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A History of Contemporary Christian Music

January 11, 2010

Undertaking a history of anything contemporary often is an exercise in futility.  The events of tomorrow could easily render this undertaking irrelevant.  Recently, though, I was reflecting on the state contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I realized what this music says about the art evangelical Christians are creating and consuming these days.  The state of CCM is a reflection of two trends, which may have evolved from consumer-driven trends to consumer-shaping trends.

Baptizing the Mainstream

In 1995, DC Talk released its Jesus Freak album, and the album met much commercial success.  Jesus Freak climbed to 16 on the Billboard 200, which was the highest initial debut for a “Christian” album, and eventually sold two million copies. 

If you asked a twenty-something or thirty-something CCM-listener to identify a favorite CCM song, the odds are pretty good that the album’s title track would be the reply.

However, for every Jesus Freak album purchased, ForeFront Records should cut a royalty check to the estate of Kurt Cobain.  His band, Nirvana, created the market for Jesus Freak, and DC Talk essentially pirated the sounds and themes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”    

Undoubtedly, Nirvana was the most influential rock band since the British invasion.  If not for Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, we would all still be listening to big-hair 80s rock bands.  The band’s biggest commercial success, the album Nevermind, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the peak of the Billboard 200 in 1992. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the Seattle sound commercial.  Distortion, screaming vocals, and the mosh pit—all distinctive of “grunge”—were now here to stay.  DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” capitalized on the popularity of Seattle rock.  However much the trio tried to infuse its hip-hop stylings into the track, “Jesus Freak” was artistically indebted to Nirvana.

Probably what’s more interesting is that the two songs are so thematically similar.  Both tracks touch heavily upon the idea of identity.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” critiques the features of late 80s and early 90s young adults:  violence (“load up on guns”), apathy (“here we are now, entertain us”), and independence (“our little group has always been”). 

“Jesus Freak,” though less sarcastic, is no less fascinated with identity.  The title is a moniker wielded by the world, but gladly embraced by the song’s speaker.  “Jesus Freak” identity is largely understood by the way of negation.  Repentance (“all the me I’ve divorced”) and resolve (“I won’t live and die for the power they seek”) are key elements of this identify.  The street preacher and John the Baptist serve as emblems of this identity. 

The more immediate observation from the DC Talk and Nirvana parallels concerns the CCM industry.  DC Talk and ForeFront records showed that Christian musicians could peddle rock and pop trends to Christian audiences with Christian themes and produce commercial success. 

Jesus Freak debuted approximately four years after Nevermind debuted and three years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached number one.  This scenario should sound all too familiar to anyone who has listened to a Christian music radio station in the last ten years. 

CCM record labels have since improved how quickly they respond to secular radio success.  A good example is Evanescence (2003) and BarlowGirl (2004). 

The resultant state of CCM has been something very similar to the 80s hair-band trend.  Record labels and producers imposed certain musical and cultural norms on rock bands:  hair styles, wardrobes, ballads with predicable harmonies, synthesizers.  Instead of big hair and ballads, the CCM labels are selling whatever was big last year in secular markets. 

The Worship Music Movement

One movement has enervated this trend in CCM:  the worship music movement.  Labels realized an even more profitable angle:  have famous artists sing worship songs that Passion and other movements popularized.  The audience will attach to these songs as spiritually beneficial and fork over big dollars. 

The early 2000s were inundated with commercially successful worship albums.  Third Day’s Offerings (2000) and Michael W. Smith’s Worship (2001) both sold over 1,000,000 copies.  Smith went on to release Worship Again (2002), which sold an additional 500,000 copies. 

Commercially Successful Worship Albums

What’s interesting about Smith’s worship albums is that, although he is an acclaimed songwriter, he wrote so few of the tracks.  Christian radio was peddling “new” Michael W. Smith material that youth groups and contemporary-oriented churches had been singing for years.

After the commercial success of Offerings, Worship, and Worship Again, the commercial worship music movement soon followed.  Caedmon’s Call (2001, 2006), Rebecca St. James (2002), and Newsboys (2003) entered the foray.

The commercial success of worship music generated a new genre of CCM artists.  Worship artists and bands such as Sonicflood, MercyMe, Jeremy Camp, Big Daddy Weave, and Todd Agnew kept the CCM airways humming with new worship material.  MercyMe, in particular, dominated the industry by selling 2,000,000 copies of Almost There

CCM radio stations, in the 2000s, have largely moved toward continuous rotations of worship music.  The dramatic shift of the market has not necessarily been a positive development for the genre of worship music.  Radio-friendly unit-shifters are becoming a-theological, non-confessional love songs, of which the listener’s romantic interest could very well be the subject. 

The Art of Evangelicals

Musician Derek Webb has described the relationship between art, commerce, and religion as a dysfunctional marriage.  The CCM industry has emphasized business in its approach.  As secular music trends fluctuate, CCM responds with its “Christian versions.”  When contemporary worship music had become deeply entrenched in the youth, college, and contemporary scene, CCM responded with a myriad of worship-oriented artists and albums.

As creators of art, CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, creativity and innovation.  CCM sounds increasingly aged, either imitating the sounds of secular radio from yesteryear or the praise songs of conferences from yesteryear.

As confessors of truth, CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, regard for doctrine.  CCM sounds increasingly hallow, speaking to God as lover, rather than lord. 

