My Critique of the Christian Music Industry

When I was 17, I attended a youth bible retreat in the first weekend of my grade 12 year. A charismatic guest preacher and I found ourselves discussing hard rock and heavy metal music in the dining hall. After explaining to him that I was an avid fan of KoRn and Slipknot he exclaimed to me,

“If you’re looking for an awesome Christian alternative to those bands, you need to check out Toby Mac! He’s pretty heavy and he’s totally comparable! I highly recommend him!”

About a week later, I quickly walked uptown to the local Christian bookstore during my school lunch break and picked up Toby Mac’s Momentum album. I waited ecstatically to pop it in my CD player when I got home. I was expecting Toby Mac to be something comparable to the likes of Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park, but what I heard sounded more like a wannabe rapper who couldn’t decide whether he was an R&B artist or a youth pastor who was trying too hard to be cool. I’ve never felt so led-on into buying an album before. It’s safe to say the person who recommended it to me either lacked knowledge in mainstream secular rock, or he was on an agenda to convert me into a Toby Mac fanboy.

Around that same early 2000’s era, the California-based band Switchfoot arrived into mainstream rock radio just in time for the slow demise of Creed. Their first hit single ‘Meant To Live’ was heavy, grungy, spiritual and almost anthemic as though they arrived on a white Pegasus to bring Christian rock into the limelight. I was so stoked to hear them that I sought to buy their CD as soon as possible. Little did I know, I was in for a not-so beautiful letdown.

For every record I’ve owned, I’ve usually always listened to its entirety to give it a fair chance. Sometimes I’ve bought CD’s where I didn’t care for the radio single but loved the rest of their music. Compared to ‘Meant To Live’ (being the rockiest song on the album), the rest of the songs were probably the most mundane, mediocre diarrhea I have ever put my ears to. If it weren’t for the commercial success of the film A Walk To Remember, I doubt Switchfoot would have ever reached or maintained the popularity they have had since. Why so many people enjoy this band is a complete mystery to me, but that only shows my musical tastes are completely biased.

Despite my displeasure with Switchfoot, there were other Christian bands I grew to highly enjoy like Kutless, Skillet, Pillar and Thousand Foot Krutch – but only for a brief amount of time. Most of these bands started out with a heavy first two albums, but gradually softened their edge to become more listenable for Gospel radio. The only Christian bands I have been continually drawn to since my late teens/early 20’s were P.O.D., Living Sacrifice, Demon Hunter, Project 86 and RED – largely because their sound has remained fairly consistent in musical quality, and didn’t feel pretentious. These bands have also been known to share the stage with secular artists on tour, which is a rarity for those coming from the Christian music scene.

The ongoing theme of Christian radio is the phrase, “Safe and fun for the whole family.” We often leave the radio on the local gospel station at home for background noise to break the silence, and once in a while a decent song by Amy Grant or whoever comes on. Usually I will listen to the mainstream or alternative rock stations at work. But after listening to the constant innuendo and profanity-laced mainstream rock stations at work, sometimes it’s nice to break the norm once in a while and listen to something that doesn’t condone negative behaviour. I’ve even heard some people say that their lives were changed from hearing a song about Jesus on the radio, which is absolutely wonderful!

I guess the problem I have with the Christian music industry is not the purpose of it’s ministry, but that it has become a fluffier, lesser form of the Top 40 pop music business. Take a four-chord progression, lace it with some droning 2 or 3 note hooks, repeat the chorus at least a dozen times or more, throw in some Coldplay-esque falsetto with a singing audience in the background for that unifying stadium atmosphere, slap the name of Jesus on it and voila! You have contemporary Christian music! And then the church-folks will throw their money and consume it while making their kids listen to it because it’s a lot more ‘wholesome’ in comparison to what other music is out there.

When all is said and done, the Christian music industry is a business first and a ministry second. They need to sell records, and their consumer base is clean-cut, moralistic, God-fearing folk. The point I also want to make is every industry has it’s limitations. The mainstream pop industry has a formula it must adhere to in order to continue selling records, and the same thing applies to Christian music – but in a stricter fashion. The songs must reflect biblical values. The lyrics can’t be too risqué. The song structure needs to have a repetitive chorus that drives the name of Jesus into people’s heads like a hammer-drill. They can’t add too much intricacy or distortion to the rest of the instruments lest it takes away from the message of the lyrics. All these rules and guidelines are well-meaning, but let’s not forget that nobody censored Michelangelo’s nude depiction of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

Despite the consumer-driven music business, the need to sell product bears no reflection upon the artists who release their work though the Christian record labels. I’m sure these artists have a strong desire to utilize their God-given talents to glorify their Saviour as a part of their ministry. But depending on what label they choose to work for, their art is limited to what their record company allows them to express in their music. Sometimes their artistic efforts may come across as trying too hard to be cool in the real world. But what’s most disheartening is their pious consumer-critics will condemn them to Hell if their art takes an edgier direction or lacks mention of who they claim to follow. The Christian record companies are responsible for setting up these poor artists to appear less like fallible human beings and more like modern-day venerable saints. It continues to allow their so-called fanbase to tear them apart like a pack of wolves when their personal lives begin to show signs of crumbling apart.

