Issue Twenty-Three: Y'all Ever Heard Of Contemporary Christian Music? And More Specifically, DC Talk?
Let Us Plumb The Depths Of The Past Through The Lens Of This Weird Music
Live music has never really been my thing, which for those who know me primarily through the internet— as an artist with a deep and intense passion for music in all its forms—might seem a little strange.
Not that I don’t enjoy it. Seeing music that I have a deep affection for in a live setting can be an incredibly moving experience. I saw Carly Rae Jepsen live on the Gimme Love Tour—and that one’s a bit funny, because everybody thought My Wife was the one who really wanted to go, and if you’ve been a subscriber for this newsletter since its inception, you will know that was 100% not the case!
Anyways, the moment that saxophone riff from “Run Away With Me” pierced through the suffocating anticipatory silence, I cried. I’d experienced something truly spiritual, truly special, and I’d shared that with hundreds of other people, all locked together in the same moment.
I love opera. I’ve been on stage twice before the pandemic put that particular venture to bed. Musical theatre also holds a special place in my heart. Chicago and Cabaret are two of my favorites ever (and it’s because of the penetrating insight and musical skill Kander and Ebb bring to their work, not because both works prominently feature long stretches of incredibly attractive people dancing around in sexy underwear). Seeing music performed on stage, where I can see the whites of the performers’ eyes, is amazing, if not something I constantly pine for.
So I can say that I went a very long stretch without seeing many concerts by popular musicians. My first concert was with the woman who would become My Wife, way back in 2007, when we went to see MCR on The Black Parade tour. That was my first true taste of live performance, and it was incredible (the other incredible thing was this little known opening act called Muse, who played weird sci-fi rock).
But…that’s not entirely true. I have a dark secret that, to my knowledge, I haven’t ever admitted publicly.
My first concert was for a Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) act called Newsboys. They’re an Australian band, and the music I heard at the concert might generously be called Christian Britpop, a blend of late 90’s alt-rock from the US and UK, denatured and slathered with explicitly religious themes and lyrics. I won the tickets from a raffle at a youth group event held at an ice skating rink (Chaparral Ice, still open!). Their opening act was Petra, which was one of the world’s biggest Christian rock bands, though their popularity had waned by the early 00’s. I went with my dad, and it was a fun time. But it was also weird, in a way that was a bit difficult to articulate then, but feels really obvious now.
This concert was pretty much my last hurrah with CCM, and the beginning of my own crisis of faith that caused me to turn away completely from Christianity.
I’m bringing this up because I want to talk about it, and I had the perfect opportunity to do so.
Brad Shoup’s review of DC Talk’s Jesus Freak for Pitchfork was incredible for many reasons.
First off, it was the first review of the album I’ve ever seen in a mainstream publication. Simply seeing it covered for a site that has so much reach and so many readers sorta confirmed that its fever dream popularity actually existed, and wasn’t just dreamt up by me when I was a child in the late 90’s. (The revelation that all three members of the group matriculated at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University also made things click into place.)
Secondly, it properly contextualized that this was a massive album within CCM, which reverberated through small church communities hungry for music that served as an artistically satisfying alternative to secular music. I went through my coming-of-age during this rising tide of CCM, from the late 90’s to early 00’s, when, as Brad states, the industry retreated back into licensing worship music for services—a much safer venture, and one that caused things to sort of sputter out in my high school years. But during those boom times, it was impossible to be a kid in a Protestant congregation and not bombarded with this safe version of pop radio.
I want to be very clear: it’s impossible to overstate how omnipresent this music was during my churchgoing years. Our radios were constantly tuned into Austin’s CCM station (KNLE 88.1), and they were always pumping it out, with some artist or another catering to every genre. Point of Grace, DC Talk (but only playing songs from Jesus Freak, their New Jack Swing past was all but erased besides their cover of “Lean on Me”), Newsboys, Jars of Clay, Five Iron Frenzy, Sixpence None The Richer, and Amy Grant, among others. To a child who didn’t know any better, this represented almost the entirety of pop music, and I wouldn’t know any different until years later.
