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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Decompressing

So here we are, heading west on I-80, leaving behind many dear friends, yet looking forward (in faith) to those who are still too come. For some reason, I enjoy long road trips, probably because it provides a much needed chance to decompress after months of burning the candle at both ends. So here we are, decompressing. We just finished listening to a Third Day CD, and now Rich Mullins is hammering away on his dulcimer, even though he himself has long since moved on to bigger and better things.

And that brings me to the subject of this post. I've been thinking about Christian music for the past hour or so. The general consensus (in my circles anyway) is that most of it sucks - and I tend to agree. But the usual reason given for that suckiness is that we Christians are too, well, Christian, and not secular enough in our concern for musical quality. And that's the part I'm not so sure about.

What struck me this morning is just how "secular" most Christian music actually sounds. Take Third Day (or any other popular Christian band), ignore the banal lyrics, and what do you have? Something that sounds an awful lot like what you hear on any of the secular stations.

The fact of the matter is, the Contemporary Christian Music industry is just that - an industry - and a very lucrative one at that. There is far too much money to be extracted from trendy young evangelicals to let something like poor production values stand in the way. And so most Christian music today is very well performed and produced. Some of it is even catchy and well written.

So why does Christian music still suck? If anything, it's because it is too "secular."

The problem is an issue of content, not technique - it's not something that's going to be solved by better chord progressions, better melody lines, better musicians, or better producers. I would even go so far as to say that it's not a lack of originality (eg. that Christian artists are all copycats - if they were just more original, things would be different). No, even here CCM is not much different than its "secular" counterparts. Every artist is influenced by others, by trends. No one creates anything in a vacuum. Christian music is really not that different from "secular" music at all.

You see, if you stop and think about it, most secular music sucks too. The only difference is that of volume - for every one Christian album, there are a hundred secular albums (and most of them are just as lame), and some of them manage to create some decent music. But it's not like all of them are doing it - it's not like "secular" groups have a corner on musical quality or insight. There are only so many U2s out there. But because there are so many more "secular" groups, it sometimes seems like they have something the Christian groups don't.

Now you might notice I keep putting "secular" in quotes - what I really mean here is "commercial," and I suspect this recognition may shed some light on the real problem. For most music out there - Christian and secular alike - "it's all about the money boys!" I'm certainly not suggesting that every artist (secular or otherwise) has sold out in pursuit of coin - I think many really do desire to produce quality music, to do something artistic. That said, what defines "good" music these days is often considered "that which is commercially viable." And that's a really poor benchmark.

At the end of the day, I think the problem lies in the both artists and the audience. We simply do not know what it means to be authentic. We all desire better music, because we have been wired (by God, no less!) to desire something beautiful, authentic, transcendent. And (more surprisingly), we know it when we hear it. Yet very few people can actually describe it or produce it, let alone explain it. We desire something more, something deeper, something truly meaningful, yet even the best of us remain surprisingly shallow, self-centered, inward-focused.

So the basic premis of this post is that Christian music sucks, because secular music sucks, because we all suck - we are all hungry for something more, yet we cannot produce that something more on our own, and so we inevitably produce something less than stellar, and the only way to pedal that is to commercialize it.

See where I'm going with this? If we want better music, I think we need to learn what it means to be more human, more image-of-God, more fallen-yet-redeemed. We need to better understand the world around us, the God who created it, and ourselves as sojourners in need of salvation, pilgrims on a journey to something better. The really great artists (both Christian and secular alike) seem to grasp these things better than most of us (or maybe they just stumble into it a little more often than the rest of us).

Really great artists tend to see both the highs and lows - the hilights and shadows of life - much more clearly than the rest of us. And they find creative, beautiful ways of expressing it that capture our attention, our imagination, that let us feel as if they can identify with our plight, that give us hope for something better somewhere down the road.

