[This post appeared originally on the blog, Standing on Shoulders, and inspired The Persistence of Song project.]

Undertaking a history of anything contemporary often is an exercise in futility.  The events of tomorrow could easily render this undertaking irrelevant.  Recently, though, I was reflecting on the state contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I realized what this music says about the art evangelical Christians are creating and consuming these days.  The state of CCM is a reflection of two trends, which may have evolved from consumer-driven trends to consumer-shaping trends.

Baptizing the Mainstream

In 1995, DC Talk released its Jesus Freak album, and the album met much commercial success.  Jesus Freak climbed to 16 on the Billboard 200, which was the highest initial debut for a “Christian” album, and eventually sold two million copies. 

If you asked a twenty-something or thirty-something CCM-listener to identify a favorite CCM song, the odds are pretty good that the album’s title track would be the reply.

However, for every Jesus Freak album purchased, ForeFront Records should cut a royalty check to the estate of Kurt Cobain.  His band, Nirvana, created the market for Jesus Freak, and DC Talk essentially pirated the sounds and themes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”    

Undoubtedly, Nirvana was the most influential rock band since the British invasion.  If not for Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, we would all still be listening to big-hair 80s rock bands.  The band’s biggest commercial success, the album Nevermind, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the peak of the Billboard 200 in 1992. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the Seattle sound commercial.  Distortion, screaming vocals, and the mosh pit—all distinctive of “grunge”—were now here to stay.  DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” capitalized on the popularity of Seattle rock.  However much the trio tried to infuse its hip-hop stylings into the track, “Jesus Freak” was artistically indebted to Nirvana.

Probably what’s more interesting is that the two songs are so thematically similar.  Both tracks touch heavily upon the idea of identity.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” critiques the features of late 80s and early 90s young adults:  violence (“load up on guns”), apathy (“here we are now, entertain us”), and independence (“our little group has always been”). 

“Jesus Freak,” though less sarcastic, is no less fascinated with identity.  The title is a moniker wielded by the world, but gladly embraced by the song’s speaker.  “Jesus Freak” identity is largely understood by the way of negation.  Repentance (“all the me I’ve divorced”) and resolve (“I won’t live and die for the power they seek”) are key elements of this identify.  The street preacher and John the Baptist serve as emblems of this identity. 

The more immediate observation from the DC Talk and Nirvana parallels concerns the CCM industry.  DC Talk and ForeFront records showed that Christian musicians could peddle rock and pop trends to Christian audiences with Christian themes and produce commercial success. 

Jesus Freak debuted approximately four years after Nevermind debuted and three years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached number one.  This scenario should sound all too familiar to anyone who has listened to a Christian music radio station in the last ten years. 

CCM record labels have since improved how quickly they respond to secular radio success.  A good example is Evanescence (2003) and BarlowGirl (2004). 

The resultant state of CCM has been something very similar to the 80s hair-band trend.  Record labels and producers imposed certain musical and cultural norms on rock bands:  hair styles, wardrobes, ballads with predicable harmonies, synthesizers.  Instead of big hair and ballads, the CCM labels are selling whatever was big last year in secular markets. 

The Worship Music Movement

One movement has enervated this trend in CCM:  the worship music movement.  Labels realized an even more profitable angle:  have famous artists sing worship songs that Passion and other movements popularized.  The audience will attach to these songs as spiritually beneficial and fork over big dollars. 

The early 2000s were inundated with commercially successful worship albums.  Third Day’s Offerings (2000) and Michael W. Smith’s Worship (2001) both sold over 1,000,000 copies.  Smith went on to release Worship Again (2002), which sold an additional 500,000 copies. 

Commercially Successful Worship Albums

What’s interesting about Smith’s worship albums is that, although he is an acclaimed songwriter, he wrote so few of the tracks.  Christian radio was peddling “new” Michael W. Smith material that youth groups and contemporary-oriented churches had been singing for years.  Now, the worship cover has become all too common.

After the commercial success of Offerings, Worship, and Worship Again, the commercial worship music movement soon followed.  Caedmon’s Call (2001, 2006), Rebecca St. James (2002), and Newsboys (2003) entered the foray.

The commercial success of worship music generated a new genre of CCM artists.  Worship artists and bands such as Sonicflood, MercyMe, Jeremy Camp, Big Daddy Weave, and Todd Agnew kept the CCM airways humming with new worship material.  MercyMe, in particular, dominated the industry by selling 2,000,000 copies of Almost There

CCM radio stations, in the 2000s, have largely moved toward continuous rotations of worship music.  The dramatic shift of the market has not necessarily been a positive development for the genre of worship music.  Radio-friendly unit-shifters are becoming a-theological, non-confessional love songs, of which the listener’s romantic interest could very well be the subject.  (See the Girl of God? series for some examples.) 

The Art of Evangelicals

Musician Derek Webb has described the relationship between art, commerce, and religion as a dysfunctional marriage.  The CCM industry has emphasized business in its approach.  As secular music trends fluctuate, CCM responds with its “Christian versions.”  When contemporary worship music had become deeply entrenched in the youth, college, and contemporary scene, CCM responded with a myriad of worship-oriented artists and albums.

As creators of art, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, creativity and innovation.  CCM sounds increasingly aged, either imitating the sounds of secular radio from yesteryear or the praise songs of conferences from yesteryear.

As confessors of truth, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, regard for doctrine.  CCM sounds increasingly hallow, speaking to God as lover, rather than lord. 

The most damaging analysis of these trends is the influence CCM exerts upon contemporary church life.  While CCM’s worship music movement may have been consumer initiated, the movement is deeply impacting the worship of the church.  Now, church “worship leaders” strive to be current and “fresh,” which entails imitating the newest praise chorus peddled by CCM radio.

We must be on our guard, even in the midst of music labeled “Christian.”  Remember that the industry is not only offering its listeners “family-friendly,” “upbeat,” “encouraging” music; it’s selling records, as well.  And when zeroes and ones are as important as chapter and verse, we might be better off sounding like the nineteenth century than worshipping like its 1999.