And that’s another part of it. CCM, despite its massive moneymaking potential, is notoriously insular, and pretty much nonexistent to the wider public. There were a couple of songs that bubbled up into the mainstream—“Kiss Me” is the easiest example—but they were almost always conventional pop songs without spiritual overtones. No one knew what the fuck you were talking about when you’d go on and on about Newsboys and how much you loved “Shine”, or singing 4Him’s “The Measure of a Man”. There was crossover in the sense that everybody in your church youth groups knew all about it, but that was the extent.
That this music was so explicitly religious and not shy about hiding its themes was part of the reason. “People say I’m strange/does that make me a stranger/my best friend/was born in a manger” isn’t exactly endearing to a mainstream audience. Pushing this music onto my friends was a much harder sell than even something like Daft Punk’s Discovery. And even as my musical interests got nerdier by the standards of the early 00’s, I still got more ears on my small collection of J-Pop and classical music than I ever did for something legitimately massive like Jesus Freak.
It was at that point—when I was able to get on the internet, use file-sharing services, watch anime, put MTV on and be regaled with the snippets of TRL songs in the afternoon, and get unfettered access to my own radio and headphones that allowed me to privately listen to the relatively massive range of secular music stations—that I realized I was playing a losing game. The music I was so passionate about wasn’t really good. What was being beamed into my head was just a vehicle for The Message, and if the world scoffed at you, well, that just meant you were doing something correct.
Which meant you were right to push out the other stuff and stay within that closed loop. That damages you in ways you can’t predict, and the wrongs you perpetrate sometimes take a very long time to heal. I tried doing the True Believer bit into high school—it didn’t endear me to anyone, made my life actively worse by getting put back in the closet because no one wanted to believe the judgmental christian boy could be bisexual in any way. None of the sterile CCM piped into my ears could soothe me then—another song about God’s love or how strong our devotion makes us was going to let me sort through my anguish, about things I can perceive and things I wouldn’t even be able to define for at least a decade.
That commitment to staying on message, I think, was one of CCM’s great limitations, and part of why it receded from mainstream view—the stridency of its core ethos wasn’t going to convert anyone. The artists who broke through to mainstream radio, like Sixpence, got scoffed at by my parents for what they perceived as “selling out”. A few years down the line, scrolling through my iTunes library, I’d see a Sixpence song, and add it to a playlist unlistened. I immediately regretted it when it turned out to be a turgid worship service tune.
At the end of the day, this music was always going to fall into the same traps, have the same pitfalls, the same barriers to entry and escape. It may have been musically diverse, but its themes were monochromatic, to the point of being suffocating.
Commitment to old-fashioned religion wasn’t going to keep me enamored.
If you’ve ever attended a church service, you may be familiar with the portion where the congregation stands, bows their heads, and prays for people to be redeemed. This part is usually where people go the stage to be “saved”—which, in Protestant parlance, is a sort of pre-baptism phase, where you dedicate your mind, body, and soul to God. It is a preparatory beseeching for ultimate forgiveness, the unburdening of sins, of admitting that our fallible humanity makes us fall short in the eyes of God. The organ or piano is playing constantly, and the pastor is imploring anyone who feels ready to commit their souls to God to step forward.
One Sunday morning, I did just that. I knelt at the steps before the pastor’s lectern—soft, rosy, pastel pink carpet, bare walls (the banality of Protestant churches doesn’t get nearly enough attention), a massive, plain cross hanging on the wall above the baptismal pool. I was led into a room with another person.
There was prayer, there were tears (not from me, I felt strangely unemotional), there was a lot of yes’s and no’s and “please forgive me” and “I promise” and the like. It was very personal, the way I thought all of these experiences should be.
But there’s a catch: when you’re in this lifestyle, if you’re truly invested in it and all of its trappings, you never get to stop. Everything related to your activities must circle back to the faith. You have to be reminded to be eternally vigilant, to be a fisher of men in all that you do, and that everything—everything—must be done in a way that honors the Lord.
