[This post is my contribution to the #PlanetCCM synchroblog, which you can read more about here.]
When I was a junior in college, I wanted nothing more than to be a music journalist. I’d recently gotten into Radiohead (thanks to living down the street from Thom Yorke #humblebrag), and knew some bands that none of my friends knew about. Plus, I could write, so what was there to keep me from working for a magazine like Spin or Rolling Stone?
This was, quite obviously, a short-lived dream. Reality hit when it dawned on me that I had no real knowledge of the history of music in America. Sure, I’d grown up listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, thanks to my parents’ nostalgia. But in high school, I’d gotten so deeply entrenched in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) that I’d robbed myself of the nearly encyclopedic knowledge that seemed to be required for being a music journalist. I couldn’t tell you what influenced this band or that band or what sort of musical history their work recalled.
I was naïve, and I was sunk.
I found myself standing between two worlds – in one, I possessed a deep knowledge of a very small sector of music. In the other, I was slowly walking away from a world in which that knowledge would be useful, and found myself in deeper waters than I was prepared for.
From 2001-2007, every Labor Day Weekend found me in one place – the Life Light music Festival in Sioux Falls, SD. This festival started as a one afternoon concert on a local church lawn, and within three years, it blossomed into a four-day festival featuring some of the biggest names in all of Christian music. At its peak, the crowds reached into the hundreds of thousands, practically doubling the population of my small-ish city.
Life Light was where I felt at home. During college, I volunteered as a photographer, honing my natural eye for composition. This allowed me access to the festival otherwise restricted for 99% of my peers. There was a quiet thrill in being able to walk past the crowds and flash my press badge at the security guard in front of the jealous stares of my fellow fans.
I tell you this to be totally honest with you – CCM and attending concerts was, for me, as much a matter of pride as it was a hobby. My connections and my “volunteering” was a sanctioned way for me to indulge myself in a desire for power and set myself apart from the crowd – literally and figuratively. Within CCM, I got to stand on the inside; I got to be part of the in-crowd. I got to help my favorite artists haul merchandise back to their van after their show was done; I got to wander on the edge of the stage during the show in order to get that perfect shot.
The rush of it was like a drug.
Walking away from CCM meant leaving not only from the music that had been a spiritual comfort to me for so long, but from that set-apart, holier-than-thou high that being on the inside gave me.
But walk away I did. It's hard to pinpoint when or why. By virtue of attending a public school and having a debate partner who was really into Nelly (seriously), I’d been exposed to “secular” music. By the time I hit freshman year, I’d become a fan of pop punk bands like Green Day and (shudder) Good Charlotte (remember them?).
But this fandom was wracked with a particular kind of guilt. Many expats from Planet CCM know it well – the feeling of really liking the tune or the style of a song and feeling back in your mind a form of deep seated guilt at liking something that didn’t explicitly say Jesus. That’s how the world gets you, I suppose.
So I started with Green Day. And there was some rebellious thrill in introducing myself to music that had previously been denied to me – denied, I should say, by my very own concept of what “holiness” looked like. Throughout college, I began to find new secular artists, at first finding ways to justify them to myself but eventually casting the qualms aside in a fit of “dammit this is good music!”
So by the time progressive musician Derek Webb played Life Light in 2007 – my last year of attending the festival – I was already well on my way out of the scene. Much of this transition, I want to stress, was simply part and parcel of growing up and maturing and finding less satisfaction in the happy-poppy music that kept me going throughout high school. But what happened at Life Light in 2007 sealed it for me.
I’d heard some of Webb prior to the show – enough to know that I wanted to see him play, but not enough to sit up close to the mainstage. Much of the music he played that day was new to me.
There are two things you should know about Life Light here: one of the requirements for artists to play at Life Light was that they give some kind of testimony or telling of the gospel during their set. Life Light is primarily an evangelistic endeavor, after all.
The second is that nobody swears. “Hell” is only used in reference to a place, and swearing even with your friends will get you a strong side-eye (and possibly talked to, depending on who you do it around).
Derek Webb decided to flout these rules in his own special way. Instead of giving his own personal testimony, Webb talked about how Christianity has failed to protect “the least of these.” That was his first error. His second was playing his song “Wedding Dress” from the main stage on a Saturday afternoon – the song contains the repeated line “I’m a whore; I do confess.”*
The nail in the coffin, though, was when Webb commented, “No one gives a shit. And y’all are going to be more upset that I just said ‘shit’ than you are that there are children starving right now.”
It was a cheap shot, to be sure, but it was effective.
Life Light proved his prediction right. He had been on the schedule to play at another stage later that night and do a signing. Shortly after his main stage performance, his other events were canceled. I spoke to some of the people working with the festival and was told that Webb had been asked to leave because his performance didn’t fit with Life Light’s standards.
Disillusionment is a hard thing to pin down to just one moment, but if I had to, it would have been that one. Webb was an artist who, in my nascent progressive phase, was challenging the systems I’d grown up with and he was making it okay for me to think differently. And the system had lashed back at him in a spectacular fashion. Suddenly, the structure of the beast was obvious to me – this was a place that prized conformity over expression, that could not take a challenge to its people, and that could not respect views outside the conservative, evangelical system.
I was shaken. It took me another few years to dispense with CCM entirely, and there are still some artists from those days I listen to. But I’m much more careful now about the religious music I choose to listen to, because it is so easy to think that just because something says “God” enough that it is being respectful and holy and good.
All too often, we allow the “correct” words to override the need for the right ones. Cultural Christianity in America has become an outward show, a shallow performance that is “safe and friendly for the whole family.” And that way lies death.
*Note: I realize now that the lyrics are fairly misogynistic in using the image of a sex worker as a negative metaphor, but I did not at the time. There's also a lot to be said for the imagery of human depravity throughout that song and the equation of specifically female purity with holiness, but ... I've already written too much.