Tuesday, 15 September 2009
It used to be that there was a rather thick black line between what music was inherently Christian, or "sacred”, and what was considered worldly, or "secular”. I remember it vividly. I realized it the day that my friend Chris broke all of his secular CDs because they were evil. He said God convicted him. While there still exists a contemporary Christian music industry and a mainstream music industry, somewhere between the two is a grey area composed of artists who don't necessarily fit into the stereotypical Christian category.
A contributing factor to this grey area could be the success of so many so-called Christian bands in the mainstream music industry. One could attribute the first “crossover” to Christian pop singer Amy Grant, who, in 1991, hit pop gold with her hit single, “Baby, Baby”. More recently, the band Switchfoot saw themselves launched into the limelight with the debut of their single “Only Hope” on the soundtrack to the hit 2002 movie A Walk to Remember. What few average listeners realize is that Switchfoot never intended to market themselves to just Christian listeners.
According to a 2003 interview of lead singer Jon Foreman by Christianity Today:
When Charlie Peacock signed us to his label, re:think, in '97, the label's goal was to release albums both in and outside the church, which definitely resonated with what we were doing – playing a campus pub one night and a church the next. Then, when Sparrow bought out re:think, half of who we were was lost.
Intentional or not, these artists first marketed themselves to Christian audiences before making the conscious decision to release music to mainstream audiences. If we define “sacred” music as that which is firmly footed in the Christian music industry, what, then, should we consider bands comprised of Christian members who never sought refuge in the Christian music industry and don't necessarily sing about God?
A perfect example of this is Paramore, who has recently achieved a great deal of success but rejected offers from Christian record labels. The band has been featured in video games, TV shows, and movies, and they have won several awards, including four Teen Choice Awards this year. Their success is due largely to their poppy tunes and catchy lyrics, but taking a quick look through their words reveals Christian themes, such as sin, faith and salvation, minus overt references to God. In a 2007 interview with AbsolutePunk.net, lead guitarist Josh Farro explains, “We are Christian, but we’re not a Christian band. We’re just like everyone else, you know? We have our own beliefs.”
Despite addressing the same topics as many artists in the Christian music industry, Paramore's lyrics don't reference God by name, which might cause some to lump them into the “secular” category. While this may suggest that Christians can't be popular and speak openly about Jesus, some independent musicians beg to differ.
The independent, or indie, music scene is notorious for being wary of any religiously charged messages, yet this is the same scene that praises Sufjan Stevens for his unique, folk-inspired music and painfully honest lyrics. Stevens draws inspirations from a variety of sources, ranging from Bible stories to serial killers, making often humbling revelations about how these stories reflect his character. Perhaps this is why Stevens is the darling of indie music: he reveals the truth about Christians – that they are not perfect, not holier than anyone else, and certainly not always right – in an epic musical style far more complex and orchestrated than anything else in music today, Christian or otherwise.
This poses a dilemma: lyrically Stevens' music could easily be considered “sacred,” at least some of the time, but by marketing himself specifically to the mainstream music industry, he could also be labeled “secular”. For musicians like Sufjan Stevens, as Kate Bowman suggested in her article “Secular, Sacred or Both” in Christianity Today, “the divide between sacred and secular is not only obsolete—it never existed in the first place.”
In the end, I don't think there really is a conclusion to make just yet. As music changes and evolves, so, too, do the boundaries of what is acceptable in Christian and mainstream music. Perhaps Stevens has paved a new way for Christians to make music in the mainstream music industry. We'll just have to wait and see.
Do you think there should be labels such as “secular” or “sacred” when it comes to music? Is there a home for Christian musicians in mainstream music, or is our society too politically correct to accept faith-based artists?