Fiddling While Rome Burns

My, how time flies. It's been 30 years, more or less, since Larry Norman provided the sonic backdrop for the Jesus Movement, radically merging rock melodies and instrumentation with scriptural content, proving to all but a few kooks that rhythm and syncopation and electric guitars are not the devil's exclusive domain. Yet what passes as Christian music today feels oddly safe, even boring. What happened?

Three recent books attempt to answer that question, chronicling the emergence and critiquing the status quo of the trademarked phenomenon known as Contemporary Christian Music or CCM: Mark Joseph's The Rock & Roll Rebellion, Charlie Peacock's At the Crossroads, and Jay Howard and John Streck's Apostles of Rock. That's a lot of ink, a combined 834 pages, devoted to a musical format that many assiduously avoid while scanning the radio dial.

Taking different approaches, the authors nonetheless share a common assessment. What Norman and scores of other artists pioneered has since morphed into a behemoth, an industry that rings up nearly $1 billion a year catering to the evangelical bookstores that speckle the strip-mall landscape of the suburban marketplace. The notion that Christian artists could use their talents to challenge the dominant culture has given way to a musical genre that is all too content to carve out its niche among converted middle-class consumers eager for edification and encouragement.

Joseph's Rock & Roll Rebellion takes the harshest tone of the three and is the weakest of the lot. He begins with a poorly chosen metaphor, the Negro baseball leagues, in which great talent traversed the bush league backwaters, consigned to asterisks in the record books and posthumous Hall of Fame recognition. Joseph claims CCM is a similar ghetto, that believing artists have been forced to ply their craft in isolation from the mainstream, to the great economic boon of the CCM business elite.

CCM may indeed be a monster created by savvy profiteers, but unlike the cruel restrictions of Jim Crow with respect to race, believing artists by and large are not barred from the playing field simply because of their faith. Rather, they're typically ferreted out of the mainstream because the majority of the record-buying public chooses not to pay for the privilege of being evangelized. In other words, when Arista bigwig Clive Davis denied the late Keith Green a recording contract early in Green's career, the hard-nosed record exec presumably recognized how tough it would be to translate the earnest convert's evangelical fervor into a Billboard mega-hit.

Joseph apparently believes that the world would be a better place had Green and other CCM figures toned down their work to fit the mainstream mold, that the "ghettoizing" of Christian talent is therefore directly responsible for the apparent demise of "cultural values." He quotes the aging metal-head Ted Nugent saying that CCM icon Phil Keaggy "could have saved the world with his guitar." Which is, of course, a silly statement and one that entirely dismisses Keaggy's assertion that he consciously chose family over secular stardom and the attendant grind of constant touring.

To build his case, Joseph offers a catalogue of artists who were lured into the safe confines of the Christian "ghetto," as well as those who rebelled. But here Joseph reveals a star-struck tendency to regard mainstream success as a measure of artistic merit and integrity. For example, Bob Dylan, Donna Summer, Alice Cooper, and Lenny Kravitz are all heralded as artists of faith who don't attach a Christian prefix to their musical endeavors, while CCM dropouts and current crossover success stories like Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer apparently portend the coming collapse of CCM.

In contrast, one finds few mentions in Joseph's book of the many believing artists who have not found stardom to be God's calling. Bruce Cockburn, Vigilantes of Love, Victoria Williams, Pierce Pettis, and Over the Rhine, to name a few, are given short shrift or ignored altogether. These artists and others like them operate in relative obscurity, a lonely fate that is theirs because their work is arguably too good for either CCM or the mainstream. They are the ones who should be recognized for their faithfulness to the Muse, the One who did not say: "Blessed are the successful, the platinum-sellers, the MTVidiots," but rather, "Blessed are the weak, the unlucky, the mournful"—artists, writers, poets, and singers who endeavor to honestly express their visions and dreams.

A similar gap exists in Charlie Peacock's At the Crossroads. Peacock claims his book is "pastoral" in intent, and clearly he tries hard not to offend those ensconced in CCM or those who have moved on to court mainstream success. But the result is a treatise in fence-straddling, an unwillingness to bite the hand that has so well fed Peacock and his coterie of big-time Nashville-based CCM producers.

Neither Joseph nor Peacock raises a peep about the machinations of the music industry. It's an old story of power and greed, one that has become more vivid with the recent merger of Polygram and Universal, resulting in hundreds of artists being dropped from label rosters.

Some believers have raised their voices. Michelle Shocked, who regularly attends a black church in New Orleans, sued Mercury Records a few years back on the grounds that the modern-day recording contract is equivalent to indentured servitude. During the lawsuit, Shocked collaborated with Fiachna O'Brianion of Hothouse Flowers to release a CD called Artists Make Lousy Slaves. Interestingly, Mercury settled out of court rather than going to trial, relinquishing the rights to Shocked's masters and publishing royalties.

Shocked's criticism of the industry has been echoed by several other artists, including Prince (The Artist Formerly Known as a Hieroglyph), Courtney Love (who last summer penned a jeremiad on the topic for Salon magazine), Ani DiFranco, and Aimee Mann. Yet the books by Peacock and Joseph utter nary a precaution as they counsel aspiring musicians to storm the gates of major labels in pursuit of mainstream acceptance.

Joseph and Peacock could have raised the question as to whether CCM recording contracts are inherently more just than those imposed on mainstream artists. Or why CCM CDs are generally more expensive than secular CDs. Or they could have noted how concentrated corporate power contributes to a dumbed-down popular culture, spurring much-needed debate in both CCM and mainstream music circles. Now that would have been crossover success worth touting, not more babble while Rome burns.

Fortunately, Howard and Streck's Apostles of Rock proves that not all writing about CCM has to be as disappointing as the genre itself. Taking an academic approach, Apostles has much to offer in the way of articulating a thorough cultural analysis of the fragmented reality of CCM. Specifically, the authors cogently extend Niebuhr's "Christ and Culture" construct, mixing it with intelligent insights into the constituent factors delineating an "art world" of any kind, particularly the rationales used to defend those boundaries and thereby mark those who are (and are not) part of the tribe.

Readers will discover a useful tri-part taxonomy that accurately identifies the historical origins of CCM as largely separatist, and then traces the divergent strands of those who seek to be integrated into the mainstream and those who see their artistic calling as something inherently sacrosanct, independent of Christian labels or the cash register ring.

Unlike Joseph and Peacock, Howard and Streck have written a book that can help believers understand the predatory nature of consumer capitalism with respect to art and entertainment. Contemporary Christian music may be lame and uninspiring, but the answer is not to be found in longing, naively and uncritically, for mainstream success.

Tag Evers is a concert promoter and free-lance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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