This idea was brought into sharp relief at the Newsboys concert. The show stopped dead. The stadium grew quiet. There was relative silence as we all waited for the next song. And then Peter Furler (if that last name sounds familiar, he is the cousin of singer/songwriter Sia Furler), the lead vocalist, implored us to stand, bow our heads, and pray for forgiveness, and to come forward if we were ready to accept Christ as their lord and savior. He also mentioned that there were people next to the stage to counsel those ready to take that step, and that no one would be turned away if they made the journey down (which, for many, was literal—my dad and I were in the cheap seats, the closest possible, situated right next to the stadium seats with cushions and armrests, and security was closely guarding the velvet ropes that separated the two sections. We love irony).
Always be saving. Stay on message. Make everything connect. There never an even where you can’t upsell. I shouldn’t have been surprised—Protestant Christianity has a long history of large scale events being used as revivals—but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been suckered into something. There was a sense that everyone here had bought in, and that there was no reason to stop the momentum dead to offer the opportunity to be saved, but the other way to think of it was this: Everything Is Church. No easier way to broadcast the requirements of a lifestyle than to inject every aspect of every event into everything else.
So I got through it, and the concert proceeded as normal. I got up and danced and sang along, but my mood was a little subdued until they closed with “Shine”, a poorly aged and didactic song about using your devotion to Christ to change people’s minds.
The brazen tackiness of it all was amusing in the moment, but as I got older it soured to the point of curdling. It didn’t feel right that everything I did, every piece of art I consumed, every action I took, every interpersonal interaction I had, all of that had to circle back into an opportunity to witness.
Life continued on from that point. The higher echelon acts I’ve described have gone on to have pretty lucrative careers in the CCM market, and the others still command some sort of cachet with audiences, living on as popular covers or in reunion shows. I would start to examine how my faith had informed my still developing ideological viewpoint (I argued venomously for traditional marriage, no wonder people didn’t believe me when I came out), get a little less passionate about religion, and disappear into a rabbit hole of fantasy novels and comic books.
I tossed out my DC Talk and Newsboys CD’s, and replaced them with whatever I could scavenge from my brothers’ collections, and burning random stuff onto CD-R’s.
There were a few half-hearted attempts to restore my faith. I discussed it with my youth pastors, who usually had nothing interesting to say, mostly expressing disappointment in my doubt and chastising me for not believing hard enough, along with dismissing my concerns with the contradictions about God’s love; I volunteered to be my Boy Scout Troop’s Chaplain for our backpacking trip to Philmont Scout Ranch, but I still felt empty and lost. When I would bring it up with my parents, they either deflected or got intensely angry, which wasn’t the best way to work through complex issues related to religious devotion.
Which meant I had to deal with it alone.
On the final night of our trip, I stood looking out over an expanse of land, and watched the sun set behind a broad plateau, dotted with trees. I told myself to consciously relay what I felt to my own mind, and if that didn’t involve God in any way, that meant that it was done.
All I could see was natural beauty, the swirls of colors created by the interplay of the setting sun and the clouds and the sky, the trees gently swaying in the wind, their greens resolving into grays into blots of bluish-black in the darkness. This was all natural, all here not by a conscious hand, but by a series of events that could only suggest intention in the barest sense possible, if at all. There was me, there was the world, and there were other people. God didn’t really figure into it, and if he was as real as people said, wouldn’t things be a bit better? So I let my waning faith go, right there, as I walked over to my dad and embraced him, tears in my eyes. He never knew why I was crying.
On the way back to Austin from New Mexico, feeling dejected and aimless, a friend sat down next to me on the bus and pulled my headphones off my ears. “Check this out, dude, it’s so fucking cool,” he said, putting a naked disc in my hand.
I looked down at it, solid black, the band name in capital letters: RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. Underneath, a spray-paint outline of a figure with their hand held aloft, with THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES sprayed in the outline.