Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Blues for Jesus

The Christian music press is making a big noise over one Jonny Lang. Jonny is a hotshot blues guitarist. He made his first album (Lie to Me) when he was fifteen years old. And it’s a good album, too, featuring blistering guitar runs and Jonnny’s voice, which sounds like he’s fifteen going on fifty, and which has that whiskey-and-cigarettes quality that one hopes is merely a good imitation, at least at that age. So Jonny, now at the ripe old age of 24, has made a new album (Turn Around), where he sings about his love for Jesus. And various Christian magazines are falling all over themselves about what a wondrous and new thing this is – Christian blues. And they are proclaiming this as Jonny’s greatest triumph.

It’s a tendency I’ve seen far too frequently. I remember similarly ecstatic responses for the debut “Christian” albums of Richie Furay (Poco, Souther, Hillman, Furay Band), B. J. Thomas, and, of course, Bob Dylan. The quality of the music is almost an afterthought, and the primary message that is communicated is "Hey look, we got ourselves a legitimate musician from the big, bad, pagan world, and now he gets to engage in 'loss' and 'cross' and 'grace' and 'face' rhymes.” Whoopee.

It's truly unfortunate when the Christian music press takes this approach. For the, umm, record, I think it's great that Jonny Lang knows Jesus. I really do. But his music still needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Just as a footnote, Jonny was singing about Jesus on his previous album, too (Long Time Coming). And you know what? It was a lousy album, and that had nothing to do with the subject matter. It had to do with the cheesy '80s arena rock production, an over-reliance on Pro Tools, and banal lyrics. When will the Christian music press start to understand this?

And just as another footnote, the Christian music press has got it all wrong if they thing Jonny is breaking new ground with this Blues for Jesus thing. Ed Raetzloff did it back in the seventies. So did Resurrection Band/Rez Band/Rez, and "Broken Promises" is still the best "Christian" blues I've ever heard. And moving outside the CCM world, I'll take Blind Willie Johnson over any of them, and he was recording his great gospel blues songs back in 1927.

To quote Larry Norman, "There ain't nothin' wrong with playin' blues licks." He wrote that in 1972, forty-five years after Blind Willie. And it's still true. So God bless Jonny Lang. But please, I think I may have a coronary if I read too many hyperbolic comments about Jonny's breathtakingly innovative approach.

43 comments:

caleb maskell said...

andy:

i completely feel you. hopefully he has the good sense to sing about disasters and women as well...

-c.

mg said...

i remember going to a church once about 16 years ago and the worship leader (if they called him that) was talking (quite a bit) and said that he could no longer sing the 'blues' because he knows jesus.

my thought then (and now) was "what you never have shitty days?" -- funny how the majority of the psalms are david singing the blues.

i immediately thought of that story when i read your title 'blues for jesus'.

jackscrow said...

U right!

Nothin' but a burning light!

Mark Moring said...

And here, Whitman is guilty of stereotyping "the Christian music press" by assuming that everybody in that arena thinks the same way. (Thus putting Whitman in a similar camp of those who insist that ALL Christian music sucks.) Does Whitman really think everybody in "the Christian music press" is so shallow that the main reason they dig Lang's new album is because he sings about Jesus? Give me a break. That's a pretty shallow and stereotyped charge in itself. I think it's a very good album anyway, even if he were singing about whiskey and women.

"Christian magazines are falling all over themselves about a wondrous and new thing this is -- Christian blues." Not me. I've been into the "Christian blues" since I first read the Psalms and Lamentations. It's been around a long, long time. And, more currently, I've been into Christian blues music ever since Glenn Kaiser (not Jonny Lang) set the bar on that front. Here's my interview with Glenn:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/
interviews/2005/glennkaiser-0605.html

Does Whitman REALLY think "the Christian press" gets all that excited every time "we got ourselves a legitimate musician from the big, bad, pagan world?" Um, if that's the case, we should've been drooling over the new album from Brian Littrell (former Backstreet Boy), but we gave it 2.5 stars (out of 5), and even that might've been a bit generous. (And don't come back with a snappy, "But I said LEGITIMATE musicians." Hey, Whitman started it -- by listing BJ THOMAS along with Furay and Dylan.)

BTW, one of Christian music's finest -- Sara Groves, arguably the best songwriter in the CCM genre, and one of the brightest, most insightful people around -- thinks Lang's new album is 5-star material. But I guess she's just as easily duped as "the Christian press."

Whitman concludes, "When will the Christian press start to understand this?" Hmm, perhaps about the same time Whitman stops making blanket observations about "the Christian press" that simply are not true across the board.

Mark Moring
editor
www.ChristianMusicToday.com


mm

Martin said...

