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Words of the world

Music | Hurtsmile continues a trend toward profanity in Christian music

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

For those curious about the timeline by which profanity became acceptable in the songs of Christian musicians, it goes something like this: In 1985, Bruce Cockburn dropped the "f-bomb" in his anti-Western-hegemony song "Call It Democracy." Twenty-four years later, Derek Webb dropped the "s-bomb" in his anti-anti-homosexual song "What Matters More." A few months later, Mumford & Sons dropped the "f-bomb" in "Little Lion Man." And Sufjan Stevens practiced similar "artistic license" on "I Want to Be Well" in 2010.

Now Hurtsmile, the latest side project of Extreme's lead singer Gary Cherone, perpetuates the trend. That the trend is gaining steam at the same time Cee-Lo Green and Pink are topping the charts with songs whose very titles transgress Western civilization's last verbal taboo makes the issue of being in but not of the world more relevant than ever.

What, as Marvin Gaye once asked, is goin' on?

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Before one addresses that question, however, he must at least grant the singer-songwriters in question this: The novels of Christians such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Andrew Klavan contain characters who, for the sake of verisimilitude if nothing else, speak like the fallen humans they are. In the age of leveled playing fields, should singer-songwriters enjoy similar latitude?

In one sense, the answer is easy: No. Depictions of the spontaneous expressions of fictional characters, the argument goes, is different from the premeditated expressions of sentiments that most listeners will perceive as issuing from the heart of the singer-songwriter. And out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

Besides, it's not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out. (Or, as Billy Joe Shaver has been wont to translate it, "Drink up and watch what you say.")

On the other hand, Flannery O'Connor populated her fiction with Southern racists who freely used the "n-word," a term whose offensiveness she was so sensitive to that she sometimes expurgated or apologized for it in oral readings of her works.

Of this much one can be sure: Serious verbal artists can, more often than not, hit upon language more creative and resonant than George Carlin's "seven dirty words"-and, given the entropic nature of cultural momentum, there will surely be more where the songs of Cockburn, Webb, Mumford, Stevens, and Hurtsmile have come from.

The case of Hurtsmile is particularly interesting. First of all, the group's just-released eponymous debut not only picks up both verbally and musically where Gary Cherone left off with Extreme, but also ups the Christian ante of his oeuvre considerably. Indeed, a more serious, more conceptually cohesive, or harder-rocking collection of 21st-century, mainstream-aimed biblical meditations on the state of the world there may not be.

Not that all of it rocks hard. "Just War Reprise" traverses reggae turf, and "Beyond the Garden/Kicking Against the Goads" (about Saul of Tarsus' transformation into Paul the Apostle) revels in progressive-rock filigrees. As for the vocal lushness of "Painter Paint," it will remind Queen fans that Extreme stole the show at the Freddie Mercury memorial concert nearly 20 years ago.

But borderline metal defines the majority of Hurtsmile's aural template, and appropriately so given songs that address not only war in general ("Just War"-the PiL-like antecedent of "Just War Reprise" and the song with the "f-bomb") but also war in particular ("Kaffur [Infidel]," inspired by the Daniel Pearl beheading).

Spiritual warfare, however, is Cherone's real obsession ("Love Thy Neighbor," "Jesus Would You Meet Me"). If Hurtsmile is a reliable indicator, listening to him work out his salvation with fear and trembling should prove rewarding.


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