The Devil’s Music

by Kieran Healy on July 31, 2005

I’m gradually making my way back to Tucson from Australia. Free advice: if you can avoid taking a flight across the Pacific oecean with a small child suffering from a cold and teething pain, go right ahead and avoid it. I am presently at an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest. Outside the hotel is a little plaza. A band has been playing Christian rock music to a small crowd. Lots of terrible, low-quality, saccharine power ballad stuff, complete with sexualized double-talk. (“There was a man in my room last night … ” Guess who it was.) Like Creed on valium. Hard to imagine, I know. They just closed out the show with a version of “I’m a Believer.” By far the liveliest song they’ve played, but with the lyrics changed. (“Then I saw his face,” etc.) I suppose something has to counterbalance the fact that a large chunk of the best music ever written is Christian music.

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08.06.05 at 7:32 am

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1

Ben Alpers 08.01.05 at 12:08 am

Any mention of Christian rock makes me think of this classic, unintentionally hilarious Chick tract.

On a more serious note: how come all Christian rock sucks? It’s entirely possible to disagree bitterly with the ideology of a song’s lyrics, but to appreciate it musically. When I lived in England in 1986, I had a Thatcherite friend who listened to Billy Bragg. The fact that I find the “message” of Christian rock ridiculous shouldn’t, in principle, prevent me from liking the tunes. But, as far as I can tell, in the now vast sphere of Christian rock, there’s just nothing worth listening to.

2

Chris Bertram 08.01.05 at 12:58 am

There’s one, and maybe just one, recent album of Christian rock (or alt.country/gospel anyway) that doesn’t suck and, which, in fact is amazingly good: Buddy Miller’s “Universal United House of Prayer”:http://www.buddyandjulie.com/uuhp.html . It contains an awesome cover of Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and is animated throughout by a disgust with the US Republican Party’s hijacking of Christianity. One of the favourite recent purchases of very much non-Christian me.

3

Maynard Handley 08.01.05 at 1:09 am

Has anyone ever done this better than South Park?
“When I see Jesus up on that cross,
I can’t help but think that he looks kinda hot”

4

Christopher M 08.01.05 at 1:45 am

I agree that pretty much “all christian rock sucks,” but only because “christian rock” generally denotes a pretty specific genre of music, adult-alternative/arena-rock/power-ballad stuff, and not just any rock/pop music with Christian themes.

Not that the universe of good and overtly Christian music is big or anything, but it certainly exists. Sufjan Stevens is maybe the most obvious example right now. So Come on feel the Illinoise! — which is brilliant, by the way, and part of his quirky project of recording an album for each of the 50 states — has some pretty explicitly Christian lyrics. (E.g., “The Seer’s Tower”: “Seven miles above the earth, / There is Emmanuel of mothers. / With his sword, with his robe, / He comes dividing man from brothers.”)

And hey, not everything from Dylan’s Christian period totally sucked.

5

bad Jim 08.01.05 at 2:43 am

I don’t want to respond with outrage or disbelief to a statement like

I suppose something has to counterbalance the fact that a large chunk of the best music ever written is Christian music.

so I’ll say that Haydn’s “Nelson Mass”, which I was fortunate to hear performed by John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Quoir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, was at least the equal of any of Haydn’s operas, of which I’ve heard none.

In the only mass I’ve ever attended, celebrating the sudden violent death of a dear friend, Schubert’s Ave Maria stood out like a jewel amid the muck, though I never cared for the piece before.

“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Sheep May Safely Graze” are among the best tunes ever written, but might Bach not have composed something comparable if some other institution could have afforded his efforts?

6

Matt McGrattan 08.01.05 at 3:06 am

That Sufjan Stevens album is fantastic. It’s not overtly Christian music in the sense that most ‘Christian rock’ is though — the big power-ballady type stuff already mentioned — even if it is informed by Stevens’ own religious beliefs.

Re: great Christian music. Well, apart from huge swathes of the output of Bach, in all its transcendent musical genius, and lots of other parts of the European canon, there’s also African-American gospel music…

7

johnhayter 08.01.05 at 3:13 am

I’d add that a large part of Nick Cave’s output is informed by an obsession with the bible.

8

agm 08.01.05 at 3:20 am

I don’t get it. We’ve tried everything the devil hates.

