Rocking God's House 

Christian Music's New Generation Faces Assaults on All Sides

Christian Music's New Generation Faces Assaults on All Sides

By Michael McCall

The Ryman Auditorium, usually a showcase for traditional American music, is rocking with a rare intensity. On this night the stately theater rages with all the typical trappings of a rock concert. An intense young blond man sporting a hip haircut and wearing a sports jersey jabs his finger into the air and spouts a string of rhymes. On the other side of the stage, another skinny, unkempt young man runs forward and skips back with each surging stanza, shouting to emphasize certain lines. Meanwhile, a young black man, his hair in dreadlocks, circles his bandmates in the exaggerated movements of a slam dancer. As he struts around, he sings the melodic chorus of the song.

More than 2,000 fans, most of them in their teens or early 20s, respond ecstatically. A dense crowd bounces in tribal rapture, letting themselves go in a physical release that allows them to forget their troubles. Heads bob, arms wave, feet shuffle, hips shake, backbones slip. The crowd is locked, a sea of individuals purging their problems; each person in the auditorium seems to feel the exhilarating rush that comes from a communal explosion of uninhibited celebration. It’s the kind of euphoria most rock concerts strive for but few achieve.

What makes the scenario all the more unusual is the band’s lyrics. “I don’t care if you think that I’m a Jesus freak!” the singers shout to a catchy hip-hop beat, guitars buzzing against the rhythm. dc Talk’s Toby McKeehan, Kevin Smith, and Michael Tait are giving it all they’ve got, and the crowd is responding with even more.

The music may not be all that timeless or all that inventive, but dc Talk has made a fundamental connection with its audience. For the crowd of young Christians gathered in the Ryman, this is Elvis or the Beatles. This is Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T while blowing the roof off of a Southern theater in the ’60s; this is The Who talking about their g-g-generation before an audience of English working-class youth; this is the members of Public Enemy proclaiming to inner-city America that they won’t be denied by white power.

As the Ryman scene suggests, dc Talk—along with other performers such as Jars of Clay—is leading the Christian music industry to new heights of popularity. But, by upping the rock ’n’ roll dynamics, lowering the level of heavenly praise, and confronting personal, social, and worldly issues, they’re encountering resistance and criticism from the largely conservative gospel music industry.

For this reason, Christian music is at a crossroads. While church leaders stand on the corners debating where the gospel industry is headed, young rockers are blowing through the intersection, dragging the business into the future. Joining them are contemporary black performers such as Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, and The Sounds of Blackness, all of whom have updated traditional choir music by mixing it with modern hip-hop and urban soul. Together, these modernists are pushing gospel music into new territory. Music buyers, devout or not, are responding.

Some industry leaders applaud the advances the young bands are making; they’re excited about the increased sales, the expanding fan base, and the energy that youthful performers bring to an old message. Others question the content of the bands’ songs, they question the performers’ intentions, and they criticize the artists for taking the music beyond the message of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” into a realm that explores personal tribulations, spiritual doubts, and the relevance of religion in today’s world.

The Christian music industry faces other growing pains as well. Women and minorities are demanding more recognition for their increasingly prominent roles onstage and behind the scenes. In the process, they’re pointing out that the balance of power in the executive suites isn’t as equitable as it should be.

Many of these issues came to a head this past April at the annual Gospel Music Association convention, which took place at the Nashville Convention Center and the neighboring Renaissance Hotel. The convention drew its largest crowds ever, with registration topping 2,000 for the first time—a 100 percent increase over a five-year period. In all, more than 3,000 people attended the weeklong series of seminars and performances, which culminated in the annual presentation of the Dove Awards, the most prestigious awards show in the gospel industry.

Unlike other conventions, the GMA gathering always goes beyond a discussion of profits in order to focus on motives. Making money and expanding the market base are prime topics, but so is an evaluation of character and image. Gospel music’s biggest week is as much about searching one’s soul as it is about searching for new customers. “It’s a unique convention because of the amount of philosophical discussions that take place,” says Frank Breeden, the GMA’s newly appointed executive director. “There was a lot of debate this year about the dreaded ‘C word.’ Is the music Christian enough? That is a concern among our membership. The good thing about the convention is that these topics are brought out and honestly discussed.”

