or that it’s unfair, or that it means something they don’t want to be a part of, or that it doesn’t mean anything at all. And I can understand this. I give all of this introduction because the term “Christian music” is one that has to be used slightly loosely.

I ride the line between mainstream CCM culture and crossover bands who flinch uncomfortably if you throw out the phrase “Christian rock.” I have seen both Casting Crowns and Underoath, in case you wondered, and everyone in between. I’ve sold merch to families in churches and I’ve come out of bar shows smelling like the beer someone spilled all over the floor. I’ve heard good music in both places, and in both settings I’ve seen the gospel come alive in surprising ways. I try hard not to sell my allegiance to a certain subset of this already complex subculture, to keep learning without compromising my values.

I recently finished reading a book titled Body Piercing Saved My Life by secular rock journalist Andrew Beaujon. It was a fascinating read. Beaujon details the Christian music industry from the perspective of an “outsider,” someone who spent time researching and attending distinctly Christian concerts and events even though he didn’t share the same faith (his foray into GMA week was particularly courageous). It was in places very true, in places very untrue, but thought-provoking throughout. He levels a lot of well-grounded criticism at the market. And honestly, a lot of the criticism he offers has been vocalized more and more in the past few years by Christian artists themselves.

After all the shows I’ve attended these past few years, I can honestly say that a lot of the criticism of the jaded and disillusioned carries truth. I’ve seen ministry warped into marketing. I’ve seen prejudice wear a mask of love. I’ve seen some pretty awful business practices and heard some honestly bad music. Due to my natural pessimism, it often feels so much easier to throw my hat into the ring with the cynics.

But I can’t do that. I can’t ignore the criticism since there is some truth in it, and I don’t want to ignore anyone who has valid concerns. But what I do find slightly uncomfortable and even distasteful at times is the attitude of the critics. Many of them claim that middle-of-the-road CCM artists are total hypocrites who are not practicing the love they sing about but are instead wrapping an easily marketed message in a package of poor art. But these cynics themselves are showing a lack of love to the ones they are criticizing for not loving, thus undermining their argument. The whole thing becomes an endless game of finger-pointing and subjectivity and trying to judge others’ motives. No, cynicism is not the easy way out. The picture is more complex than that.

A few months back, Michael Gungor posted a blog that had the Christian community inside-out for a few weeks due to its very blunt critiques of the Christian music industry and Christian art in general (read it here). After the debate had been going for a while, he posted on his twitter “I am not interested in church bashing, or even industry bashing, for that matter. But I am interested in reform.”

I liked his blog post. I didn’t fully agree with it, but I thought it was well-written and brought up some valid points, and in general I like things that force us to think. I wanted to push a little bit beyond what he said though, trying to understand his attitude, to see where he found balance. “The question then becomes where the line is drawn between destruction and reform,” I replied. “the distinction can be so hard to clarify.”

Michael answered: “I think that reform destroys the bad things, and "destruction" destroys good things.”

It was a good answer. I like it because I am very interested in reform in the Christian art world, but I am extremely wary of destruction. I would rather be maybe overly moderate in my criticism and allow some weeds to grow instead of leveling everything and running the risk of choking out something worthwhile.

Because you see, beneath all the jaded criticism, the battles over phraseology, the jokes about the Jesus-per-minute requirements on Christian radio... there’s something else happening. This is something that the cynics often politely leave in obscurity, something that the book I recently read left out entirely: lives are being changed.

And not just by the really high quality artists who are making musical advances and preaching truth in new ways. Lives are being changed by even the artists who are more likely to be looked down on by elitists-- artists that I have looked down on before. And these are not small changes either. I’m talking about wells in Africa, starving children fed, education provided, the criminal tragedy of sex trafficking addressed, thousands learning about Christ. I’m talking about suicides averted and families healed and addicts finally finding the strength to go to rehab, about the beautiful girls with scarred wrists raising their hands unashamed for the first time in their lives, the bitter boys who’ve already seen way too much finding out that there really is a reason to come out fighting for another round. And I’m not talking about this in an abstract sense. I’m referring to stories and movements and scenes I’ve actually heard and witnessed.

I’ve seen artists praying over fans, staying out for hours to give hugs, taking pictures even when they know that the middleschool fangirl probably doesn’t even own their CD. I’ve watched artists give away merch for no good reason, and I’ve seen them stop and graciously engage a fan even outside of venues, where it interrupts the flow of their ordinary life. I’ve been on the receiving end of this kindness countless times. I can remember the lead singer of a band running up to me carrying a cup of coffee, grinning and saying “I made this for you!” Much of the merch I own was given to me, some of it by bands who could barely pay for gas. Once the bass player for a band I haven’t even met sent me a poster because he was sorry I couldn’t make his show.

And it’s not just the bands. It’s true that there is a lot of behavior I’ve seen at Christian concerts, particularly when I work merchandise, that I would be ashamed to repeat. But there have also been stories I’ve heard and been part of that are indescribably beautiful. I’ve seen people sharing food with other fans they barely know or giving hugs to people from totally different backgrounds and lifestyles. I’ve loaned my cell phone to strangers and given up my place in line and formed friendships.

Here is what it comes down to: the Christian music scene, like any scene, is made up of humans. Humans of all races, all backgrounds, hiding or expressing every struggle and vice under the sun. There are terrible things that happen. There are things too breathtakingly beautiful for words.

Sometimes people ask how I can stay involved with something that I know to be cracked, how I handle hearing music that I know perfectly well is sometimes below broader artistic conventions, how I can listen to an artist without wondering if they’re preaching love through the lips of a hypocrite. I think that’s looking at the wrong thing though. My allegiance is not to the system, or even to the counter-system. My ultimate allegiance is to a God who continues to use Christian music, in all its forms and mutations, as one of the most powerful forces for truth in this generation. Beneath the politics, the conventions, the arrogance, the mistakes, and the over-used chord progressions... redemption is still singing louder than the static. And as long as there are musicians seeking, in their own finite, human way, to sing about truth, I’m going to be standing with them. I don’t care if I don’t like their music or if it doesn’t connect to me personally-- chances are it’s connecting to someone, and my support of the band is helping them reach that someone. This was never about my personal taste or the ever-shifting demands of music critics.

So whether it’s the polished up tunes of Building 429 or the subversive sarcasm of Derek Webb, I am privileged and proud to sing along. I fully intend to keep scrubbing through the industry’s dirt, whether it be in the form of apathy and failure or hypocrisy and closed-minded pride, in order to find the shine always pulsing just beneath the surface.

And so at the end of the day, I find myself defending Christian music, defending those who are honestly seeking to write songs that move us and mean something. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe a part of this is because once upon a time, there was a 17-year-old homeschooled kid with a terrible haircut and no concept of what an electric guitar really was... a kid who stood in front of a stage at a rock show, crying because she finally understood she wasn’t alone in her faith or in her questions. And for that lonely teenager just a few months into her Christian faith and a few months out of crippling depression, the truths sung through the filter of the Christian music machine meant everything.

- Elraen -

(Note: It should be mentioned that I’m writing this post as someone who also listens to a wide range of mainstream music and honestly enjoys some of it and finds value there, though it’s not where my focus lies. It should also be mentioned that I purposely skirted two of the biggest issues in this conversation-- the idea of standards and quality in art and the validity of the sacred/secular distinction. Those are issues too big for me to address in this blog post and, quite honestly, it’s not something I feel I need to address yet.)


Christopher O'Dell said...

Beautiful; bravo.

Eclectic Elegance said...

Wow, this gave me a whole lot to think about. :) Thank you. *hugs*