As a father, I am all for giving my kids wholesome music to listen to. Once in a while we let them listen to Adventures in Odyssey or Veggie Tales on the tape recorder (and yes, we still own a tape recorder). But when it comes to good art, it’s easier to make someone a bland, pre-packaged bowl of porridge as opposed to making an omelette from scratch with the finest ingredients. Although I’m not going to explain the lyrics of Paradise By The Dashboard Light to my 4 year old son, there’s no denying many songs by artists in the Christian music industry do not even come close to the musicianship that is displayed in many classic secular rock songs. It is also worth noting, what music out there in the Christian genre truly stands out in a similar way Bohemian Rhapsody is memorable to everyone? Many people who hear it on the radio drop what they are doing in the moment to sing every part of the highly progressive song. What if Christian artists wrote and composed music about God with the same level of passion and creativity Meatloaf expresses about trying to steal home base?

For those who grew up listening to nothing but hymns complimented with an out-of-tune piano, I’m sure contemporary Christian music was exciting and controversial when it was new. It’s simple and appeals to people’s emotions in the same way rock ‘n roll did when it first came out. But everything that was once new becomes old, and becomes new again as a recycled trend years down the road – hence, there really isn’t anything new under the sun. In this day in age, I’m sure people in Generation Y are just as sick of contemporary worship songs as Generation X grew sick of traditional hymns. As an adult in my 30’s, I’ve actually grown to appreciate the deeply poetic language that is present in traditional hymns. I find there is something truly dark, beautiful and organic about the reverence and worship in the works of these classic songs. It is especially worth noting the original composers endured severe hardship and persecution in their lives which caused them to write such lyrics as,

“Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.”

Come Thou Fount by Robert Robinson (1758)

It always baffles me how many contemporary songs about Jesus can easily be misinterpreted to be about somebody’s significant other. Stop it! Seriously, y’all! Jesus is not your boyfriend! I get that Christianity is about being in a relationship with Him, but if anyone could use those same lyrics to refer to their significant other, that’s just lame. Phrases like, “I love you, I need you, I’m desperate for you, you’re beautiful, there’s no one like you,” can easily pass off as lyrics from a cheesy boy band meant to woo their teenage girl fans. God doesn’t need your wooing. If He knitted you in your mother’s womb and knows what you’re capable of, trying to woo Him only comes across as being a pretentious ham.

Christian music is also known for its frequent use of religious jargon commonly referred to as Christianese. When you hear lyrics such as, “You are my daily bread,” or, “Put on the armour of God,” I can’t help but wonder what that even means to other people. Cradle-churchgoers would understand the context of these phrases. But if the music is meant for reaching out to people outside of church circles, it’s probably best to steer clear of the use of Christianese and use lingo that is understandable for the intended audience.

What I also find very bothersome is how segregative labelling bands as Christian really is. Let’s say I decided to take a friend out for lunch somewhere. There are definite cultural food choices such as Italian, Indian, Chinese, Mexican and so fourth. But since when does anybody go for ‘Christian’ lunch? You have musical genres such as pop, rock, country, folk, R&B, rap, metal, electronica, etcetera – those are the typical cultural choices. The songs themselves might reflect a belief of some kind, but it’s not the music itself that expresses a belief – it is the individuals who are playing the music. There are hundreds of artists out there who play a specific genre of music and yet hold their own personal beliefs. For example,

“Gary is in a band. Gary’s band plays country music. Gary is a self-professed Christian who plays in a country music band. His bandmembers might share similar beliefs, but they are not Gary’s beliefs.”

One of my all-time favourite bands is Alter Bridge. The songs they write are heavily influenced by the beliefs of the individual band members, but the band itself does not claim to be inherently religious. This, however, does not stop them from writing songs that are influenced by their personal spirituality or going on tour with other darker, more aggressive metal bands. Many of Alter Bridge’s songs have carried me through some dark periods of my life, especially when grieving the loss of relatives. This comes to show bands do not have to call themselves ‘Christian’ in order to express godly values in their music.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve always had an appreciation for nu-metal. The genre in itself was something new and provocative in its time. It pointed out what was wrong with North American society, and it was controversial. There are few genres of music that have displayed the disturbingly brutal, lyrical honesty that was so evident in nu-metal. To me, it was good art. It made people uncomfortable because it brought people’s insecurities out of darkness and into the light. There are very few Christian bands out there that refuse to play it safe and stir up people’s hearts in the same manner nu-metal did in it’s genesis.

The truth is, creating good art involves some kind of risk. Creating something that provokes people to think or feel can have a positive or negative impact, and if it’s provocative enough it could make a lasting impression. Abel risked his brother Cain’s violent jealousy by offering to God a sacrifice of the best fat-portions of his livestock, as opposed to a harvest of bland vegetables. If sacred music is dedicated for wholehearted worship, shouldn’t we be offering our most reverently and beautifully composed work rather than offering bland, cookie-cutter, Walmart discount-bin fodder?

So my questions for those who consider themselves Christian artists or consumers are, what are you risking when you write a song? What are you risking when you paint a picture? What are you risking when you recite a monologue on stage or post a video on social media? What are you risking when you buy an album and play it on your stereo?

What are you willing to risk in your artwork for Him?

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