A recent article on some 90’s CCM tracks got me thinking.
I suppose you could say I came of age in the mid-90’s, discovering for the first time the great alternative music scene of Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Oasis, and No Doubt. (Little did I know until much later that they stood on the shoulders of some serious alternative giants.) I rarely bought their music because I was concerned about the lyrics. So when I began searching for Christian musicians, I found myself embracing dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Newsboys, and Audio Adrenaline, among many, many others. In no time I was a CCM fanboy. I couldn’t get enough! And as the music on the radio shifted away from my interests, CCM became my musical base.
I embraced ska through Five Iron Frenzy, grunge through Grammatrain, and felt my country-music-hating identity seriously challenged as I bought and loved Third Day’s Time and Caedmon’s Call’s 40 Acres. CCM introduced me to new styles and deep theology (ok, some shallow theology, too; it was often a mixed bag). I made lifelong friends through music in a time when real friends were scarce. There were times I thought music was keeping me alive, the way it empathized with my situations and directed my eyes back to Christ.
Eventually the music followed trends either into dance and hip-hop or hardcore and punk. But then came the day that broke the camel’s back for me: the worship revolution.
While it feels wrong to write, I’ve always felt that worship radically changed the Christian music industry for the worst. It happened right around the year 2000. Don’t get me wrong, I am a worship musician, and I love good worship music, whether old or new. But putting worship music on a pedestal meant a surge of music that was readily accessible for congregations in music and lyrics, which meant narrowing themes and predictable substance. Worst of all, I think it obscured the truth that these bands had been worshiping God all along, using their gifts to proclaim biblical truth in ways kids like me could readily embrace.
I don’t really know what happened to CCM after this because I tuned out. I couldn’t find bands to connect with anymore, and I stopped looking for them. I dove back into secular music and never looked back except to mock the music I once loved. I was suddenly too good for what I now thought was overly-preachy copycat music, the earnest lyrics that were supposed to make up for bad art. Pretty ruthless, huh?
But lately I’ve been seeing lots of things differently, including my CCM phase. What I really want to do today is affirm the greatness that was ’90’s Christian rock.
I see now that they weren’t copycats, they were people inspired by the same secular musicians I was, and they were trying to join the conversation. They probably had a lot to learn because many of them traveled in different circles and worked with a fairly new music industry. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether the people who inspired them listened to what they had to say.
However, they were definitely preachy compared to mainstream music. I remember for a long time the goal was to see Christian music accepted by the mainstream, breaking through like “Just Between You and Me” and “Flood” had. I cheered on Switchfoot, P.O.D., and Chevelle as they got attention from the world at large by diversifying their themes and writing more subtle music. I’m all for diverse themes. And I am fully committed to subtlety in art. But I see now that this preachy tone had value in its own right.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote a phenomenal essay called “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” and if you haven’t read it, you should (it may stretch you a bit, but that’s good). It’s really for everyone, as the introduction explains. Plantinga argues that Christians in any discipline, whether philosophy or pop music, need to be careful to do their work in a distinctively Christian way. Being a Christian often means spending time on different questions than non-Christians may value, and I think this is what the preachy tone of 90’s CCM did quite well.
I never threw Jesus Freak out my car window like one of my friends did. But in some ways I’ve been living the last decade as though I had. Now I see there’s a place for this distinctively Christian music that did not appeal to the mainstream and did not drone the same Jesus love songs we sing week to week. There are times I need to be admonished by my brothers and sisters in Christ. The quality of the message doesn’t excuse the quality of the art, but the message deserves priority, and I think that’s what I saw and heard.
So thanks to Five Iron Frenzy, Grammatrain, Caedmon’s Call, Guardian, Jars of Clay, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys, Bride, Third Day, Plumb, Johnny Q. Public, All Star United, and Supertones for doing what you did over a decade ago. I imagine I’m not the only recovering cynic who could stand to drink deeply from your streams.