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Oozing My Religion
By Erik Hage

“Stealth” Christian-rock acts mimic the styles of alternative rock and tone down the faith-based messages to capture the secular music market

There’s a new brand of Christianity afoot in the music industry—let’s call it “stealth Christianity.” And whether you choose to be wary of it or not, you should know that there’s no parental-advisory sticker for the ideology that some young alternative groups may be subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) spreading around as they take over the Billboard charts.

Recently, some Christian acts who have had success in the “sacred” market have been repackaged ambiguously enough to succeed in the secular market as well. It’s a recent trend that many record execs are calling the “Switchfoot model,” based on the successful alternative rock band of the same name.

The members of Switchfoot are careful not to preach the gospel or even discuss their Christianity in the press. (In fact, they have a history of declining interviews they believe would try to involve them in a discussion of religion in rock.) Nevertheless, in 2004, Switchfoot were the No. 1 contemporary Christian band, according to Billboard. Simultaneously, in the secular market, the group took the No. 33 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 2004—and I’d venture to guess that a good portion of the secular record-buying public have no idea that they are buying an album by an avowedly “born-again” Christian rock band.

This is a new kind of evangelical mission, wherein groups subtly become a part of the norm rather than trying to convert people with fire and brimstone. And with so many young people finding their role models among alt-rockers, the acts may have the power to transform popular culture from within.

Crossover bands certainly avoid preaching (that would be a death knell to mainstream success), but they may be subtly conveying values and messages to young people that are clearly conservative and Christian—all but for the omission of the word “Jesus.” Lyrically, the bands tend to skirt direct references in order to court the mainstream, but consistently hammer home what they often term “positive” messages to listeners.

Back in 2000, Switchfoot gloried in such uncloaked gospel as “Maybe redemption has stories to tell/Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell. . . /Where you gonna go? Salvation is here” (from “I Dare You to Move”), while most of their “love” lyrics were directed at the “you” with a capital “Y.”

The group’s very successful crossover album, The Beautiful Letdown, found them pulling back a little bit and throwing in “edgier” stuff, yet the ideology was still in the lines not between them, as in the holy warrior stance of the title track (which perhaps outlines Switchfoot’s mission against the mainstream): “I’m gonna set sight and set sail for the kingdom come/I will carry a cross and a song where I don’t belong.”

The distinction here, as the record-exec spin masters tell it, is between Christian bands and bands who happen to be Christians. And Christianity hasn’t always been as antithetical to rock as one might think—U2 and Bruce Cockburn are just two examples of artists that have flown their Christian flags at times (though from much more progressive standpoints than the new crop of artists). The difference today is that the line between secular and Christian may be becoming completely blurred in alternative and modern rock.

You might even consider it part of a larger neoconservative drift in the United States, wherein fundamentalist Christianity is influencing mass media and pop culture more and more. For example, the FCC, beginning with President Bush’s first-term appointment of Michael Powell as chair in 2001, has undertaken a well-publicized, nearly Puritan crusade against the airwaves in recent years.

Until his Sirius move, Howard Stern consistently lamented that he had more freedom in radio 20 years ago; Chuck Lorre, producer of TV sitcom Two and a Half Men, pointed out in a televised letter to viewers that he works in an industry that is “more comfortable showing a dead naked body than a live one” after he was forced to remove a scene showing a woman’s naked back from the show; while the Janet Jackson incident provided an excuse to further crack down on already vigilantly monitored frequencies.

The FCC’s other historic mandate is to keep a cap on corporate growth in media. Unwieldy, conservative-friendly oligopolies like Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Clear Channel are evidence that they have all but abandoned this initiative. (Viacom head Sumner Redstone, a lifelong Democrat, urgently and openly supports the Bush administration because conservatives let him buy as many companies as he needs to.)

All of which is to say that our media culture is primed for the wholesome goodness of acts like Switchfoot, MxPx, and P.O.D.—as long as their message is couched in the marketable trappings of loud alternative rock and edgy hipness, with all the stigmatic religious traces obscured just enough to appeal to secular kids.

And with neoconservative-friendly media giants such as Viacom (who owns MTV) and Clear Channel (which controls most radio playlists in our country) controlling taste, these groups may have even more of a leg up on the industry.

But when did Christian rock groups start not-so- quietly blending into the mainstream, and how do Christian acts make the jump from the sacred to secular market?

While there were Christian groups every bit as good as their secular counterparts in the past—’80s Christian alternative rockers the Choir and the 77’s were good bands based on any standard—they never made a true jump to the mainstream in terms of tastes or sales.

Rather, a good starting point is Creed’s success in the mid-’90s. While critically reviled, they were successful enough and ambiguous enough about their strict Christianity to provide an early model for current groups like Switchfoot.

The current crop of stealth Christian rockers learned from Creed’s example, however: Switchfoot don’t promote themselves as Christian, lest they fall into an unappealing pigeonhole. Nevertheless, they play numerous Christian rock festivals throughout the year and enjoy a core fanbase amongst the devout.

But in order to take over the mainstream, the bands have to have mainstream record companies backing them. And in this era of debt-heavy conglomerates, record companies want low-risk investments—i.e., bands with an already large and proven fanbase of buyers. Record execs remained largely ignorant of the financial possibilities in Christian rock until the mid-’90s, when SoundScan, the then-new electronic sales-tracking system, began monitoring (the previously ignored) Christian genre and revealed some of the acts as top sellers.

They suddenly became a presence on Billboard, so major labels starting looking at alt- and modern-rock Christian acts that were 1) selling lots of albums, and 2) capably echoing the trends, sounds and styles of successful mainstream acts.

The secret was toning down the religious messages enough to gain mainstream fans, while keeping intact and not offending the large core Christian fanbase. (At times, there’s an almost Karl Rove-ian inscrutability to the business surrounding Christian acts.)

Rap-rockers and fiercely born-again Christians P.O.D. provided an important benchmark around the millennium. In a February 2005 New York Times article, “Missionaries to the Mainstream”, Lee Trink, former product manager for Atlantic Records, remembered overseeing the band’s promotion. He described his primary goal as “declassifying” the band as Christian while trying to preserve the group’s devoutly observant fanbase. For his efforts, Trink saw P.O.D. sell 60 million records and earn a Grammy nomination (in 2001, for best hard rock album).

But let’s consider some of P.O.D.’s more fiery (and frighteningly nationalist) rhetoric, from their tune, “Breathe Babylon” (1999): “Overthrown you like Sodom and Gomorrah, arm of the law/Guilty of all crimes I be like the great Prophet Isaiah/Predict your fall over 150 times/Got rhymes you could never use for the purpose you be using, I’ll dance over your fields/Present day Iraq still lies in ruins lies, Schemes, backstab persuasions bum rushed/Get crushed by us, this rescue invasion.”

After P.O.D.’s success, A&R executives began even more urgently looking to Christian rock as a source of youth-oriented rock acts. (Independent Seattle label Tooth & Nail—a company that hedges at labeling itself Christian and simply claims to “creatively express positivity through music”—has served as a proving ground for numerous Christian acts in the mainstream rock world.)

So, Tipper Gore be damned, here’s another reason to closely monitor what your kids are listening to: They may be adopting role models who are sometimes not-so-covertly preaching a fundamentalist gospel. Young people are the predominant record-buying public, and we may be exposing a whole generation to faith-based rhetoric disguised as alternative rock.



-no rough mix this week-

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