Well, there you have it - my thoughts on Christian music, as I am decompressing. Now my laptop battery is dying and we're almost to Indiana. Derek Webb's Wedding Dress is playing and it's better than anything I can write, so I think I'll just shut up and listen for a while...

20 Comments:

At 11:49 PM, May 27, 2006, Anonymous Larry Snyder said...

Christian,

Very thought-provoking comments. You've put into words what a lot of us have been thinking for years about "Christian" and "secular" music. We do need to be more human. Thanks for the reminder and the challenge!

 
At 4:03 PM, May 28, 2006, Blogger Greg said...

good thoughts.. just one to add.
I've always thought that good music (secular or Christian) creates a longing for eternity.

The best songs always leave me wanting more, for a resolution that never comes. We don't want the song to end - because it's not supposed to.

 
At 6:35 PM, May 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I formulated my own list of reasons why I dislike CCM:
1. Lacks theological depth.
2. Lacks emotional depth. It's all like, "life is all puppydogs and pink and if you don't think so, you're a bad Christian."
3. Thus, it lacks relevance to real life, which does have pain.
4. Preaches to the choir.
5. Lacks creativity.

I'm just glad there are (or were) a few Christian bands out there, like Saviour Machine or DC Talk, who are both creative and have quality, God-glorifying lyrics, along with the good secular ones like U2 or Siouxsie and the Banshees.

 
At 1:03 PM, May 29, 2006, Blogger Master Aegidius said...

Why does everyone place U2 as a benchmark?????

Am I the only person who doesn't really care a fig about them?

Anyways....., yes, the good music should never end, but it does. Johnny Cash is dead, Rich Mullins is dead, Queen looks like they are dead. But there are some of us out here who just don't care about music as much as the inane amounts that do. We have more important things to concern ourselves with.

 
At 4:35 PM, May 29, 2006, Blogger rs said...

Sorry Jake, but yes you are the only person who doesn't "care a fig" about U2!

The funny thing is that I don't really care for half of the bands that you guys have listed as good - Rich Mullins is ok - I could take him or leave him.

I think the big issue though is that we are trying to measure something objectively that is extremely subjective.

 
At 5:01 PM, May 29, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Of course, that raises the whole question of does subjectivity necessitate relativity. In other words, if beauty/value/truth is subjective rather than objective, then does that also mean that that beauty/value/truth is relative? (and if not, why?)

I'd argue that there IS a subjective aspect (eg. some people perceive beauty where others do not), but at the same time, I'd also argue that beauty is NOT relative - and as a very nebulous sort of proof, I'd point to the fact that people tend to define 'beautiful' in similar ways (eg. it's not just some random distribution); there is generally quite a bit of agreement as to _whether_ something is good or beautiful; much less consensus as to _why_.

Now as for reasons why you like U2 and others like Rich Mullins, chances are everyone is appreciating (or at least gravitating to) something different in the music.

Content also plays into this at some point - I like U2 in a general sort of way, but I've never bought an album; they sound great, but I don't find their lyrics poetically stellar (and there I tip my hand - I value the poetic side of music, which is probably why I own every single Rich Mullins album; I don't know anyone who is a songwriter type who isn't pretty stunned by Mullin's songwriting - he makes things work that shouldn't be able to work, and that is a sign of greatness, whether in poetry, writing, singing, or even in preaching).

At any rate, I'm digressing from the main point of the original post - I still don't think Christian music sucks any worse than secular music does (eg. because of production skills, musicianship, etc). And why that is is a question worth pondering.

One final thought worth considering - I think we often like music, not so much for something inherent in the music itself, but often for the emotions or feelings the music invokes - music often acts as a 'marker', tying us to some particular event or stage in life. Play the music, and a whole range of thoughts, memories, and emotions comes flooding back into view.

Alright, I've rambled. Gotta run eat dinner now...

 
At 8:11 PM, May 29, 2006, Anonymous ande said...

