Monday, August 10, 2009

The Devil Still Has All the Good Music: What’s Wrong With CCM

“Think about it, it’s the easiest, crappiest music in the world, right? If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap.” – Eric Cartman

The first CD I recall owning was DC Talk’s Free at Last. I already had a cassette of the group’s stylistically confused hit Jesus Freak, and given her desire to ensure that my music was both cool and safe, my mom was happy to pay for an expansion of my DC Talk collection. The earlier Free at Last was something of an oddity, a rap-rock hybrid before its time, and I never really dug the album. I soon acquired Audio Adrenaline’s Bloom the Newsboys’ Greatest Hits, and several other popular Christian albums that now collect dust somewhere in my parents’ basement. The timeline is fuzzy, but at some point in high school I was baptized by Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and cleansed of my musical sins, which included most everything else I had previously liked. My discovery that the public library lent CDs and the rise of legal streaming media led me further from my musical roots, and eventually into my present (undeserved) reputation for music snobbery.

With my credibility established, I here take on the genre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), arguing that the genre faces some unique obstacles, and as it stands, has little to offer musically and less to offer spiritually, and occasionally seems bent on destroying everything that I love about rock and roll. While the genre as it is provides virtually endless fodder for jokes, I write with a sincere desire to hear Christian music of substance, which I hope is conveyed throughout the essay. A definition before beginning: “Contemporary Christian Music” refers to music written in mainstream pop & rock styles, whose lyrical subject is the Christian faith, and which is primarily marketed to practicing Christians. By most accounts, the genre’s progenitor was the late Larry Norman, whose 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet included campfire staple “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and the song on which this essay’s title plays. The genre has steadily expanded in visibility to the present day, enjoying its own radio format, centralized recording studios in Nashville, and record sales that exceed classical, jazz, New Age and Latin music. My definition draws some important boundaries. It does not include authentic gospel music, which is really its own stylistic entity. It does not include popular rock bands with considerable Christian overtones such as U2 and Creed or critically acclaimed Christian artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Over the Rhine, as their primary markets are outside of the Christian community. It does include a few artists that have crept into the mainstream from the Christian market: Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, Switchfoot, a few others. I’m not terribly interested in debating the precise extension of the definition. If it doesn’t give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, what follows will probably not interest you.

Some background on my own taste might illuminate the criticism that follows. If I’m a snob, I’m a snob of quality, not of obscurity, and you’ve probably heard of most of my favorite artists. I have a deep fondness for much of what falls under the classic rock umbrella from Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen. I step out from under the umbrella around 1976 and into the rain that falls on the punk-postpunk-alternative-indie region, and I warily reside there. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye regularly fight over my soul. I play country when I’m feeling lonely, blues when I’m feeling misogynistic and jazz when I’m feeling introspective. I enjoy classical music, especially enormous orchestral works, but I’m a relative novice. I have a soft spot for most things 80s. I hate nearly everything that’s received radio play in the past 15 years, smooth jazz, nu metal and emo. I’m a product of my time and place just as much as everyone else. I see no reason to be bashful about taste and will unequivocally and sarcastically dismiss many popular Christian artists in these paragraphs.

To be fair, I think that CCM musicians face some unique obstacles in composition. CCM songs tend to be about God, and God is difficult to describe, whether in words or in sounds. God is majestic, powerful, eternal, omniscient, infinite. The most skilled composers writing for the most adept musicians struggle to write music that embodies these traits, and the struggle is inherently greater for someone who just wants to write a catchy pop song. This difficulty especially plagues the congregational worship subgenre of CCM. By definition, such music is written to be performed by church musicians, most of whom are amateurs, with the participation of congregants who may have no musical training at all. Therefore, the instrumentation and technical resources available to a CCM worship songwriter are extremely limited – and she is trying to write music about God. Many churches are lucky to field a solid guitar-bass-drums lineup. Sacred music in the Western art music tradition has almost always employed large instrumental ensembles and often choirs of trained vocalists. Of course, CCM worship music is meant to draw on the mainstream styles of the day, which feature the more modest instrumentation available in churches. But even within the popular music of the rock and roll era, the music that one is most likely to describe as majestic, ecstatic, infinite, is also highly technical. Consider: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, My Bloody Valentine, maybe M83 or Explosions in the Sky if we want to get a bit more contemporary. These artists simply cannot serve as models for congregational worship. Of course, most CCM is not intended for congregational worship, and its musical banality less excusable.

