Friday, May 26, 2006

Timeless Music and CCM

Recently I was mulling over in my mind some of the pop music’s timeless records. Records like, Led Zeppelin’s Four, U2’s Joshua Tree, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Radiohead’s OK Computer, not to mention numerous records from The Beatles, and the list goes on and on.

What makes these records timeless? Why are they still cool and fresh sounding ever after all these years? There are many reasons that one could mention as what factors into a “timeless” record, but I would primarily chalk it up to one thing: pure authenticity. These artists were putting forth a pure expression of who they were at the time. They weren’t looking around and asking, “Gee, what is working right now from a marketing perspective that we can cash in on?” Generally speaking I would be willing to bet they were simply taking a risk in terms of being themselves and committing to a recorded medium those artistic leanings that stirred them in the most honest way possible. For everyone one of these bands that do this and have astronomical success there are hundreds of bands that try to be true to themselves and fail miserably since their authentic statement is not something that anyone really wants to listen to. It’s a harsh reality, but from my perspective I think it’s worth the risk.

This has led me to wonder, why are there no “timeless” records in Christian music? I have been racking my brain and trying to come up with a record or two that one could maybe put in the same category. Amy Grant’s, Lead Me On? Maybe. DC Talk’s, Jesus Freak? Maybe. Whiteheart’s, Freedom? Maybe. A Keith Green record or two? He comes close. Rich Mullins? Maybe closer. From my perspective that is really all I can come up with and I’m still not that convinced that those records should be seen in the same light. Actually, as I am writing this I know I am not convinced. They definitely should not be seen in the same light.

Is it because Christian’s just aren’t as talented or gifted of songwriters and musicians as pagan people working in the same realm? I think Phil Keagy would have something to say about that. That answer clearly does not work.

Maybe it’s because Christian music just hasn’t been given enough time to develop. Pop/rock music has been around basically in full form since the early 60’s and Christian music probably dates back to the early 70’s. So I don’t think those 10 years or so is that great of an excuse. Perhaps time will tell if some of these Christian records can reach the “timeless” status. Though personally speaking, I doubt it.

I would submit that the reason Christian music has yet to churn out a “timeless” record is due to the fact that primarily speaking Christian music intentionally does what I was talking about above and attempts to cash in on what is “hot” in the current mainstream musical market place. Thus the artist’s never have the chance spread their wings creatively and are always forced to have whatever will “work” and is immediately seen as marketable and profit making. This is primarily the reason we don’t have any trend setting Christian acts. We are always forced to respond to those trends, not set them. To be sure, there is a missional purpose behind this. It’s great for youth pastor to be able to tell his kids that the new Pillar record sounds a lot like P.O.D. And for this reason as a parent I’m glad that Christian music exists. But at the end of the day I think I would rather have my kids listen to mainstream music that really communicates an authentic and pure musical message than have them listen to music that consistently borrows from the mainstream culture to try and make Jesus cool. As of now this method has yet to produce anything with any real staying power.

In defense of the record companies, they are not big enough in terms of their capital and the Christian buyers market is so small that it can hardly financially sustain a risk-taking and purely authentic artistic statement. This is sad since I’m sure that many Christian musicians are dying to have this type of outlet.

One possible solution…We need a couple of Christian billionaires who are completely sold out to Christian music and can bankroll all the creative authentic artistic expression that talented Christian musicians can come up with. If this were to happen I think it would be a great step in the right direction.

If you are a Christian and you burn stacks of twenties in fireplace during the cold winter months just because you can, then give me a call. I’ve got a record company I want to start.


Voice in the Wilderness said...

Perhaps it's because Christian artists tend to imitate and crank out whatever is playing (and selling) in the secular market. What CCM artist has truly broken new ground? Maybe the question is, will the Evangelical market recognize and embrace something truly creative and new or are we too comfortable buying regurgitated music with Christian lyrics?

I don't know. I'm just askin' a few rhetorical questions.

Josh said...

What makes a record "timeless"? Of the five you listed, I agree with 2 (U2 & Michael Jackson), disagree with 2 (Led Zeppelin & Nirvana), and have no opinion on Radiohead.

