Christian Rock and the Banality of The Market

July 16, 2010 | By | 14 Replies More

Personal gripe time.  This is one of those instances where I believe The Market is a hydrocephalic moron and people who put their undying faith in get what they deserve. Shortly after the 4th of July just past, a St. Louis radio station changed hands.  KFUO 99.1 FM had, for sixty-plus years, been our commercial classical station.  Before the first Gulf War, our local NPR affiliate, KWMU, was largely a classical music broadcaster, but after that first foray into Mid east adventurism they became pretty much All Talk All Day.  Mind you, I like some of what they offer—Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Diane Rheem—but I am a lover of music.  My youth, in regards to radio, was all about music.  I cannot tolerate most of Talk Radio, especially the right wing stuff, but I’m not overly fond of the left wing blatherings, either.  Give me a good solid news show twice a day and then fill the airwaves with music. This has become a subject of nostalgia for me, because for the most part the music scene on radio has devolved into mind-numbing banality and repetition.  Catering to The Market has the net result of leavening out at the lowest common denominator, so instead of fascinating, new, or just first-rate music, we get the cuts that will appeal to the greatest number of whatever demographic a given station thinks it’s playing to. After KWMU went All Talk, little by little I began listening to KFUO.  They did not do as good a job, overall, as KWMU—I am a firm believer in airing complete works, so when I am offered A Movement of a symphony or what have you I am turned off; I want the whole damn thing or don’t bother (this is also true of other genres as well: I once got into a shouting match with a DJ over his insistence of playing the three-minute version of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer track that, in its fullness, ran to twelve minutes, and he demanded to know who wanted to listen to all that synthesizer soloing, to which I replied “people who like ELP, you moron!”  Needless to say, I lost that one, but I resent the whole assumption that the attention span of people will never exceed five minutes—if you assume that and that’s all you give them, you train them to have short attention spans)—but it was classical music, and I find myself, aging that I am, more and more indulging in that genre (if genre it is) out of sheer boredom and impatience with most other forms.  At least, on the radio. So KFUO became my car station.  (At home I listen to albums.  I would eliminate DJs and commercials if I could.  Playing my own discs, I can.)

Image by Grighton at Dreamstime (with permission)

Image by Grighton at Dreamstime (with permission)

