SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

Christian rock combines the Lord's message with the devil's beat. Sometimes the result is exhilaration. Sometimes it's god-awful confusion.

"That's a growth in the industry," says Newcomb. "There's a broader number of folk expressing a variety of different ways of understanding the faith. T-Bone Burnett used to say, "You can write about the Light, or you can write about the things you see because of the Light.' You're either looking up at the reality of God's love in the world or you're looking at the world because of that love. And the reality is, you could have a lot of the same perceptions as the Offspring have from a Christian perspective. I want to give Christian artists the right to write pissed-off songs, to write love songs, to write it-ain't-a-good-day songs — because when they write all these triumphant, spiritually aloof visions of heaven, most of us can't relate to that day in and day out. It's not Sunday morning every day of my life."

A cynic may submit that this ambiguity is a way to straddle the spiritual and secular worlds; if a band puts all its hope in reaching simply a Christian audience, they've cut off access to the wider music-buying public. By remaining lyrically vague, doors don't shut as quickly. This intentional ambiguity also serves as a sort of Trojan horse. If the message is too overt, you'll scare away the doubters before the message is given. Sixpence None the Richer's recent secular smash, "Kiss Me," is a perfect example. It's a pop song about two lovers frolicking through the woods; you'd be hard-pressed to find an obviously "Christian" message within it, and it's likely that many purchased the record not knowing that the band comes out of the contemporary-Christian community. But the success of the single no doubt earned them a legion of fans who would have been turned off if the song had been titled "Kiss Jesus."

"They write in metaphors," explains Kristin Engquist, a Christian-music fanatic at Crossover. "They write such deep stuff. "Kiss Me' is light, but it's still Christian. It's not like she's singing" — she sings the melody — ""Have sex with me.' It's a sweet love song. She's not singing something trashy."

Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
AllStarUnited field questions from the Christian press during their performance at Crossover. Below: AllStarUnitedís Ian Eskelin mingles with his flock .

Engquist then confesses her infatuation with Sonny Sandoval, lead singer of metal band P.O.D.: "P.O.D.! The guy with the tongue ring! Mmm-mmm-mmm, he's so fine! And MxPx, Mike, he's got all those tattoos." This sets off a little screamfest between Engquist and her friend Naomey Wilford, both of whom seem not only obsessed with the bands but with individual members' body alterations.

"The Newsboys!" exclaims Wilford. "I dyed my hair pink to get his attention. And I'm obsessed with Kevin from dc Talk, and he blew kisses at me! It was so great."

"I want to go see the Insyderz!" says Engquist.

"Oh, I know — he's got his eyebrow pierced."

In St. Louis, the biggest Christian record store is the all-encompassing six-store chain One Way Books, a one-stop Jesus-mart that sells all matter of material devoted to the message, from bumper stickers and T-shirts to faith books and a large section devoted to contemporary-Christian CDs and cassettes. The music section takes up a quarter of each store, with bins and display cases highlighting the hot titles of today: perennial favorites dc Talk and the Newsboys, of course, but also equally popular — at least these days — up-and-comers OC Supertones, who play palatable rock with an edge. The stores have an alternative-rock section but no general-rock section; sections are also devoted to Southern gospel, African-American gospel, contemporary Christian, worship and spoken word.

Video screens project the latest videos from top artists. Pop some headphones on and press a picture of Burlap to Cashmere, and their video appears on the screen, replete with a band interview, cuts from their recent CD and snapshots of the band members. Headphones sit next to CDs on display racks so that shoppers can hear the music — which is important in a city without a Christian-rock radio station. A browse through the alternative-rock racks is similar to a browse at Streetside or Borders. CD covers and album titles reveal little about the bands' theology. Rather, they're hip, graphically stylized images. You could slip in a copy of the latest Korn release and not know the difference. Gray areas abound, even if they're not supposed to. A tiny magazine rack sells Christian-music magazines.

The current slew of Christian-rock bands is a relatively new phenomenon that took off when dc Talk and Jars of Clay exploded in the mid-'90s, opening the gate for devoted musicians to marry twin excitements — the Lord's word and the devil's beat. The two bands, along with the success of gospel funkster Kirk Franklin and contemporary songster Michael W. Smith (as well as one-shot gospel records from country singer LeAnn Rimes and the "inspirational" soundtrack to The Prince of Egypt), are partly responsible for a huge growth in the Christian-music retail sales. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Christian music in 1998 owned 6.3 percent, or $865 million, of the total market. That's up from 3.1 percent in 1989.

And, inevitably, with this explosion an entire industry has arrived to support it. Labels, radio stations and record stores have all sprouted.

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