Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Why is Christian Music so boring?

What is the deal with Christian music? I know I am probably going to offend some of you out there, but according to my exacting standards for good music (write your own music, play at least one instrument, have talent, and be an innovator), a vast majority of "contemporary Christian" music does not qualify. Pop music today is a vacuous wasteland, so if your musical style apes the pop music of today, like most Christian music, you're already in deep trouble.

Now I realize that pop music, by definition, is the most-purchased music out there. But check out the top 10 artists on the current Billboard Hot 100 list (Fergie, Gnarls Barkley, Nelly Furtado, Sean Paul, The Pussycat Dolls, Cassie, Ciara, Christina Aguilera, Ne-Yo, and Panic! At the Disco) . Are you kidding me? There's only two of these supposed "artists" that I have even heard of, and whether or not they can sing or are even a great singer is beside the point. Will anybody be listening to these songs twenty years from now? Is any one of them doing something interesting with their music? Are any of them virtually interchangable with each other, or a thousand other singers out there? What are Christian artists doing trying to sound like them, or worse, trying to sound like pop music that's 10 (or more) years out of date.

I think musical giftedness is a talent from God. I sing and play a little bit of guitar, and I have written music, but I have no illusions about my talent level. I have heard artists in many churches that greatly exceed my musical abilities, and yet still have no business with a recording contract. So why is one of the most obvious of God's gifts seemingly missing from the pool of his servants? Where are the innovators in Christian music? Where are the artists who are masters of their instruments, who worship God with their amazing talents? Where are the Mozarts and The Beatles? The Beethovens and the Bob Dylans? Where are the bands who are creating music that truly glorifies God rather than sounding like a cheap knockoff of Celine Dion or Nickelback? Is God really pleased with music that couldn't make it among the likes of Josh Turner and Rihanna?

My favorite Christian band - well, the only one I listen to anyway - is Third Day. I like Mac Powell's voice and I think some of their songs are pretty good. But as far as innovation goes, they are probably 30 years behind the rock bands they sound like (Lynnyrd Skynnyrd or the Allman Brothers). What has happened to the talented and interesting performers? Is there nothing new to play or sing?

In my opinion, Christian music should be better than pop music. The singers should have better voices, the instrumentalists should have more prowess. Can it really be the case that none of the most talented musicians in the world are Christians? I hear music on our three local Christian stations that would not have been interesting on Top 40 radio in 1986, much less 2006. And don't even get me into the theology of Christian music. Most of it is either lightweight "Jesus is my girlfriend" type nonsense, or simple and repetitive praise music (or both). When was the last time you heard a confessional song along the lines of Psalm 51 ("Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight")? Or a lament like Psalm 79 ("They have given the dead bodies of Thy servants for food to the birds of the heavens, The flesh of Thy godly ones to the beasts of the earth.") Where are the Christian artists who sing out about our country's struggle against Islamofascists or the moral issues of the day (abortion, crime, poverty, personal debt, etc.) and cry out to God for help? Instead we get man-centered songs that are so innocuous that they can crossover to the pop charts and be inoffensive to everyone (see MercyMe's "I Can Only Imagine" for a recent example). Something is very wrong here.

19 comments:

Hammertime said...

Karl,
Interesting thoughts.

My favorite songwriter is Rich Mullins - not because he is so artistic (although music smart people have commented to me about the complexity of his music, even in a single guitar piece), but because his lyrics are edifying and glorifying.

These days I favor Caedmon's Call, the Newsboys and Chris Rice. I agree that the vast landscape of "Christian music" is weak, lyrically and musically. The three above I think stand apart. See "Before There Was Time" by CC, Lord, I Don't Know" by the Newsboys and "Come to Jesus" by Rice as my examples.

"With judgment and wrath he poured out on Sodom, mercy and grace he gave us at the cross - I hope that we have not too quickly forgotten that our God is an Awesome God"

Peace in Christ,
Hammertime

(I found you through the carnival)

karl said...

I'll grant Rich Mullins was talented. Doesn't really qualify for Christian music today, though, since he has gone to be with the Lord. Same deal for Keith Green.

I like Chris Rice okay, although I'm not really a fan of the other two.

Hammertime said...

Is it words or music that you feel is the most important? "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" may be, in Lewis's words, fifth-rate poetry set to sixth-rate music, but is it supposed to be entertaining? Or is there another purpose to worship music?

If there's a difference between the Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that the early church sang, is it fair to compare them to each other for specific quality of workmanship?