I think you provided a pretty good answer to your questions in your review of the "Worship God Live" CD - "the challenge of expressing these great theological truths in language that poetically fits beautifully and also fits a melody that is equally beautiful". What's the difference between "worship" music and the rest of CMI music? I've never understood the distinction. If the music that CMI puts out doesn't aid our worship, then what makes it "Christian"?

Anyway, back to the point - I'm a big Steven Curtis Chapman fan. But I don't know that he has a single album that sticks out of his own catalog. I'd say that both Speechless and All Things New are standout albums, but maybe not "timeless". I do think that Todd Agnew is an amazing songwriter - both lyrically and muscially.

But in the end, I think the "limitation" of subject matter will continue to keep CMI from producing "timeless" albums. What I think is important is that CMI albums point us to Who and What is really timeless - God and His Word.

jason said...

Personally, I've found some great christian albums, all of which were really obscure and probably be jobless in a year. Derek Webb has made two great albums (and a third one Mockingbird that wasn't very good). Steven Delopulous made a great album that me and five other people bought.

They are out there, they just aren't marketable and therefore won't make it in the Christian market.

Anonymous said...

I think you're totally right with this point: "These artists were putting forth a pure expression of who they were at the time."

That's what the great hymnwriters were doing hundreds of years ago. And there are still thousands of churches singing "It is Well" every Sunday morning.

Anonymous said...

No timeless Christian albums? You obviously haven't heard SWEN's "Big Diff" album!

Anonymous said...

I love Keith Green!
KG's music has influenced me more than anything else on the planet almost. I have listened to him for so long. He has also influenced me as a musician, to be very honest and real in my lyrics. Actually, I'd be honored if you'd check out my music on my site. Its very, "Keithish."
Thanks for posting,
"All of my music is free for download."

DVO said...

It might be said that any time you have to make your living writing music, you play it safe and write for what you think the audience wants. But that would discount Bach, for example, who was in the weekly business of composing music for a paycheck and still created masterpieces (for the glory of God). I think the irony is that what most people (and record companies, if it's already been proven to have a fan base) really want is something new and fresh to experience. If you're an artist, consider expressing yourself with excellence in the way God has gifted you, without the boundaries of having to make money or please someone else. Sincerity is attractive and appreciated by audiences.

Anonymous said...

Zach, you nailed something here that I was trying to describe to you the other day in church-- the new Portishead disc wows me, partially, because of its "authenticity." It's a "pure artistic expression" of where the artist is at this particular time in his/her life. Now, someone may be talentless, and still produce a "pure artistic expression," but obviously, that is not the context that you were dealing with in your post. Giftedness and authenticity must go together. I'm not sure why most Christian music doesn't begin to approach the creativity of U2 or Portishead, or even the Foo Fighters (who I like-- they just don't blow me away as much as the first two). Maybe it's largely a desire to "stay inside the artistic lines" in an industry which seems to highly prize staying inside the lines (and to commercially marginalize those who don't)?

Anonymous said...

Great observations, Zach. I would add this. The problem of the masses tending to prefer "non-art" is not unique to the church. It's a human condition. For every fantastic secular album, there are 20 or 30 mediocre ones. And, guess which ones typically sell better? Rufus Wainwright, for instance, won't sell as many records as, say, Brittany Spears did in her prime. People like cotton candy, never recognizing that they need vegetables and Omega 3's.

With CCM material, the same problem exists. Church-goers who buy Christian music tend to lean toward the cotton candy. Casting Crowns is the kind of stuff that sells big - not because it's amazingly creative, but because it proclaims the Gospel in terms that are easy for the average listener to get his arms around. I liken it to my understanding of Quantum Physics - something which most agree is "art in mathematical form". I could audit a class on the subject at a University, but I'm going to want to put a gun in my mouth after about 2 minutes. I just don't get it. But, I'm great at basic math. Music is kind of like that, I think. Those of us who do it for a living wish we could help "the masses" understand what we know. But, generally, it's just not gonna happen. And, maybe that's okay.

As the music business continues to change dramatically due to internet piracy, the labels are in a desperate attempt to maintain their bottom lines. Profit is the life-blood of any business. Obviously, they have to market the stuff that they believe has the best chance of connecting with the Christian consumer. End of story.

People of noble intention have tried for years - both within the Church and without - to market the true art. Regretably, it seldom succeeds, because people don't get it and, therefore, they won't buy it.

And, money drives everything.