The 1990s saw an unprecedented explosion of Christian rock. Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, P.O.D., and Switchfoot were hot on Christian radio and on MTV. Christian rock festivals multiplied and expanded. CCM labels sold millions of records. It was a pretty great time to be a Christian rock fan.
A generation has passed since most of our favorite '90s Christian bands formed. Kids who were born the year Jars of Clay and Jesus Freak came out (1995, if you're keeping score) will be graduating from high school next year.
This means two things. First: We're getting old.
And second: We're old enough that our favorite bands are now reuniting. It's hard to think of a '90s Christian band that hasn't rejuvenated itself in some way this year: PFR is touring; Sixpence has a new original full-length for the first time in ten years (coming next week); all three of the major Christian ska bands—the Supertones, the Insyderz, and Five Iron Frenzy—have reformed; rumors about Audio Adrenaline, Poor Old Lu, and the Prayer Chain have circulated online. Need I go on? (And dc Talk, are you listening?)
On one level, this is great news: our favorite bands, whose records in part formed our identities and got us through our teenage years, whose music still evokes some of our most powerful feelings and beliefs, are back. And we've got the disposable income to support them.
But there are three things we must confront when our favorite Christian bands of the 1990s reunite.
It's only been about 15 years since the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of Christian rock history, but almost everything about how we experience Christian rock has changed. Take Five Iron Frenzy as an example: In 1995, they signed to a small, Christian indie label (Five Minute Walk Records), were featured in magazines like 7 Ball, CCM, and True Tunes News, had albums for sale in Christian bookstores, and toured relentlessly—they were a fan favorite at the Cornerstone Festival. In 2012, Five Minute Walk and those publications no longer exist, and July's Cornerstone was the last. And the few surviving Christian bookstores in my area that still sell music have such small CD inventories that they don't have room to spare for edgier bands.
On the other hand, without a label, Five Iron raised over $200,000 from fans on Kickstarter, got a lot of online media coverage (Christian and non) for it, gave away their new single to thousands through NoiseTrade, and now have enough financial stability and goodwill banked to pick and choose exactly what kind of shows they will or won't play this year.
This is just one example. Obviously, the Internet has changed independent music for almost every band, but it's been especially dramatic for the small, interconnected world of Christian rock: there are fewer indie labels in the Christian market, it seems, and fewer bands on the kind of church-affiliated touring circuit where we used to see bands like Five Iron Frenzy.
Of course, anyone goes through a lot of changes in 20 years, but it's interesting and sometimes sobering to think about what's gone on in the lives and careers of the bands we loved. As Joel Hanson of PFR, in a video announcing the tour, mentioned: "Over 20 years, you have some phenomenal things happen, and you also go through some things that you never thought would be a part of your life, and maybe they're even tragic … but you come up hopeful, and you come up grateful, and it makes you want to stay in it."
We might be angry that our favorite musicians aren't as big as they once were. (Why aren't more people buying Kevin Max records?) We may be disappointed that bands can't stay together. In some cases, we may have to come to terms with the fact that some of the people in bands who shaped our faith are no longer Christians—bands like Undercover and Five Iron Frenzy have been open about the current atheism of some of their members. This is heavy stuff at times, but can also spur us to think about what has changed since those early days, what we've left behind and what we've hung onto in the realms of music, faith, and life in general.
For better or worse, we're not the people we were when we fell in love with this music. I wrote a book about Christian rock in the '90s, and one thing that struck me as I was putting it together was just how important some of that music was to my generation in pointing us toward the things that mattered to us: authentic faith, honest humanity, artistic integrity. Those are good things. But going to a rock show when you're 18 and when you're 35 are very different experiences. Have you noticed, for example, that when you go to see a band like Weezer or Jimmy Eat World, the fans are still mostly the age you were when you started listening to them? Have you noticed that you think less about buying their new records, and more about who you used to be and how you felt when you first bought their records?
I'm really happy to see new material from some of my favorite musicians, but I know that I'm not the same person I was when I started going to rock shows in church basements. I no longer put band stickers on my car or wear their buttons on my jacket. I no longer listen to Christian radio or buy my music from Bible bookstores. But these are some of the people who taught me what I know about faith, hope and love—and I'll be forking over some cash this year to hear them do it again.
Joel Heng Hartse is the author of Sects, Love and Rock & Roll, which we excerpted here. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia.
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