Christian Rock Redux

As another summer comes to a close, so too does another music festival season. The fans are left only with memories of bodies packed tightly together before a glimmering stage, rock gods screaming into microphones the words they've so longed to hear, new friends made in sprawling autograph lines and hot-off-the-press merchandise featuring slogans such as, "I like girls that love Jesus."

Wait, what?

Sure there are plenty of mainstream summer rock festivals, but I'm talking about Christian rock. I'm talking about the Creation Festival, held in Pennsylvania since 1979, and Cornerstone Festival, in Illinois since 1984. Or, in my neck of the woods, the relative newcomer, SoulFest, which set up camp in New Hampshire in 1998.

Back in 1996, when I was a freshman in high school, my best friend and I, my sister and her friends, and, of course, our parents, trekked down to Pennsylvania for the Creation Festival. My mom and dad, old Jesus People from the 70s, had attended the very first Creation, so for them it was a kind of homecoming. But the music of the mid-90s was a far cry from the hippie/folky sounds of their day. In fact, 1995-1996 was arguably the pinnacle of Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM.

In 1995, DC Talk, perhaps the most popular Christian rock band of all time, released their earth-shattering (well, by Christian music standards) album "Jesus Freak" on which they once and for all showed what CCM was really all about, mimicking the trends of secular pop music. DC Talk to that point had been, to the best of anyone's reckoning, a rap and R&B group. But, with the release of "Jesus Freak," DC Talk ceased to be a rap group. The title track of the record is decidedly a shinier, hyper-produced version of Seattle grunge. But it's the only "grunge" song on the album; the rest borrows from every other genre or artist popular in the mid-90s. Did you love "Kiss From a Rose"-era Seal? DC Talk did that. Covers of Broadway show tunes your thing? They had that too. To that point, imitation was the essence of CCM.

But, another significant record was released that same year. Jars of Clay, a band from Illinois, was distinctly different from the previous stock of Christian artists, and, at least for a while, it seemed that their brand of honest folk-rock had appeal even outside of CCM; "Flood," the first single off their 1995 self-titled debut, was somewhat of a crossover hit.

In 1996, in Pennsylvania, standing in the disabled persons section (my father had just undergone a surgery, and we capitalized) looking up at Jars of Clay, it was clear that they were taking Christian music in a different direction. Amongst swirling rumors of CCM's "Jesus' per Minute (JPM)" standard, which meant that lyrics had to meet a certain number of Christian references, Jars' lyrics were far less overt, even subtle at times.

As history would have it, the mid-to-late 90s wasn't just a tumultuous time in the Christian music industry, but in the music industry as a whole. The decade that ended with Napster, also, for all intents and purposes, ended the way the music business had been run, and CCM had an especially difficult time with the transition.

Though the festivals continue, and many of the major labels have survived, in recent years a number of young Christian and formerly-Christian writers have memorialized the music of their youth. A couple of months ago, in Guernica, Megan O'Gieblyn wrote of "a childhood in Christian pop." Her article made laps around my circle of friends for its frightening familiarity; we all lived it. And, in November 2010, my friend Joel Heng Hartse, a music critic, published Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll in which he shares his experience as a lifelong music lover and Christian.

Though the genre known as CCM is irrevocably changed, many see this as a good thing. Another friend, Kevin Gosa is a saxophonist in the Roots-Chamber Music outfit, The Fretful Porcupine, with collaborator (and Boston folk scene celebrity) Jake Armerding. The two recently performed three sets at this past summer's SoulFest and reported better than expected crowds at the smaller venues they played, far away from the main stage where many of the popular acts from the mid-90s were still playing the hits of their heyday.

DC Talk has dissolved, but their lead singer, Toby Mac, has a successful solo career and performed at Creation this past summer, and Michael Tait, another DC Talker has joined with Newsboys, also a mainstay of 90s CCM. But, as the burgeoning success of less mainstream bands like The Fretful Porcupine -- who perform instrumental music (no lyrics, no JPMs) -- can attest, another breed of Christian music, created more in the image of Jars of Clay than DC Talk, is still very much alive and well. Just as in mainstream music, the do-it-yourself model reigns, and talent and steeliness, rather than marketing and mimicry, determine long-term success.

So, see you at next year's SoulFest?