Guess I'd have to see which Christian magazines Andy is talking about. I just wanna hear the record, so's I can make up my own mind.

mark moring said...

Exactly my point. If he's going to point fingers, he needs to name names. WHICH Christian magazines/press is he talking about? Link to those articles, so we can see what he's basing his generalizations on -- and then they won't be generalizations any more. They'll be specific. That's what's missing here. It's the "blanket statement" mentality that got under my skin.

peace,

mark m

jackscrow said...

Hummm.... I think I'm in that both CCM and Lang suck (Mr. Moring's word) category.

Overproduced crap, for the most part. Also true in Lang's case, but I haven't heard the new cd.

I wonder if Mr. Moring can name some CCM songwriters that are writing good songs with great lyrics.... Say on par with Prine, Smithers, Gorka, Snider, etc.

I haven't heard a mainstream "Christian" songwriter worth a damn (my word) since Rich Mullins and Mark Heard (though Heard was hardly mainstream).

If Mr. Moring has suggestions, I'll listen.

But I can tell by the names he's dropping, that sans Kaiser there's not a lot there.

If he was really into Christian songwriting excellence, he'd be putting Bruce Cockburn on the cover of his mag.

Or how's about Billy Joe Shaver?

Now there's a couple of real Christian songwriters.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

A few Christians whose songwriting commands my attention (most of the time):

Bruce Cockburn
Over the Rhine
Sixteen Horsepower/Woven Hand
Sufjan Stevens
Damien Jurado
Johnny Cash
U2
Buddy and Julie Miller
People You Meet (now defunct)
T-Bone Burnett
Sam Phillips
Mark Heard
Michael Been and The Call
David Bazan and Pedro the Lion
The Innocence Mission (Don and Karen Peris)
Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love
Charlie Sexton
Nick Cave (although he doesn't go around calling himself a Christian)
The Ragbirds
Steve Taylor and Chagall Guevara (long silent)
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Lost Dogs
Daniel Amos
Sixpence None the Richer (now defunct)
Lauryn Hill
May I count Jack White?

And then there's Bob Dylan.

And then there's that whole body of great God-haunted music from artists I don't know well enough to make any guesses about their personal faith:
Ben Harper
Patti Griffin
Emmylou Harris
Daniel Lanois
Iron and Wine
Leonard Cohen
Joseph Arthur
Joe Henry
Bruce Springsteen
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
Suzanne Vega

... to name a few...

Andy Whitman said...

Mark? Are you talking to me, or addressing the masses? I'm right here.

First, I appreciate your comments. Sure, I'm engaging in stereotyping. Is it unfair to lump all Christian music writers under the same umbrella? Probably, and I don't mind you calling me on it. Point granted. By the same token, the stereotype is prevalent enough that I think it's a reasonable representation of the Christian music press as a whole. Is it 100% accurate? No, it's not. Does it represent a general trend that can be easily found in the Christian music press? I think so.

As for specific examples, here you go:

Phantom Tollbooth: http://www.tollbooth.org/2006/features/jlang.html

Here's a representative quote:

"As the coroner was removing Cliff’s body, he and Haylie went out to the backyard. Then something absolutely supernatural occurred and he started shaking in his chair. “It was like somebody grabbed my shoulders and shook me forcefully back and forth,” he remembered. “Yet at the same time, I felt total peace. I heard Jesus say to me, ‘You don’t have to have this if you don’t want it.’ But I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted in my whole life.” Lang fell to the ground and gave his life to Christ."

I am deeply suspicious of this kind of narrative. Why is it that Christian songwriters seem prone to the kinds of miraculous conversions that the rank and file do not experience? And why is it that (some) Christian reviewers fall for this stuff? Could it be a cynical attempt to sell more records to the target audience? I don't know. I'm just asking. Yes, a similar thing happened to the apostle Paul. And I can't say for sure that it didn't happen just as described. But I doubt it. Why must this stuff be sensationalized? Why isn't it sufficient to state that Jonny Lang recognized the futility of his current path and repented? That seems to be the way it works for most of us, sans the quaking and falling to the ground.

I will also note that the author mentions in her review her new book "Celebrity Reflections About True Life Experiences With God." Again, I'm deeply suspicious of the whole approach. What makes Jonny Lang's (or Bob Dylan's, or, God forbid, B.J. Thomas's) reflections more valid than Jane Doe's, who responded to an altar call at age 5? How is the Christian media any different from the National Enquirer when they pander to such sensationalistic and voyeuristic tendencies?

Here's another representative quote:

"Jonny Lang has made a complete turnaround. Miraculously, he was completely healed of his addictions, “From then on, I had absolutely zero cravings for the drugs, the alcohol or the tobacco. The best recovery program in the world can’t claim that,” he said."

