Christian rockstars are real

Apparently missing from “The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge“, and from the pop culture background of the paper’s music critics, editors and copy editors, is any perspective about the pervasiveness of Christian artists in the annals of popular music.

I offer as my test sample this review of Danny Gokey’s new album, “My Best Days.” Generally, of course, the review by Joe Caramanica is well written and leaves me with an adequate sense of the quality of this album.

Caramanica finds Gokey, another former worship leader who attained national mainstream fame on “American Idol,” in an awkward position — and struggling to make it work. This line is wonderfully descriptive:

“My Best Days,” his debut album, is for better and for worse Christian pop squeezed into Wranglers.

But there is one section of this capsule review, right near the top, that should hang up not just Christian music connoisseurs but really anyone who has even casually followed pop culture comings and goings during the past two decades:

There are no shortage of Christian pop and rock stars, but none have crossed over to the mainstream since Amy Grant in 1991.

Really? Only Amy Grant? No one else has broken through since “Baby Baby?”

A few other names come to mind. Switchfoot. MxPx. P.O.D. Lifehouse. Jars of Clay. MercyMe.

But those are artists who not only “crossed over” but had major mainstream success. If we just want to talk about “crossover” Christian artists, the list — what? — doubles or triples. I’m not even sure, but Caramanica’s comment falls really flat.

PHOTO: You can be a Christian rockstar too

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  • Michael Pettinger

    I suppose the question is what constitutes mainstream success. To be honest, Brad, I’ve never heard of any of the artists you mentioned. But how about my favorite, Sufjan Stevens, and the Mountain Goats?

  • Michael Pettinger

    ..oh, and of course, there is that other guy (though it’s a little unfair, since he got famous and then converted). What’s his name? Bob Dylan?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Well, it’s easier to describe than obscenity, but I don’t think we need to say a platinum album is the cut-off. Though Switchfoot, P.O.D. and MercyMe definitely have had platinum and double-platinum albums. They do now or have in the past gotten considerable radio play. (Not that I listen to the radio.)

    One of my buddies suggested Sufjan Stevens. Collective Soul, Paramore and Evanescence were also possibilities. Mountain Goats are Christian?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Ha. As I told the same friend who suggested Sufjan Stevens, Dylan’s religion depends on the year of reference. Also, guys like Dylan and Johnny Cash even made the reverse crossover.

  • rq

    HELLO? Sixpence None the Richer anyone?

    I’d like to see an article on how the industry has changed since ’91 – the barriers between Christian and mainstream seem a lot lower nearly two decades years later.

    Excuse me while I crank up “Unconditional Love” by Donna Summer…

  • Chaviv Cardoso

    A wise man once said:

    “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

    Also, the best Christian rock band is Kovenant.

  • Peter

    Has Sufjan Stevens had CCM success?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Michael W. Smith
    dcTalk
    tobyMac

    The list goes on and on.

    Let’s coax Caramanica out of the cave.

  • Chris

    The statement is particularly surprising since I think that “crossover” Christian artists are more common today than just a generation ago. My 19 old son has pointed out a surprising number of such artists on our local “mainstream” radio station. I can only think of a handful from my time at that age.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Brad,
    It’s worse than that: the NY Times’ essential knowledge doesn’t even include reading itself. Here’s Jon Pareles reviewing Switchfoot in 2006, in that same “Critic’s Choice” column:

    Switchfoot is more concerned with its message than with sounding distinctive. It started out as a Christian rock band. But using pronouns — you, his — rather than mentioning Jesus, the band moved into the rock mainstream, selling two million copies of its devout 2003 album ”The Beautiful Letdown” at its career peak.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    And it gets worse, part 2:

    A long 2005 Arts Section article by Jake Halpern called “Missionaries to the Mainstream,” featuring the aforementioned P.O.D., Switchfoot, Sixpence, and Mercy Me

    And an even longer 2003 article by Neil Strauss called – I’m not making this up – “Christian Bands, Crossing Over”, featuring (yet again) Switchfoot, POD, MxPx, and more.

    Can we chalk this up to editorial staff turnover and cutbacks? Pareles, Strauss, and Halpern are all pretty well-known writers. I’m surprised that no one caught Caramanica’s bad slip, unless his editors weren’t around just a few years ago or they’re wearing so many hats that they can’t keep up with these details.

  • Michael Pettinger

    Brad,

    Let’s put it this way — all the tracks on the Mountain Goats’ last album “The Life of the World to Come” are named after verses of the Bible (and the Book of Enoch — a shout out to the Ethiopian Orthodox community?) And their song “Love Love Love” has pretty explicit Pauline references in it. Admittedly, their lyrics leave their theological position just a little obscure… ;-)

    I had to laugh at your Dylan remark, and I hadn’t thought about Cash (though his last album has a chillingly beautiful rendition of “The Man Comes Around.” And while we’re at it, there’s Bono Vox (don’t laugh!)….

