a funny conversation

The other day we were driving somewhere and I put the iPod on shuffle. We ran into a coupe of songs I wasn't interested in at the moment, so I cycled through them, and then came upon a song by Switchfoot. I hadn't realized we had any of their music.

"Switchfoot?" I asked Peter.

"I kind of like them," he replied.

"Darn it," I said, mostly teasing, "I've been able to avoid them up until now."

"Why would you want to avoid them?'

"Hm. I guess it's because they're so popular with a set of people whose musical taste I generally find suspect."

"What, Christians?"

"Well," I said, after some thought, "Yeah."

It's probably an unreasonable prejudice on my part; after all, I love Vigilantes of Love and Over the Rhine, and they're both popular with a certain subset of evangelicals. But still. I refer you to John Jeremiah Sullivan's excellent GQ article about Christian music festivals. In it he makes the argument that "Christian music is the only genre to have successfully excellence-proofed itself." It is worth quoting at length below:

The fact that I didn't think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn't be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It's message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what's more, it operates under a perceived responsibility—one the artists embrace—to "reach people." As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies—"If you like Drakkar Noir, you'll love Sexy Musk"? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that's proper, because culturally speaking, it's supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that's because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please...while praising Jesus Christ. That's Christian rock. A Christian band, on the other hand, is just a band that has more than one Christian in it. U2 is the exemplar, held aloft by believers and nonbelievers alike, but there have been others through the years, bands about which people would say, "Did you know those guys were Christians? I know—it's freaky. They're still fuckin' good, though." The Call was like that; Lone Justice was like that. These days you hear it about indie acts like Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado (or P.O.D. and Evanescence—de gustibus). In most cases, bands like these make a very, very careful effort not to be seen as playing "Christian rock." It's largely a matter of phrasing: Don't tell the interviewer you're born-again; say faith is a very important part of your life. And here, if I can drop the open-minded pretense real quick, is where the stickier problem of actually being any good comes in, because a question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot (who played Creation while I was there and had a monster secular--radio hit at the time with "Meant to Live" but whose management wouldn't allow them to be photographed onstage) take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that this is the surest way to connect with the world (you know that's how they refer to us, right? We're "of the world"). So it's possible—and indeed seems likely—that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.

Apparently I am even pickier than Mr. Sullivan, since he seems to be okay with Switchfoot. :) Anyway, I thought it was funny: I-- intensely Anglican, accidentally Pentecostal, but definitely not self-identifying as evangelical-- and my prejudices, and the Christian music world with theirs.

1 comment:

quarto said...

I'm loving this article so far.

Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram's horn.

Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram's horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.


And he gets it absolutely, totally, soul-numbingly correct when he notes that " [the christian rock band] needs to play something proven to please...while praising Jesus Christ."

But I find it odd that he mentions Pedro the Lion and not Sufjan Stevens, surely the most critically acclaimed overt Christian to ever get a review in Pitchfork, and who actually sings about God and other stuff as well, albeit in a wussy manner that makes me want to beat him up.

Sufjan, like Alito, is kinda cute.