The hardest lesson I had to learn early on as a music journalist was that you couldn’t review music on a surface level. Coming into the journalism gig, I was a quintessential good girl who had lived a sheltered life. I automatically leaned towards reviewing Christian music because it was all I knew, and so I was thrilled when a fairly well-known Christian music site allowed me to start writing for them.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that the label “Christian” didn’t automatically make the music good or free of commercial motives. In fact, just like every other facet of the music industry, the Christian music industry can be wealth-driven, image-based and commercialized. I suppose I shouldn’t be so shocked, right? Business is business, but as my editor taught me about the ins and outs of the industry and the fine ethical and spiritual line we walk as journalists, I was completely stunned. The fact that labels, bands and albums were molded to sell records could mean that they were, at times, selling out. Or worse, faking it. As a young and naive journalist, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that a band saying they make “Christian music” would be so fueled by the commodity driven market of the secular industry.
This was the first time I understood the problem with Christian music: for all it’s beautiful lyrical content, I learnt that as a journalist, I couldn’t just take a band’s image, their music or their lyrics at face value. I had to dig deeper in order to truly understand the heart behind what they created. In other words, labeling yourself a “Christian band” shouldn’t automatically give you a free pass to release crappy music. Or to sing things that you didn’t believe in. But sometimes, it does.
Many people have come out bashing faith-based music in the past, and there are as many voices for it as against. While the title of this blog talks about the problem in how we perceive Christian music, it is actually not designed to be negative. I love Christian music. I review it regularly, I know people who make music stemming from their love for God and I am even part of the band at my own church. In itself, Christian music is not a bad thing. Like any beautifully crafted song, quality Christian music can move you and change you. It can help transform people in their private relationship with God and in corporate settings. Yet I’ve found that when we think of Christian music, we tend to lean towards two extremes which alienate us from experiencing the beauty of it.
Some people perceive Christian music purely as label and lyric-based. If you are an artist signed to CCM, are a church band, sing about Jesus while throwing in spiritual jargon and have a scripture tattooed on your arm, chances are you fit into this category. These labels and bands, sit under the “Christian music” brand Church people love and many other people ignore. Many of them make exquisite music, some of them are mediocre, and others have created a brilliant faith-based image in order to sell a product to a committed audience.
Within the Christian music scene, bands become rock stars in their own right, and amidst the plethora of names and releases, we find some real stand outs who are often as good if not better than some of their secular counterparts. Names like Francesca Battistelli, Steffany Gretzinger and For King & Country all come to mind. Yet so often these talented musicians are passed over or are not given the credit they deserve in the secular market because they fall under the CCM genre. We are so used to mediocre “Christian music” or the stigma that has become attached to it, that these talented individuals get looked over. That’s the problem with Christian music – it stipulates that a certain audience must follow musicians who acknowledge they make Christian music.
Then we have the other end of the spectrum. The musicians who refuse to be labelled as “Christian artists” or step into the secular market. Switchfoot, Lecrae, MxPx… the list goes on. These band’s have taken on the pivotal role of bridging the gap between the Christian and secular markets, and it often comes with a lot of backlash.
Sometimes this music will mention Jesus, other times it won’t. Yet often when you listen to these bands, you find something beautiful and authentic within their delivery. Sure, some “Christian” bands may sell out and become “secular” to gain more success, but with many, I feel like they have grasped a concept which many of us are behind on: the fact that music is for all people everywhere.
Several years ago RELEVANT released an article where Jon Foreman spoke about the nature of Christian music, saying “We’ve dissected our faith and made it a commercial commodity…That’s why it’s got a stigma to it.” Known for Switchfoot’s decision to never subscribe to the “Christian band” title, he has been one of the key voices in challenging the nature of Christian music. More recently, after hitting #1 on the Billboard charts with his album, Anomaly, Lecrae has also stated in an interview with Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange, “I am a Christian. I am a rapper. But Christian is my faith, not my genre.”
These guys have helped me to understand a hard lesson many people only learn once they enter the industry: the person defines the religious and ethical grounds of their music, not the label. And in this way, music is not religious, but an expression of the artist. And while there are many people who don’t like the fact these artists don’t align themselves strictly with the Christian genre, I now understand why they refuse to do so. Because an essential part of music is that it is made as an authentic expression of the artist. And it is meant to be made well. Sometimes, falling under the CCM brand restricts artists from achieving this. Lecrae even went so far as to say, “Christians have prostituted art to give answers.”
When I look at the ins and outs of the Christian music industry, an industry which I could never claim to have a complete knowledge of, I have quickly learned never to assume things. There are many, many artists and members of the Christian music community who have worked their butts off for their success. They are talented individuals who have done the hard yards, and even though their names may not be in lights, they deserve to have them recognized. But at the same time I have learnt the hard way never to take things at face value. Because just like Kanye and Lady Gaga have a brand and image to protect, so do these bands. Many of them live out their image authentically, they carry a conviction in their lyrics and what you see is what you get. But, just like people are molded in the secular industry to hit #1 on the iTunes charts, so are some of these artists.
The problem with Christian music is that we have allowed ourselves to assume that face value is definitive and that a certain brand gives artists permission to celebrate semi-good tunes. The fact is, it doesn’t. After speaking with many people within the industry who love God and love to make music, I have observed a shift happening. It’s spilling into festivals and charts: people are stepping out of the box that is “Christian music,” and looking for ways to fix this problem.
They are doing it by running Christian music festivals based solely on the quality of the bands; they are doing it by signing onto secular labels yet not deviating from their core values; and they are doing it by making music for everyone, everywhere.They are showing the world that Christian music isn’t just “Christian music” and the sad stigma that sometimes becomes attached to it. It is music that is delivered with a purpose and heart for a cause far bigger than themselves. And the best musicians, whoever the artist is and whatever genre they fall under, proves this by being the real deal commercially, personally and authentically.