That debate focuses on the industry’s rock fringe, where most of the growth is taking place. Since the beginnings of rock music, many of its performers have seen themselves as rebels of one sort or another, and the members of Christian rock bands are no different. To advertise dc Talk’s GMA Week concert, the band hung up posters and passed out flyers that read “Welcome to the Freak Show.” As the group’s “Jesus Freak” message suggests, dc Talk identifies its fan base as society’s outsiders.

In today’s world, that’s just what they are. Fundamentalist teens and young adults feel alienated from their less devout peers. They’re often teased at school, and they stick to their home-bound belief system through inner perseverance or parental pressure. dc Talk hits kids where they are most vulnerable, and for that reason, the band turns its fans on in the same way that rockers from Chuck Berry to the Smashing Pumpkins have connected with their listeners. dc Talk understands the feelings of alienation that most youth experience, and, by helping their young Christian fans transform alienation into defiance, they’ve set off an important cultural wave.

In rock ’n’ roll, this kind of performer-audience relationship may be old hat, but it’s revolutionary in Christian music. Until now, most successful Christian pop performers—Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Sandi Patty, Bebe and CeCe Winans, Steven Curtis Chapman—have presented well-constructed, soft-edged pop music that, for the most part, met with the approval of pastors and parents. A decade ago, Grant met criticism for her short skirts, and Smith encountered resistance for the loudness of his concerts, but that was nothing like the backlash today’s Christian rockers encounter.

In that way, current Christian rockers can claim another link with Elvis and the Beatles: They’re controversial. While some leaders of the gospel industry support them, others question their message and their motives. From industry execs to church pastors to young zealots who debate values on the Internet, there are those within the industry who doubt the spiritual honesty of contemporary Christian performers.

The debate is simple: Do these bands glorify the Lord or simply glorify themselves? To their more conservative critics, it’s not enough for Christian rockers to offer a positive alternative to the gloomy themes that run through modern pop music. Young band members must repeatedly promote their faith by offering ceaseless praise to God and Jesus. They also are expected to maintain an image of purity and devotion. Even the most pious and clean-living among them must deal with critics who shroud disparaging comments in shadowy innuendo and ill-defined idealism.

Complicating the issue is the fact that these progressive young performers are fueling a new burst of growth within the gospel music industry. Total Christian music sales rose 38 percent to $538 million in 1996, up from the previous year’s $381 million. Consequently, gospel music’s share of the overall music market rose from 3.1 to 4.3 percent. Nearly all of that growth comes from the increasing popularity of Christian pop and R&B bands.

Contemporary Christian stars have enormous support within the industry, both from longtime gospel music veterans and from the growing ranks of young executives who are changing the way the Christian music world conducts business. The support is broad enough for Jars of Clay and Kirk Franklin to have been awarded the Gospel Music Association’s 1997 Impact Award for taking their music—and the message of God, presumably—to new audiences.

“Many of us in the industry have talked for years about how a portion of our music needs to deal with life issues and the reality of the Christian message within a real-life context,” says Bruce Koblish, president of Word Records and a former head of the Gospel Music Association. “I personally think it’s why this genre is getting more attention. If you take a creative person and put a lid on them, it takes away their ability to speak the truth. It’s the nature of youth to want to deal with things openly and honestly.”

At the same time, a sizable element within the Christian industry is openly critical of this youth- and pop-culture-based movement. Some of the doubters are leaders within the industry, and some are important opinion-makers in local religious communities—pastors, youth-group leaders, parents, even other young believers. These critics see young Christian rock bands as purveyors of unholy music, and they make pious judgments about whether such bands are living up to a Christian standard.

But such a standard is hard to define; it has little to do with biblical commandments. Instead, performers are branded as “self-glorifying” and “worldly,” their image and their intent are graded by an ever-vigilant jury. This attention puts extraordinary pressure on Christian rock performers: The Christian pop quartet 4Him, for instance, meets twice a year with an accountability board, consisting of the group’s hometown pastor and three other adults. Obviously, it’s not enough for Christian rock performers to present young fans with a so-called “positive music” alternative. They also have to maintain an image of purity and high morals.

“When you put yourself on a platform in the public forum, you have to be a good steward and be aware of the influence you have on others,” Breeden says. “That’s true of Bruce Springsteen or whoever. In our society, popular performers are looked up to. In the Christian segment, there’s an added responsibility. We have to provide a moral example to the world as upholding the basic things we believe in. We have to behave a certain way because of what we believe.”