I am not on a side in the "worship wars" because I think it all is a matter of preference anyway. Your post seems to point at a different issue - "The singers should have better voices, the instrumentalists should have more prowess." I am having trouble finding the basis for that belief. However, you have certainly thought about it more than I have, so I am willing to listen.

karl said...

Ok, I guess you could make a case for breaking music that is specifically directed toward and designed for praising God apart from music that is designed for human entertainment. The problem I have with that is this: can you truly say that even praise and worship music that is marketed by agents and publishers, record companies and concert tours is truly intended solely for the worship of God? My point is that if you are going toward selling the music, then yes, it should be entertaining. Otherwise, pour it out as a free offering to God. My other point is that worship wars aside, it doesn't make sense to me that the musical talent in this world seems to be almost exclusively in the secular realm. Maybe the real talents ARE pouring it out to God and not trying to make money off of their gifts.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Your just listening to the wrong Christian music. Neal Morse, Kerry Livgren, Proto-Kaw, Phil Keaggy, and Iona make Third Day sound like the most boring pop in existence to someone used to something much more intricate and complex.

karl said...

Thanks for the suggestions. You don't hear any of those artists on the Christian radio stations here, so as a result I have only ever heard of one of them.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm guessing it's Phil Keaggy you've heard of. He's probably the most known in the group.

Kerry Livgren is the brains behind Proto-Kaw, so those aren't two separate groups. He was the brains behind Kansas back in the 70s and earlier 80s. He still plays with them sometimes, but he's now back with the earlier lineup of Kansas that is now known as Proto-Kaw. Some of the Proto-Kaw members are Christians. One or two might not be. Livgren writes all the lyrics, though, so the content is thoroughly Christian.

Neal Morse used to be in a group called Spock's Beard that you've probably also never heard of. They're one of the more notable progressive rock groups from the 90s, incorporating classical and jazz elements into rock music, with lots of instrumental sections and complex musical structures. What's great about Morse is that he now does this with Christian lyrics. His most recent album called "?" is about the temple and tabernacle imagery throughout the Bible and is also some of the most theologically careful and intricate Christians albums I've ever heard. It's almost like Michael Card's lyrics but with very different music.

Iona is an Irish progressive-rock band with traditional Irish instruments mixed with rock instruments, sometimes verging on ethereal stuff but often very fast-paced, complex stuff with Celtic influences. One of their current members is not a Christian, but he doesn't write any lyrics.

jpe said...

What Jeremy said, although I have a better list of bands: Starflyer 59, Unwed Sailor, Danielson Famile, Sufjan Stevens.

The impression I get is that the junk/good ration in Christian music is roughly the same as that in the secular music. And that makes sense, since the market plays to taste, and good taste is, for whatever reason, neither a sacrementn nor a gift of the Spirit.

Martin said...

Karl, this is a response to your original post above.

I think for someone to be truly innovative and break new ground in a musical sense, there needs to be some conflict, predicament, trouble in this person's life. And this person should not be afraid to relate to those feelings and use them as a kind of creative fuel for his or her work. I believe that this is and always has been the driving force behind most great musicians and composers through the years..

Most Christian songs that I know of have an element of praise in them. This is exactly what makes them tedious and boring, from an innovation point of view, in that it's always the same old same old with the praise stuff. Although it is sometimes disguised a bit, but nevertheless, the substance is the same - praise to the lord, et al...

Some Christian rock bands have a more direct, agressive approach. However, regarding the use of conflict with others as a creative source, this is not necessarily interesting either - only if the conflict is reflected in the author's own emotional world somehow. But since most Christian bands are "down with Jesus" in one way or another, such serious predicament is rarely displayed in songs, thus making them less interesting to listen to. Mostly, aggressive Christian rock songs sound like battlesongs for a crusade - which is a bit frightening, but not very involving or interesting in any way, especially not for secular people..

For Christian music to lift itselv (no pun) above that in a creative sense, Christian artists need to stop singing about how much they love God, and start singing about having doubts and lack of faith instead - and forget about the happy ending. This would be so much more interesting to listen to, plus it would open the door to a much more differentiated world of artistic expression.

But, then again that might not prove very popular with the Christian audiences across the board. Just like it wouldn't work for Christina Aguilera to break the mold, and do something that wouldn't stand a chance on the pop charts... Guess there's a set of rules for everyone..

karl said...