Nor can many Christians, for that matter, and I hate the message this sends to Christians who have not experienced a miraculous deliverance. But somehow this is de rigeur for Christian musicians who have been rescued from the perils of the world. I can't tell you how many times I've read similar statements in Christian music publications. The purpose, from what I can tell, is to set these musicians on some superspiritual pedastal. They're miraculously cured, unlike the poor schmoes who have to struggle their entire lives, and who count victory one hour and one day at a time.

And you know what? I hope those stories are true. But again, I have my doubts. I recall the miraculous cures of B.J. Thomas, Mylon Lefevre, and many others, that didn't quite seem to take. Neither the musicians, the audience, nor God is served by these kinds of statements, and I wish they weren't written in the first place.

These are real examples of the kind of hyperventilating that goes on in some parts of the Christian press when a relatively famous musician comes to Christ and starts making "Christian" music. The review in CMSpin noted that now Jonny Lang was singing about the truth (as opposed to his previous albums, where he sang about pain and heartache, which are, by implication, false). I hate the dichotomies being presented.

And I think that there is real danger in these messages. They set up Jonny Lang (and many others before him) on a pedastal. And they set them apart as "anointed ministers," when in fact they're nothing more nor less than baby Christians with guitars. Let's rejoice because they have found new life. But let's not ordain them as leaders of the flock.

If you don't write stories like that, then God bless you. Seriously. But they're common enough.

Anonymous said...

i think i remember a passage in keith green's biography about dylan's struggle with the "now he's our prophet" mantle...the passage implied it was one of the reasons he backed off making "christian" music.

btw...one of the best christian blues albums is "long time coming" by chris lizzote

mark moring said...

A couple of responses:

To jackscrow:

You wonder if I can name some CCM songwriters that are writing great lyrics? Um, Jeffrey Overstreet beat me to the punch with his fabulous list, and to that roster I'll add Steve Bell, Sara Groves, Derek Webb, Dan Haseltine, and Carolyn Arends. (Curious: How many of them has jackscrow even heard of?)

jackscrow also writes, "If he was really into Christian songwriting excellence . . ." Uhh, only an idiot would deduce from my post that I'm not "into Christian songwriting excellence." What a ridiculous conclusion.

As for putting Cockburn "on the cover," jackscrow really needs to do his research. We don't HAVE a cover. We're a WEBSITE. Sheesh. And we DID just give a glowing review Cockburn's new album. Golly. What do you want?

On to Andy's reply to my post:

Thanks for your gracious reply for what was a rather feisty post from me. Yes, it was unfair of you to lump all Christian music writers under the same umbrella, and I'm glad you don't mind me calling you on it. Thanks. And I *do* agree with you that it's a "reasonable representation" of the Christian music media and "a general trend." Amen to that. But your posting pretty much damned the whole lot of 'em -- er, us.

Thanks for adding a specific example, even though it doesn't support your complaint in your original posting -- that Christian writers are drooling over Lang's new album because it's allegedly a "new" thing (Christian blues) and that they're drooling because one of the "great pagan artists came to us." Instead, the specific examples you cited only highlight your concerns about how a dramatic conversion has been reported.

I've interviewed a ton of people in my almost 30 years as a journalist, and like you, I'm always skeptical of these miracle conversions -- especially since my own (and that of most people I know) wasn't even close. But if you've asked the tough follow-up questions -- like, "I find that hard to believe. Tell me how it *really* happened" -- if the interviewee stands by his/her story, what are you gonna do? Like you said, if it happened to Paul . . .

And if a Christian writer reports it, who's to say he/she has "fallen for this stuff," as you imply? If Tom Cruise says antidepressants are evil, or if George W. Bush says Iraq has ties to Al Qaida, you don't have to "fall for it" to responsibly report WHAT THE PERSON SAID. If Jonny Lang SAYS his conversion went like that, it'd be irresponsible to report it any other way. My point: When we quote people, it's not necessary to believe what they say; it's only necessary to accurately report what they say -- and, of course, to ask the skeptical follow-up questions.

As for whether Lang's or Dylan's or BJ Thomas's stories are "more valid" than Jane Doe's, of course not. But go ahead and put Lang's testimony and Jane Doe's testimony up side-by-side on your website, and see which one gets the most readership. Matter of fact, why write about professional musicians at all? Why not just write about all of the amateurs out there who are leading worship at their little churches while strumming the latest mindless praise chorus? Their stories are just as "valid" as the real pros, eh?

The purpose of telling these stories is not to "set these musicians on some superspiritual pedestal." We (at Christian Music Today, anyway) tell various stories that we find interesting, and that we think readers will find interesting. Not just how-I-came-to-Jesus testimonies, but all sorts of stories.

