I’ve never been a big fan of prom songs for Jesus. I have tried to like a lot of the mainstream Christian contemporary music, and there are a few artists out there who really strike me as incredible – Keith Green, Michael Card, Rich Mullins. For the most part, however, the Christian music market feels recycled. Either the musicians are stealing phrases from their “secular” influences or they’re producing pure vanilla music in the name of creativity.
The content of this post may be offensive to some Christians, and that is definitely not my intent, so if you are offended, please accept my apologies. But as a musician, my horizons are much broader than the narrowly defined form of music known as “Christian” and I will be making references to both Christian and secular artists.
What Is It?
How many love songs to Jesus do we really need? And how many musicians are actually satisfied playing Gsus, C2, D2, Em7 OVER AND OVER AGAIN?
I understand the rationale behind praise and worship music – they are writing songs in recognizable, easily sung settings. I even understand the desire for contemporary Christian artists to “sound like” secular counterparts, but where is the creativity of the Spirit?
When I listen to something so tremendously creative like Starkindler or Hidden Face of God – in my opinion, two of Michael Card’s finest albums – or the demos of The Jesus Record by Rich Mullins, I come away frustrated by all the wanna-be’s who populate the Christian musical landscape. Card’s work in particular is just light years ahead of most of the stuff that passes for Christian.
If you’ve never listened to Michael’s music, then you might be tempted to class him as just “Christian” music, but he is so much more than that. The lamenting open chords of “The City of Doom”, the Celtic resonance of “The Hidden Face of God” or the Hammond organ and saxophone laying down incredible R&B influences in “Soul Anchor” – all of them are reflections of the message he is trying to convey. More than any other musician in the Christian world, Michael is a creative soul. Creativity transcends labels, and when it is really unleashed, the result is true music, true expression of the soul.
There is a famine of true creativity in Christian music today. It is reflected in the weak, unexpressive worship music churned out by the CD full from music mills around the world. You can hear it on any number of Christian CD’s that are feeble attempts to Christianize secular hip hop, alternative rock, nu-metal, swing and any other style you can imagine.
Rather than leading our culture, rather than speaking what is in our hearts, we attempt to get a set of beliefs to conform to particular musical styles. Erwin McManus speaks strongly to this problem of letting culture lead us:
Get BACH to Where You Once Belong
To address this issue of creativity, I want to dig into our past – to a time and place when Christian influences ceased to lead our culture and music and begun to diverge into a distinct subculture.
When Johann Sebastian Bach put pen to paper and composed the great organ works and concerti, he was not necessarily creating anything new. He was bringing together the influences of the Baroque period into a magnificent crescendo. And he composed the vast majority of his works for performance in the church. The height of the musicians art was found not in the grand concert halls but rather echoing in the grand cloisters of churches.
Bach’s legacy far out reaches that of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. After all, who has ever even heard the works of Georg Böhm or Dieterich Buxtehude? These men were considerably more popular than Bach and yet outside of advanced music appreciation classes, who listens to them? They may have even been better musicians but they did not have the enduring influence that Bach did.
Where is the musical spirit in modern Christianity? Where has it gone?
This thought came to mind while I was listening to Led Zeppelin II, particularly the song “Whole Lotta Love.” It is not that I approve of the message of the song (it is pretty much about fornication) but it was the fact that the music lined up with the spirit of the lyrics. When you hear that opening riff, there is no doubt about the nature and spirit of the song. The music perfectly reflects the mood of the music. The same could be said of most of Zeppelin’s stuff, but particularly on Led Zeppelin II where they were spreading out from their blues influence and really being creative. Songs like “Ramble On” and “Heartbreaker” are tremendous syntheses of musical form and lyrical content. It is not that they are necessarily new ground – they are built off typical 12-bar blues and pentatonic scales – but they balance content and presentation so well.
These songs have spirit. This is not to say that they are spiritual because they certainly are not. But they are alive, moving and united. Most Christian music is, at best, lethargic. Songs often have energy and even rhythm, but they are devoid of whatever it is that makes a song come alive – its spirit.
No band before or since has mastered the art of giving life to their music like the Beatles. The boys from Liverpool were not the most inventive bunch, but they knew how to find the spirit of a song and then flesh it out based on their abilities. U2, another band I admire, can do this as well although they do not have the musical talent the Fab Four had.
The Beatles captured ideas through widely varied lyrical content and the use of interesting musical phrasings. If they wanted you to be happy, they went overboard with their straightforward strumming and simple bass lines. “Eight Days a Week”, “I Just Saw a Face” and a few other tunes do this. If they wanted you to feel trippy, they drew you into tempo changes, mood changes and layered notes – like in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Although Beatles tunes are widely varied, they are still instantly recognizable as Beatles tunes. There is just something insubstantial but just THERE that tells you it is a Beatles tune. This is spirit. It is that intangible thing that makes their music alive.
Bach had it, Zeppelin had it, the Beatles had it, Michael Card has it, Rich Mullins had it. Most Christian music does not have it.
Rather than being Christian musicians, I think we need to be musicians who are Christian. The Beatles were musicians who were British and seeking. Zeppelin were musicians living in excesses of every size shape and color. Bach was a musician who also was a church organist and German. If we stop trying to do the “Christian” music and just write and play from our hearts, I think something new will come out of us – music with a spirit, with something distinctly Christian and yet creative. It can be done – Michael Card does it all the time – and it can probably even be done in whatever musical form is appropriate to it. I just don’t think it can be done when we’re focused on an agenda. Music is not about an agenda; it is just about the music. Music is the language of the heart, something more than just musical phrases and lyrical motifs.
That’s just my opinion.