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.

The industry is self-policing, according to One Way music buyer Brandon Marshall: "Each label has their own standard — they already discriminate as far as which band they'll sign based on lyrics and that sort of thing. However, I think nowadays in the Christian market, it's not so much that there has to be a direct mention of Christ or God, but just that the message is an overall Christian message, either positive on family values or positive on doing things for others — the part of the Christian message other than just Christ or God. You'll hear a lot of times in the reviews that distributors will send us that this band has overall positive emphasis in their songs or that kind of stuff."

Early Christian-rock releases were sneaked out on secular labels, but in the mid-'70s the foundations of the Christian-music industry were being constructed with labels like Word and Myrrh, both of which began as Christian spoken-word and sermon labels. They're now the twin powerhouses of the industry and are subsidiaries of the secular major-label system; like the corporate culture at large, the Christian-music industry is tangled, so they occasionally dance with their devil: The umbrella company that released last year's Touched by an Angelsoundtrack, featuring Amy Grant's "Shine All Your Light" (Epic Records, a subsidiary of the Sony Corp.), also released, on another imprint, Black Sabbath's The Last Supper, featuring the songs "Sweet Leaf" and "Children of the Grave." Sparrow, a wholesome Christian label responsible for the Newsboys, is actually part of the blanket EMI Christian Music Group, which also includes Forefront Records, home of Skillet and dc Talk. EMI is part of EMD, the big corporation that owns Capitol and Virgin Records. So the conservative-Christian act Skillet is, in a sense, labelmates with Public Image Limited, whose new boxed set contains the incendiary song "Religion," featuring the lyric "Stained-glass windows keep the cold outside/while the hypocrites hide inside/ with the lies of statues in their mind/where the Christian religion made them blind."

The advantage of this system, though, at least from financial and crossover-potential points of view, is that if an artist reaches a certain level of success, he or she can be shifted to the next tier in the label system in much the same way that a talented baseball player can be promoted from Triple-A play to the majors. The band dc Talk started on Forefront, a Christian label, but after they hit in '95 with Jesus Freak, they moved up to Virgin Records.

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 .

The sort of crossover success that dc Talk achieved is nearly always a one-way street. Most, if not all, who have accomplished similar feats — Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, Bob Carlisle — have done so without having to compromise the foundation of their message. It's much more rare — in fact, nearly unheard-of — for a secular artist to cross over and hit the charts with a Christian message. Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill contains a strong Christian message but is ignored within the community. Jewel, whose music is nearly unbearably devotional, is avoided because she's considered "too New Age," says one Christian fan. "She's into crystals and fairies and stuff." Likewise Tori Amos.

And on the Christian side, secular music, although it has its allure musically, is often avoided, but of course tastes and tolerances vary. Brandon Marshall of One Way Books says his collection contains more secular than Christian titles, but Nick Erickson of Ten Pin Productions struggles with it. Asked whether he buys and listens to secular music, his response is telling: "I do and I have, but it takes me a while to and it's hard for me to. I struggle with it. And a lot of times I don't even keep it. I remember buying the Above the Rim soundtrack not long after it came out. I listened to it four times, and it bothered me so much that I actually took a hammer to the CD. I took it and I cut myself a couple times because I was banging it up so hard that it started breaking and I cut myself with it. My conscience was telling me — my convictions. Every other song was full of cuss words, and I was like, "'I can't do this.' I had to get rid of it."

Musicians face a tough choice when walking the line between performing for secular crowds or remaining solely in the Christian community. The choice is simple: Do you, literally, want to preach to the converted, or are you willing to go out on a limb? Local Christian band Cope does the latter. "When they played Midnight Metal (at East St. Louis rock club Pop's)," says J.T. Ibanez, their manager, "they expressed something like, "Obviously we're a Christian band, if you can't tell already, and we're up here for one reason — it's Jesus Christ. He gave us our talents.' They go on for about three minutes, and then they leave it at that. A lot of people have respect for them. They get more respect. I find that a lot of Christian bands in general, if they get up and say something about their faith or what they believe, they get more respect than they would if they just played and got off. I've seen them do it in front of a bunch of skinheads that were pretty much ready to go off, and then as soon as they started saying their thing and then they got offstage, they were like, "You guys are pretty cool. It takes a lot to say what you believe, and I respect you for that.'"

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