And we DO tell the stories of the "poor schmoes who have to struggle their entire lives, and who count one victory one hour and one day at a time." Look no further than my interview with Dan Haseltine from just last week:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/
interviews/2006/jarsofclay-0806.html

And just because some of the people who experience "miraculous conversions" don't always seem to "take" doesn't negate the story in the first place -- or mean that they shouldn't have been written in the first place. If we all waited around to see if these conversions "took," nobody would write anything. ("Well, it's only been five years, and he hasn't overdosed or killed or raped anybody *yet*, but let's give it a little more time just to be *sure.*" Nah.)

For what it's worth, I actually agree with you more than I'm coming across. I'm VERY skeptical of miracle conversions. And when I'm interviewing those people, they must think I'm an a-hole for grilling them the way I do. But again, if they stand by their story, then that's the way it needs to be told.

If the artist is being set up on a pedestal as a result of these stories, that's not the intent of most media types. That might be how some *readers* come away with it ("Oh, let's start attending the Church of Jonny Lang!"), but that's not the intent. If some serial killer or mob boss or other notorious "bad" person holds a press conference and says he's putting his old ways aside because he found God, should the media ignore it? Is it putting him on a pedestal to merely report it? Nope. The "pedestal factor" isn't in the reporting; it generally happens among the readers.

If reporting miraculous conversions -- as the subject tells the story -- is *really* the same as "ordaining them as leaders of the flock," then everybody's guilty. Even me.

Hey, I broke the story where Scott Stapp first came right out and said he was a Christian:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/
interviews/2004/scottstapp-0804.html

He told his story about how he had drifted away from the faith, fell into the rock lifestyle, yada yada yada, same old story. And how watching "The Passion of the Christ" convicted him and played a role in him coming back to faith. That's HIS story, and I asked him some tough questions as he told it. But still, it's HIS story, and I'd be remiss not to report it.

So, now, with Stapp acting like an absolute idiot earlier this year (drunken brawls, inebriated TV appearances, etc.), do I feel like I was irresponsible in reporting his story a couple years ago? Heck no. Did I put him on a pedestal a couple years ago? Heck no. But did some readers? Heck yes. When we reported some of his crazy behavior earlier this year, we got the usual e-mails of "Leave him alone, hasn't he suffered enough, we oughta pray for him, not crucify him in the media," yada yada yada. Sheesh. But again, that's the reader putting the artist on the pedestal, not the media.

That's not to say that some media (not us!) aren't writing stories about celebs that are very, shall we say, "fawning" in their tone. And that *is* a problem. But again, merely reporting the miraculous conversion is not irresponsible.

Anyway, back to my request for specific examples of Christian media drooling over Lang because a) "what a wondrous new thing this is -- Christian blues," or b) because he's now "one of us." The Phantom Tollbooth article does *not* assess his new album; it merely reports, even if hyperbolically, his "miraculous conversion." You also noted "the review in CMSpin." I've searched and searched, and cannot find a "review" in CMSpin. The only thing I can find at CMSpin are verbatim press releases from Lang's PUBLICIST on the album and his conversion. And of course the publicist will gush.

Bottom line: I still would like to see evidence of this mass drooling over Lang's new album by the Christian media. Neither of the sites you noted are doing that -- Phantom Tollbooth didn't review the album, and I can't find that CMSpin did either. I think you have some valid criticisms of the media, but I'm not seeing the specific examples in the case of Jonny Lang. Where are they?

Final word, and a conciliatory one: I bet if we sat down over a cup of coffee (well, I hate coffee), we would agree on 98 percent of this stuff. My initial reaction was to what appeared to be a blanket indictment of ALL of the Christian music media. Forgive me if I overreacted, but I thought it was worth setting the record straight -- and to let you and your readers know that there IS a legit Christian music media outlet out there, and it's called ChristianMusicToday.com.

peace,

mm

jackscrow said...

"Sometimes I'm an idiot. Many of you know that by now.... Sometimes I am not, but that is not as clear, somehow."

MM: So, I actually did deduce from your post that you're "not into Christian songwriting excellence." Maybe it had to do with the Jonny Lang thing.

Sorry I wasn't aware of the "legit Christian music media outlet". I subscribe to No Depression and Paste.

And my mistake. Carolyn Arends is a good writer. Spotty, but when she writes a good one, it's really good.

Sara Groves and Dan Haseltine I'm familiar with.

Maybe I didn't make myself clear when I said great songwriters.

By this I mean a writer where you look at the output and you see a majority of the songs with no wasted words = The song was written with no word that did not absolutely have to be there.


Thanks for the list, Jeffery. I'll pair it down some. (this should get some action.)

IMNSHO: good writers.

Funny. I'm looking at it now and I don't see a single "CCM" artist.