Due to the demands of The Market, the impatience of shareholders, etc etc, management at KFUO—the Lutheran Church, basically—sold the station.  It is now Joy 99, playing contemporary Christian pop…stuff. I’ve attempted to listen to some of it, but I find it unremittingly boring.  And I am pissed.  Where can I now go on the radio to get classical music?  Well, KWMU has taken advantage of the new high definition broadcast tech to split itself into multiple channels and has one dedicated to classical music.  But I can’t get that in the car.  Can’t get it at home on my stereo, either, unless I buy new equipment, which is a source of resentment as well.  We live in an age where if one does not have the latest, most up-to-date Thingie, at a cost of X hundred dollars per widget, one cannot partake of the goodies available—and the media changes often enough that buying new Thingies is now every couple, three years. Pardon my expression—Fuck That!  This is the Microsoft model taken to extremes.  It is a form of class division, based on tech-savvy and money.  You don’t have to pass laws to keep the so-called Unwashed out of the Club, you just have to make sure they can’t afford the newest Thingie. Ahem. Excuse me, that was paranoid of me.  I have no reason to believe this is intentional.  This is The Market, in all its lobotomized asininity. Back for a moment to the new KFUO.  It is boring.  (I am beginning to recognize a pattern.  Christian pop sounds somewhat-to-mainly Country.  The southern lilt to the vocals, the excessively forced emotional warbling, twisting notes through laryngeal gymnastics for no reason other than to make use of a single chord for a few moments longer.  Never mind the lyrics—I didn’t have a problem with groups like Creed, at least not initially: the music was interesting, the lyrics showed a modicum of ingenuity—just the American Idol approach to hyped emotionalism as substitute for actual content.  But I really cannot abide dull music.  Even when, initially, this stuff sounds like they’re getting down with some passion, it’s really just arrangement and playing with the compression.  The simplest chords, the over-reliance on melody—almost always in major keys—and the de-emphasizing of anything that might distract from the primary message of the lyric content.  Now, KFUO, having been a Lutheran station, played a great deal of sacred music.  Most of which was GLORIOUS.  Beautiful, sonorous, majestic, interesting! Composed by musicians who saw no reason to muffle their strengths, but put what they had into such compositions because the music itself was a form of worship, an offering to what they believed, honest and unhampered passion.  Modern Christian rock seems to do everything it can to apologize for being rock.  Of course, there’s a reason for this, since a good deal of what these folks espouse is a typical American attitude that sensuality is an enemy to faith, and let’s face it, rock is all about sensuality.  So, too, is jazz, perhaps even more so, which may be why one hears almost no Christian jazz.)  Boring is inexcusable, I don’t care what cause it is in the name of. Somehow some one or more “consultant” companies told the new owners that this will attract a larger market share than what KFUO had been doing.  For all I know, they’re right.  I have little faith in the taste of the masses, as a mass.  Most of the people I have ever known as casual acquaintances have exhibited appalling taste in the arts.  You have to be aware to be sensitive to nuance, to passion, to genuine merit, and it seems that most people move through life barely conscious of their surroundings. (I once had the most frustrating interchange with a woman at a party who kept complaining that everything I was putting on the stereo was “depressing.”  Her word.  Depressing.  What was I playing?  Flim and the BBs, Grover Washington, McCoy Tyner, things like that.  I couldn’t figure it out until she demanded, somewhat drunkenly,”Where’s the singing?”  Unless there was singing, it was depressing.  Of course, by singing she didn’t mean opera, she meant anything she could sing along to.  This was more music as sport than art.) So after a couple of weeks of listening the all this strained pseudo-music sung by earnest C & W types against the most singularly undifferentiated backgrounds, I am officially peeved.    I’d like my classical music back, please.  I don’t care about demographics.  There are dozens of other stations where one can hear similarly banal  excrescence, albeit possibly without the juvenile nonsense worship lyrics.  KFUO served an audience that is now not served at all, and I can’t help wondering if this is at least partly propagandistic.  That this is as much an effort to force a single voice onto the airwaves, driving out the specialist, minority voices, as it is to maximize returns on investment. Of course, that would be a bit paranoid, wouldn’t it? Except that over forty years of listening to radio I can’t help but notice that every instance of a station or a show that reached a bit higher, took a chance on quality, played the unexpected or occasionally controversial—all those stations were, one by one, taken over and dragged back down into the stew pot of “popular taste” at expense of anything genuinely challenging or interesting.  Regardless of genre.  Mediocrity is the hallmark of the largest market share. Of course this is just me expressing the idle-time thoughts in my head as I simmer in resentment over another source of something worthwhile going the way of the proverbial dodo.  There really isn’t a plot of this sort. There doesn’t need to be, though.  Does there?  The Market, the “invisible hand (or ear)” will do it for us. Sometimes something is worth preserving just because it is good, whether it sells well or not.  I think most people would agree with that.  Where the breakdown comes is in the lack of appreciation of how those good things will inevitably fade away unless we stop praying at the temple of The Market.  In that respect, the advent of a “new” Christian Contemporary radio station is deliciously ironic, as clearly someone thinks that Christianity is a marketable commodity and will command market share.  The moneylenders have a cozy home in the temple these days, in the American version of Christianity, in which the hallmark of god’s love is a positive bank balance and a healthy hedge fund. I can hear the protest, “Well, it must be good if it sells well!” Pet rocks sold incredibly well.  So did shares in Enron. On the other hand, maybe I’m just annoyed at seeing something I found special axed in the name of the bottom line.  Again.

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Category: Art, Consumerism, Culture, Media, music, Propaganda, Religion

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (14)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Many people are feeling the pain of the loss of the only classical music station in St. Louis. See the comments here. http://interact.stltoday.com/blogzone/culture-clu

  2. Ray says:

    Nearly the same thing happened here in Cleveland, OH several years ago. We had a wonderful classical music station that sat at the middle of the dial with a signal strong enough to blanket the entire northeast corner of the state with glorious classical music. Then the owners sold out to a christian music station (for a huge amount of money) and fled to a remote station on the west side of Cleveland with a signal so weak that they have basically ceased to exist for most people. This action enraged the classical station's longtime listeners, but their cries made no difference. We now have TWO powerful christian stations blasting their nonsense here in Cleveland. The station that replaced the classical station is 95.5 "The Fish" and the DJs are known for saying things like "Evolution isn't true" and "The Bible says that the Earth is just 6000 years old." Unbelievable!

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    The world is changing. The music that you seek is out there. You just have to find it.

