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Sniffing Glue

While born-again rockers can be traced back to the Jesus People movement in the 1960s, the 1990s was the decade of Christian contemporary music, or CCM…  Jon Gibson, a pop artist who produced what is generally considered the first Christian rap song (1986’s “The Wall”), argued that Christian musicians needed to be savvier in presenting teens with the gospel. He told CCM Magazine, “I want to sneak into their hearts with the music. Contemporary Christian music needs to branch out a little more, get a little sneakier.”

This, by the way, is considered the ultimate sign of quality CCM, even amongst Christians: the ability to pass as secular. Every band’s goal was to have teenagers stop their grooving mid-song and exclaim, like a soda commercial actress who’s just realized she’s been drinking diet, “Wait, this is Christian?”…

For the most part, believers came to agree with Frank Breeden, President of the Gospel Music Association, who said “There really is no such things as a Christian B-flat. Music in itself is an amoral vehicle.”…

In 1995, DC Talk shocked their fans by releasing Jesus Freak, an alt-rock album full of double-tracked power chords and grungy bass lines… The concept was unlike anything that had been pitched at born-again teens: a celebration of the marginalized believer…

It’s worth pointing out that this was around the time Beck was singing “I’m a loser, baby,” and Thom Yorke was droning “I’m a creep.” If I had flipped through FM radio that summer, I might have heard The Offspring (“I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem”), or Green Day (“Sometimes I give myself the creeps”), or Gwen Stefani (“Guess I’m some kind of freak”). The irony is that DC Talk’s album, for all its glorification of ostracized misfits, was the most culturally relevant CCM album of the decade…

As McKeehan put it, “Music is our tool. Our message is Christ.” Like most CCM artists of that era, they saw themselves primarily as evangelists… This was the reason Christian rock had a reputation for being shoddy, and it was also the reason why so many Christian artists switched genres—not just evolved but completely changed their sound and look and ethos. The music was always a vehicle for the message, and if artists believed there was a more effective way to reach kids with that message, by all means they’d do it…

Christian bands could mimic what was already mainstream, but it was difficult to compete with a product created with the help of millions of dollars worth of demographic research. Cultural relevance could be bought, and MTV, part of media conglomerate Viacom, had a very large budget…

The Music Trendsetters Study coined the word “pessimysticism,” an attitude that expresses “a simultaneous dissatisfaction with the inauthenticity of commercial music, and a search for higher emotion and expression in music.” For most of my high school years, I noticed an odd disconnect: everyone at church was bemoaning the fact that kids were no longer interested in spirituality, and yet all I heard on MTV was stuff about God. As CCM strove to keep up with an industry teens resented for its spiritual vacuity, MTV reached the acme of its marketing genius: its ability to take its audience’s disenchantment with commercialism, repackage it, and sell it back to them…

Basically, CCM caught on to the number one rule of coolness: don’t let your marketing show. The best bands—the successful ones, at least—learned to gloss over the gospel message the same way TV producers camouflaged corporate sponsorship. Explicitly Christian lyrics prevented DC Talk from crossing over to the secular market in the ’90s; today it’s difficult to imagine their unapologetic faith making it in the Christian circuit…

This trend spreads beyond CCM into many areas of evangelical culture. The church is becoming increasingly consumer-friendly…  I have heard a pastor say, from a pulpit, “Hey, I’m not here to preach at anyone.” And yet, in spite of these efforts, churches are retaining only 4 percent of the young people raised in their congregations…

Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that because the church isn’t Viacom… In trying to compete in this market, the church has forfeited the one advantage it had in the game to attract disillusioned youth: authenticity. When it comes to intransigent values, the profit-driven world has zilch to offer. If Christian leaders weren’t so ashamed of those unvarnished values, they might have something more attractive than anything on today’s bleak moral market. In the meantime, they’ve lost one more kid to the competition.

http://www.guernicamag.com/features/2874/meghan_ogieblyn_7_15_11/

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