Sex.

Drugs.

Rock and roll.

9

Sue Thomas 08.01.05 at 3:45 am

Anyone remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine finds out that Putty has Christian rock pre-set on his car radio? Her horror and disbelief almost ruins a nonperfect relationship…

10

nick 08.01.05 at 4:27 am

Jessica Simpson got out of the Christian pop sector because she said it was much more vicious and backstabbing than regular pop.

As someone living in a part of the world with a depressing number of religious radio stations, I think there’s an obvious bait-and-switch going on: you scan through, and hit a sub-par rock ballad, then realise 30 seconds in that it’s talking about Big J. Very creepy. And very deliberate.

I’d be curious to know if there’s a similar genre of Muslim pop/rock…

11

Brendan 08.01.05 at 4:38 am

What about “Jesus is just alright by me” by the Byrds? That was kinda cool. Serious. Also don’t forget Gospel music.

12

Max 08.01.05 at 4:40 am

A friend of mine made the point to me last week that there has never been a good Christian hardcore (punk) band. The hardcore scene has had Rastafarian bands (Bad Brains), Krishna bands (108), but never a decent Christian hardcore band. The Christian hardcore bands have tended to be sub-par outfits like No Innocent Victim, Disciple, etc.

It’s not that Christian’s can’t make good hardcore bands, it’s just that when they have, they’ve sucked.

13

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 08.01.05 at 6:09 am

Well, regarding the Byrds, gospel music, etc — we’re not talking about music with overtly Christian content, we’re talking about a recently-evolved genre-slash-marketing category.

The great T-Bone Burnett is some kind of believing Christian as well, but the music he makes has nothing to do with the genre of “Christian rock,” even when it has overtly Christian references.

14

yoyo 08.01.05 at 6:21 am

lots of choral stuff is christian, from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Paart.

Van Morrison seems to be be somewhat religious at times.

Of the “jesus genre/labels” two interesting artists are starflyer 59 and PEdro the lion.

15

jen brame 08.01.05 at 6:38 am

Although not a Christian nor a fan of most Christian rock, I really do love P.O.D.’s work, especially “Alive” (http://www.lyricsondemand.com/p/podlyrics/alivelyrics.html):

Everyday is a new day
I’m thankful for every breath I take
I won’t take it for granted
So I learn from my mistakes
It’s beyond my control, sometimes it’s best to let go
Whatever happens in this lifetime
So I trust in love
You have given me peace of mind
chorus:
I feel so alive for the very first time
I can’t deny you
I feel so alive
I feel so alive for the very first time
And I think I can fly

16

bob mcmanus 08.01.05 at 6:51 am

Glass Harp, c 1971. I have a live recording of this power trio at Pacific High Recorders. It includes the 33 minute “Can You See Me”. You won’t believe it til you hear it, pretty good to excellent as far as guitar hero excesses go.

“One of the first Christian-themed pop/rock acts, Glass Harp was comprised singer/guitarist Phil Keaggy, bassist Dan Pecchio and drummer John Sferra. Formed in 1969 in Youngstown, Ohio, the group — a free-form power trio in the tradition of Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and fellow Buckeyes the James Gang” …All Music Guide

17

Mrs Tilton 08.01.05 at 6:56 am

Kieran, given that you have just been to Australia, may we infer that the post title is an allusion to Oz’s great contribution to the world musical corpus, Lubricated Goat?

As for wee George Ivan, I am not certain whether (or in what way) he is personally religous. I think he used to dabble in L. Ron Hubbardism, but later grew pretty agnostic across the board. Some of his music, though, certainly has a strong evangelical Christian component. This might be down to nothing more than a reverence for the Christian musical culture of his youth.

Christian rock would seem pretty definitely a minority phenomenon. Some of it’s not half bad, though. Morrison’s “Full Force Gale” is excellent, though I’m not sure one would call it rock. Personally, I very much enjoy U2’s October, their oft-ignored second LP, which is suffused with religious thought, albeit of a subtle sort. (They got more forthright in War.)

“Christian Rock”, by contrast, is in my experience universally shite.

