o frame this thing most dispassionately, I’ll start off with the premise that most music listeners begin—and most continue and end—listening to music that reinforces or otherwise does not warp the bounds of their worldview. This isn’t a revelation, but a reminder; in a different household, I could just have likely started out with Live or Alabama or Nick Cave or the Exploited. But to your average person who has any interaction with these sorts of things, the phrase “Contemporary Christian Music” speaks a lot louder than, say, “alternative rock.”
This past February, John Jeremiah Sullivan profiled a major Christian music concert event, the Creation Festival, in GQ. The photo-collage on the opening page depicted clean-cut high schoolers with gospelized logo parodies beaming in front rows; ostensibly, the article was about these little lambs, the target audience of CreationFest, yet Sullivan spent most of his ink on a bunch of earnest if dim twenty-something country charismatics sitting around a campfire. To add insult to aversion, he spent only one paragraph discussing the festival’s music, albeit one that in places cut to the bone with an outsider’s clarity:
Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It's message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what's more, it operates under a perceived responsibility—one the artists embrace—to "reach people." As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism… Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.Yes, but no. Christian music often contains a multitude of contradictions, among them the desire to spread truth versus the need to ship product, and maintaining a goal of cultural relevance versus optimized evangelical acceptability. As a teen growing up during the CCM rock boom, I can testify to my wanderings tuning into “God’s Music,” and how it primed me for grander musical vistas. In other words, I’d like to preach about the Choir.
On my 14th birthday, I unwrap two albums: Third Day’s self-titled debut and Newsboys’ Going Public. And even if my parents had spent the preceding six months playing German dodgeball and eating pizza on the gym floor at our Sunday night youth gatherings, they couldn’t have made better choices. Fun fact: in 2000, art-punks Wire released their limited-edition EP The Third Day; four years later, Third Day released their seventh album, entitled Wire. Both groups likely remain ignorant of each other.
Within the year I would attend a Newsboys concert. The last verse of “Lost the Plot” was the loudest moment of my young life:
And why are you still calling?February 1997.
You forgave, we forgot.
We're such experts at stalling
that we've lost the plot…”
Camelot Records isn’t dead yet. And I’ve just placed Boston’s nonillion-selling debut into the discerning and trustworthy hands of my father. At this point my meager music collection had nothing by secular-label artists. “Dad, do you think it would be okay if I bought this?” I asked, less out of concern for my spiritual health than for his potential critical reaction. His inward eyes were probably rolling back toward his neck as he said, “Go for it. It’s your money.” This could have been a Peter-on-the-roof moment, but out of a perceived duty to my parents, my secular purchases were infrequent at best.
Another dry Texas summer, and when I’m not shooting driveway free throws, I’m in Higher Ground, the new Christian bookstore off RR 620. Considering the comparatively marginal niche the store served, the place was huge. One wall was devoted entirely to alternative: hip-hop, metal, rock. To use the phrase “alternative” for a brand of music marketed as “Christian” is to watch a word eat itself; being an alternative to saccharine arena pop is somewhat nullified by presenting a nearly identical message.
But it was in the five-dollar bin that I found some exciting exceptions. Havalina Rail Co.’s self-titled effort was a breathless, shuffling zydeco/Americana romp, mostly about trains. The best track—still a top-15’er was “One Day,” with the decidedly non-Keaggyian chorus “Space, air: I bridge the gap through the wear and tear.” Rhythmsaints provided my first (and for years, only) forays into electronic music. Again, the emphasis was on the feel of the tracks; the message, if any, was identical to any other raise-your-hands trance/house acts of the day. Mike Knott wrote dour songs about whores, bowling, and sea myths. His “Rock Stars on H” from Strip Cycle was the first song I’d heard that explicitly mentioned heroin—before even VU. And the Choir—well, they were just supremely excellent, drafting song after song about personal betrayal and ruined cities and yards full of kids, all in a Cocteauesque guitar-pop vein. In time, they’d find mainstream Christian success with member Steve Hindalong’s work on the worship series City on a Hill, but at the time, they were just another alt.act for the dedicated to find.
You see, there is a distinction to be made between your upper-echelon CCM acts and the smaller-label guys. The bigger the group, it seemed, the larger the pressure to stay “on-message,” to be as constant as possible with explicitly spreading Jesus’ name. When people give shudder to talk about Godrock, this is usually what they think of: your dc Talks and Twila Parises. While I can’t join in the distaste, I will say that the stuff that really drew me in was music made by Christians who were eager to engage the world around them on its own terms. It wasn’t propaganda—an easy term that belies both the sincere beliefs of the makers and the purchasers—but it was a certain artistic convergence of thought and music that reminded me that there was such a thing as a human condition, and that I could participate in its dialogue.
At this point I’ve acquired a stereo with cassette decks, and many afternoons are now spent taping songs off the radio. I broke them out last week, and there aren’t many surprises, aside from the pleasant muggings of nostalgia. Sugar Ray. Duncan Sheik. Sister Hazel. All the day’s big alternative hits of a lighter vein got etched onto magnetic spools. But skating along the bandwidth I got a bit restless. I hit up KLBJ: Austin’s Rock one day and got an earload of a bloozy, brash tune that for all the world sounded like a group-sing about joyrides and growing pot. The kid is hooked on Gomez’ “Get Myself Arrested.” I spent two days waiting for it to be played again; after I taped it, I never heard it on the radio again. In two weeks’ time, by a lesser deity’s providence, the only used CD store within ten miles of my house put out Bring It On.
Not to overstate things, to be sure: Gomez wasn’t my salvation. Really, it was an extension of the truly alternative music I’d extracted from a half-dozen Christian bookstores across the city. I wasn’t startled by the possibility of contemporary secular music challenging the order of my CD rack; I was sort of primed for it.
