A childhood in Christian pop.
Photograph via Flickr by Charlie Hallin
It’s 1994, and Michael Stipe recently lost his religion. It’s before Bieber and bling, before ordering a latte required six qualifying adjectives. In coffeehouses across the country, bored teens slouch on thrift-store couches nodding along to the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Weezer breaks into the alt-rock scene with the Blue Album; Green Day tops the charts with the first punk rock song to whine about a lousy therapist. In April, hordes of fans gather in Seattle Park to mourn the death of Kurt Cobain. A few months later, 350,000 people make the pilgrimage to Saugerties, New York for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock.
The same summer, in Peoria, Illinois, the gospel artist known simply as Carman takes the stage at a sold-out stadium concert. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, high-top sneakers, and neon Ray-Bans, he calls out to a crowd of cheering young people: “Who’s in the House?”
If you’re not familiar with the 1990s contemporary Christian music scene, Carman was kind of a big deal. Born Dominic Licciardello in Trenton, New Jersey, Carman began his career as a Las Vegas lounge singer, then got saved and spent much of the ’70s and ’80s dominating the Christian adult contemporary market. At this concert, he opened with the hit single from his 1993 album The Standard, a project designed to court a younger audience.
This was the golden era of MTV, and Christian leaders, perhaps sensing they were up against a larger beast, opted for a more positive approach by promoting sanctioned (and sanctified) alternatives.
“Who’s in the House” is a hip-hop track about the presence of the Lord. Through megaphone distortion, Carman rapped a few lines: “You take him high / you take him low / you take JC wherever you go,” then led into a call and response hook reminiscent of ’80s-era De La Soul. “Tell me who’s in the house? JC!”
If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year-old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me. In junior high, I saw Carman in concert three times. The Standard was the first CD I ever bought. I rocked out to Carman on my Walkman on the way to youth group and dished with my girlfriends about what a hottie he was. At the concerts, I bought his T-shirts and posters, and when he called out “Who’s in the House?” I made my arms into letters, YMCA-style, with the rest of the crowd and shouted “JC!”
I was homeschooled up until tenth grade, and my social life revolved around church. I grew up submersed in evangelical youth culture: reading Brio magazine, doing devotions in my Youth Walk Bible, eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Left Behind series, and developing a taste in music that ran the gamut from Christian rap to Christian pop to Christian rock.
While born-again rockers can be traced back to the Jesus People movement in the 1960s, the 1990s was the decade of Christian contemporary music, or CCM. In my early teens, new bands were popping up faster than I could follow. And Carman wasn’t the only established act revamping his sound for a younger crowd. Jon Gibson, a pop artist who produced what is generally considered the first Christian rap song (1986’s “The Wall”), argued that Christian musicians needed to be savvier in presenting teens with the gospel. He told CCM Magazine, “I want to sneak into their hearts with the music. Contemporary Christian music needs to branch out a little more, get a little sneakier.”
“Meeting kids where they’re at” was a relatively new concept for the church. My parents had grown up in an era when teens were supposed to sit in the pew and sing hymns along with everyone else. When I reached middle school, Christian youth leaders were anxiously discussing the battle for “cultural relevance”—one of the many marketing terms adopted by evangelicals. In the ’90s, mainline Protestant churches were losing members to the growing evangelical movement. With the explosion of rock-concert-style megachurches, many traditional congregations incorporated contemporary worship services in order to attract young people. For our dwindling Baptist congregation, this meant scrapping the organs and old hymns with arcane lyrics like “Now I raise my Ebenezer,” and replacing them with praise choruses led by “worship teams” of college kids with guitars and electric violins. It meant sermons full of pop culture allusions, with juicy titles (“Marriage in the Line of Fire,” “The Young and the Righteous”) designed to make conservative values seem radical and hip.
Traditionally, the church’s approach to secular music had been fear tactics: denouncing rock bands, staging record burnings. But this was the golden era of MTV, and Christian leaders, perhaps sensing they were up against a larger beast, opted for a more positive approach by promoting sanctioned (and sanctified) alternatives. Christian concerts became popular youth group events. My friends traveled to blowout festivals with names like “Acquire the Fire” or “Cornerstone.” Our youth pastor let us spray-paint the basement teen room with graffiti and tack up posters of born-again acts like Third Day and All Star United. At Wednesday night youth group, in lieu of a message, we’d often watch CCM music videos.