    For your home, you can stream one of hundreds of radio stations over the Internet. Or you can spend under $100 to get an HD radio tuner, and listen to KWMU. This one from Sony got amazing reviews for its performance: http://ham-radio.com/k6sti/xdr-f1hd.htm

    Other units are available for your car, and they're even less expensive.

    Embrace the change. Or at least get past it.

  4. hyperlogia says:

    My gripe with Christian rock is the same gripe I have with any music where more emphasis is put on the message than on the actual music. You can sing about whatever you want (God, politics, etc.), but if the actual music isn't interesting, then I can't help but move on. Almost every band that claims to be Christian rock bores me to tears. Same with "political" punk bands.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Hyperlogia wrote

    "My gripe with Christian rock is the same gripe I have with any music where more emphasis is put on the message than on the actual music. "

    I'm in total agreement there, friend. but I've found the inverse to true on occasion. There are many Christian rock songs that stand out as good music.

    "Long Train Running" – (Doobie Brothers), "If Everybody Cared"- (Nickleback), and "God Gave Rock and Roll To You"-(Argent/Petra/KISS). come to mind.

    There are also political bands that create some great music with lyrics promoting political views that are somewhat "out there"

  6. Nicklaus,

    There's no way to know for certain, but in each of those instances the composers and musicians were making and using music as the means of expression, not composing something to be played beneath a sermon. In all three of those examples I, for one, never heard them as "christian rock" but as rock that happened to have christian lyrics.

    Back when "The Last Temptation of Christ" was playing here in St. Louis, we attended, and found a picket in front of the theater. Signs of protest etc. Several of the picketers had boom boxes with them, many playing tapes of bible readings. A few played music.

    We almost witnessed a fight when one of the protesters turned angrily to another and ordered him to turn off that "sacrilegious noise." The hapless victim said "It's not sacrilegious—it's christian rock!" To which the first shouted "There's no such thing! All rock is Satan's symphony!"

    I think there is still a lot of that kind of conflicted attitude extant among these "artists." Which has the effect of dulling the music so much that…well, it's boring.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, I remember an interview where Doobies Brothers member Patrick Simmons was asked about "Long Train Running" and he responded that the song was something the band did for a friend of theirs and they were surprised that is did so well.

    The official story is that the song originated from various jam sessions, and improvisations that they played live, and a record producer friend convinced the band to add some lyrics and record the song for an album.

    In essence, Mark, I agree that musicians who put too much emphasis on message and not enough of art, be the message religious, political or bubblegum pop, in the end become more noise than substance.

    But it is not just Christian Rock that is so pretentious. One of the weirdest religious songs I've heard to date was a bit of Islamic Hip-hop, in Arabic.

  8. Jesse Grace says:

    ITS ALL ONE- thats why todays music in general sucks and why bands like The Beatles and Kinks are timeless- the music AND the words are just as important. The message is IN the music as well as the words. I agree with what Hank from King of the Hill said: "You people aren't making Christianity better. You're just making rock n' roll worse!"

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark:

    You have raised two entirely separate issues in your post: A) the loss of the last classical music station in St. Louis; and B) your frustration with Christian rock music. I’m tempted to think that if the new Christian rock station hadn’t shoved a classical music station off the air–if KFUO had, instead, replaced one of the many country music stations or pop music stations–you would not have been moved to write your post. Thus, it might look as though you are more anti-Christian rock than you are, even though you have made it clear that you are not against Christian rock just because it is allegedly inspired by religion. I don’t much care for Christian rock either. Like you, I am not adverse to religious much just because it is religious. On more than a few occasions, for example, I’ve cranked up Mozart’s Requiem to be humbled by excellent music.

    Before responding to your post, I did my homework. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve listened to probably three hours of Christian rock on the new St. Louis radio station, 15 or 20 minutes of it at a time, all of it in my car. My comments here are directed to the type of Christian rock being played at KFUO.

    I’m highly ambivalent about this form of music. The music is riddled with clichés. Its rhythms and melody lines borrow shamelessly from light rock and country from decades past. It is heavily processed in the studio to the point that is proudly lush. Every song I heard—and I have probably listened to 30 songs—had been injected with special effects until there wasn’t any “edge” at all. Like you, I also sensed that much of this music was being performed by skillful musicians who were being hand-cuffed by the genre.