Christian,
Thanks for this post, I have gone back and forth in my mind as to what I think about CCM (mostly falling on it mostly stinks)yet some of my favorite artists are "christian artists". Your distinction about the mass production-therefore more good "secular" artists really makes sense. It is true that most music isn't good music christian or secular. I have some friends in CCM who are truly amazing artists in almost every aspect. They are as original as anybody anywhere (which is a critique I often run through my mind)and one artist in particular turned down a record deal this last year to lead worship at a Church (a real good record deal).

I think where I get caught up is the connection I have with CCM and the Family Christian Bookstore - local positive hit music bumper sticker Subculture. "Testa-mints" "kinkaid" "open 7 days a week" etc etc. But if I am honest I ain't that great myself, like DW said "I am a whore I do confess" Anyhow, thanks for a great post.

ps.
I didn't like U2 till a few years ago. I had listened to them and just didn't like them. Well I also didn't use to like hot sauce. Things change.

Rich Mullins vocally not the greatest but lyrically and musically the guy was unreal. I can't help but think of "the fury in a pheasants wings" every time I go hunting.

Andrew Peterson is right there with Rich Mullins to me. Songs like "Alaska or Bust" Wow.

 
At 9:45 PM, May 29, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Hey Ande - ah yes, that fury in those pheasant wings... those two albums (World as Best I Remember It), followed by his best one (Liturgy, Legacy, Ragamuffin Band) were simply amazing (in spite of his voice). Really really good stuff.

So who's Andrew Peterson? (I feel so out of the music scene these days, Christian or otherwise). I really long for someone who writes like Mullins or early Dylan...

I suppose a really interesting question would not just be "who do you like (or NOT like) musically?" but also "why or why not?"

 
At 7:11 AM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

Great post and great comments! As dangerous as it may be, I will have to express a similiar view with Jake on not really caring a fig about U2 (nothing against him though); but I do believe this issue of music and its relation to truth and beauty is an extremely important issue that we are called to discern as Christians.

One thing I haven't heard discussed much on this issue is the history of music or even "good" music. It usually seems like our entire American culture (the Church included) believes that the world was created in 1776, especially when it comes to subjects of art. In Reformed Christian camps we usually don't have a problem standing on the shoulders of the great theologians and saints that have gone before us when it comes to doctrine and theology, but why are we too proud to do this in the arts?

 
At 7:31 AM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Ryan Kellermeyer said...

This article and its links is interesting, as are his podcasts. He's got a good ear for "better" Christian music.

 
At 7:59 AM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Ryan Kellermeyer said...

Oh yeah, the greatest achievement in all of Christian music can be found right here.

My personal opinion is that most "CCM" is not very artistic in the sense that the lyrics are bullshit. There seems to be a sense that the Christian writer has to write what they "ought" to be feeling rather than what they actually are feeling.

When it comes to worship music, I still can't get over that sense that I'm lying when I sing some of those lyrics in church. They're simply not true of me and I doubt they are true of anyone for more than 30 seconds or so. Our love for Jesus is very inconsistent, but some of our songs seem to overlook that.

Here are some lyrics (better when you hear the music that backs them) that I really relate to:

Brooks Williams - Restless

God did not lead me here to abandon me
He did not leave me to drown in my own tears
The day is darker now I can barley see
The road is longer and stones hurt my feet
I have sung my songs of mirth
I have hung my head and cried
You have been ever faithful
I’m the one who left your side

All the days I have wasted chasing down the winds of empty praise
And all the times I have lost searching for riches in abandoned mines

(Chorus)
My heart is restless it finds no peace
I was made for you

I have bargained with my future
And I have wrestled with my past
Like a drunk man trying to be sober every day I face the empty glass

(Chorus)
My heart is restless it finds no peace
I was made for you

I am restless oh so restless
Until I come to rest in you

Some days my faith is a mighty river
Some days my faith is a barren land
Oh Lord please tell me why
Maybe then I would understand

(Chorus)
My heart is restless it finds no peace
My heart is restless it finds no peace
I was made for you

 
At 8:44 AM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Well, if nothing else, its definitely "Christian" (say Ryan K - if you get a chance, could you either a. send me a master CD of that Camelback recording, or b. see if you could cut it down to individual MP3s to see what kind of mix we could get on it?)

