When I was a child, I spoke like a child. I’d complain to Mom that Christian rock (what you called Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM, in the late ’80s) didn’t sound enough like secular rock, that you could spot Christian music a mile away, and not just because of the words. Mom disagreed, and if I kept nagging her about it, she’d dare to discipline.
Now that I’m an adult, though—and more specifically now that I’ve listened to Wow #1s‘ 31 songs that, since 1988, have hit No. 1 on some annoyingly unspecified chart—I’ve put away childish things. I want CCM to sound like nothing else, and certainly not some lowest common denominator pop music you’d find on a Hot Adult Contemporary radio station.
You know the Hot AC—it’s where actual CCM artists like Lifehouse and Switchfoot rub shoulders with secular establishments like No Doubt and U2 (oh, wait . . . ) before they get bumped up to the Hot 100. Its practitioners are more likely than most to use the ubiquitous vi-IV-I-V chord progression, exemplified by the most recent offender, Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” They’re also more likely to use the word “awesome” in conversation. In New York the Hot AC is on WPLJ, 95.5—but wherever you find it, you won’t hear any rap, the DJs will be overly chipper but not otherwise unsettling, and you’ll probably get some ’80s nostalgia. And if a Christian station plays pop music, chances are it plays Hot AC.
The seeds for this particular blandness were sown 10 to 15 years ago, when many of today’s Hot AC listeners and practitioners were coming of pop music age. Also around this time began the great CCM Crossover Exodus, led by the Moses that was Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion. Musically a culmination of the exciting, eclectic sound producers Brown Bannister, Keith Thomas, and Michael Omartian had been forging in the expanding CCM “underground,” Heart was a uniformly great album, nominated for album and production Grammys, and its predominantly secular lyrics pissed off a lot of hardcore Christian moms. More dug it, though, and the album spawned five big hits and paved the way for Christian crossovers from the likes of Kathy Troccoli, DC Talk, Stacie Orrico, and Amy’s songwriting buddy Michael Whitaker Smith.
If you’ve skipped ahead to the abortion chapter in Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, you know his controversial argument that Roe v. Wade decreased the number of unwanted kids, leading to a corresponding decrease in violent crime that America felt only 20 years later. Well, the same thing happened with CCM, only on a shorter time frame: The CCM boom of the late ’80s/early ’90s is one of the legalized abortions of pop music, leading to the low-crime Hot AC and mainstream Christian music of today’s airwaves. Influence is an economist’s game, but Heart in Motion is just as fiscally responsible as Nevermind for the music Americans hear every day (though probably neither is as influential as Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em). Heart showed CCMers and those Hot AC kids that they, too, could become big stars—to God’s glory, of course.
Unfortunately, few of them chose to emulate its colorful sound, which boasted huge pop beats and crazy noises and instruments out of left field. Before Heart, many of the biggest CCM stars had been, if not cool, at least distinctive and free to do whatever they wanted musically. Carman scored hits with over-the-top spoken-word skits and ultraconservative moralizing; Petra and Stryper provided fabulously militaristic metal. Lyrically, Steve Taylor created actual controversy with the sarcastic “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” After Heart, those artists (except Stryper) kept going, but they were no longer industry foci. The new crop of CCM idols looked suspiciously like everyday suburban folks you’d see at Bible class, and their musical ambitions and thoughts on God remain typically unenlightening. Evangelism is probably a bigger incentive than money, since the CCM industry is always trying to rope in the unconverted. Their current tool for doing so, be it music or megachurch, is normalcy—so, though a thriving underground exists, the overwhelming faces of Christian music are those polite bake sale folks in the WOW booklet.
There is some good stuff here. Great pop is great pop, and Avalon, Rebecca St. James, and Steven Curtis Chapman’s hits are bright, pump-you-up movers. God’s Property’s “Stomp” was the best single of 1997, an irresistible fusion of modern gospel and George Clinton. The biggest surprise for me, though, was Mark Schultz’s drumless piano ballad “He’s My Son,” not a promising title. It consists of two verses and tearful refrains, one for each parent, begging God to give them the disease that afflicts their sleeping child. These parents are desperate, bitter, and sarcastic (“Am I getting through tonight?”), and they refuse to cop out by turning the title phrase into CCM’s typical Son. You rarely hear anything this human atop any Billboard chart, and this song could only have come from CCM. Christian Rockers, I exhort you: Forget winning souls. Do what only you can do, and the souls will follow.