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...