Does Christian music suck?? That may depend how one defines Christian music. For example, I do not believe Johnny Cash’s music sucked. Despite being an atheist, I enjoy the vast majority of it, very much, and yet, Johnny Cash was a Christian and much of his music dealt with explicitly Christian topics. This is true of many American artists, whose music often deals with explicitly Christian matters, but is still enjoyable. Spiritual music, is an important part of our American musical heritage and many artists have been able to draw upon heritage to great effect.
Aside from Johnny Cash, I think of The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Tom Waits as examples of musicians, who created great music with explicitly Christian content. This may be a reflection of my personal taste, as I am sure many more diverse and more recent examples abound. I must assure our readers here, that these selected examples, despite being decades old, do not reflect a bias towards the old over the new, as much of what I listen to is much newer than these (however my newer music of choice tends to be more subversive and less Christian).
My point here is that even as a non-believer, who prefers music that reflects his own values, I cannot, say that there is not music by Christian artist with explicitly lyrics that I would still consider quite good. That is to say, that I cannot reject all music, that is somehow Christian as bad. On the other hand we have Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)scene based out of Nashville Tennessee, of which nearly everything I have ever heard has left me with little enjoyment and little interest in hearing more.
So how is the music of someone like Johnny Cash, different from that of the Nashville based CCM scene? Well for one, his sound was very original and very memorable. I tend to find that most Christian rock bands that are marketed as such, tend to be rather bland musically and rather forgettable musically. They largely sound like attempts to bank in on whatever flavor is cool at the time. The softer stuff, has all the problems one would expect, and the hard rocking stuff still sounds like attempts to bank in on the post-grunge, pop punk, emo or nu-metal that has dominated radio for the last decade and a half. I’m not hearing, raw chaos, technical playing outside the box lyrics or anything, that strikes me as the least bit challenging or unconventional and for modern rock these tend to be a must. If you can find an exception please let me know, I’d love to hear it. I don’t even want to get into Christian rap, because if, I am going to listen to rap, it had better be hard edged, socially relevant, subversive or intellectual and Christianity rap, strikes me as lacking in these departments bu its very nature.
What I’m hearing from contemporary Christian music all sounds, mass produced and more focused on acting as medium for a message than as art for art’s sake. It sounds like it was recorded with a target audience in mind, for with the purpose of being played at church camps and youth groups trying to develop a modern feel, complimented with a heavy bunch of paunchiness on the side. The music sounds safe, sanitized, and neutered with an air of suburban conformity disguised as free expressions of individualism. It sounds like the stuff an over-protective suburban mom would let their kids listen to, because Nirvana is out of the question. It is like all the worst aspects of
modern music have been combined with all the most obnoxious elements of Christianity. Part of the problems, seems to me to be the insularity of it all. Christians seem to have this need to exist apart from the rest of society while having their own mirror image derivative institutions (like Christian phone books, movie review sites and, of course, Conservapedia). In the case of Christian rock this ironically means imitating a music style typically associated with sex and drugs.
Everything about it comes off as excessively formulaic and excessively preachy, which says a lot considering that I tend to like music that is meant to convey a message, there is a lot of great music that is message-centered. For example, I listen to many politically oriented punk bands, that put strong statements with each song (that I did not
always agree with), and yet still manage to do it in a way that keeps the music sounding raw, compromised and thought provoking, and not excessively preachy.
It does not, help that these group sound like their target audience is young teenagers or that half way through a live set, the start preaching and it feels like a failed motivational speech. It also does not help, that the lyrical themes have been so heavily recycled that we’ve heard them all before a million times. Not to mention that they either sound like, love songs, with Jesus as the subject, or obsess with becoming a follower or glorify a bloody human sacrifice.
Johnny Cash at least sounded, authentic and had the decency to keep things interesting with songs about, prisons, murders and drugs (not to mention, I appreciate his willingness to cover the likes of Danzig, Soundgarden, Leonard Cohen and Nine Inch Nails).
With all that said, I also want to mention the awful praise music trend, I have seen at many church functions I’ve been dragged to. You know the stuff, repetitive emotion-based, guilt-trip laden lyrics about Jesus’ supposed sacrifice, a few simple chords and a pattern of: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, instrumental
section playing the chords the chorus is built around indefinitely, followed by a motivational speech on top of this, usually asking for people to approach the stage to be saved, or to repeat after the singer to affirm their dedication to the cause. It all just seems like an ill-conceived attempt to play on emotions, and yet the people who buy into this stuff eat it all up. I cannot help but, be reminded of the South Park episode, in which Eric Cartman rights these
types of songs, by replacing the words “darling” and “baby” in generic pop songs with Jesus, with hilarious, and slightly unsettling results.
Anyway, feel free to share your favorite CCM artists with me. I’ve tried Todd Agnew, which sounded like a soft Nickleback imitation (a bad imitation of bad music). I’ve tried Jars of Clay, which was just bland and forgettable as could be. I tried Superchick and can’t imagine how anyone other than a teenage girl could like the stuff (or it’s abstinence themed messages), I tried skillet, which sounded like it was trying hard to sound like everything else. If you think, I paint CCM music with a broad brush, do let me know, and by all means help me find exceptions to the rules. Otherwise, I will remain inclined to think that contemporary Christian music sucks and that
today’s best music tends to be non-religious in nature.