By Joel Heng Hartse. The following is a sneak peek at one exclusive feature that is otherwise available only in Issue #10 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine.
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“So, tonight’s all about nostalgia, right?” Mike Hererra, who is best known for fronting the Christian pop-punk band MxPx, asked a roomful of mostly 30-something, mostly white evangelicals at a rock club in downtown Seattle a couple of weeks ago.
He was partly, or even mostly, right. We were there to see the people who were our heroes when we were fifteen. Perhaps for Herrera, playing this kind of show does not feel nostalgic: he has not stopped (for any significant period of time) making music, releasing albums, or playing shows in the last twenty years. The band he was opening for, Five Iron Frenzy, however, publicly and dramatically retired ten years ago and is in the middle of a triumphant reunion tour, fueled primarily by the nostalgia and disposable income of their formerly teenaged fans.
Nostalgia is an apparent sin in both the Evangelical and rock-and-roll worlds. We are admonished not to cling to an idealized past when, for example, Christendom was triumphant or Weezer was awesome. Fair points, both. Yet I feel a need to speak up in favor of the current 90’s rock nostalgia bloom – indeed, especially for the current 90’s Christian rock nostalgia bloom – and defend it not as mere longing for a simpler, romantic past, but as an attempt to remember and reclaim things that are right and good, things that we will carry forward.
We – and I say we, because if you are reading an article about 90’s Christian rock, you are probably one of us – we grew up in a time, place, and culture where personal investment in certain kinds of music was just not an option: whether for parental, spiritual, or cultural reasons, we did not identify primarily as fans of Nirvana, Green Day, or the Smashing Pumpkins. We may have liked those bands, but they didn’t shape our identities.
Instead of claiming citizenship in the Alternative Nation, we signed on to a genuinely ‘alternative’ culture, where we listened to Poor Old Lu, not Nirvana, MxPx, not Green Day, the Prayer Chain, not the Smashing Pumpkins, etc. We did not only listen to these bands; we absorbed them, internalized them, joined our longings and theirs. (Perhaps you think this is an overstatement; don’t you remember being a teenager?) Christian rock was ours in a way that ‘regular’ alternative music of the 90s was not. Nirvana belonged to ever American teenager; MxPx and Five Iron Frenzy belonged to a few hundred thousand. In a book I wrote on the subject (I am really into this stuff), I found myself likening 90’s Christian rock fandom to the feeling of being on a “team”: our subculture, with its small record labels, magazines, and concerts, was a safe haven, a home, a kind of church, even.
Perhaps this is what every music scene feels like. People fell into – and aged out of – punk, techno, emo, metal, and hip-hop scenes in the 90’s. Is Christian rock, and Christian rock nostalgia, so different? Do we pine for a time when all you had to do was drive to the Christian bookstore, consult a chart outlining exactly which bands you were allowed to listen to? Do we want to be sixteen, unjaded, in love with God, and “stoked” about youth group? Alternatively, do we want to poke good-natured fun at those years, to temporarily escape into a world of novelty songs with embarrassing lyrics (e.g., “I Luv Rap Music”)?
For me, the answer to all of these questions is mostly no. What I think we are beginning to realize is that this music we loved, or some of it, at least, was great, and even enduring. We’ve maybe been conditioned to dismiss it as naïve or dated, to see it as a part of ourselves that we need to leave behind – the same way some people feel about religious faith all together.
We’re learning to treasure some of these things in our hearts, though – the sheer depth and texture of records like Mercury and Sin, the prophetic wisdom of Rich Mullins, and the hard-won, weary faith of non-“Kiss Me” Sixpence None the Richer songs, to name a few. The beauty of these things is not in the past – they are still beautiful, they still speak to us. They can still be new each time we encounter them, or each time someone encounters them for the first time.
Even the ritual of a nostal-rock show is something more than longing to be the people we were fifteen years ago. When I decided to go see Five Iron Frenzy, I was certain I would be doing two things: 1) screaming “Buy! Take! Break! Throw it away!” along to “American Kryptonite” and 2) embarrassingly weeping to “Every New Day.” Reliably, I did them. Did I need to drive 200 miles to do these things? I had, after all, done them before.
But I wanted to do them again, even if I am not who I was the last time I did them, because there are things that I truly believe, parts of myself that I want to cultivate – and these rock shows, however infrequently I now attend them, help me to do this. “American Kryptonite” is shorthand – like the two buttons I bought at the anarchist bookstore across the street before the show, one with a black heart and one with a woodcut fist – that reminds me how much I want to resist consumer culture and entitlement, how much more important love is than money, how complicit I am in injustice. “Every New Day,” a song Reese Roper referred to as “a reset button,” a song about “God renewing and somehow making a new life in you,” gives me access to a vulnerability and openness to God I rarely feel. I need to hear songs like this. I need to sing them.
There is something of nostalgia in loving these songs and bands from our youth. Yet as much as they pull us back, they can also push us forward. The early punk band the Buzzcocks released the song “Nostalgia” in 1978 (two years before I was born), the chorus of which is not about returning home or to the past, but a “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” This, I think, is what I’ve been trying to say. To quote another pop-punk band, the Weakerthans (who are not a Christian band, but all pop-punk truth is God’s pop-punk truth): “I swear I way more than half believe it when I say that somewhere love and justice shine.” Music helps me to continue to believe this, and one kind of music that helps the most is the music that made me start caring about love and justice in the first place; yes, loving 90’s Christian rock means, paradoxically, feeling a nostalgia, and a nostalgia for an age yet to come.
Joel Heng Hartse is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, a book about 90’s Christian rock.
Image Credit: Sofía Salom via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)