An excerpt from “The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse” (Appendix 2):
A typical conversation I might have on an airplane:
Stranger (upon seeing the guitar on my back): Hey, are you gonna play us something?
Michael: Ha ha! Maybe, we’ll see! (Note to jokesters: anybody who regularly carries a guitar onto a plane is tired of this joke.)
Stranger: You know, I’m not sure that guitar is going to fit in the overhead . . .
Michael (trying to stay nice): Yeah, it does actually.
I place the guitar in the overhead bin and close it without a problem. I realize my seat is right next to the stranger and sit down.
Stranger: So, what kind of music do you play?
It is here that I have a difficult time knowing how to answer.
If you asked Bill iTunes or John Google this question about Michael Gungor, the answer that you would find would be “Christian and Gospel.” There are a number of reasons that this is not the answer I would prefer to give someone, especially a stranger on a plane. It is not because I am embarrassed about the spiritual content of our music. I’m not. It’s essentially a language problem.
It actually gets kind of complicated. So to begin, let’s take another jaunt back to my fundamentalist days.
Here’s how art worked in the religious subculture that I grew up in: If you want to be a painter, and you want God to be happy with your art, you better paint crosses or doves flying around a globe or something. If you want to be a singer, and you want to use your gift for God, you need to sing Christian music. The more JPM’s (Jesus’ Per Minute), the better.
I loved music. I loved God. So I tried to write Christian music. I wasn’t great at it.
I lost my first Christian music competition when I was eighteen. It was a big seminar held in the Rocky Mountains where the winners could win things like Christian record deals.
In the first category, instrumental music, my toughest competition was a blind guitarist. I didn’t know how to feel about that. He was a really good player, and I felt bad for him because he was blind and all; but man, there was still a big part of me that wanted to crush that visually impaired acoustic shredder into the ground. No luck there, though. I came in second. I hoped for better luck in the songwriting part of the competition.
I had submitted a song called “What a God” that was a big hit at my church. People would actually start chanting “WHAT A GOD! WHAT A GOD!” at the end of services. This would happen quite regularly. I think it may have had something to do with all of the solos in it. Acoustic guitar solos, sax solos, percussion solos, drums solos . . . it was the late 90s, and people ate solos for breakfast.
The judges told me that the song was trite.
Stupid judges. They must not have heard the incredible solos.
In retrospect, the song was trite, but I still felt like I had been robbed, so I came back the next year. This time, I had written a song in a minor key with a 7/8 time signature, and I thought it was pretty amazing. I was confident that the judges would think so as well. They did not. They told me that odd time signatures do not work well in Christian music. They told me that people like Sting might be able to get away with it, but he is not in Christian music.
I tried for a long time to be part of the Christian music industry. I even went to the Dove Awards one time. I sat there in my nice suit, daydreaming about what it would be like to win one of those someday.
So, yeah, there would have been a day that I would have gladly told the stranger on the plane that I played Christian music. But in the years of trying to make it in the Christian music industry, I came to discover how fundamentally fraught with peril an idea like Christian music can be.
First, and least importantly, there is the problem of the idea of genre. This is my first hurdle with the stranger on the plane. He’s asking for a genre, and so much about the idea of genres drives me crazy. Genres are all about labeling, marketing, and boxing art into imaginary constructs for the purpose of making money.
Genres are arbitrary. You can’t accurately classify art into categories like you can with lizards or different species of ferns. In science, classification works well—“It’s got four limbs, some hair, milk for its babies, lungs, and warm blood. It’s a mammal.” In art, the situation is not so cut and dry.
How many jokes must be included in a screenplay before the drama becomes a comedy? How many bombs must explode before the thriller becomes an action movie? If a rock band decides to start using banjos rather than electric guitars, are they still a rock band, or have they suddenly become a country or bluegrass band?
If musical genres were based on concrete and consistent musical characteristics, the marketers would have to create new genres in the record stores for every new, innovative artist that comes along. That’s not what happens. What happens is that the marketers simply categorize the artist’s album into the alternative section or the pop section or wherever they think it will have the best chance of selling. A genre is an imagined box that marketers have found to be effective as a marketing channel to a certain type of consumer.
What, for instance, does a typical country music fan look like in your imagination? What is he wearing? How does he speak? Ok, now think of a typical hip-hop fan. Same questions. How do you imagine him?
I doubt that you are imagining both the country fan and the hip-hop fan to be two identical middle-aged Asian businessmen in suits with no discernable differences between them or their lifestyles other than what is playing on their iPods.