By the time I was finishing up eighth grade, I had ditched my Carman albums and moved on to bands like Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay, groups who sported flannel shirts and surfer hair and did songs that sounded like praise choruses transposed into a minor key. “Lift me up—when I am falling / Lift me up—I’m weak and I’m dying.” Or the Newsboys, who produced albums like Hell Is For Wimps and Not Ashamed, and gained popularity for the track “Shine,” which assures teens that their faith can appear attractive to nonbelievers: “Shine, make them wonder what you’ve got / make them wish that they were not / on the outside looking bored.”
The title song impeccably mirrored that “Yeah, I’m a loser, so what?” attitude: “I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak.”
By far the coolest CCM band when I was a teen was DC Talk. Short for “Decent Christian Talk,” this trio of young men from Virginia—one black, two white—started their career as a hip-hop group. They gained popularity with tracks like “Jesus Is Just Alright,” which sampled the Doobie Brothers’ song and laid down lyrics like: “I’m kicking it Jesus style / to the ones who think they heard, I did use the J-word / ’cause I ain’t too soft to say it, even if DJs won’t play it.” They sang about the decline of Christian morals: “In reality our decency has taken a plunge / ‘In God We Trust’ is an American pun,” and occasionally broke into rhythmic harangues against racism, hypocrisy, or premarital intercourse: “I don’t want your sex for now / I don’t want it till we take the vow.” I’m not going to lie: DC Talk was pretty damn good. I might be guilty of still listening to their albums occasionally when no one else is around. Despite the cheesy lyrics, they had a fresh street dance sound—close harmonizing and poppy rap verses. I once played their album Free at Last for a friend who hadn’t grown up in the church, and he thought it was Color Me Badd.
This, by the way, is considered the ultimate sign of quality CCM, even amongst Christians: the ability to pass as secular. Every band’s goal was to have teenagers stop their grooving mid-song and exclaim, like a soda commercial actress who’s just realized she’s been drinking diet, “Wait, this is Christian?” The logic was that the more these bands fit in with what was playing on the radio, the more someone like me would feel comfortable passing their album on to my non-Christian friends (supposing I’d had any), giving them a chance to hear the gospel. Korey Cooper, guitarist of a gospel band called Skillet, said it was crucial for artists to prove themselves musically before kids would entertain the message. “You get up on stage and try to rock as hard or harder than everybody else and then you have some cred,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, they can rock and it’s okay, and they love Jesus.’” Likewise, the website Metal for Jesus argued that “Christian metal is just as brutal and heavy as the secular when it comes to the music. What differs is the lyrics.” Yes, there’s Christian metal. There’s even Christian death metal (Living Sacrifice). There’s Christian glam rock (Stryper), Christian punk (Relient K), Christian ska (Five Iron Frenzy), Christian techno (World Wide Message Tribe), and Christian industrial (Circle of Dust).
There were still some conservatives who insisted that genres like rock, metal, or rap were so inherently evil that no amount of uplifting lyrics could redeem them. They claimed that beats were hypnotic and certain chord intervals belonged to the devil, and called attention to the fact that Satan’s role, before being kicked out of heaven, was the celestial music director. Some quoted scripture like 1 Thessalonians 5:21-23, which instructs believers to “abstain from all appearance of evil”—not just evil itself, but the accoutrements, like electric guitars and tattoos. But these voices quickly faded into the wilderness. For the most part, believers came to agree with Frank Breeden, President of the Gospel Music Association, who said “There really is no such things as a Christian B-flat. Music in itself is an amoral vehicle.”
In 1995, DC Talk shocked their fans by releasing Jesus Freak, an alt-rock album full of double-tracked power chords and grungy bass lines. It was a dramatically different sound for them. In their album photos, they’d traded in their parachute pants for Carhartts, their Jordans for Chucks. Except for an occasional chanted bridge (the first appearance of rapcore in CCM) they’d abandoned their hip-hop roots. The concept was unlike anything that had been pitched at born-again teens: a celebration of the marginalized believer. The title track alludes to Biblical prophets like John the Baptist, portraying them as outcasts: “With skins on his back and hair on his face / they thought he was strange by the locusts he ate / the Pharisees tripped when they heard him speak / until the king took the head of this Jesus freak.” Band member Toby McKeehan explained that the idea was to reclaim the term Jesus freak. “It was a negative phrase back in the late sixties and early seventies,” he said. “If you were a ‘Jesus Freak,’ that was people talking down to you. We’ve chosen to take the opposite approach and say that that’s something to be happy about.”
