Christian Rock Is a Brand, Not a Genre
An investigation into the only category of music entirely defined by its constricting censorship.
Four years ago, Dan Haseltine, lead vocalist of the Christian rock group Jars of Clay, effectively halved his band’s following when he tweeted that gay marriage was maybe, possibly OK. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the half of their audience that glommed on when the 1995 hit “Flood” achieved crossover success on alt-rock radio that took offense, but rather it was the demographic that has passively embraced Jars of Clay over the course of their twenty-year reign on Christian contemporary radio. With conservative Christian media outlets amplifying the tweets rather than engaging with them, it wasn’t long before Facebook users were calling for the mass suicide of the LGBT community. Dan’s band hasn’t released any new music since.
What you get out of a Christian station like K-LOVE nine times out of ten is a sappy love song—no different from any other pop radio station, really—but Jars of Clay often felt like an ambassador to the secular world of alternative rock, drawing inspiration from bands like The Verve Pipe more than the CCM echo chamber of “I Can Only Imagine.” Their early experimental cuts like “Fade to Grey” (featuring electric organ and programmed drums) and the occasional lyrically ambiguous singles spanning their career (“Whatever She Wants,” a noirish cut with a fierce guitar solo, is about vampires—seemingly either a metaphor for depression or an emotionally draining partner) come to mind, and a few of their contemporaries matched that promiscuity with odes to their childhood family car, zany disco, and rap?-rock? operas. Also, remember Switchfoot?
At this point, it’s ingrained in our culture that “Christian rock” is its own category of music comparable to “alternative” or “indie” rock—that is, vaguely categorical for the sake of compartmentalization on radio channels and compatible festival lineups. But there’s something pretty odd about the genre beyond the fact that the only common denominator for each of its artists is their constantly avowed existential beliefs: Essentially, the economy of Christian rock operates like a strict PR team policing its artists’ every move. If any of their actions fall out of line with their Christian beliefs, they’re subject to banishment to a lower status of secular rock. First and foremost, Jars of Clay and their peers are propagandistic figures for the perfect Christian, infiltrating a heathen art form and claiming it for their faith.
Jars’ excommunication certainly isn’t an isolated case in Christian music communities; at the height of JoC’s popularity, Christian hardcore was beginning to take American youth by storm with the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the scene of its secular peers. The exclusivity of Christian venues not only forced many bands to feign their faith, but even deterred hesitant believers from pursuing the church—and in an admittedly extreme case, premeditated incredibly unchristian acts. Meanwhile, middle-ground artists like Anberlin—Christians who refute the denomination “Christian band”—crossed over to mainstream success after stints at open-minded labels like Tooth & Nail, which also launched the careers of David Bazan, Danielson, and mewithoutYou. “I guarantee you [Jesus] would be opening up for the Sex Pistols back in the day,” assured Anberlin vocalist Stephen Christian (his actual, uh, Christian name) in assuring the inanity of the Christian hardcore scene.
Essentially, the economy of Christian rock operates like a strict PR team policing its artists’ every move. If any of their actions fall out of line with their Christian beliefs, they’re subject to banishment to a lower status of secular rock.
From Sabbath to Evanescence to The Fray to ICP, there’s never been a shortage of openly Christian musicians topping the charts, if not achieving canonical cult status. But it seems like for many, the prospect of committing to the only genre which has absolutely zero indication of your artistic choices will ultimately lead to a breaking point, either with your band or with your faith. Bazan and mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, for instance, have two of the most dramatic public relationships with religion in all of popular music, though the ex-Christian Bazan manages to maintain a healthy relationship with Christian publications despite the lyrics of Pedro the Lion’s “Priests and Paramedics” foreshadowing the utterly hopeless Synecdoche, New York sermon.
In most cases, it’s bands like Bazan’s with a foot in both circles that serve up the most interesting Christian-themed music, both lyrically and instrumentally. Taking cues from Dylan in more ways than one, John McCauley’s vocal performance on Deer Tick’s resurrection of “Christ Jesus” for their Black Dirt Sessions betrays its writer’s passionate struggle with religion to an extent never before touched by Christian rock—though the lyrics could be seen as agnostic or even atheist, the track belongs to the tradition of Kierkegaardian prodding in an era of conservative Christian disdain for Kazantzakistic hypotheticals.
In considering such figures as Bazan and McCauley extraneous to the Christian catalog, the genre exhibits an unparalleled elitism, not to mention an artificial feel-good energy unmatched by the sugary pop of Top-40 stations. Again, unlike any other category of music ever marketed, Christian rock’s exclusivity is based on a strict set of moral codes, using genre as a template for their uplifting message. It’s no surprise when groups like Quiet Company and Wild Sweet Orange emerge from the ashes of worship projects to release soul-baring indie folk records—symptomatic of Christian rock’s tendency to always be a few years behind trends in secular pop—whose stunning climaxes are fuelled by their shifting beliefs.
While Jars of Clay were unique in their ability to write in-the-moment pop songs (their post-grunge aesthetic veered a pretty hard left in 1999 to accommodate an era of boy bands, while Who We Are Instead premeditated the indie-folk boom), they were about as guilty as any of their Christian contemporary peers when it came to the songs of their strictly Christian catalog (e.g. the mushy “Love Song for a Savior” and “Like a Child”). Their status as a Christian rock band was in no way jeopardized by the non-Christian themes embedded in their discography because their thematically Christian recordings were such accessible praise songs.
The genre exhibits an unparalleled elitism, not to mention an artificial feel-good energy unmatched by the sugary pop of Top-40 stations.
Like the disgruntled Newsboy before them, there clearly seems to be a sigh of relief from the band, who are now free from the constricting norms of their quarantined faction of the music industry to address the anomaly of Christian rock. “We just couldn’t [perform] in a theme park or a church setting where they were going to co-opt what we had written about and sung and make it about somebody else’s agenda, and that was happening more and more,” confided Jars guitarist Stephen Mason, now a barber in Nashville. “It’s a ghetto, frankly,” he told Hollywood Reporter. In twenty years, his band seems to have experienced the full life cycle of the industry of Christian rock, which arose in the questionable fashion of televangelism and has revealed itself to preach the same message of exploitation.
In a political climate so severe that even Taylor Swift has issued a political endorsement, it seems the only artists withholding their opinions are Christian rock musicians. “I had people who said: ‘F you, and I hope the terrorists come and F your children,’” claimed Mike Doherty, one of just two Christian artists Billboard was able to gather any sort of statement from. Christian rock really has evolved since its turn-of-the-century expansion: It’s no longer the listeners of Christian rock who are being protected from the evils of the world by the genre’s restrictive guidelines—it’s the artists who are being protected from their fans. FL