At times during the GMA convention, the pressure to conform to the Christian standard was intense. Panels and seminars such as “Balancing Ministry and Business,” “The Spiritual Life of the Itinerant Artist,” “Music Ministry and Fame,” and “The Creative Christian Life” focused on the challenges performers face in presenting an image of unwavering religious commitment. One panel was called “Writing the Praise and Worship Song”—there wasn’t one on writing a credible pop song.

In one session, Dan Bushell, a youth pastor from Minneapolis, criticized the tendency for Christian rock concerts to consist entirely of music, without lengthy sermons, testimonies, or opportunities for audience members to become born again. If a concert doesn’t include an altar call, Bushell said, it’s a failure, no matter how inspiring or positive the music may have been. “When people come together and they’re not presented with the opportunity to have a life change, I think they go home empty,” he said. “If there’s no call, how does a youth pastor have a chance to follow up?”

The most damning charges against the contemporary Christian music scene came from one of the industry’s most respected figures. On the morning prior to dc Talk’s Ryman Auditorium performance, Harold Best, dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, lashed out at the pop-gospel movement. In a 90-minute speech titled “Raising the Artistic Standard,” he levelled a thinly disguised blast at the Christian rock community.

Best’s early-morning panel attracted a full house, and his audience was unfailingly attentive. As dean of one of the Christian world’s most respected music schools, Best, at 66, is an influential educator; he’s well-known and highly regarded within Prostestant music circles, and his former students include several of the industry’s leading producers, arrangers, engineers, and instrumentalists. Yet Best set standards for contemporary artists that would be tough for anyone to meet.

Best’s remarks demonstrated the kind of double-edged pressure that emerging Christian artists must face. Because gospel music represents the Lord, he said, only the “supremely talented” should allow themselves to perform it. If the music is presented with anything less than the highest level of artistry, then the performer is denigrating the Lord rather than exalting Him; inferior performers glorify themselves rather than God. If performers aren’t the best at what they do, he suggested, they should simply quit. He bluntly advised them to “disappear,” so as “not to spread any more trash.” Quitting would be an act of surrender—and thus it would satisfy a Christian ideal. It also would make Christian music “the cream of the cream and not the froth of the froth.”

But Best was forgetting that one man’s froth may be another’s cream. Defining talent is a personal judgment, at best, and Best’s imprecise litmus test isn’t just impossible to measure; it’s also impossible to pass. “We’re taking a creative thing, things we have made ourselves, and we’re allowing what we’ve made to remake us,” he told the crowd, which responded with whispered amens. “That’s idolatry in its pure, simple, bald form.”

To exemplify art transformed into idolatry, Best raised the example of operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti. (“Not to criticize,” Best explained, “my heart is as pure as I can possibly make it.”) The world doesn’t need any more Pavarottis, he suggested, charging that the tenor has “a set of pimps working for him” and describing such activities as an “obscenity.” What’s more, Best stated, “[Pavarotti] has his counterparts in Christian contemporary, and you know that. And it’s a stench.”

That was Best’s basic point: Christian rock stinks. But rather than attack the music, he wrapped his venom in fundamentalist doublespeak, using words like “idolatry,” “pimps,” and “obscenity” to imply that those who become famous and rich aren’t serving the Lord; instead, they’re only serving themselves.

What’s the kind of attitude Christian rockers face in their own community. For some Christians, such as Sam Phillips or the Vigilantes of Love, it has become easier to make their music in the pop market. Julie Miller recorded three albums for Christian record labels before signing a recording contract with the alternative-country label HighTone Records. “Jesus would go home and have lunch with the tax collectors,” she observes. “He took his message out into the world. But Christians, once they get into Christian music, it’s like they defeat the whole purpose. It sometimes seem[s] like the idea [is], ‘Let’s figure out a way to keep as few people as possible from coming to hear these songs.’ ”

Within the gospel industry, the prevailing atmosphere of spiritual correctness results in performers who worry over every little action they take. There’s a sense that members of the community dutifully watch each other for any sign of transgression. Earlier this year, the Nashville Scene published a photo of dc Talk’s Kevin Smith sitting at 328 Performance Hall, with beer and cigar in hand. The picture ran in the paper’s “Scene Out” column, which features snapshots from Nashville’s social life. The photographer and editor who posted the photo say they weren’t aware that the young man in the picture was a member of a Christian rock band; nonetheless, after the photo was printed, the Scene received calls from Smith and his handlers accusing the paper of deliberately trying to embarrass the singer.