Both country music and hip-hop music come out of a certain type of culture. Country music originated in southern parts of the United States in the 1920s. This was the same culture that had given birth to the concept of the cowboy. Country stars often wear cowboy clothing, which is clothing designed to help a person do the job of a cowboy, not sing music on a stage. A cowboy hat is intended to help keep a rancher protected from the weather. Cowboy boots were designed to help protect a cowboy while he rides his horse.
Most country artists aren’t riding horses to and from the stage. That’s not why country singers wear this clothing. Country music is perceived to come out of a certain lifestyle. That lifestyle has all of its own boundary markers that separate it from other cultures and lifestyles. Country artists wear cowboy hats as social boundary markers for their particular subculture.
The same is true for hip-hop. Hip-hop came out of the lifestyle of poor or working class people living in crowded urban centers. Hip-hop and rap often address issues that are familiar to their urban source—economic pressures, crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and so on. What is odd is that most successful rappers or hip-hop artists do not live in “the hood” anymore. They live in the rich areas. The style of sagging pants that many of these artists wear is believed to have originated in the prisons where belts were not allowed for the fear that the inmates might hang themselves with them. These artists are not in prison, and most of them probably never have been, but crime and a perceived oppression from authority figures is part of the subculture that gives birth to the art, so they’ve come to sag their pants.
So all of this is my first problem with answering the stranger’s question—he’s asking for a genre, and I don’t want to jump into any of his boxes.
The second reason I am not comfortable telling the stranger that I make “Christian music” is because I believe that this sort of categorization is precisely the kind of destructive separation of the sacred and the secular that is the result of fundamentalism, idolatry, and remnants of Gnosticism. That sort of division between sacred and profane makes for a small and anemic faith that is only relevant to the tiny corners of existence that we allow it to inhabit.
In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes, “’Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective.” I agree with him. When the word “Christian” is used as an adjective, the assumption is that the essence of Christianity is something that can be transferred to a lifeless object. If Christianity is simply a set of lifeless dogmas and ideas, then one can certainly copy and paste those ideas onto any other lifeless object and describe it as Christian. As far as I am aware, there is no Christian automobile industry, no Christian mathematics industry, and no Christian airline industry. Most people would probably find it odd if someone tried to start such an industry. Would painting a big red Jesus on the hood of a car make it a Christian car? Would a pizza with dove-shaped pepperonis or cross-shaped sausages be a Christian pizza?
A third reason I’m uncomfortable telling the stranger on the plane that I play Christian music is because it begs the question: What exactly is Christian music?
Is it a musical style? No. Saying that I play “Christian music” says nothing about the actual music. It could mean that I direct a large church choir, sing tenor in a southern gospel quartet, or play electric guitar in a Christian hardcore metal band.
Is it music made by Christians? No. There are plenty of Christians who aren’t categorized in the Christian genre. There are also people in the Christian music industry who are not Christians. Our road manager, Heath, recently had a conversation with an artist who is pretty well known in many parts of the world for writing Christian music. Heath was asking her about her life, and asked where she we went to church. She laughed and told him that she wasn’t into all of that stuff. She told him that she is not actually a Christian. She just knows how to write the stuff that Christians like to hear.
Most people probably assume that Christian music is categorized as such because of the content of the lyrics. This would be odd, because no other music is categorized by the content of its lyrics. There is no Buddhist or Atheist section of a record store. There is not a “gay” section or a “money” section. The only exception is Christian music, but if Christian music is categorized by the lyrical content, what does it mean for a lyric to be Christian? Singing about Jesus? But there are plenty of mainstream acts that sing about Jesus, and plenty of “Christian” songs that don’t mention Jesus at all.
David Crowder Band* was a band that was marketed as Christian, but they sometimes covered songs from different mainstream artists like Sufjan Stevens, Hank Williams or Sinead O’Connor. They didn’t change the words of the songs to make them “more Christian” or anything. They didn’t put a sermon or a prayer in front of those songs. They just sang the songs. Which leads to odd developments—the Sufjan Stevens’ song “O God, Where Are You Now?” was labeled as Alternative when Sufjan recorded it, but when David Crowder Band* recorded it, the same song became “Christian.” What’s even weirder is that Sufjan Stevens is a Christian.
If the determining factor of what falls into the Christian genre has nothing to do with the music, is not based on the content of the lyrics, and is not based on the personal beliefs of the artist, what could it possibly be? Is it simply that the music is released by labels that call themselves Christian?