I’m a power forward for the HCCSA Knights. It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m listening to Christian indie label Flying Tart’s comp Starball Contribution on my portable Panasonic. What Gomez started, Starball continued. Twenty ostensibly “Christian” bands whose tastes ranged from lo-fi shamble to industrial screaming. There was also a Don Ho track at the end, and found sound (Spiderman radio re-enactments, lines from All in the Family) shoehorned between the tracks. Something for everyone, and most of it for me. In a couple hours we beat Christ Community Christian for our first and only win of the year. I stand resplendent under the showerhead that night. In 2003, I would e-mail Duraluxe for the lyrics to their Starball song ”Dura-lux.” They replied the next day, saying they didn’t know what I was talking about.
Disciple’s in town! Do you know Disciple? I says now that they play buzzy Southern/nu-metal a la Pantera, but in 1999, all that matters is how they rock harder than Bride (but without the ballbusting vocals). Four friends and I are in the rec room of the Vineyard on Anderson Lane (motto: A Pretty Good Church), moshing. Well. We’re shoving each other and whirling around, but since my first hardcore punk record is four years away (Subhumans UK, EP-LP), it’ll do. We see Disciple three times in two years, exulting in the holy heights of rock. In a fever dream, I buy P.O.D.’s Southtown record along with my first car stereo. I immediately repented.
I’m standing in a Family Christian Store, question marks dancing before my eyes. Literally—I’m looking at Soul-Junk’s double-disc set 1955. No track titles, no band astride digitally tinted fields. Just yellow and purple question marks, and a Jackson/Rubio label credit. I return to the store a couple more times for staredowns before I buy it. It befuddles me; lyrically, it’s as complete a Christian album as one could hope for: mixed within the tape-manipulated song-raps and brat rock are passages lifted straight from Scripture (the liner notes pair tracks with verses, where applicable). But the music! This was a Great Leap Forward for me: the references simply weren’t at my fingertips. Sure, someone steeped in these sounds could have suggested Ween, Gary Young, even SJ progenitors Truman’s Water. And while not every track clicked with me, I could not deny that the question marks were deadly sincere, and more than answered with the joyful and unabashedly righteous ruckus on the record. Two months later I read an SJ interview in HM Magazine (formerly Heaven’s Metal). They talk about being a “lifestyle band” like Sonic Youth or Can. Who’s Can? Who cared? It all sounded wonderful. I e-mail Glen Galloway (aka Glen Galaxy, aka Galaxalag), asking about drum machines; he refers me to an online Japanese midi-mapper that was used on the record. I sit at the computer for two hours, making tabernacular percussion just like my new favorite band.
CD Warehouse, the only used CD store within ten miles of where I live, is my second home. My frugality precludes my ability to become a completist, or even a bonafide expert on a particular genre, an affliction that dogs me to this day. Still, I come up with some revelations. I score a prerelease of Elliott Smith’s baroque-pop Figure 8 after reading a glowing review in Rolling Stone (a habit I would soon drop). I listen to it twice before the patented devastation of “Easy Way Out” takes hold. A few weeks later, at a Half Price Books, I decide on a cutout bin disc with a sorta-awful-but-kinda-existential cover of a red cartoon man striking a Renaissance portrait of despair. The record is The The’s Dusk: an ecclesiastic voice in my wilderness. Just as King Solomon commingled despair with seasoned dispassion, frontman Matt Johnson laid before me a Baudelarian world without reveling in it. I was awestruck at the honesty displayed in tracks like “Dogs of Lust,” in which Johnson wails, “I keep reaching up / But they drag me back down / Wherever I try to hide / I will always be found.” This was what had been so minimal in my music: blunt honesty about the pull and pain of sin. I could hear him was pointing to God, however subconsciously.
Somewhere during this summer, I noticed myself approaching music along a new angle. I’d never really shied away from secular music; then again, I hadn’t ever embraced it further than my parents’ radio choices and their Beatles collection. I’d never made it a rule that my music should nourish the spirit with Biblical truth, but that was undoubtedly my preference. But hey, I was in the last years of adolescence. As one gets older, hopefully one throws experiences and relationships and books and trials and questions at the wall of his worldview, just to see what sticks. And where a 16-year-old boy from a evangelical background might have felt an inward discomfiture at Jeff Tweedy dreaming about killing, the same boy two years later notices the deft lyricist’s touch, somehow identifying with a rootless singer watching himself being chased on TV. He notices an emotional and intellectual honesty that, while essentially worthless in the eternal schema driven by his faith in Christ, is worth a CreationFest stage’s weight in platinum. Where there had been allegiance to good-time “message” bands like dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, the Supertones, and .rod laver (sic, and don’t ask), a new gaggle of reference points emerge over the coming months: Matt Johnson and Matt Wignall and Elliott Smith and Derri Daugherty and Ben Folds and Glen Galaxy.
I never intended to bury CCM, but over time, it happened. Any third party would’ve held it to be inevitable. Much of what Mr. Sullivan said in GQ about the tepid musical bounds of most CCM is true; but it would not have behooved his article to trumpet the numerous exceptions. To be sure, my journey into secular music has been quite the lesser salvation. The core principle informing my adolescent faves remains constant: Jesus Christ is the son of God whose willing death enabled the eternal life of a human race irredeemable otherwise. And if I shake my head wanly at a lot of my first choices in music, I still must salute the beliefs that informed both the product and my purchase. Yeah, the secular peaks or quality are higher. Yeah, there’s so much areligious stuff that lays bare the soul. Yeah, you can be a believer and operate outside the lines of CCM. Yeah, those were some resonant, joyous times.