There’s nothing inherently immoral or un-Christian about sipping a Heineken or puffing on a cigar. But the climate in the modern gospel industry forces performers and staffers to agonize over any action that might be judged as impure. Smith knows he’ll be scrutinized, not by the general public, but by those who are supposed to be his peers. Onstage, he’ll admit he’s a sinner and that it’s the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ that allow him to be forgiven for his failings. Offstage, however, those sins had better not take place in the public eye. Apparently, forgiveness doesn’t come so easily from the industry.

That kind of duplicity runs through the gospel community. During the GMA convention, a series of concerts in Nashville nightclubs featured large crowds checking out performances by young, up-and-coming Christian pop bands. One night at Caffé Milano, a packed house enthusiastically greeted performances by John Cox, Caedmon’s Call, and the muted, introspective singer Sarah Jahn, whose new Sparkle album ranks among the freshest and most moving pop releases of the year.

On the surface, it seemed like any other successful night of music at the popular nightspot, except that the bartenders seemed to be dispensing soft drinks, ice water, and coffee rather than beer, wine, and cocktails. As it turned out, however, the club served a record number of Irish coffees that evening; apparently, drinkers in the industry crowd felt the need to disguise their liquor intake in front of their colleagues. Likewise, at the convention’s headquarters, the Renaissance Hotel, barrooms were atypically deserted throughout the week. However, several hotel staffers reported that during this year’s GMA convention, as in past years, the hotel witnessed an unusual rise in the number of in-room liquor orders.

One worker in the Christian music industry compares GMA week to going home for a family reunion. When gathering with chums at weekend parties or on social evenings out, this music industry staffer is a healthy imbiber and is often the life of the party. He likes people, and he enjoys a few drinks when he’s relaxing and socializing. But when he attends a Christian music industry event, he abstains. Some may think he’s being a hypocrite, he says, but he argues that he simply doesn’t find it necessary to indulge himself if he’s in a situation where his behavior might make his colleagues uncomfortable or cause clients to frown upon him. He doesn’t drink at family reunions, he says, nor does he drink at Christian industry functions.

Fair enough, but such instances of double identity are far more troubling when it comes to business dealings. In Nashville, the onset of the GMA convention often finds participants sharing stories about the ruthless practices within the Christian music industry. Equally disturbing are stories told by Music Row workers who started out in gospel music but left feeling disillusioned. Many of them entered the business young, eager, and full of high ideals; they anticipated working in an environment where competition didn’t undercut integrity or propriety. These same individuals—who asked that they not be identified, since they still work in Nashville and attend church with their former co-workers—tell of unsavory dealings and of a gossipy subculture that seems to delight in spreading news or rumors about colleagues’ private dilemmas or personal problems.

One former gospel industry employee says that confessions of an intimate nature, offered in Bible-study classes, have sometimes ended up being used against the people who made them. This young woman entered the business with her ideals intact, but she exited spiritually bruised and sorely disappointed after observing the behavior of executives and staffers. It’s not that the Christian music industry is any more backstabbing or corrupt than other segments of the business world, she says; it’s just that she expected it to function on a higher moral level.

For all these observations about the two-faced nature of the industry, it is changing, even as it grows. And again, much of that change can be traced back to the infusion of young talent and increased consumer interest. As the Christian industry becomes more profitable, entertainment conglomerates such as EMI have begun buying up the top gospel-music firms. These takeovers have helped get gospel CDs into retail record stores, but it also has led to a massive industry shake-out. The last two years have witnessed a series of downsizing layoffs and roster cuts.

Other changes simply reflect the diversity of American culture. Not only is gospel music becoming more youth-oriented, it’s also slowly beginning to break down barriers that previously held back women and minorities.

In the gospel industry, as in the rest of American society, race is a sensitive issue. Not long ago, the GMA convention was largely a white affair. Few African-Americans attended, nor were they courted. But this year Jackie Patillo—a GMA board member, a vice president at Benson Records, and an African American single mother—pushed for better representation of black artists and executives on the GMA panels.

One minority panelist was Vicky Mack Lataillade, president of GospoCentric Records, the company behind Kirk Franklin’s enormous success. When she first attended a GMA convention, Lataillade admitted that she was wary of how she’d be accepted. But now she’s comfortable participating in the convention, and she cites an encounter with dc Talk’s McKeehan as a crucial turning point. The first year she attended the convention, she recalls, she walked into a reception, and McKeehan rushed over to embrace her. “We want your forgiveness for what we’ve done [in the past],” McKeehan told her.