Bruce Cockburn

Over the Rhine (maybe)

Johnny Cash (funny what dying and a couple of studio produced kareoke discs put together by a hip-hip producer/kingpin will do to make you popular again. only hope the kids get to hear the early stuff.)

T-Bone Burnett (the guy who should have produced the American recordings)

Mark Heard

And then there's Bob Dylan.

Patti Griffin

Leonard Cohen

Joe Henry

Bruce Springsteen

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Suzanne Vega

markmoring said...

Good to know that somebody out there definitively knows the difference between "good" and "great" when it comes to Christian songwriters. And that somebody is jackscrow, apparently. Because such determinations cannot possibly be subjective. If he says one is good and the other is great, he must be correct. I'm glad I finally found the definitive, objective, final source for all such determinations.

And, of course, he's also the final word on who's a "Christian" songwriter, apparently. Even though I've followed Springsteen for 30 years, own every single album, and seen him live 17 times, I never thought of him as a Christian songwriter. I'm glad jackscrow has set the record straight on that account, because he obviously knows.

Finally -- and this comment is not exclusively for jackscrow, but for many -- I'm also a believer that great songwriters are also excellent communicators . . . or at least they should be. I'm all for artsy poetry and subtleties and putting things in a way they've never been put before. But seriously, much as I dig the work by folks like Sufjan Stevens and other cutting-edge writers, you gotta admit, sometimes you read his lyrics and you think, "What the heck is he trying to say?" Anybody out there who says he knows exactly what Stevens is saying in every song is lying -- or he's Sufjan.

I ain't sayin' that all songs have to be crystal clear in what they're trying to communicate. But I think good AND great song writers can write in a way that's unique AND the listener can say, "I get it," instead of "huh?" Springsteen does that *most* of the time (especially since he got "Greetings From Asbury Park" out of his poetry-gone-wild system). So do many of the others on Jeffrey's, jackscrow's, and my lists. I think great songwriters can be allowed maybe a couple songs on an album that make you go, "Huh?" But when you're saying "Huh" more often than not, I don't care how clever the words are. That ain't great songwriting. At least not the way I see it.

Can I get an amen? Or, as Sufjan might put it, Can I get an exclamatory swansong caressing the infinite crevasse of smoldering light of daybreak in Peoria as the trumpets play wildly on the asphalt clouds? Or whatever.

mm

jackscrow said...

Actually, MM, I was just culling the provided list from Jeffery.

It's not my list. And....

You didn't read far enough to see this:

"Funny. I'm looking at it now and I don't see a single "CCM" artist."

I'm not judging their "Christianity", I'm just saying none of the ones that I picked from the list are "CCM" artists.

And as for me providing you with a "definitive source" on good and great songwriting, anytime, MM. I'll be glad to tell you what to think.

As far as "subjective" in determining what is "good" or "great", you learned in creative writing that there are general standards. Some writing is good, some bad. And most times, it's pretty easy to tell which.

I do agree with you that great songwriters are also excellent communicators. And in my personal experience, the CCM "artists" I hear these days deal mostly in cliche. Do you really want to dissect the writing in the songs of, say, Sara Groves, and compare them to someone like Cheryl Wheeler? Or Dan Haseltine to Cockburn?

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, I'm not sure I have any more to say about Jonny Lang. I don't disagree with anything you've written, and I can't provide any more specific examples, so yes, I'm guilty of generalizations and probably reading more into the conversion stories than is warranted. And I appreciate your comments that have called me on that. Mmmmm. Crow doesn't taste all that bad, you know?

I do have some comments (and questions) about the larger issues at work here, though. Specifically, I wonder what it is about the evangelical culture that fosters the kind of sensationalism that I think is readily apparent in the Jonny Lang conversion stories I've read.

You're right, all we can do is report what people say, and we can't blatantly disregard firsthand testimony. But I still have some pretty serious reservations about Lang's quaking/falling to the ground stories. I'm operating on the (perhaps erroneous) assumption that this story has been embellished, and I'm wondering about the cultural (as in evangelical CCM culture) factors that may be at work here.

A couple years ago I interviewed John Davis (ex Superdrag) for Mars Hill Review. John was a new Christian, had the usual "I was a clueless druggie on my way to death, now I've been set free" lines, and told me about how he met Jesus while driving drunk in his pickup truck. As I recall, a blinding flash of light, heart palpitations, and wave after wave of love and forgiveness factored in to the tale. I was waiting for him to fall out of his pickup truck on the road to Nashville and for a voice from heaven to intone, "John, John, why do you persecute me?"

It's what he said, and it's what I wrote. As you noted, that's what we have to do. But I'm still deeply suspicious. I can't say that it didn't happen. I *can* say that these sorts of stories seem to occur with far greater regularity among Christians who play guitars and record for Christian record labels.

