September 25, 2016

MEISEL | How to Play Christian Rock

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From about age 15-17 I played bass for my high school’s in-house Christian worship band. Each Thursday once a week we would gather our gear in the chapel for a run-through of the classic standards our audiences had come to know with every Sunday of every month of every year. We jammed around. We sang pristine 21st century Christian music, which often sounded as if some type of cliché folk-indie band had encountered divine inspiration. It was usually fun, not to mention the shows. We often played our school’s weekly chapels and other special events (including but not limited to school fairs and memorials for the recently deceased).

Throughout the collection of these performances, I never cared much for the music itself. It was boring to listen to and showcased some rather uninspired songwriting.  However, at certain moments I did love playing it. I had joined in on these songs despite my lack of belief. Yet they still produced the same joys and rhythms involved in any act of music-making.

Christianity and rock music have been involved with each other ever since the genre’s initial foundations in gospel and blues. Some historians of music even argue that the romantic spiritualism often heard in early rock derived from the adoration shown towards the figure of God in gospel music. But as both cultural phenomena developed into the 20th century, and rock became one of the world’s most dominant forms of pop music, their relationships to each other changed drastically. What became an influence of religious music on the secular turned into an influence of secularized music onto religion.

Many rock musicians had already taken notorious steps to distance themselves from the antithetical moralisms of Christian culture. Even the most dad-rock bands often appealed to unholy darkness in their music (looking at you Blue Oyster Cult). After all, the style has a long and rather silly history of being proclaimed “The Devil’s Music,” almost to the point of parody. At some point along rock’s history, though, people discovered that the format and style of rock music was malleable, adaptable to different politics and points of view. Within the broad cultures of rock music, Christian-flavored bands started to appear. Christian metal. Christian ska. Christian punk. Each with their own message and take on a specific collection of subject matter.

Today, Christian rock still possesses a diversity of sound and content, although big names do tend to overshadow the scene. Hillsong United, which began as a collection of volunteers for an Australian church, now tours worldwide and has charted several #1 albums on US Billboard Christian charts. In terms of music, they present a clear model for what many in-house megachurch goers hear every Sunday: a lucid message with an easy delivery. With regards to chemistry and participation, they crowd the stage with more people than a Talking Heads show. They smile joyously and sing very obviously from the heart. They draw enormous crowds, rapt with emotion. It amounts to an indie-rock imagining of divinity. The love and preciousness so prevalent in the rock on our radios then turns its attention to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, M.D. It’s all a part of the still-beating belief in collective inspiration.

In a communal set-up similar to Hillsong’s, my own particular band played a vague repertoire known as “worship music.” Hence, we called ourselves a worship band. In all honesty, besides the occasional hymn, we played Christian rock. It had a library of eight chords and generic structure. Everyone could play it, and that was the point. People of varying experience-levels could join in as long as they had the Lord in their heart. Hillsong had provided an example of the possibilities of communal worship. What could happen if everyone were allowed to sing out?

And so I accompanied this band as we played to the same audience of reluctant high schoolers each week, and occasionally an important event would come along. We would play that too. To this day, the most uncomfortable rendition of the Hillsong piece “Cornerstone”—and perhaps any song—I’ve ever played was at a memorial service for a recently deceased young alumna of my high school. Among the mourning family members and the grieving students, I stood awkwardly onstage in an attempt at calculated but humane distance. There, what baffled me the most was the effect of this music that I had originally believed trite and reductive. People wept to the same tune I had played to stone-faced high-schoolers. I realized after that my stance on Christian music had been a bit condescending. Who was I to deride the ways people process grief? Why was I unwilling to acknowledge that this is a universal quality of music? Of course Christian rock should wield the same effect. That’s not to say I agree with Christianity, despite 10 years of straight Christian education. But maybe the music is more understandable and relatable than we give it credit for. And hey, some of it’s actually pretty catchy.

Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.