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Fantastic forensic work, Mike.

    That phenomenon — of reporters and editors not reading their own paper — was one of the biggest shocks I experienced at a daily newspaper. You’d think, though, that the NYT, of all place, would protect itself against such missteps.

  • Jerry

    I also have to ask what a “Christian” group is because there are groups that would not be considered Christian (at least as a group identity) that produce Christian songs. For example, Peter, Paul and (the late) Mary where Paul is an active Christian and some of their songs reflect that such as “Oh Sinner Man”, “Jesus Met the Woman” etc.

    So I hope we can avoid stereotyping musicians as either totally Christian or completely non-Christian when it comes to their songs.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Specifically, we’re talking about bands that are overtly Christian, many of whom started on Christian labels and playing for youth groups. These are bands that not only have Christian members and Christian fans but Christian messages and, God willing, Christian lifestyles.

  • Rachel

    Let’s not forget Creed. In high school, I went to a Creed concert with some friends and was the only Christian in the group.

  • MarkAA

    There are no shortage of Christian pop and rock stars, but none have crossed over to the mainstream since Amy Grant in 1991.

    This is just a sloppy mistake by someone who apparently thinks he knows more about culture than he does. Smart writers, especially those who write about culture, try to avoid definitive words like “none, never, nobody, everybody, all.” Those words just too often make you a liar; there are too many possible exceptions. Vigilant copy editors can help by expressing skepticism about such statements.

    Plus, copy desk awake? “There ARE no shortage?”

  • Hank Hill

    “You people are not making Christianity any better, you’re just making rock ‘n’ roll worse.”

  • Jeremy

    There is even one popular music sub-genre of popular that is nearly dominated by Christian bands. I’m talking about metalcore. It’s a blend of hardcore punk and heavy metal. Really big Christian metalcore bands include Underoath, As I Lay Dying, Norma Jean, The Chariot, Haste The Day, August Burns Red, The Devil Wears Prada, etc. This is one genre where the Christian and non-Christians frequently play at the same shows, so you can hardly even speak of “crossing over”.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Thanks, Brad. I see that Pareles has a review in that same Critic’s Choice column as Caramanica. Seems like Pareles could have easily corrected his colleague. How common is it for journalists to read each other’s work before it goes to press? Or are they just focused on their own stuff?

    I know that this is a minor matter compared to weightier issues, but it just flabbergasts me that a pop music critic for the NY Times would be ignorant of Switchfoot, Jars of Clay, POD, or any of these other bands. I guess you could interpret Caramanica as many that no other individual pop stars had crossed over, but even that seems weird. We haven’t even mentioned the Jonas Brothers or other Disney pop stars yet, many of whom started in Christian music, and, hard as it might be to believe, even Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”) started off as a CCM artist.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Regarding the Mountain Goats as a “Christian” band. I think John Darnielle might have some problems with that description.

    “Yeah. Not every Sunday. I don’t feel obligated because of the weird situation in my beliefs, but I go to church when I can. When I’m on tour, I go to church as often as I can, but I will also go to ISKCON Centers and chant Hare Krishna. I like feeling part of an ecclesiastical body. I like feeling that feeling of faith community. I like being around it. I like being able to catch some of the energy, whatever I can or can’t believe. I think there’s something to be said for it. Despite the fact that most Christian denominations, politically, are about twenty million miles from where I want to be.”

    Then again, I love the thought of “No Children” becoming a CCM hit.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPy_fiv3sAw

  • Caleb

    John Darnielle may not be a “Christian,” but there’s sadly more theology in a lot of his songs than you’ll find in CCM (or should I call it “non-specific-family-values music?”.

  • Steve

    Seventy Sevens (reviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine), Richie Furay (R&R Hall of Fame For founding Buffalo Springfield and Poco, now Pastor producing both Christian & Secular Music), U2 (outwardly Christian band with more Jesus references per CD than most CCM), Bruce Cockburn. We need to move beyond labelling art made by Christians as to whether it passes our absurd litmus tests. Is Bach Christian music? Is Johnny Cash? Is John Coltrane’s “A Love Divine”?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Steve,
    I agree with you about the need to look past labels, but I think some labels are helpful, not as a litmus test, but as a way of understanding the context/genre/audience of music. “CCM,” as I think of it, isn’t a measure of the spiritual content of music, but a description of the context/genre/audience of that music. For example, Amy Grant established herself as a musician within a particular genre and audience (“CCM”), and then moved to a different (larger) genre & audience (“Adult Contemporary”). As a counter-example, U2 unquestionably deals with Christian themes, but they were never part of the CCM scene.


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