The most damaging analysis of these trends is the influence CCM exerts upon contemporary church life.  While CCM’s worship music movement may have been consumer initiated, the movement is deeply impacting the worship of the church.  Now, church “worship leaders” strive to be current and “fresh,” which entails imitating the newest praise chorus peddled by CCM radio.

We must be on our guard, even in the midst of music labeled “Christian.”  Remember that the industry is not only offering its listeners “family-friendly,” “upbeat,” “encouraging” music; it’s selling records, as well.  And when zeroes and ones are as important as chapter and verse, we might be better off sounding like the nineteenth century than worshipping like its 1999.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Brent Moore permalink
    January 11, 2010 9:40 am

    Amazing article, the only one I know of its kind. I eat up every word!

  2. Adam Winters permalink
    January 11, 2010 10:19 am

    This is a highly impressive survey about a subject I literally know next to nothing about. Thanks, Jason!

    P.S.
    I am reminded why I don’t like Seattle, and how I kinda wish we were all still listening to big haired 80 bands. Nothing like freezing the last scene of a movie and striking up the band, knowwhatimean?

    • March 24, 2013 2:04 am

      Ejem, yo fui el chico que le lanzf3 el diubjo, sed, era un diubjo jejej, lo que pasa es que iba enrollado, y por el reverso teneda una dedicatoria. Al principio no se dio cuenta de que se lo habeda lanzado, hasta que media primera fila se lo sef1alamos . Se portf3 bastante bien Eva anoche. Y la pfaa se la dio a mi hermana, la chica que estaba a mi lado, que se la habeda pedido como una loca jaja. Fue un concierto magnedfico, y ademe1s yo tambie9n me lleve9 firmada mi me1scara de gato .Un saludo

    • March 25, 2013 2:13 pm

      3asHkZ bvfmqyoobdng

  3. Derek Cheatham permalink
    January 11, 2010 8:02 pm

    Good article. There is no such thing as “original music”. I’ll stick with my Stryper though.

  4. January 23, 2010 2:40 pm

    Yeah, so I did the dishes last night listening to the Jesus Freak album. I don’t really care what they label me. What will people do when they find out it’s true? What else can I say?

  5. kevin permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:19 pm

    “A Secular Humanist Looks Inside the World of Christian Rock.” – by Peter Bagge .
    http://reason.com/archives/2002/02/01/christian-rock.

  6. September 21, 2012 9:51 am

    Back here in Massachusetts, I co-anchored the first CCM show on the FM dial. In the 90’s G-Rock debuted, on 88.3 FM, playing the plethora of burgeoning new CCM artists. In those days the landscape was dominated by some of the best CCM singer/songwriters/musicians still to date. In this new Worship driven genre, the soul of music and the expression of individual shared experiences of life as a Christian is lost. In my evaluation, this new generation has no foothold in understanding musical history and self expression. The art is nowhere to be found. As a professional mix engineer, who studied at the famous Recording Workshops, even the layered background dynamics theory being used in some large teams is a fraud. Yet it is passed around as some kind of new grand technique while it lacks so much of the fundamental philosophies of most Grammy winning engineers. Actually the technique isn’t new and was pioneered by the Grammy winning producer Phil Spector in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It was a very complex process only capable of being done in studio. Even so Phil’s work was arranged in orchestral fashion which is not being done in these worship mixes. I see these sets being played with six acoustic guitars and wonder, “You could remove 4 of those and nobody would notice, not even the trained ear of an engineer.” There just isn’t enough frequency space for them all and they render each other useless. To me this whole thing has become just worship leaders trying to show off how many musicians they can have and not about quality musical arrangements.

    • March 26, 2013 2:55 pm

      Why not make a competition? Can be couienntd with discussion panel among the nominated ones. Conference is too theoretical but it depends on your people you serve.

  7. June 2, 2014 10:41 am

    I do agree with the idea that CCM is behind secular rock. Studying to be a worship minister and playing a lot of this stuff has shown me this. But to say that Jesus Freak owes royalties to Nirvana is kind of over the top. By that logic, any band in any genre should pay royalties to the band who first released a song in that genre of music. And half of Smells Like Teen Spirit is a chord progression that could probably be traced back 300 years. Now they have similar styles in the song and similar vocals, but entire genres use the same themes and singing styles across the board. Folk Acoustic, Post-Hardcore, Alternative Rock, Jazz, whatever. There is an expected style of music and guitar tone, drum beat, singing style, and song pattern. That is the way of music. So to say that Jesus Freak was stolen from Nirvana basically would also say that John Mayer should pay royalties to Jimi Hendricks because all of his solos are from Hendrix songs, he just uses a different tone and moved genres. Or….. Three Days Grace and Nickelback are the same, and whoever was first should get the royalties check.

    I understand what your saying and I too get tired of songs all sounding the same, but as a musician, when I hear a song I like, or a guitar tone I like, or singing style, I will remember it, and when writing my own stuff, that will probably come out in my music. Maybe we can say that Christian artists are not leading the charge in music, yes, but that doesn’t make it stealing.

    The rest of the article I definitely agree with, and it’s a problem that is beginning to worry me, as I will be looking for a ministry position in 3 years and I am worried about the songs the congregation will expect me to lead, regardless of doctrine or authenticity of worship.

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