Bible belters change their tune

As Christian rockers find mainstream success, they ask, 'Why pigeonhole us?'

Tune into the Grammys on Sunday night and you'll hear the name Evanescence more than a few times. The goth-rock group is nominated in five categories, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Best Hard Rock Performance for the song "Bring Me to Life."

On their way to the Grammys, the band has shown that its musicianship is solid but its diplomacy needs some work. In the past year, the group alienated a segment of the industry they seemed to have an affinity with - the Christian market - by insisting that its albums be pulled from Christian stores, charts, and radio stations.

What sounds like heresy is really a sign of the growing pains experienced by artists of faith who are finding their way into the mainstream in larger numbers. Wanting to reach a wider audience, musicians are pushing beyond their Christian record labels to the world of MTV, and are sometimes bypassing the religious market entirely.

"Almost every week or so I hear of another band that is either stepping away from being signed only in the Christian market or just sort of ... avoiding it altogether," says Mark Joseph, author of "Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll." "It's just exploded in this last year."

Driving the trend is a generation of young artists who don't want their music marginalized simply because they read the Bible. Many don't consider their music as being suitable only for Christians and would like to be part of a broader cultural discussion. It's the idea that if movie stars and running backs who talk about their faith aren't relegated to Christian movie studios or football leagues, why should musicians be? The way that one band, Switchfoot, has put it: We're Christian by faith, not by genre.

Million-selling rock group P.O.D. takes a similar approach. The band, formed more than a decade ago, released their first album with Atlantic Records in 1999 and has since sold 6 million albums.

All the members are Christian, but their manager, Tim Cook, says they never went the Christian-label route.

"The guys recognized that they were inspiring people and that people were attracted to what they were saying, so to place that gift in a limited environment would have been a big mistake," he says.

More options are available to new artists in part because bands such as U2, Jars of Clay, and Creed paved the way in the past two decades. (Grammy winners Jars of Clay, for example, used to call newspapers and record stores personally and ask that the band be listed under the rock/pop rather than the gospel category.)

Cultural changes have also helped make society more receptive to bands such as Sixpence None the Richer and Switchfoot. Spirituality is discussed more often in pop culture - consider TV's "Joan of Arcadia," for example, in which a teen talks to God. A greater openness to mixing spirituality and pop culture, say some of the pioneers, is making it easier for groups to get a hearing.

"People aren't as threatened by Christian ideas as maybe they were 10 or 15 years ago," says Mark Odmark, a member of Jars of Clay, who sees less pigeonholing of musicians than when his band hit the mainstream in the mid-1990s. "But I also think that the quality of the art and product has come into its own. Purely from a quality standpoint, it's not as obvious that 'Oh, it's a Christian song' because it sounds kind of dated, and it sounds not as inventive or creative."

Nonetheless, others say, the comfort level of the general populace is still not that high. "Generally speaking, if people are doing religious music, Christian music, that's not acceptable for secular radio stations," says Mark Allen Powell, a professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and author of the "Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music." "And that is a part of the American culture that would obviously not be true in many other societies and many other parts of the world."

For an example of the tension that still exists between the two genres, take the rock band Pillar. It was signed for a time to a mainstream label after an executive heard its song "Fireproof," based on the Old Testament story of the three men thrown in a fiery furnace. But the label then suggested the group tone down the religious language on its website when the band told fans that the choice to do the deal was God-directed.

Pillar lead singer Rob Beckley says the band won't turn its back on the Christian community, which was the first to take a chance on them. But the group does think about what it means to take a step further and reach even more people. The gospel category accounts for about 7 percent of overall music sales, "and for us to sell 300,000 records in that amount of people, then it's definitely motivating to think what could happen if we were in front of 100 percent of the listening population," he says in a phone interview.

Another factor contributing to Christian groups going mainstream is that secular music companies now own more Christian record labels. Rather than feeling threatened, suggests John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, some Christian labels are helping their talent with the transition. "People on the Christian side are the ones pushing this," says Mr. Styll. "These are not defections, necessarily ... as much as they are arrangements that are now made possible because of the alliances and ownership set up with these mainstream entertainment companies."

He points to one pop artist whose label helped promote her recently by working in conjunction with a sister secular label. "You had Stacie Orrico at ForeFront, which is owned by EMI, so boom, put her on Virgin and away they go.... To use a biblical metaphor, why keep the lamp under a bushel?"

Some bands are still figuring out how to successfully navigate in both markets. Evanescence, for example, initially agreed to have its "Fallen" album in Christian outlets, which seemed consistent with liner notes where one member thanks Jesus, and a song, "Tourniquet," on the album that refers to Christ. (My wounds cry for the grave/My soul cries for deliverance/Will I be denied Christ/Tourniquet/My Suicide.)

But in an interview in Entertainment Weekly last spring, the group foreshadowed their soon-to-be-announced flip-flop when they said they couldn't understand why they were being pushed in the Christian market. Evanescence declined to be interviewed for this article.

That was a classic "over reaction," says author Joseph, who is also president of MJM Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. He suggests the group should have simply indicated they didn't embrace being labeled "Christian" rock, but that they were grateful for any outlets that want to carry them.

For a better example of how to negotiate the two markets, he points to Switchfoot. "They've handled it with such class," he says, explaining that the band is doing the things rock groups do - going on tour, hiring a publicist that deals with rock stars - while continuing to produce albums that are still spiritual in nature. "It's creating a sense that you're part of a greater rock community and not off here in the corner," he says of the balancing act. "[And] at the same time, finding ways to assure people that do love you because of your faith, that you're still with them, that you haven't changed your belief."

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