I did see a superb Christian Rock Video once though. The music was eminently forgetable and, indeed, I have long since forgotten it. But the accompanying visual minidrama was very well done. The theme was persecuted Russian Christians hungry for the Word of the Lord (this was back in pre-Gorby CCCP days, you understand). Bearded and in rags and against a generally Siberian backdrop, they were trying desparately to get their mitts on a bible. They were finally left with but a single crumpled page. During the coda the scene shifts to the prosperous USA, where an affluent suburban woman looks at a headline to the effect that state school bible readings have been banned.

Though its message was pernicious and dishonest, the video was very effective in conveying that message. And the production values were great. Remember, this was a long time ago, when most mainstream rock videos simply showed the band thrashing away, perhaps with an occasional strange camera angle or oddly colured lights by way of artistic effect. Whoever made that Christian video was miles better than most other stuff on offer back then, and could probably hold his or her own even today.

I saw the video while visiting some rather strenuously evangelical friends. At the end of the video, one of them remarked, ‘Pity if the only page they got was the “Begats”‘. Awfully irreverent if you ask me, and I trust the Lord has since punished him.

18

bob mcmanus 08.01.05 at 7:06 am

Oh. Also Water into Wine Band “Hill Climbing for Beginners” 1974 is an English folk-prog band (Jethro Tull,Pentangle,Gryphon) that I like a lot. Has a 10 minute or so piece about Jesus on the cross.

My instincts tell me the English prog group “Spring” might be Christian, but simply the usual obscure prog lyrics may be decieving me.

And Judee Sill may or may not have been Christian, but she sure uses the imagery. First class.

19

SamChevre 08.01.05 at 7:13 am

There is a lot of contemporary Christian music that is good–it’s just not labeled “Christian contemporary”. It may be labeled gospel or folk or bluegrass or country–just not “Christian contemporary.”

The New Pantagruel had an article on Christian rock and its badness which I thought was awesome–My Faith Is on the Rock and my Name Is on the Roll

20

Jeremy Osner 08.01.05 at 7:41 am

Hey speaking of lame edits to Beatles lyrics: The local chapter of NJ Peace Action sponsored a Peace Picnic this weekend, which was fun; the guy playing guitar and singing did “A Little Help From My Friends”, and inserted “used to” before “get high with a little help from my friends”…

21

Chris M 08.01.05 at 8:28 am

James Macmillan, the Scottish composer, has some interesting Christian music. His percussion concerto ‘Veni Veni Emmanuel‘ is available on a budget Naxos CD. His Seven Last Words from the Cross is also worth purchasing.
He also has a work called Angus (sic) Dei which alas is not as funny as its title suggests.

22

DT 08.01.05 at 9:01 am

I’ll pile on with yet another agreement with the idea that while self-styled Christian Rock does,m indeed, tend to suck, there is a fair amount of Christian music that is just fine. I can think of a number of reasons. One is perhaps that Christian rock has become defined as a subgenre, and so for musical respect (and also money, perhaps), a band that’s good enough to compete in a larger arena of rock in general would naturally want to avoid getting labelled as Christian Rock.

Alternatively, it might be an internal effect where Christian rock has selected out fans that like the saccharine, keyboard heavy sound, and so that’s what Christian rock producers keep churning out. So that the sound rather than the subject matter is what now defines the genre.

Anyway, I’ll nominate Live as a band that is heavily Christian (if not very doctrinaire) while still being good music.

23

Dan Nexon 08.01.05 at 9:08 am

I think the relevant question is this: if the demographic targeted by Christian rock labels were listening to non-Christian rock, would they be listening to stuff the majority of people who read Crooked Timber think is good?

I suspect that if they weren’t listening to Christian rock, they’d be listening to what most of us consider to be bad non-Christian power ballads, pop songs, etc.

On a related note, I assume you’ve all heard that Bach is, apparently, no longer a Christian composer?

24

David Wildgoose 08.01.05 at 9:24 am

Evanescence are an excellent rock band who also happen to be Christian, (ditto U2). I think it just depends on how overt the whole religious stuff is.

25

bmj 08.01.05 at 9:41 am

What’s ironic, of course, about David Bazan/Pedro the Lion is that he has tried to distance himself from the evangelical masses that have jumped aboard his bandwagon:

You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord to hear the voice of the spirit saying shut the fuck up.
You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray besides it couln’t have been the Lord because you don’t believe He talks that way.