And the question is why? My theory is that such tales are deeply rooted in evangelical culture (and the Bible, of course; I'm not denying the reality of the miraculous), and that Christian recording artists automatically assume a certain legitimacy if they can claim these stories as their own. And you know what? That helps to sell albums.

It's a deeply cynical view, I admit. Part of me hopes I'm wrong, and I think it's likely that these factors operate at a more unspoken/unconscious level. I'm not ascribing any dark, Machiavellian motives to John Davis or Jonny Lang. But it's true. As a general rule, worldly/pagan musicians who convert to Christianity seem to experience miraculous conversions and deliverances at a rate far greater than the average Christian.

What that suggests to me is that the music these folks make is not sufficient in the CCM world; that more is required. And that concerns me because I think the music should be sufficient. When I listen to Jonny Lang's new album (which I have yet to do, although I'm very familiar with his previous albums), I want to evaluate it in light of the blues/soul tradition in which he operates, and in light of how it compares to his previous work. That's how I approach any album. But in this case, I'm being asked to factor in supernatural quaking and falling to the ground, and God help me, quite literally, if I find something negative about the album, because then I'm not only criticising a blues performance, but I'm messin' with the Almighty.

And that's the part of CCM culture that I find profoundly distasteful. I'm really glad that Jonny Lang knows Jesus. Truly. The same goes for John Davis. I hope and I pray that their lives will be changed for the better in profound ways. But they're still making albums, and I have to review them, just as you do. And just as a preacher could state "Jesus are the way, the truth, and the life" and say something true very badly, it's quite possible that Jonny Lang and John Davis, my brothers in Christ, could make bad albums.

Unfortunately, the quaking/falling to the ground tales make it harder to say that. On one hand, we may have a third-rate imitation of a Muddy Waters tune; on the other we have a miraculously delivered, on-fire Christian ready to boogie for the Lord. And I believe that there is enormous pressure, at least in the CCM world, to talk about the miraculous deliverances instead of the third-rate Muddy imitation. And that's too bad. I want to write about music. I'm not saying that conversions can be or should be ignored. But I'm saying that they are of enormous importance to the souls of those who have been converted, and of comparatively little importance to the albums they make, which must be evaluated on their own terms. And I think the CCM world, and the evangelical culture in general, makes it extremely difficult to evaluate music on its own terms.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts here. And I appreciate your comments.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Martin said...

Aw ri', man. Vulgar personal insults. Way to contribute to the discussion.

Andy Whitman said...

I agree, Martin. If I could figure out which Blogspot tab/menu option allowed me to delete individual comments without deleting them all, that one would be gone.

mg said...

andy,

log into blogger.com and then go to your blog and the comments here. there should be a trashcan that appears next to each comment. you can individually delete comments that way.

jackscrow said...

Doggone it! Jeffrey should have included Henry Timrod in his list.

Don't think he would have qualified as a CCM artist, though.

mark moring said...

Some replies . . .

Jackscrow: I hear ya on "CCM" artists, and I agree that the words "CCM" and "Christian" are not synonymous . . . No need to tell me what to think . . . As for "good vs. great," yes there are *general* standards, as you put it, and yes, it's usually easy to tell the difference between good and bad. But that wasn't the discussion. The discussion was the fine line between "good and great," and that IS a subjective line -- though you apparently know exactly where it is. Congrats . . . And yes, most of the CCM stuff I hear these days is cliched. And no, I don't have time to get into a dissection of the songwriting of Sara Groves vs. Cheryl Wheeler or Haseltine vs. Cockburn. Such a dissection can only be subjective, anyway . . .

Andy: I'm not sure there's any more to be said about Lang either. The only reason I jumped into this conversation in the first place was a reaction to the generalizations -- that "the Christian media" is drooling over Lang's new album simply because the "pagan had become one of us" . . . and I couldn't find any evidence of that, anywhere. A lot of people read you and respect your opinion. A lot of people think, "If Andy says the Christian media are drooling over Lang's new album just because he's a Christian, and not in regard to the quality of the album," then a lot of people will simply believe what you say and not investigate for themselves. That's all this was about. Your *overall* observations of trends were fine, but you were lacking in "ammunition" on the Lang thing. And hey, I totally know what crow tastes like. Been there, done that more times than I can count!

As for the larger issues of the evangelical culture "fostering sensationalism" with stories like Lang's conversion, it's hard to know how to reply. We JUST interviewed Lang, and he told the story the same way I've heard it before -- a very dramatic conversion story. I can't relate to it, because God has never dealt with me anything remotely like that. But I can't deny Lang HIS story, either. When we interviewed him (that story will post on 9/25, BTW), he was actually apologetic about how preposterous the story was. He even said something like, "I'm hesitant to share this story with the media, because people will think I'm insane." Well, nobody wants to look like they're insane; it would be easy of Lang to just say, "Hey, I came to God, I had a change of heart, and that's that."

