“Redemption.” The banner headline in the May 6, 1999 Nashville Tennessean wasn’t about religion. It was about commerce. Six–time Dove Award winner Michael English, who five years earlier had been banished from the Christian music industry when his affair with another singer had become public knowledge, was back in Music City. It was Gospel Music Week and he’d brought a new CD. In town he made the round of industry bosses and asked forgiveness. At Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming Concert” (a talent showcase produced by the singer/songwriter/impresario), English was the concluding act. With fifty of the country’s leading gospel singers as backup, he sang. Then he cried. Sandi Patty held his hand. Other singers raised theirs, and the crowd pronounced its absolution with a standing ovation. English had returned to the fold and next morning Christian bookstores across the country could begin restocking their bins with his CDs. He had been redeemed. And those little boxes that spit out credit card approval codes could now hum their own hallelujahs.
Welcome to the world of Christian popular music—that brew of white gospel, rock ’n’ roll, Scofield dispensationalism, Azuza Street enthusiasm, Vegas theatrics, Vineyard spirituality, sex, and cash so curdled that it would have made even the stomach of Flannery O’Connor churn. Although usually called CCM for “Contemporary Christian Music,” that label not only confuses the genre with the University of Cincinnati’s famous music school (CCM: the College–Conservatory of Music) but also suggests an affinity between it and the masterpieces of Messiaen, Penderecki, Tavener, and a host of other contemporary Christian art composers—with which it has little. A better term for the music is simply “Christian Pop” or C–Pop.
A marriage of rock and Las Vegas lounge music (Ralph Carmichael, one of the genre’s early leaders, was an arranger for Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Nat King Cole), C–Pop was originally intended as a tool for the evangelization of white suburban youth. Performers typically called their work “ministry.” But with sales of classical music almost inconsequential, and with both country and rock not growing as once expected, C–Pop has attracted the attention of major players in the music business. Sniffing untapped profits, EMI Music Group (owners of the Beastie Boys), Time Warner, Gaylord Entertainment (owners of the Grand Ole Opry, the Opryland Hotel, and Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon), and the Zomba Music Group (their current hot property is Backstreet Boys) have all made major purchases of C–Pop labels and performers. EMI owns Sparrow and Star Song Communications, Gaylord owns Word, and Zomba owns Brentwood Music, Reunion Records, and the Benson Music Group. Success in C–Pop sales is tabulated by SoundScan, the same firm that produces the Billboard charts.
Billboard charts? What happened to “ministry”? And “evangelism”? Is success in soul–winning in C–Pop measured in money? Is ministry now a commodity priced and traded on Wall Street? Are the same kinds of institutions promoting “tantric sex is the meaning of life” Sting also marketing Sandi Patty? What’s wrong with this picture?
Lots. The ownership of C–Pop labels by such cultural bottom–feeders has dramatically exposed the inconsistencies within the genre and the culture of which it is a part. And that has rattled the souls of many of the Christians involved with it.
Such soul rattling is the subject of two recent books, one by Charlie Peacock and the other by coauthors Jay R. Howard and John M. Streck. Howard is a sociologist and Apostles of Rock shows that influence. It is a scholarly analysis of the society of C–Pop by sympathetic academics complete with critical apparatus. After offering an overview of the genre’s origins and describing some of the attacks upon it by both intellectuals and fundamentalists, the authors construct a taxonomy of C–Pop drawn from H. Richard Niebuhr’s division of Christians’ relation to their culture into “separational,” “integrational,” and “transformational” categories.
“Separational” performers seek to emphasize the explicit distinctions between Christians and the “world,” a position made paradoxical by the fact that such performers frequently are the first to adopt new styles (such as punk, heavy metal, and rap) for their lyrics. Whereas separational performers are primarily marketed through explicitly Christian bookstores, “integrational” performers seek to address wider audiences, thus “crossing over” to distribution through such mainstream outlets as Tower Records and airplay on nonreligious radio stations and MTV. The evangelical intent of such music is subtle, and is sometimes only an addendum to what would otherwise be a secular concert or recording. Amy Grant, by far the most commercially successful C–Pop singer, exemplifies the integrational performer. “Transformational” performers claim an aesthetic, non commercial value for their work. Frequently highly personalized, this music is aimed not so much at evangelism as at confronting the already evangelized with their shortcomings. Howard and Streck present a picture of C–Pop splintered into factions yet fundamentally united by its roots in American evangelicalism and commercial popular music.
Peacock is a major figure in C–Pop, having won awards as a singer, songwriter, and producer. In 1995 he launched re:think, his own record label distributed through EMI. Although it touches on the history of C–Pop, his At the Crossroads is primarily a plea for the artistic integrity of the genre along with a deeply felt indictment of C–Pop’s theological shallowness and growing commercialism.
Both books are quite helpful in their presentations of C–Pop’s history. Peacock, for example, shrewdly suggests that its shallowness is partly the direct result of early musicians’ conviction that Christ’s return was imminent. (Why think seriously about the long–term effects of what you’re doing if there is not going to be any long term?) His accusation that merchandised C–Pop is now close to fraud when it claims to be anything more than just one more musical commodity carries the ring of truth.
But both books also have significant failings. First, all the writers seem unaware of the vibrant and internationally significant Christian musicians who have nothing to do with C–Pop. Douglas Yeo (bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony), Phil Smith (principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic), Wendy White (mezzo–soprano with the Metropolitan Opera), Jerry Blackstone (co–director of the country’s leading conducting program at the University of Michigan), and Michael Kurick (award–winning composer on Vanderbilt’s faculty) are but a handful of the hundreds upon hundreds of Christians active as professional musicians outside of C–Pop. Not only is this world invisible to the authors, they are also apparently unaware of how big an impediment “Christian” music is to the evangelization of musicians who hold C–Pop in professional contempt. (In Nashville, musicians asked to work on C–Pop recordings regularly refer to such gigs as doing “J–J”: “junk for Jesus.”) Thus one of the main ironies of C–Pop is that in evangelizing one group (namely suburban youth), its very character is a hindrance to the evangelization of another (the culture’s top musicians). The world of Christian music is more splintered than Howard and Streck suggest.
Furthermore, none of the writers actually discusses music. While this may be excusable in Howard and Streck since they are writing a work of social analysis, there are sociological issues that deserve serious engagement. They are too quick to dismiss those critics who argue that the aesthetics of rock cannot be intelligently combined with Christian lyrics. From the phallic use of the guitar (where masturbation is pantomimed, sometimes complete with ejaculatory pyrotechnics) to the hypersexualized costuming and the mind–numbing volume—rock is and always has been, primarily at least, about sex undisciplined by either marriage or courtship. Those critics who condemn such a medium as unfit for Christian evangelization or worship require much more thoughtful consideration than Howard and Streck give them.
It also would have been useful for these writers to consider C–Pop within the broader context of niche–driven evangelicalism, exemplified by congregations such as Willow Creek and Grace Chapel, publishing houses that market things like “the women’s Bible,” and even those evangelist muscle men who thrill pre–teens by shattering bricks with their heads—all for Jesus of course. Clearly, C–Pop is part of a larger phenomenon.
But back to Michael English’s “redemption.” The real question about C–Pop is, What happens to the gospel when the gospel becomes profitable? When “take up your cross and follow me” becomes a commercial item and is tailored for select markets, what kind of a cross is it? Why was English’s redemption something to be celebrated only when he was once more “market worthy”? With sales of C–Pop reaching half a billion dollars annually and its aesthetic invading the liturgies of almost all confessions and denominations, the kind of cross exalted by C–Pop invites careful examination. These books, despite their limitations, could prepare the way for that.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.