Three major labels represent over eighty percent of the market’s music: Universal, Sony, and Warner. These labels own most of the other significant labels in the world, including the Christian ones. Pretty much everybody in the music industry ultimately works for the same people. Whether you buy a Michael W. Smith album or a Marilyn Manson album, you are still paying the same small group of executives at the top of the food chain. So does being in Christian music simply mean that you are signed to one of the “Christian” marketing arms of the big three labels?
No, because there are also artists like myself who are not signed to a Christian label, but are labeled as Christian artists. Our band was signed to little indie mainstream label in Atlanta called Brash Music. Brash is not a Christian label. To my knowledge, they don’t even have any Christians on staff. Yet, somehow our music is still always relegated to the Christian music industry.
So what is Christian music? I think I can finally answer the question. It’s music made for Becky.
Like all genres, Christian music is simply a category that marketers use to reach a certain type of consumer. It is a marketing channel used to reach a very specific subculture.
This is further attested to by the common separation of “Christian” and “Gospel.” While “Gospel” actually is a bit more consistent in its musical styles and sounds as a genre than “Christian” is, there is another primary difference between the two terms. For the most part, Christian music is made by white people and Gospel music is made by black people. You don’t normally hear black people on “Christian” radio, and you don’t normally hear white people on “Gospel” radio. These categories have more to do with subcultures than Christianity or the Gospel.
The subculture that buys Christian music couldn’t accurately be called the Christian subculture. A Christian music executive at one of the big labels recently told me that the entire demographic that buys Christian music is only about two million people. Two billion people in the world consider themselves Christians. So only about 0.1% of people who consider themselves Christians buy Christian music.
Christian music is not marketed to Christians so much as it is marketed to a very narrow subculture of a certain type of Christian. For years, Christian music marketers and radio programmers have known who their target demographic is. They actually have personified this target demographic, and her name is “Becky.”
If you think I’m joking, ask any Christian radio programmer about her. A lot of stations have very specific information based on reams of market research. One station programmer told me that Becky is a forty-two-year-old soccer mom. She has three kids and she has been married twice. She is an evangelical Christian, but not a radical who watches Christian television or goes to church three times a week. She only attends church once or twice a month. They know what her favorite restaurant is. In fact, they know what restaurant she likes to eat at with her husband on a date and which restaurant she likes to take the kids to. They know the movies she watches and how she spends her money. She is the one who runs her household, the one with her finger on the radio knob, and she wants something positive to play in the minivan as she drives her kids to soccer practice.
Becky is the quintessential Christian radio listener.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who listens to Christian radio fits this description. It simply is the bull’s-eye of their demographic. If they aim at Becky, they get the most other people along with her. When Christian radio stations target Becky, they experience a vast increase in their numbers. They get specific in their targets for a reason. For years, they didn’t target Becky, and they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t compete with the bigger mainstream stations. Now they can. This is how the entertainment industry works no matter what sort of categories they use. They target the demographic that will allow them to get the biggest numbers.
I once had a writing session with an artist who couldn’t stop talking about Becky. He told me from the beginning that he really needed a song that would resonate with Becky. I asked if maybe we could just write something that felt honest and true to us. He said okay, but he really needed Becky to be okay with it as well.
Every idea I brought up was immediately brought through the Becky filter.
What about this?
Well, that’s cool, but I’m not sure how Becky would feel about that.
Okay, what about this?
Listen, I personally like it. It’s edgy and provocative and musical, but I really don’t know what Becky would think about that.
I asked him what Becky would think if I shoved my guitar up his…well, not really—I’m not that clever when things get tense. Instead, I just start seething and retreating into my inner world. So that’s what I did, and we eventually just gave up and left.
I don’t actually have a problem with radio programmers talking about Becky. The stations know who their listeners are and program accordingly. It’s smart.
I do have a problem with artists talking about Becky.
When the artist starts talking like the marketers, you know he has stopped listening to the Voice. The Voice doesn’t speak in marketing terms, but in terms like truth, beauty, and passion.
The artist ought to listen to the voice inside, not Becky.
When the creator listens to the external voices, those voices will eventually lead her to sell out. They will lead her to put her art in the cookie cutter and cut away all of the dough that falls outside of the edges. But the edges are what make her who she is. The edges are good.
This is why there is so much soulless music in our society. Our artists are listening to the wrong voices. This seems to be especially true in the Christian music industry, which is another reason I feel uncomfortable telling the stranger on the plane that I play Christian music.
Art that is laden with heavy messages can feel like soulless propaganda.
Think of corporate jingles. Would you ever walk down the aisle at your wedding to a full-length version of a McDonald’s corporate jingle? If you were to make a playlist for the birth of your first child, how many of the songs would you want to be advertising jingles? Not many? Why not? Jingles are catchy. But most people would never include them in such special occasions, because corporate jingles have no soul.
