Wednesday, 11 August 2010

When in doubt, the answer is always Stevie Wonder

Can I get an "Amen"?

I hate “Christian music.” There, I’ve said it.

I hasten to add, I don’t hate ALL Christian music. I love proper gospel (not tuneless screeching, mind) and even the plain vanilla soft rock style that characterises most of this music has occasionally made enjoyable listening.

What really gets on my nerves, though, is the cynicism running through this lucrative industry. Some smart people have worked out that there is a little gap in the music industry which any old crap can squeeze through – as long as it’s “Christian”. The people involved know full well that what they're producing would never see the light of day if it was released in the normal, or as they call it, “secular” channels of the music business.

Of course, if it’s so bad that it actually slips into “audibly dreadful even to Christian ears that never hear popular music” territory, their defence will be “But actually, it’s all about the worship.” I used to go to a church which hosted many of the biggest writers and performers of Christian music, and thus felt almost guilty about their musical pedigree. But if it was really *just* about the worship, they’d have let me get up on stage and bang a triangle. Why not, if that was the expression of my heart? The fact that triangles remained undinged is the proof that at least a little bit of the worship sessions had to be dictated by the quality of performance. 

I don’t mean to have a pop at people who genuinely do wish to write meaningful songs which can then be released into the world so that others can find them helpful. Of course, it’s natural that those people who are massively talented should be given a role where they can use their gifts. I just resent the insistence that we're not allowed to judge them on musical merit, and if we voice any dislike, we are somehow betraying Jesus. 

There is some great Christian music out there – Audio Adrenaline and YFriday are just two of the contemporary bands who can stand alongside any mainstream group without needing to fall back on any weak defences. In the US especially, spiritual music spans many genres; so why are those compilation albums always so slavishly similar? 

(A popular worship leader once wrote that the Christian music album of “The most powerful worship songs ever!” was a bit cheeky and who were we to dictate which songs were most likely to get to God? You guessed it, none of his songs had made the cut. He did, however, have no complaints when his works was included on another album, the title of which was something along the lines of “Best worship songs ever.”)

I hate the way that Christian music doesn’t “count” if it isn’t the same bland type as all the others. One time the music group (in the church I mentioned earlier) played in a “country style.” The leader was furious and inevitably admonished the band with “It’s not a performance”. It was as if country music was somehow not as holy as rock. Why is a skiffle beat sinful? 

(While we’re on the subject, why are the really hard core “I hate god” bands always heavy/ death metal? How come you never get any easy listening bands called nunslaughter? Just wondering.)

If you ask a “Christian musician” why they don’t release music into the mainstream charts, the standard line is that they feel they are best serving the Christian market. A cynic might suggest that they like being a big fish in a small pond and they’re too mediocre to make it out there anyway. 

Some Christian acts get into the charts after prolonged internet campaigns in which Christians are pressured to support their “brothers” by buying and promoting their music, no matter how rubbish they think it is. Wouldn’t it be better if nobody bought music for any other reason than LIKING it? Do those bands a favour and refuse to give them a leg up. Force them to raise their game. In the long run, they will be happier, and so will our ears. 

In the meantime, if you're tired of breathy proclamations that God is “marvellous”, and album covers in which singers look away from the camera in a wistful, humble manner, there are numerous other gifted musicians who manage to incorporate Christianity into their art without 16 choruses of “na na na na...”  (You may need to have attended church in the 90s to really “get” my pain here.) 

You might like the following songs (which are unlikely to ever get played in church).

  • See Me Through, by Ida Maria:  With a gentle chorus of “Oh God, I can’t believe in you... because I’m afraid you’re true,” this song might tug at your most cynical heartstrings.

  • This Little Light of Mine. As far as I know, Joss Stone has no intention of releasing a gospel album, but she does us proud with this toe tapping duet with Buick Audra.

  • Lauryn Hill’s “Unplugged” album, in its entirety.  She may have a slightly screwy life, but this girl can sing. And preach. All at the same time.

  • Wayfaring Stranger, by Eva Cassidy or Jamie Woon. Although pretty much everyone has covered this classic, Eva’s note perfect rendition embodies spiritual passion.  

  • Good old Christina Aguilera has made some forays into gospel (when she isn’t inviting you to put your lips on her hips) and Mercy on Me and Makes Me Wanna Pray are up there with Aretha.

  • “Are you lonely up there all by yourself?” asks Kelly Clarkson in the somewhat heartrending Irvine. If she’d been around 2,000 years ago, surely this would have been added into Lamentations?

  • The wonderful world of country music has many excellent tunes (the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou proves this, yes?) and if you’re looking for an easy bridge from pop; Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are your answer. (Particularly the latter’s Heart Like Mine.)

  • Candi Staton (whose career began in gospel circles) has been bringing the word "saviour" onto the dance floor since the 80s – now I Got the Love has been given a boost by covers from Florence and the Machine and Joss Stone (again). 

  • U2 have managed to straddle the secular and the religious pop worlds for some time, as has young Stacie Orrico, with three studio albums artfully mixing the two. 

  • Macy Gray's Minnie Mouse vocals are mostly associated with late 90s pop, but "I'm looking forward to the day I die, Oh my lord, I can't wait to meetchu" is not really one for Top of the pops.

  • Janis Joplin throaty cries of "Work Me Lord" are as heartfelt as any chorus of "Shine, Jesus shine". 

  • I first came across Ain't No Grave (gonna hold my body down) on the brilliant True Blood. (Obviously the meaning becomes a little different when applied to vampires, but don't get me started on the spiritual symbolism of being dead for three days and emerging as an immortal being, we'd be here for weeks.) I particularly like Vanessa Torres' earthy folk version of this traditional gospel song.

This is just a teensy handful of the most unchurchy "Spiritual" tunes around; let's not forget that the soul star Al Green actually runs a church in Memphis, and hey, as long as there's money to be made from Christmas albums, there will always be a carol sung by a boyband in the offing. 

Traditional blues and gospel are virtually inseparable, growing as they did from the same origins. Even if you're not a fan, it's worth checking out sometimes just for the amusing names – Better Git it in Your Soul Charles Mingus) and the cheery Just As Well Get Ready, You Got to Die by Blind Willie McTell. Unbeknownst to me, Mahalia Jackson is considered one of the best gospel vocalists EVAH. (If you thought Mariah had lungs – check this lady out. You could also do a lot worse than checking out Pearly Brown of You're Gonna Need That Pure Religion fame. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are also deservedly well known as gospel and soul virtuosos.

If you're still looking for inspiration I would definitely recommend the Bible-story-inspired folk of Sufjan Stevens, the old-school gospelly blues of Eric Bibb and the inspirational lyrics of Alicia Keys. 

And if all else fails, just listen to the dynamism of Jerry Lee Lewis's When the saints go marching in  and then try to sit through Generic Worship Vol 12. Bet you can't do it.  

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