It’s worth pointing out that this was around the time Beck was singing “I’m a loser, baby,” and Thom Yorke was droning “I’m a creep.” If I had flipped through FM radio that summer, I might have heard The Offspring (“I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem”), or Green Day (“Sometimes I give myself the creeps”), or Gwen Stefani (“Guess I’m some kind of freak”). The irony is that DC Talk’s album, for all its glorification of ostracized misfits, was the most culturally relevant CCM album of the decade. The title song impeccably mirrored that “Yeah, I’m a loser, so what?” attitude: “I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak.” The concept was pretty brilliant. My friends and I were getting to the age where we were beginning to sense that being a believer wasn’t exactly cool. Being a born-again could get you called a goody-goody, a narc, or a tight-ass. Being a Jesus freak, on the other hand, seemed kind of OK—edgy, authentic, and biblically sound.
The international “Freakshow” tour came through Peoria that summer and I attended it with my friend Jenna, both our little sisters, plus her mom as chaperone at the packed Peoria Civic Center. Much to my relief, we didn’t stand out: Most of the kids there were our age—preteens, many of them girls, towing frazzled adults in their wake. There was a mosh pit, there was crowd surfing. There was also a presentation of the gospel and an altar call. Toward the end, DC Talk did an acoustic set, complete with an unfurled Turkish rug and candelabras just like MTV’s Unplugged. Then they amped up again, for a high-voltage cover of “Purple Haze” and left the stage, only to be goaded back for an encore. (CCM concerts often included secular covers. DC Talk sometimes closed with Nirvana’s “All Apologies”—except instead of singing the line “everyone is gay,” they changed it to “Jesus is the way.” I’m not making this up.) We left the stadium ecstatic. Riding home, we four girls sat in the back of the minivan headbanging to the CD, which we’d asked Jenna’s mom to please play at full volume.
Jesus Freak went double platinum and won a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album. It climbed to number sixteen on the Billboard 200 and led to appearances on Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall. DC Talk produced a gritty music video for “Jesus Freak,” which was spliced with black and white newsreel footage of race riots and World War Two propaganda films. Billboard claimed that “the clip’s slick style and in your face imagery could easily fit between cutting edge videos from the likes of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.” DC Talk told the magazine that the intention of the clip was to “push the envelope” of the Christian music community and “reach a wider audience.”
I couldn’t have told you what the word “irony” meant, but I knew I’d been cheated by Christian rock. This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue.
Some Christian critics accused them of trying to cross over. It was the height of the grunge era, a convenient time to hop on the rock bandwagon. But DC Talk repeatedly resisted making the switch, unlike U2, a band to whom they were often compared (and who Christians disowned around the late ’80s when Adam Clayton got arrested for possession). The reason they never gained mainstream appeal is they refused to tone down their gospel message. As McKeehan put it, “Music is our tool. Our message is Christ.” Like most CCM artists of that era, they saw themselves primarily as evangelists. One reviewer noted the same about Carman: “He doesn’t make music for the sake of music, or artistry. He makes music as an evangelism tool. Indeed, Carman is more like a singing evangelist than a singer.” This was the reason Christian rock had a reputation for being shoddy, and it was also the reason why so many Christian artists switched genres—not just evolved but completely changed their sound and look and ethos. The music was always a vehicle for the message, and if artists believed there was a more effective way to reach kids with that message, by all means they’d do it. DC Talk simply had a more ambitious ministry than anyone else in the game. When asked about the impetus behind Jesus Freak, band member Michael Tait said “We wanted to write songs that would hopefully touch a generation.”
I saw MTV for the first time when I was thirteen. My parents, like most of my friends’ parents, didn’t have cable, and I literally had to go halfway around the world to see it. In November of 1995, my grandfather went on a trip to Moscow and took my sister Sheena and me along. He was on the board of an organization that was lobbying to teach “Christian ethics” in Russian schools. It was supposed to be an educational experience, but we hardly left the hotel. All week, he attended back-to-back meetings while Sheena and I stayed in our room, eating duty-free chocolate and gorging ourselves on Euro MTV.