Folgers Coffee had a competition recently with a big cash prize for anyone who could write a new jingle for them. The song that ended up being chosen is actually pretty cool. It has all the elements of the laid-back indie singer-songwriter drinking a cup of coffee. Pretty melody, nice sultry vocals, warm acoustic instruments. But there’s no soul to it. Because it’s a freaking Folgers jingle. Who is going to put that on their iPod and just groove to it all day?
A song like that is what I call a musical zombie.
A zombie looks like a human. It eats like a human. It walks and makes noise and resembles a human. But it’s a zombie. It has no soul.
Christian music is filled with zombies. The message of the music is predetermined, so we just need a form of music that can carry the message to a broad group of people.
“Well, let’s see, hardcore music is pretty popular with the kids right now. Let’s insert some Jesus language in that!”
Good music has soul, and the soul matters more than the form. You can’t subtract the anger and angst from most hardcore music and still retain the essence of the music. Musical expression is not limited to just the notes and rhythms of a piece. Music is human. And if you take out the human bits and leave just the technical bits to be reproduced as carriers of whatever message you want it to carry, you no longer have a living thing. You have an un-dead thing. You have a musical zombie.
That’s why a lot of Christian music feels contrived and lifeless. It’s like a Folgers jingle because it has separated the message and the medium into two different things. This is also why much of the Christian industry is behind everybody else by five or ten years. Much of the Christian industry is like a beggar walking behind the rest of culture, picking up the crumbs of her marketing slogans and creativity to be used for our own purposes.
That seemed to work well! Let’s try it with our message!
This can make things difficult for artists who enjoy making music about God, but would prefer not to be associated with art that has been bastardized into propaganda for the religious right.
When people hear my thoughts about these things, they sometimes ask, “Well then, why are you part of the Christian music industry?”
My answer to that question is, “What do you mean?”
It’s not like you sign up for a Christian music industry membership. I was signed to a mainstream label.
Most musical acts who are Christian have to intentionally distance themselves from the Church in order to have any success within the mainstream. As a result, there are loads of Christians in the music industry who wouldn’t dream of performing in a church because of what it would do to their reputation.
This makes it difficult for a lot of bands that work (or would like to work) in the mainstream music industry but don’t want to turn their backs on their roots. Many of us love the Church and even enjoy playing in churches sometimes. But this sometimes limits our ability to work with the people who inspire us or to find opportunity beyond the Christian music ghetto.
For our last album, “Ghosts Upon the Earth,” I wanted to try to find a producer to work with that I could respect and trust musically. I started dreaming about my ideal producer, and I found some contact info for a guy who has produced a lot of music that I really like. I sent a demo to him with a proposal and a budget, and he responded and told me that he loved it. He said that he had been listening to all sorts of stuff recently and just couldn’t find the inspiration to do any of it, but that when he heard my stuff, it just clicked for him. He said that he played it for his friends and they all felt the same. He said he was excited to do it.
The song I sent him was “When Death Dies,” which is lyrically ambiguous enough that the listener may not assume that it’s necessarily “Christian.” But as the conversation progressed, I felt that I needed to confess to him that I am often associated with the Christian industry, because I know that this can be a taboo subject in the music industry at large. So I told him that this had been the genre that our music had been classified in before, but that I really wanted to make a record that would speak to an audience outside of the one we had already reached. I explained that I wasn’t interested in trying to get him to operate within any of those confines. I just wanted to make some good art. I put this in a quick email that I thought would serve as a courtesy to avoid any awkwardness in the future.
Suddenly, he was not interested in working with me. Maybe it was coincidence; maybe it wasn’t; but that was not the only time that kind of thing has happened.
On multiple occasions, I’ve had musicians turn down work because they weren’t comfortable with the Christian music thing. For instance, we recently contacted an artist whose music I really enjoy. We asked her if she would be open to touring with us. At first, when she heard what we are offering with crowd size, number of dates, and so on, she was very interested. Then she saw the venue list, which included some churches. “Wait . . . so is this a Christian tour?” Her interest was gone.
Imagine if this was the gay music industry, and people were being turned down for work with simply because they were gay. People would be outraged. There would be protests and lawsuits and public outcry. But it’s okay not to work with someone because he is associated with the Christian music industry.
If this is the price we have to pay to make music that is meaningful to us, that’s fine. Honestly, it’s really not that heavy of a price. People have been sawn in half for staying true to their beliefs; I can deal with a few unanswered emails.