Yeah, I do think you're being overly cynical with stories like this -- not just Lang's, but any artist who has a dramatic conversion. I've gotten to know a number of artists over the years, and I've noticed that they tend to experience and feel *everything* more deeply than I ever do. I don't think they all have wild, dramatic conversion stories, but there might be a certain "bent" to the deeply artistic, imaginative, creative, brilliant mind that experiences things more vividly/wildly/whatever than most of us. Sheesh, Van Gogh chopped off his ear. Kurt Cobain felt things so intensely that he killed himself. Mozart was a very passionate, wild and crazy guy who did some wacked-out stuff. And so on. I think it's possible that these types of minds are so in tune with the fantastic, are so seeking the incredible experience, that perhaps it's possible the only way God can get through to them is through something wild, instead of something mundane. God reached me through the mundane: A friend told me about Jesus, and it made sense, and I made a decision, and have stumbled awkardly through the faith journey ever since. No flashes of lightning, no miraculous leaving of sinful things behind. Just a typical journey. It's possible that the Jonny Langs and John Davises of the world wouldn't even *hear* God in a mundane, run-of-the-mill manifestation. I dunno. Just a theory.

Do I believe it's *possible* that some stories are trumped up for the sake of publicity? Yep. But I don't think that explains every case.

Like you, I also think the music should be "sufficient in the CCM world." But great music is often rooted in great stories. Cockburn has a couple of war protest songs on the new album. If I were to interview him, you bet I'd ask him about the stories behind those songs. What if he said, "Well, my brother-in-law was killed in Iraq, and I'm mad as hell about that, and I even went and pissed on the White House lawn and yelled profanities at the President!" Should I say, "Um, that's fine, Bruce, but I just want to hear about the MUSIC, not your stupid dramatic story. Tell me about the melody and what the bass player did and what knobs the producer fiddled with on that song." Uh, not. All I'm saying is that the music IS sufficient, but people want to know what's behind it too.

As for Lang, if he starts singing about Jesus from out of nowhere, of course it's legitimate to ask him why he's doing that. Yes, the quality of his album should be judged on the music alone, and NOT on whether he had a dramatic or a mundane conversion. No arguments from me. (But you HAD implied, in your first posting, that that's exactly what the Christian media is doing -- and again, I don't see that anywhere. But I digress.) No one is asking you to "factor in supernatural quaking" in evaluating the album. What makes you think anybody is asking that?

When Springsteen's latest album arrived, the press kit mentioned all the motivations behind hit -- Springsteen's love of Americana, of Seeger, of folk songs. But it also told some stories of things that have riled him up, good or bad -- Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, etc. Should I have gotten ticked at Columbia for thinking they were trying to manipulate my assessment of the album, just because the press release shared some of the drama behind the music? Nah, that's just what publicists do. I don't see how we can fault Lang's publicists for saying he had a dramatic conversion, especially since it's essentially a gospel album!

And yes, it's very possible that Lang and Davis and anybody who comes to Christ can make bad albums. Goodness, I have bad albums cross my desk every single day!

If there is "enormous pressure in the CCM world to talk about miraculous deliverances instead of the third-rate Muddy Waters imitation," I can only speak for myself and for our publication. We ain't feelin' no pressure. Publicists can spin us any way they like, but we're writing our stories and our reviews the way WE want to. And anyway, what's "pressure"? Pressure is perceived, not necessarily just applie. Some people can go to the free throw line with no time on the clock and the game on the line and not feel a thing; others choke. When we get a cover letter from a publicist pitching an angle, perhaps the publicist intends to apply pressure, but I sure don't feel it. One journalist may feel it (though I'd have to question the word "journalist," in that case), while another will not. All to say, if there is "pressure," where's it coming from? The publicists? Depends on how you take it. Are you really feeling "pressure" to give Lang a good review because he fell on the ground when he came to God? From whom?

For the record, Jonny Lang's dramatic conversion will have absolutely nothing with how we assess his new record. However, how he expresses his faith *in the music* might be part of our review. We hear a lot of albums that *sound* good, but the lyrics stink. We have had to slam a ton of records because they're full of Christian platitudes and cliches. We'll assess Lang's new CD the same way -- musically and lyrically. If we think he's a third-rate Muddy Waters, we'll say so. If we think he's Muddy reincarnated, we'll say so. But we'll factor his lyrical agility (or lack thereof) into the total assessment as well. Not his dramatic conversion, but how he is conveying his message (whether it's faith or not) through his lyrics. Simple as that. Any good reviewer should do that.

