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.

Keyboardist Korey Cooper of Skillet is a dervish onstage at Crossroads, grinding and leaping, jumping from keyboards to drum riser to slam a cymbal with her fist; she's a woman in the middle of a musical frenzy, the kind that every musician, Christian, Satanist, agnostic or atheist, longs for — the kind of stuff that would probably outrage Jerry Falwell. She's completely liberated and uninhibited as she performs. During a press conference afterward, she sits quietly and shyly as her husband, lead singer and bassist John Cooper, answers questions. He's a perpetual jokester with a pleasantly devious twinkle in his eyes and is genuinely excited as he raves about the previous night's show in St. Louis: "A lot of people got saved last night, which was pretty exciting. I wasn't expect ... I hate to say I wasn't expecting it, like I don't have any faith — but more than usual. Usually a couple people get saved, but last night ..." Asked what he means by people being "saved" during their performance, he explains: "We always do some sort of Gospel presentation, and we'll lead people in a prayer and either ask people to receive Jesus for the first time or to make a decision for Christ and really start living for Him. And there are always loads of people for the second thing — that need rededication — because we usually play to church kids. But last night there were just lots of people that got saved, which was exciting. Usually it's just two or three people."

The discrepancy between the rock-star image of freeform, uninhibited celebration — banging out what's been called both the "devil's beat" and the "sex beat" — and the conservative message of saving souls and altar calls is the central tension of Christian music. Rebellion is in the music's nature and stands in stark contrast to the Christian message of abstinence and restraint. Is there anything more natural to rock & roll than the occasional blurting out of a cuss word? Anything more rock & roll than premarital hanky-panky?

Is a rock singer supposed to talk this way? "We've opened up for a million Christian bands," says AllStarUnited's Ian Eskelin, "and I'm not going to name any names, but I have actually been to Christian shows with friends of mine who aren't saved, aren't Christians — so many people approach that term like, "Well, they're not saved,' like, "Don't talk to them, they're lepers.' I've got non-Christian friends. I'm praying for them. I want to hang out with them in heaven, but, man, the way to reach people is not to say, "Turn or burn.' It's to live by example and to show people that there is something different about you. And if I can take two minutes in between songs and show people that I'm a normal guy with normal problems — and, yeah, I've done some stupid things in my life, but I've been saved because of someone else's doing — then that's cool."

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 major irony of the movement is that the industry has its foundations in the evangelical-Christian belief system, one with a message that's clear as a bell, one that Eskelin implies: Accept Jesus as your savior, or you will not enter the gates of heaven. This core belief places a straitjacket around the message, and despite the many different ways the musicians offer it — through hip-hop or speed metal, with punk or ska — the message must remain consistent to be accepted within the community. There is no rating system, but there are loose understandings and clear methods to determine the propriety of the message. "Before I book a band," says Ten Pin Productions' Robbie Clark, "If the label's not a Christian label — like the way I did with P.O.D.: I did a lot of research on that to make sure they were cool. Make sure the label's on the up and up, ask for a lyric sheet if the CD doesn't come with one so I can read the lyrics, and find out what these guys are saying. I've never booked a band if I wasn't 100 percent sure that they were preaching what I agree with."

Not only do more theologically liberal musicians find it difficult to work within the framework of the community, they don't have the desire to do so. Brian Q. Newcomb tells the story of interviewing a songwriter who sings of faith without targeting the Christian-music scene. "My first question to David Wilcox when I interviewed him was, "As a person of faith, why aren't you exploiting that?' and he's like, "Exploiting my religion? What a ridiculous — ' And it was a wonderful diatribe. He just went off: "What a cheap and embarrassing thing to do, to let people know I'm a Christian as a way to sell more product. How evil that would be.' And yet that's the place most Christians in the industry who sell their records in Christian stores find themselves in — they are constantly having to motivate their spirituality as a means to sales."

Says Newcomb: "A lot of those folk who operate in the framework of conservative evangelical Christianity run the bookstores, run the Christian radio stations, and those are where the contemporary-Christian-music bands go to get validated. If they're independent, they want to get their album sold in Christian record stores. If they want to get signed, they have to win over a Christian label. Well, often those Christian labels are conservative and evangelical. So when you find a liberal Christian band — a band with Christian values that's liberal — they're probably on a mainstream label — probably not even on a Christian label.

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