    Many of the songs reminded me of music you might hear in Disney movies, most notably the celebration music at the end of a Disney movie. Christian rock songs consist of music and lyrics that, above all, won’t offend. Pretty chords, a hopeful voice and a beat. It is celebratory music that is self-consciously happy. It is the music of people who are working hard to think only of happy things. But most of the songs run a predictable path. They begin humbly, even a bit soulful, then crescendo into a celebratory major-chord-fest. The music makes me imagine lions dancing in the jungle with rabbits, while a mermaid with a small waist and big baby eyes swims off into the distance with the tall blond muscular guy who saved her in the second-to-last scene, just as we knew he would. Or sometimes I imagine two animals who became buddies instead of two young lovers. Christian rock doesn’t offer plot twists or character flaws that require contemplation. It’s all made obvious and simple—it’s two-dimensional. You can hum along even though you haven’t heard the songs before.

    The story lines of Christian rock lyrics are as predictable as the melodies. Jesus is OK. The singer loves Jesus. He/she loves God. God is good. God saved him/her. God loves people. We don’t deserve God. There are many temptations in the real world, but God will keep us from straying. There is nothing complicated in the song-story-lines. No women singing thanks to God for saying it’s OK to use birth control prior to marriage. No songs making the case that disparaging gays, whores or criminals is bigotry. No songs urging the listeners to actually forgo buying concert tickets and, instead, send that money over to a reputable charity in order to save the lives of children. None of the lyrics I heard challenged the listener to do anything at all. Christian rock lyrics are compatible with any lifestyle, any version of politics.

    I like music that is not too predictable, but not too unpredictable. Christian rock is so utterly predictable that I can’t stay engaged with music, at least not as a critical audience member. Nonetheless, it is polished so thoroughly that it is difficult to find any internal flaws. As long as I’m not looking for musical challenges, I can actually find Christian rock to be music that imbues me with a sense of happiness. It’s the music equivalent of vanilla ice cream. If you want to bathe in lush tones that inject your soul with happiness, turn on Christian rock.

    But I don’t want to be happy in that way. I would rather participate in the kind of celebration that I have personally earned. I don’t want victory handed to me. I seek stories where people must work to prevail. I’m suspicious of claims that you’ll be OK without trying. That all you need to do is smile at God.

    Is Christian rock OK with me? Sure, it’s OK. I’m not offended, but I’m not challenged. I can only assume that it’s performed by musicians who aren’t being allowed to explore their craft. It’s like a lot of other music out there. It’s like most of the new music out there.

    I realize that Christian rock makes a lot of people happy—you can tell that the audience is delighted by listening to the many self-promotions broadcast by KFUO. Dozens of happy listeners call in to thank the station for playing this uplifting, hopeful, joyous music 24/7. They applaud the station for playing music that reminds them that the world is bigger than them, and they thank the station management for playing the sort of music that inspires them to spread joy and love.

    We could certainly do worse than that, I suppose.

  10. Erich,

    Had they switched to any other format, and done so the same way, I would have been just as irritated.

    I suppose what makes christian rock, for me, especially odious is that it is sentimental goo that is promoted as if it should be in some way central to a "good christian's" aesthetic. There are many forms of overly-sentimental, saccharine music which people listen to all the time, but is likely not central to their lives—it's background. It's music for people who actually don't know much about music or care that much, but some pleasant sounds during the day would be nice. The sort of people who bridle at any kind of challenging music, regardless of genre. As you say, listening to Mozart's Requiem is quite different.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I would add that no other saccharine music (good word, BTW) comes with a moral imperative to listen to it. I can imagine a lot of people sitting around listening to this music feeling as though they are accomplishing something worthwhile, hour after hour, as they bathe their ears in the predictable sweetness.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    I just heard a song by Christian Rock musician TobyMac, Get Back Up. I've got to admit that he is quite an impressive musician. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toby_Mac

  12. Lady Zhe says:

    There are Christian Rock bands that challenge. For example Casting Crowns. This band consistently challenges the listener to get out of the four walls of the church and be a force of positive change in the community. Not all Christian rock is vanilla.

  13. Jim Razinha says:

    I found a rock station in the DFW metroplex that played some stuff that Shazam and Soundhound couldn't identify. I figured they were indies. As I can almost never hear the lyrics without really concentrating, I had no clue until one day a commercial came on (I actually don't listen to music much in the car, so no commercials is not much of a surprise) asking me to accept Jesus.

    I will concede that the music was good. When I focused on the lyrics, well, no worse than some of the other stuff out there.

    Anti-spam word was "rock" -ooh, could it be coincidence or quantum non-locality?

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