One would think that writing lyrics about God would be a bit easier than writing music about him, given that words are the primary way one learns about him. Unfortunately, the nature of pop lyrics complicates things. Lyrics are of utmost importance in popular music. They should not be poetry, but they should be poetic. They should be so attached to a melody that one cannot imagine them apart from one another. Except in the rarest and most experimental circumstances, every song should contain a brief and memorable lyrical hook and, as I’ve written elsewhere, good songwriters write lyrics that sound good, not lyrics that make sense or contribute to the overall meaning of a song. Herein lies the problem. When one is writing about God, one had better tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Pop music is good at many things: conveying emotion, getting people to dance, irritating authority figures, but it fails at propositional truth. Pop requires that an expression be boiled down to a few words, but God defies such compact description. Nonsensical lyrics sound at best trite and at worst blasphemous in the context of a song about God. One option for Christian songwriters is to write boring, straightforward, and theologically sound lyrics. There are a few of these songs. More writers seem unconcerned with either quality or truth, and so we are blessed with tunes such as “Breathe” and “Draw Me Close”.

CCM would face these challenges regardless of its cultural setting. No matter who listened to the music, and no matter who was available to perform it, it would be difficult to write excellent popular music on God and other Christian subjects. But more problems in CCM arise from its place in the music market. Why does CCM exist at all? In a better world, it would exist because there were Christian musicians of great talent who responded to the cultural mandate of Genesis 2 by writing, recording and performing excellent songs that discussed various aspects of the Christian faith and life. However, CCM has always been bit more confrontational than that, defining itself as the family-friendly alternative to the sex, drugs and rock and roll-saturated world of rock and roll. Indeed, many Christian artists are marketed as “safe” stylistic copies of popular mainstream artists, particularly those with teen fan bases. Whether or not the mainstream artist’s style is worth imitating is not a relevant question in this scenario – the teenagers’ reception of it is, and so a large segment of CCM is aimed at something other than musical quality. A few of the worst offenders that I recall from years past: Plus One (imitating that Backstreet Boys), Pillar (Limp Bizkit), Jaci Velasquez (Jennifer Lopez).

I’m not cynical enough to think that all CCM artists consciously engage in this practice, and strangely enough, CCM, a genre that sometimes claims to be defined only by lyrical content, has also developed a distinct sound. I first realized this when radio channel-surfing on a solo drive through northeastern Ohio, and discovered that I could identify Christian stations without hearing a single word of the songs playing. I usually describe the style as “Wonderbread”, a highly processed, nutritionless and extremely white confection. Note: I formulated the following description, then listened to Pandora’s CCM station for an hour or so, and was astonished at my accuracy.

The primary distinguishing quality of CCM is instrumental muffling in service of an extreme vocal-centric aesthetic. Even prior to vocal entrances, there is a strict limit on the volume of all instruments. No matter the cleanliness or distortion of an electric guitar, it must never attain prominence in the mix. Drums too must sound as if the pillow covers all their studio mics, and drummers are forbidden from playing any rhythms that might incite a listener to bounce, boogie, groove, tap feet or rap on surrounding stationary objects. Because a drum kit is inherently abrasive and attention, electronic drum loops provide an excellent substitute. Instead, all energy and emotion must come from the vocalist. Third Day’s update of “Angus Dei” illustrates this principle nicely. The opening verses are such a tease - they have a real sense of anticipation, come toward a nice crescendo, and right at the moment when a colossal strike of guitar and cymbal should come…a sedate choir chimes in and the instruments fade to the dark recesses of the recording. Exception to the volume limit is occasionally allowed for pianos, provide that their parts are syrupy, the song is a ballad, and a string section enters soon afterward.

