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Saving Christian Music in 2009

I am journaling through the Bible right now — it may take me about five years. Did you know Noah had a grandson named Egypt? Or that Sara really was Abram’s sister? (Well, half-sister.) Anyway, there’s a lot of raw material here. My wife gave me the new ESV Bible — the one with all the great study notes — and it motivated me to dig deeper into this book and figure out what it all means (ahem). I am now officially .2% more knowledgeable of the Bible, which is sort of motivational in a "I kind of suck" way.

But why is it that the message is so watered down in Christian music? If there is anything at all about the Old Testament, it is always portrayed as a foretelling of Jesus. (See the new Messiah song by Chris Tomlin as one example.) I think the last songwriter who actually mentioned the OT was Rich Mullins. Why can’t more songs ask some of the tough questions of life? I know that Derek Webb is doing this, and a few others, but I am talking about mainstream music. It’s all "praise the Lord" stuff. The defense for this mediocrity is that we will be praising God ad infinitum in Heaven anyway, so we might as well repeat the same chorus over and over now. But it’s as though Christian music forgets that we have a brain and we know how to use it.

I love how the band Anberlin tackles touchy subjects, like lust, and how Lovedrug, on their latest, was actually bold enough to address other sexual issues.

But when I compare the writing of Andrew Bird (check out my review of his new one in the current issue of Relevant) I just can’t understand why Christian music has faltered so seriously over the past few decades. I do like what Cool Hand Luke is doing. FM Static, one of my favorite bands musically, has a new one coming out that is much more autobiographical than their previous works. I have not heard the new MewithoutYou yet, but we know for certain that it will be: very unusual and very literate.

It’s not that there are no examples of good music production and good writing. It’s that you have to look for them at all. So, here’s a few things I’d like to see Christian bands attempt in 2009:

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  1. Take a lesson from Appleseed Cast and record some of your songs live at concerts, then figure out how to sample that into an original song for your next release.
  2. Read at least two or three classic works of literature — say, a few by Dickens and a few by James Joyce. Now, challenge yourself to match that prose and that creativity.
  3. Scour through the songs you are planning on the next release and ditch anything that just says "praise the Lord" over and over. Try the Hillsong United approach: write a song that’s nothing like any of your previous material, at the risk of possibly alienating all of your current fans.
  4. Hire a really amazing producer who normally works with musicians of an entirely different genre. Call it the Johnny Cash approach. If you’re Joy Williams, hire a producer who normally does rap. If you have always done grunge metal, make a CD of acoustic worship songs. Surprise us. If in doubt, just hook up with Aaron Sprinkle.
  5. Find some obscure passage in Job or Nehemiah and write a song about it. I love how Brooke Fraser is not afraid to tackle some obscure subjects, but then apparently it took two years for her CD to even come out in the US. These kinds of songs should be the norm, not the abnormal.

There are countless ways to break the mold. But, listen: the mold is dull as a door frame right now. There’s no reason why Christian music has to be this boring. At least try to save the genre from extinction. Soon, your listening audience is going to wake up and realize just how lame and same-y it all is right now.

-John Brandon

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