What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
– Rob Gordon in High Fidelity
Christian rock music dominated my cultural experience well into my late teens. Some of my earliest memories include spinning my parents’ vinyl Christian rock records of artists like Petra, Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart, Carman, David Meece, Amy Grant and others.
For most people who didn’t grow up in this culture, many of the artists will be completely unfamiliar. Some might know a few Christian artists that had crossover success like Stryper, Michael W. Smith, or Jars of Clay. A few might be surprised to note that some Christian bands like Switchfoot and Chevelle had significant Christian rock careers with several releases before obfuscating their lyrics and crossing over to mainstream. But most won’t know the Newsboys, White Heart, Audio Adrenaline, dc Talk and many, many, MANY others.
Since becoming an atheist I’ve divested myself of most of my large collection of Christian rock CD’s and cassettes from my youth. But I have a secret stash of 10-15 CD’s that I just can’t get rid of, even though I never listen to them. I keep them because they are a connection to some of the better parts of my past, memories that remain untainted by the religiousity of the music.
My brother has been less shy about importing all of the old Christian rock CD’s into his iTunes library, perhaps because he’s more of an agnostic than atheist. While my disposition is usually an all-or-none proposition, he is more of a “whatever.” Riding in his car the other day, an old Michael W. Smith tune called “Rocketown” came on his iPod’s shuffle. It’s a synth-laden tune that was a signature tune for Smith, and he has since created a teen center in Nashville by the same name. I actually wore out the cassette tape of the Michael W. Smith album containing this song when I was between the ages of 9 and 14. When the song came on, I couldn’t help but turn it up. It was a blast from the past, and a good tune in its own right.
It makes me sad that listening back to a lot of these Christian albums is such a conflicted experience. One moment, I’m thrilled to hear the old riffs and chords and reveling in nostalgia for a part of my life now gone, and the next I’m blushing at the completely asinine lyrics. If my wife were to walk in while I was listening to this, it would be something akin to getting caught jacking off to internet porn – blush-worthy, but probably not a big deal in the long run, as long as I don’t indulge too often.
On the road to unsalvation, music played a huge part in my life. In my late teens, I found myself connecting more and more with Christian rock artists that were willing to acknowledge some ambiguity in their faith. It was around this time, that I feel I began to turn the corner, and make the small choices that would eventually lead me out of my religion-induced coma. Later in their careers bands like Grammatrain, dc Talk, P.O.D. and others became less overt in their proselytizing. I was connecting more and more with these artists whose thought process appeared to be mirroring my own.
Many of the Christian artists I connected with most at the time have found their way into less fundamentalist beliefs or even agnosticism or atheism. Kevin Max of dc Talk now professes a more universalist worldview, while still managing to walk the tightrope of calling himself a “Christian.” Some, like P.O.D. guitarist Marcos Curiel waffled back and forth, quitting their Christian bands, only later to rejoin. Others, like Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan (who was raised the same denomination of Christian as myself) went through very public separations with the Christian community. A few, like Grammatrain frontman Pete Stewart, no longer consider themselves Christians. I gravitated to these artists experiencing the same religious crises as myself. As a musician, my own band waffled back and forth between not-so-obscure Christian lyrics and more secular themes.
As I wandered further down the path of unsalvation, I eventually turned to “secular” music. I had a copy of Nirvana Nevermind hidden under my dresser in my late teens. My dad later found it, and was as mad as I’ve ever seen him to the point of becoming physically violent with me.
As I left home for college, I found more and more secular music that I had missed out on the first time around. The sounds of the 90’s, from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to Dave Matthews and Radiohead led me out of the cultural backwater I’d been living in. As I still considered myself a “Christian” I felt guilty for loving this music at first. I stayed away from Parental Advisory stickers. But slowly and surely, my resistance was worn down. I bought more and more albums with “questionable” content. Even though Soundgarden’s Superunknown featured a satanic looking cover, the fact was, the music was AWESOME. There was no denying it. Eventually, all pretense of holding some kind of moral standard in my music listening went out the window.
Without getting into a huge discussion on aesthetics, I think it’s important to note that there’s something about music and art that will not me subjugated to dogma. At its core, rock music is about a cultural zeitgeist that doesn’t work when you try to make it “safe.” True musical and artistic expression can only happen when the blinders are off.
In contrast, much of Christian music is just a derivative ripoff of popular secular music. Copycat bands are gobbled up and signed by the Christian record labels in order to give kids the popular sounds of Seattle grunge, or ska Christianified. But, some Christian artists managed to blaze their own trail as much as any “secular” band. Musicians like Phil Keaggy and songwriters like Gary Chapman were highly sought after Nashville talent.
Indeed, the Christian music and Country music scenes in Nashville are so intertwined that their influence intermingles, and is part of the reason I can’t stand country music, either. I’ll expand on this another time, but it has a lot to do with lyrics that are completely lacking nuance or artistry of any type. In this world it’s all about going for the cheap punch line. Tim McGraw and Toby Keith share the same fatalistic, preachy, know-it-all aesthetic as the most overt Christian musicians. “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it” isn’t that far off from “All day, all night, you’ve got the power to make a change in me.” The connecting thread is an unquestioning acceptance of a certain narrative. For country music the narrative is usually one of American Exceptionalism. Christian music is about religious exceptionalism. In Nashville, the industry center of both genres, the artistic genepool gets mighty cloudy, but I digress.
There’s no question that as I wandered down the road of unsalvation the music I listened to reflected where I was at and influenced where I was headed. Whether the music led me away from religion or my religious questioning led me to the music is up for debate. It’s probably a little of both.