Christian Rock Gets With the Beat
It's the fastest-growing segment of the industry, thanks to groups like the Newsboys, Reality Check, Third Day
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About a thousand Christian bands - from pop to reggae, modern to alternative rock, hip-hop to ska - play professionally. A market once featuring Amy Grant and a few others is now as wide-ranging as the secular market.Skip to next paragraph
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"When Amy Grant was starting [in the mid-to-late '70s], you could probably count the number of Christian bands on one hand," says Steve Taylor, a pioneering Christian rock singer. "Now, oh man. They cover every genre and subgenre of music there is."
Grant, who's considered the first Christian artist to cross over into the mainstream, broke through with her 1982 album, "Age to Age," the first gospel title to sell 1 million copies. A year later, Taylor's debut album, "I Want to Be a Clone," became Christian music's first modern rock hit, selling more than 10,000 copies.
Grant and Taylor both have remained near the top of the Christian music world - Taylor more as a producer. Taylor has produced the last three albums by the Newsboys, who are typical of the new generation of Christian rockers. Peter Furler, the son of a Pentecostal teacher, started the band in 1984 with no intention of becoming a rock star. He and the band wanted to preach religion; the music was almost secondary.
"When I started working with them," says Taylor, "they had done some very mediocre recordings. They were sincere, but the music was an afterthought.... They [decided they] wanted to do music that was good, where the lyrics felt fresh and inspired. That's been a desire of this new generation of Christian artists."
These artists' lyrics don't have to mention God or Jesus. Many of the songs do, but if you attend a concert by the Newsboys or Jars of Clay or any other new Christian group, you're as likely to hear lyrics about relationships as you are about religion.
"I think we as Christians need to be creative in the way we talk about our faith," says Rod Shuler, a singer and percussionist with Reality Check, a Nashville-based alternative rock band that formed at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., five years ago. "It's easy to put down 'Jesus is the way' and stuff like that. It's true, but we need to stretch ourselves."
Like others, Shuler isn't trying to cross over into mainstream popularity. If it happens, he says, "God will have blessed us ... but writing songs to make hits - that's never been one of our goals. We set out to hit people where they are ... to write songs that are going to change lives."
Despite his religious zeal, Shuler watches MTV regularly - a habit that reveals another side of this new generation of Christian groups. Mainstream music has been a decisive influence in their lives. dc Talk cites Nine Inch Nails as an influence. Jars of Clay does an Ozzy Osbourne cover during concerts, and the group's chief songwriter, Dan Haseltine, says he grew up a fan of the group Queen.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many of these groups sound like secular bands? Third Day sounds like Pearl Jam; Reality Check like Rage Against the Machine; Rebecca St. James like Alanis Morissette. And so on.
Carlisle, whose "Butterfly Kisses" is driven by his relationship with his daughter, says Christian music has changed for the better. He says that Christian crossover hits are indications that "people are hungry for some content in their music that's about things that are good in life. I understand sexuality and anger and cheap sensationalism - and not-so-cheap sensationalism - that go into pop music. I understand that sells records, but ... people are starving for some reinforcement that we're good people."
Professor Pettit has another answer. "I don't know if anyone has [specific data], but it seems evident," he says, "that large numbers of people are buying Christian records on the records' merits as finely crafted musical albums."