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POPULAR MUSIC: WELCOMING TO THE NEW FOLK



The following essay is from the syposium "The State of the Arts," which appears in Image #22, our expanded, tenth anniversary issue.

To celebrate Image's tenth anniversary, we asked a number of past contributors to look back over the last decade and comment on the important developments in a variety of art forms. In particular, we asked each contributor to assess the relationship between art and religious faith in his or her respective genre.

MAKING a living as a Christian in the arts in this country has become very tricky in recent years, mostly because popular Christian culture has become something quite removed from what art is all about. The media often portrays Christianity as being narrow, legalistic, and intolerant - and not without cause. Just this morning I tuned in to the "Today" show and found Jerry Falwell arguing that the "Teletubbies" program promoted a gay lifestyle to small children. Forgive me if I appear to be out of touch here, but as far as I can see, the Teletubbies have no visible sexual characteristics. This is supposed to be a burning issue to people of faith?

Similarly, the public face of "Christian music" in America has manifested a brittle and manipulative attitude. The Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry - which is not a single entity, but a loose collection of record labels, radio stations, magazines, and assorted support organizations - pretends to be upbeat and hip, but in reality it has become shallow and repressive. While a number of fine Christian musicians have found a place for their art on public radio - "triple-A" (adult/acoustic/alternative) and Americana radio - their art is considered beyond the pale by the people who control the CCM airwaves. The publishers of CCM magazines have taken a softer line on non-conforming musicians, but little else has changed in the last decade.

Tolerance is generally encouraged in the secular music world; songwriters are the lifeblood of the art, and they tend to be a diverse crowd. This does not mean that the secular music world embraces wild-eyed, bible-thumping guitar queens. People are fairly suspicious of anyone who promotes a specific religious stance; a quiet spirituality that is integrated into a whole vision of life is more acceptable than dogma. Perhaps this isn't such a bad state of affairs.

Kenny Meeks, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter and itinerant guitarist who has played with Kim Hill, Buddy Green, and the band Sixpence None the Richer, says that "in fact the best new music has an interesting spiritual edge...that reaches inside deeper than music that concentrates on sex or love." Brooks Williams, a Boston-based singer/songwriter whose work appears on the Green Linnet label, says that when he started playing coffee houses he encountered "a great deal of openness...especially to songwriters of faith."

Conversely, people in the world of contemporary Christian music tend to be suspicious of any language that is not explicitly religious. This suspicion is partly rooted in a well-known marketing formula: the people who package and sell CCM believe artists should "name the name" of Jesus as often as possible, because doing so will create more sales. This is not a mere hypothetical inference on my part. A few years ago, I had a "meaningful" conversation with the president of a Certain Record Label with which I am no longer associated. He couldn't quite figure out where I was coming from, and finally he said, "You know, Jan, if you would just mention Jesus in your music, we could all make a lot of money."

The CCM audience's suspicion of anything that does not shout the name seems to be rooted in fear and bigotry. Williams says that a gig played at a Christian college will inevitably be followed by weeks of angry e-mail messages from students, most of whom will question the genuineness of his Christianity and the validity of his art. Why? Because his music didn't meet their criteria for Christian art. Not only must you spell out your beliefs for your audience's instant analysis, but you must also tailor your definitions to fit the pharisaical template that characterizes the world of CCM.

A number of Christians have gotten the idea that vocation and religion must ride piggyback when that vocation is in the arts. There are a whole lot of carpenters out there who do not build churches, but nobody seems to mind that. Why should artists be treated any differently?

I knew I was an artist before I ever thought about the existence of God. I had no choice about being an artist. I do not practice my religion for the same reasons I practice my art. The practice of religion may involve the use of art, but only as a tool for explaining and celebrating faith. However, this should not limit our conception of art to being just another saw in the toolbox.

But a lot of people prefer to see art as something necessarily utilitarian and pragmatic, and to view Christian artists performing outside that model as traitors to the faith. This has forced a number of talented Christians "underground." I know a Christian who has made some serious dough in both the Christian and secular music worlds, but, he says, "the problem is, once some Christians know that you embrace the Christian religion and that you are an artist, they want you to practice religious art." The telling part is that, although he was happy to discuss this with me, he insisted that I keep his name out of the article. His little light may shine somewhere, but not here. He is just one of several prominent Christians in the singer/songwriter scene who need to preserve their anonymity for professional reasons.

Now, you may be terribly curious about the identities of these closet Christians, but I'm not here to "out" them in these pages. The truth is that far too many would just as soon not be the subject of another article in a magazine that is even remotely associated with Christendom. The only reason most would chat with me was that they were familiar with Image and knew that Image's emphasis is on artistry and faith and not contemporary Christian culture. Most of the artists I spoke to do not want their art to be defined by their faith. When I asked them why, the resounding reply was that Christian art is by definition bad art. How could it be that art and faith, which have heretofore gone hand in hand, should come to represent less than the sum of the parts when they are joined in this field of music? Brooks Williams says that, "When you add commerce...that's when you get into trouble. The potential for success...can screw things up. Suddenly you need to define the faith and water down the art or vice versa."