Martin, I agree with you to a point. I think even as a Christian artist you could express doubts and pain in a song without resolving it, provided that not every song was expressing a lack (or loss) of faith. At that point some would question whether it was "Christian" music. For instance, not to toot my own horn, but I have written a song called "Break Me" that talks about my tendency to disobey and put other things before God and asks him to break my will. It doesn't really resolve into happiness because that is an ongoing struggle for every Christian. My point is that the full range of emotional and artistic expression should be reflected in Christian music, but unfortunately it is not.

kcwriter said...

This post is 3 years old but my husband and I wonder this all the time. There is so much music NOT heard on Christian radio. My husband hates Christian radio and prefers Motown soul because of the passion, musical originality, etc. Who picks out what goes into rotation? Third Day is one of my top bands and I absolutely adore Rich Mullins songs because of the original poetic lyrics. I wish we heard more indy type music on mainstream Christian radio.

a Worship Leader for HIM said...

I'm one of those who used to listen to Contemporary Christian music a lot. Over time, I got sick and tired of the same messages, same hooks, and same mostly boring music. Seems like the only thing that changes is the artist's name. Now I see Contemporary Christian music as more of a "radio talent contest" and less of ministry, especially when it comes to those the big labels shove in our face. Seems like now it's all about how high you can sing, how many times you can say "ooh", "ahh", "hey", "yeah", etc. never mind mention the Lord, or just watering down your message and saying your stuff is about "life" or "relationships". I now listen to worship music, and I don't mean the latest bubblegum pop worship stuff on the "Today's Christian music" or "positive and encouraging" stations. I mean the deep stuff that brings me into the presence of the Lord, which leads me to repentance, healing, and LIFE.

Anonymous said...

You guys, I am so happy to find another people that feel the way I do. They are kind of old, but my all-time favorite christian band is Petra. Their music is filled with great lyrics that come right from the Bible. not only do they have great lyrics, but the also have some amazing musical stuff going on, you should really check them out. It's really a pitty that christians today can't take verses directly out of the bible and put them to music like they could.

karl said...

Agreed.

Ziggy said...

I realize I'm a little late to the party hear, but I had to jump in to defend the top ten list at the time. Most of it was crap, but Gnarles Barkley was a damn good group, although I'm not sure either of the 2 main members played an instrument. They recorded and toured with the same band though, so i'll count those guys as members even though they weren't on the album covers.
As to why modern Christian Music sucks, well, the name points you too the answer. Any band that chooses to limit them selves to only one subject and pretty much never sing about anything else, is pretty likely to be boring and derivative. That's why pretty much every other genre's name describes the music, not the lyrics. Pop is whatever is popular, metal is harsh and violent sounding, rock & roll is characterized by a steady back beat, etc.

karl said...

Ziggy, I disagree with you about the content of Christian music, at least what the content should be. Christians live real life too, so any topic should be acceptable for Christian music - the Biblical perspective is what matters. The problem I have with most Christian music is that it is musically uninteresting - or at least uninspired. Lyrically, Christian music runs the gamut from very simple to extremely complex, depending on the artist.

Mherning said...

Try Flyleaf! They are a "secular" heavy rock band, with Christian lyrics and content. The bands lyrics are raw and truthfull. They sing about drugs, depression, suicide, materialism and taking a stand for Christ in a world filled with all these things. My friend is the drummer for this band and I have to say they are not some sort of cash cow studio band! These guys are the real deal and sound great!!

Nancy said...

I think you make a very good point. Christian music used to be good back in the 80s and 90s. Some examples being Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Point of Grace, and Jars of Clay were very good. But I often find that I like their older works better. Most of the new things coming out, even from them, tend to sound the same. It's as though Christian music has gotten into a rut. I find myself listening to Christian music less often in favor of something with more substance and originality to it.

I have with the praising God dynamic, for the most part I like it. I wish that there was more stuff out there that dealt with real life things, thought provoking, or even had music that was different than the mainstream. I am finding myself listening to less Christian music in favor of something with more substance and creativity. Right now the only Christian band I know of that comes close to being more than substandard is Sixpence None the Richer.

Rache said...

Hi, I know this has got nothing to do directly with the content of the blog. But what is bugging me, is that there are great songs out there that aren't played on christian radio stations, just because the artists aren't christians or because the songs don't say Jesus every 5 seconds. These songs aren't even played in the "secular" radio stations. It's these rare gems of music that you mostly stumble upon by accident while watching a tv series. I mean the level of brilliance and creativity behind these songs, has to come from God even though, these artists don't attend church or believe in God. Why must we box music and put what God "would be glorified in" into a specific genre called Christian music with many subgenres? Can't God be glorified in OneRepublic's Good Life as much as TobyMac's Steal My Show?