How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

worshipJournalist Leah Libresco discovers that contemporary Christian music always keeps on the sunny side. CCM lyrics, it turns out, are so excessively happy-go-lucky that they rarely even mention the darkness of sin or the pain of human suffering–themes that are pretty important to Christianity.

From Libresco’s piece:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”

If you’ve listened to Christian pop/rock for any amount of time at all, this shouldn’t surprise you. Turn on your local Christian FM station and the odds are good that what you’ll hear will be a distinctly American mixture of therapeutic spirituality and Christianese self-actualization. In other words, there’s nary a difference between most Christian music and most Christian publishing.

Why is this, though? Why does contemporary Christian music fail so egregiously to capture the range of human–heck, Christian!–experience? As Libresco notes, this hasn’t always been true of Christian music. You don’t even have to go back as far as she does to find evidence of a more honest lyrical culture in Christian musicianship.

In 1995, two albums released on Christian record labels went platinum, an unheard-of feat at the time. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak was a grunge-tinged, hip-hop spiced rock record with brazenly vulnerable lyrics. Look at the words of one of the album’s biggest hits, “What If I Stumble?”

Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows

If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar?

Here’s another hit, “Colored People,” one of the most well-known CCM songs about race:

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure.

These songs weren’t just deep cuts that Christian retailers ignored and superfans enjoyed. Both of these songs are some of the most famous performances from the band. You could probably not find anyone who listened to contemporary Christian music in the 90s or early 2000s who didn’t know these choruses by heart.

 

The other album that went platinum in 1995 was the self-titled debut by Jars of Clay. In my opinion, this is one of the finest Christian albums ever made. One reason: The songwriting on Jars of Clay is poetic, introspective and often gut-wrenchingly honest. Is there anyone who can listen to “Worlds Apart” and not think that Dan Haseltine is speaking for them?

I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same
Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die.

If you’re an aspiring Christian band recording your first big-label album, a song about child abuse is probably not on your agent’s checklist. But that’s what Jars did with “He,” a painful and hopeful ballad that captures the emotions of abuse from a child’s point of view:

Daddy, don’t you love me?
Then why do you hit me?
And Momma don’t you love me
Then why do you hurt me?
Well I try to make you proud, but for crying out loud
Just give me a chance to hide away

Again, these aren’t artists and songs from the iron vault of Christian music lore. These are two of the most successful groups and albums in the genre’s history. Do these lyrics sound like they would get airplay on today’s “positive, encouraging, and safe for the whole family” airwaves? Or would they be rejected by record label execs and station managers because they don’t immediately affirm the listener’s comfort and pleasure?

So what changed? What’s the difference between the CCM of 1995 and today? I have 2 answers for this:

1) In the last 20 years, Christian music has become less about artists and more and more about the product. You would hard pressed to find people seriously knowledgable about Christian music who would argue that there is any sort of healthy artist culture in the industry right now. Instead, the industry’s goal is to ship music that can morph like an amoeba into any shape that buyers desire–background noise at youth camp, soundtrack to a PowerPoint presentation, etc etc. That’s why so much of CCM sounds alike right now. So much of what’s being created isn’t actually art–it’s musical copy, meant to be accessorized for the sake of maximum profit.

2) In the last 20 years, Christian music’s “least common denominator” theology has stagnated the music. Because contemporary Christian music seeks to serve an incredibly diverse American religious landscape with what amounts to a single industry, the thinking for a long time was that the best way to make the music accessible was to make sure it didn’t actually say anything. Vague generalities about “grace” and “love” could be received by Presbyterians, Methodists, Anabaptists, and 7th Day Adventists alike. The fear of alienating an audience led many Christian groups and labels to mute theology in their songs. Fortunately, this trend was being reconsidered in the early 2000s through a resurgence of hymns; artists like Jars and Caedmon’s Call released successful hymn projects. But much of CCM never turned from this notion, and that’s why groups like Jars still stand out so far from the rest of the industry.

The decline of CCM is something I grieve. I still have somewhere dozens and dozens of CDs from local Christian bookstores, CDs filled with music that I loved. At its best, CCM was a conduit for expressing the complexities of life in the world and yet not of it. Its artists could poignantly elevate audiences to think that Jesus Christ cared about all of life. Somewhere, though, CCM lost its way, and I have trouble believing that the same industry that gave us dc Talk and Jars of Clay can survive.

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4 thoughts on “How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

  1. Rick

    Hi Samuel: I found your link through the Gospel Coalition…about CCM I would also say I too am dissappointed in what I hear on CCM Radio these days…I rarely listen to it anymore…its all pop worship…which sounds the same…what your getting at with the DC Talk and Jars of Clay songs are they are “stories.” Well-written stories and poetry set to music that are authentic and personal…Must of the guys writing great stories never get airplay on CCM Radio…I can think of 2 guys that contineue in that ‘storytelling” tradition…Andrew Peterson and Jon Foreman…both guys write songs/stories about the “fragile side of life.” and I also listen to older CCM guys, no longer with labels, still producing great music like Wayne Watson and Phil Keaggy…Best Rick

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  2. kelty

    I appreciated both Ms. Libresco’s analysis and yours of today’s popular Christian music scene. Jesus Freak and Jars of Clay were 2 of my favorite albums from my high school years, 2 albums that still stand up to a listen today, in my 30s. Another album I would add to this list would be Jennifer Knapp’s debut album, Kansas. (1998) I know a lot has happened in her life since then but her lyrics on that album wrestle beautifully with sin, repentance, pride, fear and struggle in the Christian life.

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