All of that said, I do think that some Christian music has an element to it that sets it apart from other kinds of music. I do write within a tradition of music that exists for something more than entertainment or even artistic expression. In this stream, we write music that is intended to make God happen within a community of faith. It is music that is often (though not always) intended to be sung by others. It is prayer. It is a sort of sacrament that allows a community of people to brush up against the future God in present space and time. It is music that intends to become worship. This is a specific artistic function, and for that reason, I wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of music being separated into its own category or genre.
Some have called this music “Praise” or “Worship” music. For reasons similar to my disdain for the term “Christian music”, I have a problem with this language as well. It imprisons the idea of worship into a very small box. For the Christ follower, worship ought not to be limited to a genre or the singing portion of church services. Worship is a way of life. It is an offering of a person’s self in whatever capacity and condition he finds himself in. For Brother Lawrence, washing dishes was his primary method of worship. All good work can become worship. Relationship can become worship. Singing can become worship. But none of these things ought to be named worship in and of themselves for the same reason that marriage shouldn’t be named “love.” Love can happen in a marriage, but love and marriage are not always the same thing.
For this reason, I prefer terms like “Liturgical Music” or “Church Music.” Liturgical music is categorically different than other types of Christian music that are intended to be “alternatives” to mainstream music. If this were a marketing category, there could be different subcategories of actual musical genres like “Liturgical Rock”, “Liturgical Pop”, “Liturgical Classical”…etc. (Even though I don’t like the idea of genres, I realize they may be a necessary evil in the marketplace).
In my perspective, liturgy is a very broad idea. It is not limited to robes, stained glass and incense. Liturgy is simply public worship. Every church is engaged in some type of liturgy. Some use readings and Eucharist; others use fog machines and strobe lights. The liturgical space is a broad and open space for experimentation. In my opinion, there are plenty of mainstream artists that write music that would be appropriate for certain kinds of liturgical space. This space is largely unexplored right now, and there is so much room for creative experimentation.
For instance, there is a need (and plenty of room) in this space for lament. For prophetic railing against the powers that be. There is room for songs, poetry, and artwork that explores doubt, hope, joy, struggle and storytelling. The idea of liturgy is a broad idea, and if it had a category of its own, perhaps it could invite a surge of creativity into that space. I think that would be good for the Church right now.
In my opinion, the non-liturgical music that is currently labeled as Christian should be placed in the genres that are more appropriate to the actual musical style. Rock, Pop, Country…etc. Just because a song sings “Jesus” rather than “baby” doesn’t make it categorically different than its musical equivalent. Of course, there are a lot of Beckys out there that do want a positive or religiously infused alternative to the typical bawdy lyrical content of most popular music. She wants music that she can play for her family without worrying about offensive lyrical content. Also, there are a lot of these Christian bands that would not survive the transition to mainstream. Becky is their audience, and she doesn’t necessarily want to (or know how to) navigate within the huge rivers of mainstream music to find music that she feels is safe for her kids to listen to. So perhaps another category of “Positive Alternative,” “Family,” or “Religious” music could be started. Whatever the language, it should not be included in the same category with liturgical music, and it should not be called “Christian”. It is a categorically different thing. (And since when was Christianity a safe, positive alternative for the family anyway?)
Of course, iTunes, Amazon, and the three major labels haven’t been calling me to ask my opinion on all of this. Most likely, we liturgical writers will just have to grit our teeth and deal with the inappropriate and potentially harmful label of “Christian music.” But perhaps if a few more of us started making an effort to secede from the Christian music ghetto in little ways and find ways of cooperating on liturgical experimentation, something could eventually change.
So what do I tell the stranger on the plane? Well, it kind of depends on my mood. I might tell him “Liturgical Post-Rock” and smile at his confused facial expression, or I might just say, “Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
All of my idealistic problems with the language and categories aside, I actually do enjoy being part of the Christian music industry in a lot of ways. There are amazing people in my industry who take their art seriously and have inspired me greatly. People who believe that ordering creation is a sacred task and have acted accordingly. People I’m honored to work with.
Also, I really do love Christians. As weird as we can get, there is something really beautiful about the Church. And I am grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend singing and making music with people who love Jesus.
The reason I am so passionate about the subtleties of this idea of Christian music is that I think the idea of creating music for liturgical space and spiritual connection is so full of potential. At our best, we are able to see glimpses of what it could be, but I believe that we could be and do so much more. Like all human cultures, we have a lot of weeds to pull. A lot of underlying roots that need to be cultivated and soil that needs tending. In my opinion, that’s work worth doing.