Songs must also be free of instrumental hooks, and must mask all traces of blues influence on rock and roll. One can easily demonstrate this principle by asking a CCM fan to hum her 5 favorite guitar licks. A fan whose knowledge reaches really far back, say to the early 90s, might get off the riff to “Big House”, but most will walk away dejectedly. A few misguided fans might try hard to convince you that the halfhearted power-chording of Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live” is really ballin’. By contrast, a fan of real rock music will attempt to provide hours of entertainment as she hums and air guitars her 300 very most favorite riffs, rhythm parts and solos. CCM guts rock and roll’s two most distinguishing features, sturdy rhythms and guitar prominence.

Three types of male vocalists fill out the mix. There is the vulnerable male vocalist, exemplified by Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, and Michael W. Smith. The voice is slight, pitched in mid-tenor range, and is well-suited to songs proclaiming meekness and dependence on God. There is the fatherly male vocalist. Casting Crowns’ Mark Hall, MercyMe’s Bart Millard and Jeremy Camp. The fatherly vocalist has a clear, supremely confident, throaty delivery, never ventures outside of a comfortable mid-range, gives severe musical humidity to ballads and retards peppier numbers. Finally, there is the troglodyte. See: Kutless’s Jon-Micah Sumerall, Thousand Foot Krutch’s Trevor McNevan, and every singer from the inexplicable legions of Christian screamo bands. Is the troglodyte hardcore? You bet your goshdarn rear-end he is. He injects his hip-hop honed rhythm skillz into his band’s leaden tunes, and can this guy emote? Dude, he gives each song like, three times the necessary expression! He’s like, the Christian Fred Durst, Chad Kroeger and Aaron Lewis rolled into one. What, you don’t like those dudes? Yeah, they’re probably a little too hardcore for you. It is important to note that conventional rock vocal styles, including belting, wailing, whining, crooning, howling, bellowing and moaning, are not permitted in CCM.

The final trademark of the CCM style is song structure. The opening consists of an extremely brief instrumental introduction that deliberately eschews flair. Conscientiously muted percussion is an excellent way to gently introduce a song. First verses are usually introspective, and it is acceptable for the vocalist to be dissatisfied and worried in the first verse of a song. The chorus must however, boldly proclaim that such dissatisfaction is irrelevant because God is (present, great, powerful, merciful…). The chorus must be more ornately produced than the verse. String sections and synthesizers abound. The second verse will return to introspection, and reassess the prior situation in light of the chorus’s truth, proclaiming a new reliance on God. The second chorus must increase the ornamentation. There is a decrescendo to the bridge, in which the singer commits to living in light of the chorus’s truth. A final series of lavish choruses solidifies this commitment. It is vital that the CCM lyricist never complicate songs by including specific images and details from one’s experience, but instead writes in vagaries, especially when discussing sin. The great songwriters universalize the particular – CCM songwriters ignore the particular. Didacticism, normally acceptable only in dance tunes (“Shake shake shake, shake shake shake, shake you booty”, is freely used in CCM. Any imagery or figurative language in a CCM song must be taken from the natural world. Fire, rain, storms, rivers and floods are common and appropriate images. Deviations from formula are rare.

In the Christian story, Christ, through his life death and resurrection, gives new life to a lifeless world. How ironic that Contemporary Christian Music should encounter rock and roll, a music full of life and passion, and make it into something dull and dead. Music is one of my greatest pleasures and greatest teachers, and it dismays me that the church’s music is so lacking.
Most of this essay has registered complaints. I conclude on a much for positive note. There are obstacles to the creation of excellent popular music with explicitly Christian lyrical subjects, but they are not insurmountable. Given the supreme power of musical expression and these supreme importance of Christian truth, this is a vital task. Some have already taken it up. Here are ten albums that would earn a “worthwhile” or “essential” on my rating scale, and that have substantial Christian lyrical content: Anybody Out There? by Burlap to Cashmere*, The True False Identity by T Bone Burnett, Back Home by Caedmon’s Call, Truth, Soul & Rock and Roll by The Elms, Songs by Rich Mullins*, Thrive by Newsboys, Mindsize by Poor Old Lu, Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens, The Answer to the Question by Tree63, War by U2*.

*indicates essential rating

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