The following essay is adapted from Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll (Cascade Books), an entertaining and informative collection of essays about Christianity, music, and coming of age in the 1990s. The author is a frequent music critic for Christianity Today.
The history of Christian music basically goes like this: rock and roll (which was created possibly by Bill Haley and the Comets, maybe by Elvis, probably by the Beatles) is conceived, born, and begins to mature sometime between 1950 and 1960.
At some point, rock bands stop being polite young men in matching suits and become drug-addled, free-loving, infrequent bath-taking hippies, and the music gets more interesting. The hippies realize that taking tons of acid has not actually made their lives quantifiably better and become disillusioned; some of them become lawyers, but some find Christianity to be a more satisfying alternative, establishing a kind of counter-counterculture called the Jesus Movement. These people (also called Jesus Freaks) are still hippies, but with less drugs and sex and more Jesus. More Jesus, in fact, than a lot of churches, who (the Jesus Freaks think) are too focused on rules and rituals and not enough on the joy of the Lord. Converts though they are, these emerging Jesus rockers are not keen on stodgy church music (it's part of the problem), and so they keep playing rock and roll, but—and this is key—they do not go back to the politeness and the matching suits. They keep their beards and torn jeans, and the Jesus Freaks start touring churches with their bands. Other Christians start to realize that (a) these people seem pretty legit, faith-wise, and (b) kids seem to like this kind of music.
This is where things get sketchy and where you should ask someone who was alive before 1980, but somehow a collusion of churches, businessmen, parachurch organizations, rock bands, and musicians gets together and establishes some Christian record labels. These labels are fairly small and independent, but in the 1980s, a lot of people start buying records from them, the economic gears get moving, and soon something large enough to be called a "Christian music industry" exists, both in a "mainstream" or wholesome, money-making, and authority-approved form, and in an "underground" or youth-oriented, not particularly money-making, and suspiciously authority-unfriendly form.
By the beginning of the 1990s, Christian music of all genres and proclivities is beginning to melt into one glorious spectacle of noise, faith, money, and culture—all lines save the one that separates "Christian" from "secular" are blurred. You start to see Christian records in regular record stores (but not many), and "Christian bookstores" that once sold only Bibles and cross necklaces are now stocking Christian heavy metal and gangsta rap albums. There are Christian fake-indie labels pouring money into records by great bands, Christian indie labels with no money putting out bad records, and vice versa. Grunge rebel songs and ballads about chastity are played one after the other on Christian radio. Metrosexual Christian pop singers open for nu-metal Christian rock bands. Everyone is buying records and Christian bands fight their way to the upper third of the Billboard charts. This all lasts for most of the decade, until the turn of the century when everyone stops buying CDs, the Christian indie rock bands get fed up with the profit-driven audience pandering (sometimes referred to as the "Jesus Per Minute" rule) and pull up stakes and decide to try their luck in "the world," and the Christian industry consolidates itself, musically, by focusing on artists who sound like Coldplay and U2: epic e-bowed guitars, soaring choruses, and lyrics, loud in the mix, about wonder and worship.
This, I assume, is where we are now, although I stopped listening to Christian rock just after what I will now ostentatiously refer to its Golden Age (roughly 1993-2000), which just happens to coincide with my own adolescence, when people like me started to feel that God was all over the place and that there was much more of him to be found outside the confines of the Christian bookstore. And most everybody who made up the orbit of Christian rock and pop in the 1990s, the writers, publications, musicians, labels, publicists, and venues, seems to have moved right along, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Christian music magazine or website started in the mid-90s that still exists now, and only the biggest and most financially robust record labels have survived. A few of the behind-the-scenes figures remain, but most writers whose names you used to see in CCM Magazine have either moved on to writing for Paste or jettisoned Christianity all together and built creative lives from the rubble.
Rebellion vs. establishment
How did this unholy mess get rolling? Rock and roll is supposed to be the rebellion, and Christianity the establishment, and these assumptions have led many a lazy rock critic to write reviews and essays about Christian rock in which the thesis is, essentially, "Bwuh?!" The problem is, of course, that the rebellion and the establishment are never so well defined. Look at Larry Norman, whose 1969 debut album is sometimes called the first Christian rock record. Norman was a Jesus hippie, and neither the Christian establishment nor the music industry really knew what to do with him. His first record with the band People was originally titled We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Whole Lot Less of Rock and Roll. The record company retitled the album Love and the band fell apart. Norman went on to make solo records for decades, none of them particularly successful, but when he passed away in 2008, he was widely eulogized as "The Father of Christian Rock." At the time of this death, Norman was working on an album with Frank Black of the Pixies and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. This certainly suggests that his influence was wide, but more importantly, if this album is ever released, the world will explode because it will be so weird and awesome.
I used to think that I'd had to wait most of my life for an artist like Sufjan Stevens to come along and show that popular music influenced by the Christian faith didn't have to be motivated by money or keeping up appearances or following mainstream trends in order to win converts—all of which are sins that "Christian music" as an industry has been guilty of at one time or another—but it's comforting to know that there were people mingling Jesus with rock and roll before I was even born, and not just Larry Norman. Other obscure 60s and 70s artists like Judee Sill, Silmaril, The Trees Community, and many other bands you've never heard of made compelling pop/rock music with an undeniably Christian bent even before Christian record labels existed.
Really, my concept of "Christian music," which begins in about 1980 and ends in 2000 (around the time I got bored with it), is nothing but a snapshot. It ignores decades of gospel, country, blues, and folk music, not to mention centuries of classical and early music. These are musical traditions in which it was unusual not to sing about God. The conventional line about Christianity and (rock) music being a contradiction in terms is about as inaccurate as a positive review of a Creed album. It's music without God that is, historically, an anomaly.
Perhaps the Christian pop I grew up with was simply reparation for a weird gap in time when, for some reason, music wasn't being made for the glory of God. And those of us who came of age in this Golden Era of Christian rock, were, despite the cheesiness we often mock about the culture we grew up with, forever shaped by it. Whatever the reason, we were born in the thick of a Christian rock explosion, and from the time we first heard albums like dc Talk's Free At Last, Poor Old Lu's Sin, PFR's Goldie's Last Day, and The Newsboys' Not Ashamed, our fate was sealed: these were the kind of records that were going to define us.
The history of Christian rock is also our history—so let's remember, every time we jokingly hum another chorus of "That Kinda Girl," that in 20 years, some other smart-aleck critic is going to be analyzing our bands and blogs and zines. Let's leave him or her something worth writing about.
Editor's note: Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll contains several profanities that may be offensive to some readers.
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