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

Jenny Michaud and her younger sister Dana no longer hide their love of Christian rock music. Their favorite group, the Newsboys, is popular with their friends and acquaintances, unlike bands they previously championed.

"It's music that you can take someplace else, and not everybody will think, 'Oh, that's Christian music. I don't want to listen to it,' " says Jenny Michaud.

The Michaud sisters were among thousands of fans attending the alternative rock venue of Joyfest '97, an annual Christian music event at Paramount's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif. The one-day festival is a showcase of some of Christian music's top groups, as well as bands that are climbing the charts.

Boundaries between Christian and mainstream rock have blurred almost beyond recognition. Twenty years ago, "Jesus Music" was pioneered by groups like Petra, which played heavy, rock-oriented songs in church basements, then preached to those who stayed after the concert.

These days, Christian alternative bands like Jars of Clay open for Sting in big arenas and have their hit songs played on MTV and VH1.

"Christian music has diversified," says Warren Pettit, music professor at Greenville College, a school near St. Louis that offers courses in contemporary Christian music. "There are an increasing number of bands now that have mainstream visibility."

Jars of Clay got its start at Greenville College, but it's places like Nashville and New York that have come to symbolize the dramatic changes in Christian music - Nashville because that's where Christian rock's prominent labels are based, and New York, because that's where the parent companies of those labels are headquartered.

Previously independent labels like ForeFront and Sparrow are now in the hands of major, secular companies; EMI, BMG, and Sony all own Christian labels now. Professor Pettit says the marketing muscle of those corporations helps explain why so many Christian bands are now crossing over into the mainstream.

"It allows those bands to get widespread distribution," he says. "It took them out of the Christian bookstores and started putting [their CDs] in Tower Records and Wal-Mart."

"There are other factors [that explain the emergence of so many Christian rock bands], but that is far and away the most important reason," he says. "People can simply wander into Target and find Third Day or Plumb or Jars of Clay and buy it, whereas before, they had to wander into Christian bookstores, and most people weren't inclined to do that."

Yet Christian bookstores - with a big assist from Billboard magazine and SoundScan - have played a role in the success of Christian rock acts. Billboard uses SoundScan to determine its bestseller lists. Two years ago, SoundScan began including Christian bookstores in its count (the Christian Booksellers Association has approximately 10,000 retailers), which is when such Christian groups as dc Talk and Jars of Clay began appearing on Billboard's Top 200 album chart.

Improved quality

Another factor is that Christian music has gotten better. Increased production values - along with better songwriting and playing - has created music that ranks with the best of secular music.

The result: It's no longer surprising when Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses" reaches No. 1 on Billboard's album chart as it did earlier this year, or when Kirk Franklin's gospel/hip-hop "God's Property" gets as high as No. 3, or when Jars of Clay's second album debuts at No. 8.

Christian music is reportedly the fastest-growing segment of the industry. About 1,200 Christian radio stations feature Christian music (which ranges from adult contemporary to gospel), but just a handful of rock stations play Christian rock music close to 24 hours a day.

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.

"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."

Creative lyrics

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."

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