 
At 8:52 AM, May 30, 2006, Anonymous ande said...

Christian,

If you like Rich Mullins I am almost positive you will love Andrew Peterson. He is Christian/Independent and was heavily influenced by RM. Hammer dulcimer, lyrics, and all. He has a Christmas show/musical called "behold the lamb" With artists like DW, Sandra Mc, Andrew Osenga, etc etc. He wrote it and it walks through the History of Redemption from Genesis to Christ. No talking just straight up singing. One of the greatest musical moments I have ever experienced. Give him a listen I think you will like.

 
At 3:55 PM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

You only need one URL to answer this post:

http://www.squarepegalliance.net/

this is a newly formed "alliance" of friends of Derek Webb and Andrew Peterson...not your average CCM musician songwriters.

 
At 6:03 PM, May 30, 2006, Blogger Master Aegidius said...

My phrase was misunderstood. But it is dinner time and that is more important. I will try to respond later tonight........

 
At 6:02 AM, May 31, 2006, Blogger - R said...

I've posted some thoughts on this as well... along with an accompanying post answering the question Why?

P.S. I like U2

 
At 6:30 PM, May 31, 2006, Blogger Master Aegidius said...

Okay, I have languished long enough.

My point was that in addition to not giving a fig about U2, I don't really give a fig about Jonny Cash, Rich Mullins, or Queen.

Oh, yes I enjoy their music (excluding U2), but I Do Not own every CD they ever produced (Mr. Cash= 3, Mr. Mullins= was 4, but now 3 because one was stolen, Queen= 1/2), nor do I follow their every step.

Yet all too often, get a group of people together, and while they don't know the difference between Arianism, Marcianism, or Gnosticism, bring up music and watch out! And then some go to the extent of defining theirs and others Christianity by musical taste. Pffft!

So why is it that people (secular and non-secular) continue to define themselves and others by music? And why do they place so much importance upon music in general?

I guess that I just refuse to accept those parameters.

 
At 8:07 AM, June 02, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

A comment for Jake:

I would agree that we can form unjustified stereotypes of Christians by their music, but at the same time I wonder if this possibility can still be biblical in a way.

Since the time of David, music has been very much a part of the way we worship God, both corporately and individually. I would even say that it is a means (or gift) which God has given us to more faithfully worship Him. But, inevitably, our theology will begin to form our music. So if we have tendencies in Arianism, Marcianism, or Gnosticism it will show up in our music.

Now, Scripture also tells us that we become what we worship (i.e. if we worship idols that are deaf, dumb, and stupid so will we eventually become deaf, dumb, and stupid). If our music is gnostic, and we worship with this music, then we will become gnostic in other parts of our lives (not sure I even have to argue this example).

So my point would be that you can at least define, predict or generalize (to a certain extent) what a group of people is/will be like by the type of music they worship with.

 
At 11:08 AM, June 03, 2006, Anonymous David said...

I liked your point about volume - I think it's true. A lot of secular stuff just blows, but because there's so much out there we can enjoy the really great stuff, too.

However, I think one of the primary reasons CCM is so insufferable is the way that it perceives itself as culturally relevant or "cutting edge" (read the Crosswalk music reviews), while everybody outside finds that laughable.

 
At 12:36 PM, June 03, 2006, Blogger Master Aegidius said...

Brian,
I was focussing on "recreational" music as opposed to "worship" music.

To clarify my original point, why do we (Americans/ Europeans/ Westerners) insist upon defining ourselves by our music?

Perhaps I am blinded to my own faults, but I do not see myself doing that, nor can I truly understand why people do that.

P.S.- I could probably substitute "media" for "music", and be more accurate.

 

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