David Wilcox, a singer/songwriter from Maryland who records on the Vanguard label, has an interesting take on the issue of commerce and the dumbing down of art. "My perception [of CCM] is, it's marked toward a specific demographic because of radio. Radio has to sell ads to advertisers whose products are aimed toward a narrow slice of humanity. That kind of reduces music to target marketing. As a result the music has become a parody of itself...it's been simplified into this good-guy, bad-guy stuff." "It's divisive," said Wilcox. "That's what radio wants, not what Jesus wants."

According to Wilcox, market forces do more to determine the shape and substance of Christian music than genuine inspiration. More complex music can't be understood on the first run-through, he says, and may need to be heard three or more times to be understood, whereas pop music is written to be understood immediately by anyone who hears it. Pop music doesn't explore the intricacies of mature relationships, but is forever tilted toward the sweet and simple. To Wilcox, pop music can be summed up in a single lyric: "'I just met you and, baby, I'll love you forever.' Pop Christian music is like, 'Jesus is my boyfriend,' which is great, but can be misleading. Life brings changes, and you can lose faith when you find that, after receiving Jesus, he's still Jesus, but I'm still me. I didn't change."

And that more than anything else defines my problem with CCM: we are all tragically, conspicuously, permanently human. Artists outside CCM are free to explore the limitations of their humanity in depth; CCM artists are not. This is especially true of artists in the singer/songwriter genre, which tends to be profoundly confessional. Singer/songwriters who want to explore their humanity are welcome in folk clubs and coffeehouses, but their music is most definitely unwelcome in the two-dimensional world of Christian music.

I don't think that I would be giving away any secrets if I mentioned the art of some fine singer/songwriters whose faith is inseparable from their exploration of our common humanity. I'm going to start with Pierce Pettis. Pierce was one of the first "New Folk" artists on the Windham Hill label. He may well be one of the best songwriters of our time. David Wilcox caught my attention in 1993. I heard his song "Eye of the Hurricane" on public radio in Detroit and immediately went out to get it. I don't often do that. David's career has climbed steadily throughout the nineties. Brooks Williams put a tune on a compilation disc that the late Mark Heard was putting together for some CCM label. The label was interested in signing Brooks, but they saw him as being too raw. They wanted him to change his appearance, develop a pop style, etc. He decided to go back to Boston and do the acoustic thing, and the rest, as they say, is history. He is a fine musician and a solid writer. Bill Malonee (from the band Vigilantes of Love) was a schoolteacher for a few years but his heart insisted that he get out and play. He plays all over the place, all of the time. Bill writes powerful music with edgy lyrics. The bands Over the Rhine and Monk bury threads of faith and mystery in their songs. We also hear whispers of faith from Buddy and Julie Miller, T-Bone Burnett, and Sam Phillips. I heard folk music veteran Bruce Cockburn speak at the Faith and Writing conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan in 1998. Bruce said he tried, he really tried, to be an evangelical, but it just "didn't take." Bruce has produced one of the more important bodies of work of any songwriter of our times.

It is interesting to note that all of these artists were connected to Mark Heard in some way. I never met Mark, but I had scheduled an appointment with him to discuss the possibility of his producing a CD for me. I was to meet him backstage at Cornerstone Festival at the end of his concert there. Mark suffered a heart attack on stage at the end of his concert that night. He died a few weeks later when he suffered a second heart attack. Mark wrestled with the CCM industry throughout his career. He fought with them about the lack of artistic integrity in CCM. Mark maintained his art at great personal cost. The confessional essay he published in journal form that appeared in Image #2 has become something of a foundational document for many young Christians trying to find their way in the music business.

So, as the nineties have worn on and through, what I and my colleagues have come to understand is that this confusion about Christian art and Christians in the arts will never go away. If you're really an artist, it comes down to this: Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I don't think any of the artists I interviewed for this piece could have chosen to follow any other path. We may someday find some way to make the music biz a little easier for Christians to pursue, but I think we would all continue to make music whether we made money at it or not. Let's get on with it.

Copyright © by Jan Krist for Image

Jan Krist's personal essay "Mercy Me: Music, Art, and Real Life" was featured in Image #14. She is a singer/songwriter whose 1993 recording Decapitated Society was selected by Billboard magazine as that year's best album in a (broadly defined) gospel genre. Her most recent CD is Love Big, us small (Silent Planet), a compilation of new and selected recordings. Also, Jan's first two albums Decapitated Society/Wing And A Prayer recently has been released on one CD (Silent Planet Records, 2002), remastered with special extensive packaging. Visit Jan's website at www.jankrist.com. Jan would like to thank her brother, W.D. Cutlip, for his help in writing this symposium contribution.

This article is taken from issue #22 of
Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.
Used by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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