Contemporary Christian Music: Success and Failure
As the above writeups have made clear, contemporary Christian music is loosely defined as the adaptation of modern musical techniques and trends to Christian theology. However, by this definition, the genre sets itself up for a degreee of success, but it also massively fails in other respects.
The Success of Contemporary Christian Music
Contemporary Christian music is successful in several ways, but these areas of success by their nature relate strongly to the failures of the genre.
First, the music is effective at reiterating Christian doctrine. By using the wide variation in modern musical sounds, the subgenre of contemporary Christian music is able to fill each of those sounds with a similar message, providing lots of musical choices for fans of the subgenre.
It's also important to note that the music provides a thematic "safe haven" for those interested in the theme. If you visit the Christian section of your local music shop, you've got a set of music that delivers a known message (with some variation). Thus, it's easy to find music that lyrically (and otherwise) deals with the theme of Christianity and not (necessarily) with other themes; Christianity is a common theme in the music.
Third, some members of the genre are simply strong musicians who do a lot of interesting things lyrically and musically with the genre. Among these: Larry Norman, Rich Mullins, Third Day, Bob Dylan, Keith Green, Amy Grant, and Second Chapter of Acts.
It's absolutely vital to remember these positive elements of the genre in the light of the negatives of the genre, listed below. I would note that for the most part, the artists listed above are exceptions to at least some of the criticism that is about to be leveled.
The Failure of Contemporary Christian Music
Even though the subgenre offers a lot of choices within a common theme and provides a message that does speak to many, it still fails in many respects. In fact, it fails in many of the same respects that Christianity as a whole fails.
The number one failure is the genre's inability to reach out beyond anyone who isn't already a Christian. There are exceptions to this, but in terms of most of the immediately accessible Christian music, the music assumes the listener already shares the underlying beliefs of the artist, and in many cases this isn't true.
Hand in hand with this is the genre's repeated and disturbing desire to record primarily self-congratulatory music (there are exceptions to this, of course). Yes, you're a Christian, that's fine and dandy, but that simple fact does not make you in any way "better" than someone else. This is a primary example of talking the talk but not walking the walk; the underlying concepts of Christianity should lead one to introspection and contemplation, not to braggadocio and self-promotion. This type of behavior, whether for a "good" cause or not, is unappealing to most people, especially when it reeks of hypocrisy, as it does in the contemporary Christian subgenre.
I do not wish to name artists in the genre that fail in these regards, because I would likely raise arguments from someone out there who particularly enjoys a certain artist.
Turning the Failures Into Successes
Although there are severe problems, the genre has the capability of cleaning out the grandiose garbage and speaking to a wider audience. To do this, though, the genre needs to meet its flaws head on.
The genre needs to drop the self-gratifying attitude. Songs that brag about their Christian stance rather than saying anything important have to go. The songs do nothing than pump the already inflated egos of people who buy into that self-promotion.
The genre needs to make the better music more accessible to listeners. For example, one of the albums that is unquestionably one of the true great achievements in Christian music in terms of meeting the goals above, Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet, is currently only available on CD-R directly from the man himself (along with some small shops that take the CD-Rs from him and distribute them). It would be the equivalent of only being able to get Pet Sounds by writing to Brian Wilson while albums by Britney Spears fill the shelves.
A step somewhat in the right direction was done recently by the Wow! Gold compilation, which did a strong job of showing off some of the better contemporary Christian songs of the 1970s through the 1990s, especially on the first disc. However, in a few cases, it fell into that self-congratulatory snare, especially on the second, weaker disc.
But most importantly, the genre needs to reconsider its audience. Take me, for example. I would probably loosely identify myself as a fan of the genre; I have somewhere between thirty and fifty CDs that would probably fall into the genre. However, the vast majority of the genre is repugnant to me; thus, outside of a small sliver of albums (mostly, those by the artists listed above), I simply don't buy albums in the genre. If the record companies looked at me (and the many others like me, some of which have expressed their distaste on this node) as part of their audience, then it would help the companies consider a change in direction, and thus trim away some of the fat.
Well, aren't the current artists successful? you ask. Given the very tight size of the genre, then yes, some of the lukewarm artists are considered to be very successful. However, the music only appeals to that tiny audience. By not looking beyond that small niche, the record companies fail to take in the idea that the genre can be widely successful.
What about artists like Creed and POD? They're probably the model for what it takes to get any degree of widespread acceptance of music with any sort of strong Christian influence today. They do it by basically eschewing the genre; they refuse to have their albums in that section and refuse to appear on genre compilations.
When a genre has failed that badly, in which potentially strong members of the genre have to deny all association with the genre to spread their message, then there is something deeply flawed.
What Listeners Can Do
There are several things that listeners can do to "mop up" the genre.
Refuse to purchase albums or compilations full of music that falls into the pitfalls above. For example, most of the WOW! annual compilations fall directly into this genre, as they primarily seem to just push whatever "flavor of the month" the record labels are pushing.
Pay attention to Christian radio stations. Listen to the music being played there. Request songs that reflect the better aspects of contemporary Christian music, especially in terms of openness, humility, introspectiveness, and challenge. Many songs by the artists listed above are good examples.
Don't attend concerts by artists who reflect poorly on the genre. This is perhaps the most important thing that one can do. Most musicians make the majority of their income from concerts; by not attending the concerts of artists who are leeching off of the genre, you cause them to dry up and fall off like the leeches they are.
Choose some of the truly good Christian music and share it with secular friends. Don't hand them a WOW! compilation. Dig into the good heart of Christian music, and select some albums with real meaning. Try Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet or Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming, for starters.
Although there are some good parts to contemporary Christian music, there are also a lot of bad pieces, and it isn't just the fault of the artists and record labels, it is the fans who purchase and support the music and portray some of the less-than-flattering images that the music evokes. To truly succeed on a wider stage and speak messages that relate to everyone, contemporary Christian music needs to go through a serious growing-up phase.