- DAVID W STOWE
After three multi-platinum and six platinum albums, 30 million albums sold and more than a billion streams, singer Amy Grant is ready to receive one of the greatest prizes in American music: the Kennedy Center Honors.
Grant, the self-styled “Queen of Christian Pop,” won’t be the first honoree whose music is steeped in religion. The only 2022 winners include Gladys Knight, who converted at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and U2, whose lead singer, Bono, is known for his long-standing Catholic faith. But Grant is the first to come from the world of CCM: contemporary Christian music.
As a scholar of religion who has write a book on the origins of CCM, I know that the genre has long occupied an unstable rung in the hierarchy of popular music. It may seem far removed from the mainstream industry, but the line between religious and non-religious music has long been porous. No one personifies this fluidity better than Grant.
New mode of worship
In popular culture, the CCM is often the butt of jokes, shorthand for “uncool”. In the sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine panics when she discovers that her boyfriend’s car stereo is preset to Christian rock stations. In the HBO drama The Sopranoswhen Tony Soprano’s sister Janice hits rock bottom, she moves in with a narcoleptic born-again hippie who plays in a Christian rock band.
“[T]he genre has long occupied an unstable rung in the hierarchy of popular music. It may seem far removed from the mainstream industry, but the line between religious and non-religious music has long been porous. No one personifies that fluidity better than Grant.”
The contempt has often been mutual. At times the CCM has jealously guarded its borders against the encroachments of the non-Christian world. Since the 1970s, American evangelicals have created a kind of parallel cultural universe religious radio stations, TV channels, movies, magazines, bookstores and music, most of which pass under the radar of non-believers.
Search my book No sympathy for the devilI was most interested in the roots of CCM in the late 1960s, when young evangelical baby boomers were pushing to create relatable worship music. Like other young people, they loved rock ‘n’ roll. But they wanted lyrics that reflected their Christian values – so they created their own.
Mainstream Music Finds Jesus
But while CCM drew inspiration from broader pop culture, mainstream music itself was no stranger to Christian themes. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, songs with lyrics that referenced faith regularly charted in the Top 40. Many musicians outside the evangelical camp had at least superficial interest in Christian themes.
In 1966, the Beach Boys recorded God only knows on their influential album Animal sounds. The song jesus is fine became a hit when covered by the Byrds and the doobie brothers. Norman Greenwell spirit in the skywho tells listeners that they must “have a friend in Jesus”, was a great success in 1970. English supergroup Blind Faith, whose self-titled album went to number one in the US and UK, featured Eric Clapton’s Presence of the Lord.
The list keeps growing. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind & Fire highlighted spiritual, sometimes explicitly Christian themes. In 1972, Aretha Franklin returned from her position as queen of soul to her musical training ground – Gospel – to record best-selling album amazing Grace. The late 1970s brought perhaps the biggest surprise of all: Bob Dylan, who was raised Jewish, now “born againand spouting Christian prophecy.
Most visible, perhaps, were the rock musicals based on the life of Jesus. Jesus Christ Superstar and divine spell brought a countercultural Jesus to stage and screen, attracting a huge amount of publicity and controversy. Released in 1970, the Super star album reached the top on the Billboard US Albums Chart.
Even then, however, there was strong pressure among influential church leaders against integrating the CCM with the rest of the world. Numbers like televangelist Jimmy Swaggart continue to demonize the music which featured electric guitars or drums.
June 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Explo’72: a Christian youth festival in Dallas hosted by Billy Graham and Johnny Cash, the latter having turned to Jesus after a few crazier years on the road, like many evangelical boomers. Sometimes dubbed “Godstock”, the event was conceived as a Christian response to the 1969 Woodstock festival and made the cover of Life reviewed in 1972.
A pioneering work on the CCM published in 1999, Apostles of the Rock, distinguished three distinct modes of Christian rock: separational, integrational and transformational. The three labels were inspired by writings of theologian H Richard Niebuhrwho used them to categorize Christian attitudes toward engagement in secular society in general.
At one end of the spectrum, according to Apostles of the Rock, is separative CCM. Separatist music drew a clear line against the world, as conservative leaders wanted. This view was exemplified by pioneering Christian hair metal band stripperwho were known for their militant lyrics and throwing Bibles at the public.
In the middle is the integrative CCM, embodied by Amy Grant, who has managed to find a niche in mainstream culture. She may have topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991 with “Baby Baby,” but the unbroken physical flirtation in the Musical clip has been a bit worldly for some of his Christian fans.
Finally, at the other end of the spectrum is the transformational CCM, which aspired to change the culture at large – U2 could serve as an example.
We rely on our readers to fund Sight’s work – become a funder today!
In recent decades, most of the innovative and widely acclaimed activity in Christian popular music has taken place in the area of integration.
Several prominent Christian bands—Creed, Skillet, Switchfoot, and Pedro the Lion, among others—have migrated out of the evangelical subculture to find wider audiences. justin bieber and Katy Perry both made their musical debut on CCM before going mainstream. Two of the best recent rock bands, imagine Dragons and The Killers, are led by singers who grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers, even appeared in an advertising promotion for the LDS Church.
Interest in evangelical youth culture seems to increase approximately every 20 years. The unexpected christian revival called the Jesus Movement made the cover of Time in 1971; in 2001, Newsweek ran a cover story titled “Jesus Rocks”. Twenty years later, 2021 saw a full documentary, music of jesus, which delivers a sympathetic and industry-sanctioned story from CCM. Grant gets the film’s first and last words; she is also one of its executive producers.
Like all popular music, CCM struggles to adapt to rapidly changing tastes. Yet Christian rockers have found unexpected popularity in a genre that once boasted iconoclasm, music critic and journalist Kelefa Sanneh observed“Perhaps in the 21st century, mainstream rock fans dig less for evil than they dig for good.