That’s not to say Bazan has lost his faith — he’s simply become disenchanted with assuming the mantle of “Christian rock star.”

26

pjk 08.01.05 at 10:01 am

27

Clarkent 08.01.05 at 10:21 am

Low is a pretty good example of a Christian band that rocks, albeit very, very slowly.

28

Jon 08.01.05 at 10:39 am

Evanescence are (or were) a pretty overtly Christian group. Check out the written lyrics to “Wake Me Up”. U2 keep it more in the background.

29

The Navigator 08.01.05 at 11:03 am

Personally I love The Innocence Mission, especially the sublime beauty of their last LP of original material ‘Befriended’. They even set a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to music.

30

Jake 08.01.05 at 11:06 am

Ah, I see Dan in #23 has made the comment I was going to make. The rules of this straight camp were also laid out in this month’s Harper’s.

I comment only so I can add my personal bit of derision to the notion that Bach is a secular composer. I wonder, would they even let you listen to Palestrina? Gregorian Chant? If not, is it because they recognize deep down that making one listen to what they regard as “Christian music” is something akin to torture? Golgotha! That goes up to 11!

31

bmj 08.01.05 at 11:29 am

Low is a pretty good example of a Christian band that rocks, albeit very, very slowly.

I thought they were Mormons. That doesn’t count!

32

Scott 08.01.05 at 2:48 pm

Is it because they aren’t Christian that Mormons don’t count? Does this mean they are more or less likely to make good music, bmj?

33

Slayton I. Mustgo 08.01.05 at 3:31 pm

I think it is the same as with “Women’s Music”. Women singing music, fine. Women folk-singers, fine. Women singer-songwriters, fine. But “Women’s Music” always sucks.

SIM

34

lago 08.01.05 at 5:21 pm

While 31 and 32 are likely engaged in a poorly-fought battle of funny, it should be pointed out that Mormons are Christians, though of a restorationist rather than protestant orientation.

35

mq 08.01.05 at 6:47 pm

Check out Iris Dement, “Wasteland of the Free” for some good left wing Christian stuff.

36

bmj 08.01.05 at 8:49 pm

While 31 and 32 are likely engaged in a poorly-fought battle of funny, it should be pointed out that Mormons are Christians, though of a restorationist rather than protestant orientation.

True enough, on both counts.

37

bad Jim 08.02.05 at 5:36 am

As long as I’m already going to hell, I ought to damn myself for omitting Handel in the shortlist of catchy Christian tunes. “As We Like Sheep” ought to be the Australian national anthem.

38

Chris Baldwin 08.02.05 at 8:02 am

No one’s mentioned Black Sabbath. After Forever, Lord of This World, Into the Void – those all have Christian lyrics (even if the last one seems to be about escaping from Satan on a spaceship).

39

Jake 08.02.05 at 10:38 am

Not to mention Motley Cruee. As Vince Neill once pointed out, it’s “Shout AT the Devil”, not “Shout WITH the Devil”.

40

Uncle Kvetch 08.02.05 at 11:50 am

The great T-Bone Burnett is some kind of believing Christian as well, but the music he makes has nothing to do with the genre of “Christian rock,” even when it has overtly Christian references.

I don’t know about T-Bone, but his wife, the most excellent singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, was formerly a Christian pop artist recording under the name Leslie Phillips. Her work as Sam suggests she’s turned her back not just on the Christian music industry but on organized religion as a whole.

Does U2 still count as a “Christian” band? I mean, do they still talk openly about Christianity/spirituality/faith in interviews the way they did in their early days?

And for that matter, here’s one I’ve been wondering about for awhile: the Housemartins. They were unmistakeably (lefty) Christians at first: the inner sleeve of “London 0 Hull 4” is emblazoned with “Take Marx – Take Jesus – Take Hope.” But there’s certainly no discernible religious content in their subsequent projects (the Beautiful South & Fatboy Slim). Anybody know the story?

41

lalala 08.02.05 at 2:38 pm

T-Bone Burnett is definitely Christian. But not Christian rock. I think the genre issue pointed out upthread is relevant to a lot of the counter-examples offered, like U2. They may be Christian, but they’re not Christian rock. As for the Buddy Miller example, that just goes to show that a lot of the best country (and alt country and so on) music is Christian. As is a lot of the worst.

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