Lataillade explains that, until that point, she’d never felt “a oneness” with the people at the GMA convention. “But here was some guy from a popular group that represented this business, and he opened his heart to me,” she says. Now she and McKeehan talk regularly, usually when he contacts her to ask advice on how to run his own independent label, Gotee Records. “He constantly tells me, ‘We love you, we love what you’re doing, we’re doing the same thing,’ ” Lataillade says.

Despite these signs of change, racial balance within GMA still has yet to be fully achieved. It was promising to see a black Christian rap group, E.T.W., open this year’s Dove Awards program. The decision was groundbreaking and risky, especially considering the fact that the awards show was broadcast on TNN. On the other hand, one of the year’s biggest success stories, Kirk Franklin, won his only Dove Award in the black-dominated category of Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year. Franklin wasn’t nominated in any of the Doves’ most prestigious categories—Artist of the Year, Group of the Year, or Song of the Year—and he had every reason to think he should have been.

Women executives are also still having a difficult time finding acceptance. During a roundtable discussion on women in the Christian music industry, panel member Jenny Lockwald said that female executives butt up against a “cement ceiling” rather than a glass one. GospoCentric’s Lataillade blasted the fact that only 60 people turned out for the panel, the first of its kind in GMA history. “Nothing is going to change until we see more people in the room,” she said. Pointing out that only one high-level male executive, Benson Records president Geoff Moseley, was present, she added that the lack of women in top positions wouldn’t change until the males running the industry took such gatherings more seriously.

But while there’s at least a nominal effort to deal with issues involving women and minorities, it will be a long time before the GMA hosts a panel titled “Gays and the Christian Music Industry.” The gospel industry feels free to direct jokes toward homosexuals; several speakers feigned lisps in order to get laughs during the conference. Despite talk of diversity and embracing all sinners, the gospel industry is still selective about who is welcome and who is not. There are gay people within the gospel music industry, but they’re not about to proclaim their sexual orientations—not unless they want to lose their jobs.

In fairness, of course, a gay conference might have its share of jokes about uptight Baptists. A new album by openly bisexual folksinger Ani DiFranco includes a track detailing how she and her bandmate, Andy Stochansky, once decided to try out a few new songs at an open-mic night in Austin. When they arrived, they found themselves listening to a married couple performing Christian music. The duo’s first song asked whether Anne Frank might have found Jesus before she died in the Holocaust. Convulsed with laughter, DiFranco and Stochansky ended up rolling in the aisles.

DiFranco views Christian performers in the same way that a large segment of America does; there’s a sense that they exist in a netherworld of their own creation, one that makes little attempt to connect to anyone other than those who share their beliefs.

Several of the greatest songs ever written concern the spiritual struggles of people caught between salvation and temptation; from Jimmie Rodgers to the Gershwins to Hank Williams to Jerry Lee Lewis to John Lennon to Marvin Gaye to U2 to Jewel wondering “Who Will Save My Soul?,” pop music has always dealt with crises of faith.

The music of dc Talk and Jars of Clay, like that of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith and such up-and-coming artists as Sarah Jahn and Plumb, strays beyond strict themes of faith. Now Christian singers feel free to discuss social issues that affect the young and the old, the faithful and the faithless. These performers may still work in a specific subculture, but like rap and country artists, they have found a much broader appeal than critics and observers would ever have expected. Christian music is now reaching an audience in numbers that previously seemed beyond its scope. In that way it is fulfilling one of its goals—to reach beyond the converted and speak to a variety of people.

The question that remains, however, is whether Christian music can reach outside the flock and still maintain its message—which is the only thing that defines it. If so, Christian artists will have to create music that ranks in quality with the pop music of the day, and they’ll have to quit rating songs by how many times the lyrics mention Jesus and God. Contemporary Christian performers are just starting to achieve these goals, and the response thus far has been positive and profitable. The question now is whether the industry built to support and sell the music will encourage the young ground-breakers or reinforce the walls that hold them back.

The question that remains, however, is whether Christian music can reach outside the flock and still maintain its message—which is the only thing that defines it. If so, Christian artists will have to create music that ranks in quality with the pop music of the day, and they’ll have to quit rating songs by how many times the lyrics mention Jesus and God. Contemporary Christian performers are just starting to achieve these goals, and the response thus far has been positive and profitable. The question now is whether the industry built to support and sell the music will encourage the young ground-breakers or reinforce the walls that hold them back.

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