Cover Story

Remains of the day

Some critics see a Christian musical revival, but a look at the past should temper such optimism

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

In her Dec. 12 story "Spiritual nation-Rock musicians find a higher calling through faith," the Boston Globe's Joan Anderman concludes that the popularity of such subtly-and sometimes explicitly-biblical hard-rock bands as Creed and P.O.D. was evidence of an increased awareness among 21st-century young people that this post-Sept. 11 world is not our home. "Music," she wrote, "with explicitly faith-based lyrics ... is taking off."

Apparently unaware that explicitly faith-based music has taken off before (steadily, in fact, from Jesus Christ Superstar through Joan Osborne's "One of Us"), Ms. Anderman goes on to cite the popularity of Lifehouse, a one-hit wonder whose members are reputed to be Christians, and dcTalk's tobyMac, whose first solo album debuted atop Billboard's "Heatseekers" chart. "I think the fan base that gravitates toward faith-based rock might well grow," says an MTV executive in the piece. "I don't see how it can't be a sea change." Alas, to observers with long memories, any assessment of the faith-based-musical glass as one-fourth full instead of three-fourths empty may provoke feelings of déjà vu.

For one thing, Christian one-hit wonders are nothing new. A short list would include Charlene ("I've Never Been to Me"), Le Roux ("Nobody Said It Was Easy"), Kathy Troccoli ("Everything Changes"), and Bob Carlisle ("Butterfly Kisses"). And surely any celebration of tobyMac's showing on the Heatseekers chart must be tempered with the fact that the Heatseekers chart exists solely to "list the bestselling titles by artists ... who have never appeared in the top 100 of the Billboard 200 chart." By debuting atop it, tobyMac merely established himself as the bestselling poorly selling act of that week.

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Ever since Larry Norman's "Jesus Rock" albums on Capitol and MGM Records in the late '60s and early '70s, Christian music fans have been quick to herald as a sign of revival the success, however fleeting, of Christian musicians or music with Christian themes. After Mr. Norman there were biblical-music breakthroughs by Noel Paul Stookey, Johnny Cash, Sister Janet Mead, Al Green, Debby Boone, B.J. Thomas, and Cliff Richard. Yet it is difficult to see in music so stylistically and aesthetically discrete the makings of a movement.

Nevertheless, the sense among many young evangelicals that God was going to use pop music to get the world's attention was strong, and with the unprecedented explosion of high-quality Gospel rock 'n' roll that began with Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming and eventually encompassed albums by Arlo Guthrie, Van Morrison, U2, Dion DiMucci, Maria Muldaur, the Commodores, T-Bone Burnett, Kansas, Bruce Cockburn, After the Fire, and Bonnie Bramlett, to name just a few, that sense hardened into conviction. The success enjoyed during the '80s by Christian acts as stylistically dissimilar as Amy Grant, the Winans, Larry Carlton, and King's X was generally perceived as the logical next step.

Ten years later, however, despite Contemporary Christian Music's continued popularity (Ms. Anderman calls it the "fastest-growing segment in the industry," a dubious distinction it has been earning for years) and the regularity with which Christians could be found making waves or at least treading water within the mainstream, it was apparent that the Great Rock 'n' Roll Awakening never actually took place. Such major players as Bob Dylan, Al Green, Amy Grant, and T-Bone Burnett played marital roulette; members of U2, King's X, Collective Soul, and Creed spent more time explaining what kinds of Christians they weren't than what kinds they were. Mediocre acts on CCM labels too numerous to mention cranked out album after predictable album on seemingly inexhaustible budgets while acts of genuine quality such as Vigilantes of Love and 16 Horsepower struggled to keep band and soul together. A Christian presence in "serious" music-jazz, classical, opera-was lacking altogether.

And therein lies the real problem with the standard Christian approach to the arts in general and music in particular: Like the man who built his house on sand, Christians no longer create with the future in mind. To put it another way: If CCM really is the fastest-growing segment in the industry, it's also the most quickly forgotten. It's hard to say which would be harder to find-copies of DeGarmo and Key's Straight On (one of the most popular CCM albums of 1979) and the Imperials' Priority (ditto 1981) or someone who knows they once existed.

"What thou lovest well remains," wrote Ezra Pound. Before drawing conclusions from post-Sept. 11 music sales, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether anyone will care about the music five Sept. 11's from now. And, if not, why.

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