On one of those gray afternoons I saw Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. In a smoky warehouse, the band and a team of tattooed cheerleaders performed for bleachers full of kids. As the song progresses, the scene dissolves into anarchy: the students jump off the bleachers, strip off their clothes, destroy the band’s equipment, and light the entire set on fire. I watched this perched on the edge of my bed, about three feet from the TV screen, while Sheena was taking a nap. I didn’t catch any of the lyrics, but I was mesmerized by Kurt Cobain stumbling around the set, squinting into the light, barely suppressing a sneer. I couldn’t have told you what the word “irony” meant, but I knew I’d been cheated by Christian rock. This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue.
In the mid-’90s, MTV was producing a product superior to just about anything pitched at teens, largely due to its revolutionary market research. The Brand Strategy and Planning division of MTV was a new department dedicated to researching kids in the channel’s target demographic (ages twelve to twenty-four). They conducted hundreds of in-depth ethnography studies, where researchers would visit a typical fan—say a sixteen-year-old girl—in her home. Armed with a clipboard and trailed by a camera crew, these researchers would hang out in the fan’s room and listen to her talk about her favorite pair of shoes, or what’s in her CD player, or her relationship with her boyfriend.
The department also conducted focus groups that brought together teens who had been identified as “leading-edge thinkers and tastemakers and stylemakers” in eighteen American cities. Another study polled three hundred kids from up-and-coming neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles to find out what they were listening to. Additional research was contracted to “cool-hunting” companies like Youth Intelligence that had hundreds of field correspondents snapping photos of street fashion, getting down in mosh pits, chatting up kids outside bars, and collecting similar information that was compiled and sorted into a web database to which MTV—along with other clients—subscribed for an annual six-figure fee. “It’s principally to make our programming relevant,” Todd Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy and Planning at MTV, said in a 1995 interview. By comparison, the CCM market of this era seems tragically naïve. Christian bands could mimic what was already mainstream, but it was difficult to compete with a product created with the help of millions of dollars worth of demographic research. Cultural relevance could be bought, and MTV, part of media conglomerate Viacom, had a very large budget.
That trip to Russia was a conversion experience. The images I watched on TV were more vivid than anything I saw from the charter bus window was. The Smashing Pumpkins were on rotation then, especially “1979” with the suburban kids knocking over liquor-store shelves, giving the finger to their town from the top of a hill. There was Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” fronted by Shirley Manson with her combat boots and sexy nihilism, and Metallica’s “Until it Sleeps,” a tableau of grotesque religious iconography. I stayed up late watching the same videos over and over.
I spent the following years obsessively listening to the radio and befriending the youth group kids whose parents didn’t child block MTV. I wrote down the names of bands I didn’t know, then biked to the local record store, Believe in Music, and spent my babysitting money on albums I had to smuggle back to my room. With very few exceptions (i.e. Disney soundtracks) my parents didn’t let me listen to secular music, but there were a few bands I managed to pass off as Christian, like Soul Asylum or Collective Soul. It was an easy feat at the time: Christian rock was becoming more sophisticated and the secular industry was oddly fascinated with God. Artists on heavy rotation on MTV included Joan Osborne: “If God had a name, what would it be and would you call it to his face?” Alanis Morrissette: “I am fascinated by the spiritual man,” Counting Crows: “She says she’s close to understanding Jesus,” and Tori Amos: “I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets.”
This wasn’t coincidental. One of the “macro trends” MTV uncovered in their research was a growing interest in spirituality among teens. “Trendsetters feel as if music today has no depth, no meaning,” Cunningham said. “They are looking for meaning from their music. And music that expresses their search for meaning.” The Music Trendsetters Study coined the word “pessimysticism,” an attitude that expresses “a simultaneous dissatisfaction with the inauthenticity of commercial music, and a search for higher emotion and expression in music.” For most of my high school years, I noticed an odd disconnect: everyone at church was bemoaning the fact that kids were no longer interested in spirituality, and yet all I heard on MTV was stuff about God. As CCM strove to keep up with an industry teens resented for its spiritual vacuity, MTV reached the acme of its marketing genius: its ability to take its audience’s disenchantment with commercialism, repackage it, and sell it back to them.
I listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dozens of times during those years, and yet I never caught on to the words. Cobain slurred his words, and the liner notes to Nevermind didn’t include lyrics. It wasn’t until I was in college, listening to the track on campus radio, that I realized the song was a taunt—a wry dare to an industry that panders to young consumers: “I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.” It nails the rage of teens who have been asked for nothing more than their passive, profitable attention—and their cynical awareness that this rage will inevitably be aired on a media conglomerate network, between commercials for deodorant. I didn’t catch all of that at thirteen; all I knew was that this music made me stop feeling like a sheltered and naïve homeschooler. I knew it made me smarter and hipper than the kids at church—that it made me less of a sucker in a world that was trying, on all fronts, to dupe me.
Few evangelical teens today are probably familiar with the name Fanny Crosby, but if you were to open a Christian hymnal, you would see her name on dozens of the choruses. Before praise and worship bands took over, our church sang her hymns like “Blessed Assurance” and “He Hideth My Soul” in our Sunday services. Crosby—a blind rescue mission worker during the Civil War—is considered the “Queen of Gospel Music,” but before she became a Christian, she wrote popular songs. Her most famous tune, “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” earned her nearly three thousand dollars in royalties—a staggering amount in her day. Once she began writing hymns, she claimed that she sometimes had to reject the melodies musicians proposed because they sounded too close to the secular tunes that were currently in fashion. She believed in an ideal that today seems ridiculous in all but the most fundamentalist circles: that Christian culture should remain set apart from the trends and caprices of the world. She feared that in using familiar tunes, people “would think that Fanny Crosby who once wrote for the people in the saloons has merely changed the lyrics.”
By the early 2000s, straddling the spiritual-secular line was precisely the goal of CCM groups. Popular bands like Creed, Switchfoot, and Lifehouse specialized in songs with vaguely romantic, vaguely spiritual lyrics, so they could be picked up by both Christian and secular markets. Jars of Clay, whose 1995 debut contained explicitly spiritual content, lightened up considerably by the release of 2002’s The Eleventh Hour. In a review of the album, NPR’s Scott Simon wrote, “to the uninitiated, many of the tunes could be taken for straight-ahead, modern-pop love songs their subject could be God or a girl.” Guitarist Matt Odmark admits they made a conscious effort, in the project, to avoid “the noisy vocabulary of religion.”
Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything.
Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment”—which topped the Billboard 100 for the year—is a more well-known example of this trend: “Desperate for changing / Starving for truth / Closer to where I started / Chasing after you.” Although singer/songwriter Jason Wade identified as a Christian and was embraced by the CCM market—his band met playing in a worship team at church—he claimed that Lifehouse was not a “Christian” band. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “We don’t want to be labeled as a ‘Christian band,’ because all of a sudden people’s walls come up, and they won’t listen to your music and what you have to say.”
Basically, CCM caught on to the number one rule of coolness: don’t let your marketing show. The best bands—the successful ones, at least—learned to gloss over the gospel message the same way TV producers camouflaged corporate sponsorship. Explicitly Christian lyrics prevented DC Talk from crossing over to the secular market in the ’90s; today it’s difficult to imagine their unapologetic faith making it in the Christian circuit.
This trend spreads beyond CCM into many areas of evangelical culture. The church is becoming increasingly consumer-friendly. Jacob Hill, director of “worship arts” at New Walk Church, describes the Sunday service music as “exciting, loud, powerful, and relevant,” and boasts that “a lot of people say they feel like they’ve just been at a rock concert.” Over the past ten years, I’ve visited churches that have Starbucks kiosks in the foyer and youth wings decked out with air hockey tables. I’ve witnessed a preacher stop his sermon to play a five-minute clip from Billy Madison. I’ve walked into a sanctuary that was blasting the Black Eyed Peas’s “Let’s Get it Started” to get the congregation pumped for the morning’s message, which was on joy. I have heard a pastor say, from a pulpit, “Hey, I’m not here to preach at anyone.” And yet, in spite of these efforts, churches are retaining only 4 percent of the young people raised in their congregations.
Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that because the church isn’t Viacom: it doesn’t have a Department of Brand Strategy and Planning. Staying relevant in late consumer capitalism requires highly sophisticated resources and the willingness to tailor your values to whatever your audience wants. In trying to compete in this market, the church has forfeited the one advantage it had in the game to attract disillusioned youth: authenticity. When it comes to intransigent values, the profit-driven world has zilch to offer. If Christian leaders weren’t so ashamed of those unvarnished values, they might have something more attractive than anything on today’s bleak moral market. In the meantime, they’ve lost one more kid to the competition.
Meghan O’Gieblyn is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is working on short fiction and a collection of essays.