Glad you wanted my input. Glad to provide it. But I'm so buried, I probably won't be able to take part in the discussion much more. Hope you understand.

Peace to you and all your readers.

mark moring
christianmusictoday.com

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Andy,

When you go to post a comment, look at the list of comments running down the left side of the page. If you've signed in to Blogger, you should see a little trash can icon down by the date and time of each comment. If you click on that icon under an offensive message, you'll delete that comment WITHOUT deleting any of the others.

And in this case, I doubt anybody will object, except the fellow who posted that juvenile outburst.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeffrey Overstreet said...

www.infuzemag.com/reviews/music/

Another Christian-press rave for this album.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

And another:

http://www.ccmmagazine.com/reviews/

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Here's another one:
http://christianmusic.suite101.com/article.cfm/jonny_lang

Here's a quote:

"But don’t let all the sizzle let you miss these passionate lyrics:

Never again will I wander without you/ never again will I offer to you anything less than my very best/ never again now that I understand….. Getting on my knees puts me back on my feet again.

...

Turn Around is fourteen songs of generous revelation and joyful exhortation ... given life by Jonny Lang’s stunning guitar chops and passionate vocals. He’s never sounded more committed, more focused, or more sure of his gifting. Makes a lot of sense when you think about it. But even without the spiritual connections, you’d be hard pressed not to thoroughly dig this extraordinary album from an artist who seems to have found the groove he was made for."

Jeffrey Overstreet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

And just to balance this out a bit, here are links to a couple reviews from non-Christian sources:

http://www.amazon.com/Turn-Around-Jonny-Lang/dp/B000H7JDVS

and

http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:amm1z8ha6yvj

I haven't heard the album. I can't say which view is more accurate. But I do find it interesting that the reviews from Christian sources are salivating over this album, while the reviews from non-Christian sources are much more restrained.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jackscrow said...

I hear the CCM press is salivating over the new Henry Timrod cd.

They're calling him the "new Dylan".

Soon as I get in my car I'm going to turn on WCVO and "faithfully" listen....

I can't wait.


BTW, Jeffrey, I like your site.

Andy Whitman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

"BTW, Jeffrey, I like your site."

Yes, indeed. Let me interrupt this fine thread for a moment to plug one Mr. Jeffrey Overstreet, writer and thinker. Jeffrey's web site, Looking Closer (http://www.lookingcloser.org/) is a daily stop for me. You should read it. You should buy his books, the first of which (Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies) is due out real soon now.

He's an e-friend I've known for years, and one day (when I actually make it out to Seattle, or, less likely, when he ventures to the cultural hotbed that is Columbus, Ohio), I'll get to meet him in person.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Forgive me if I've misattributed any quotes or words along the way here. But I'm really dismayed to see press releases being embraced and published as news on Christian music sites.

Sorta the way I was recently dismayed to learn that a prominent Christian-press film-review site is now owned by two prominent Hollywood publicists. They're Christians, and they mean well, but whatever their intentions, this sends dangerous messages to readers about what makes something a 'review,' and who we should listen to about what distinguishes something as 'excellent.'

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Well, I'm a Christian, so of course my writing and opinions are flawless and excellent.

I'M KIDDING. JOKE! JOKE!

And wait until you hear my conversion testimony. Then you'll know that my books are prize-worthy.

JOKE!

mark moring said...

I am also "dismayed" that sites publish press releases disguised as "news" or as their own content. I don't think that the mere *practice* of running a press release is incorrect, as long as it's clearly identified as such. But when it's presented as "our" content, that's lame. (Also, I don't want to read too much into it, but Jeffrey referred to such examples as "Christian music sites," and not as "the Christian press." And usually, there IS a difference. There are a lot of "music sites" -- Christian and otherwise -- out there that hardly qualify as "the press," but are more just promotional/fanboy stuff.)

As for earlier posts, it looks like Jeffrey and Andy are trying really hard to "prove" a point that I thought, based on one of Andy's earlier postings, was dead.

Jeffrey has pointed to three "reviews" from the "Christian press" that are, as Andy puts it, "salivating" over Lang's new album. And Andy has pointed to two "reviews" (I'm using the word in quotes intentionally) that are "much more restrained," as he puts it.

Of course, both Jeffrey and Andy seem to be working from the assumption that if *anybody* in the Christian press likes the album, it *must* be primarily, if not solely, because Lang is now "one of us" and singing about Jesus. Neither seems open the possibility that a member of the Christian media is lauding the album for *other* reasons. They just both seem keen to prove Andy's original point -- which Andy has since said was unfounded, after all.

Let's take a closer look at each "review" cited:

Jeffrey linked to one at "infuzemag.com," but did not quote it (presumably because nothing in the review supported the "case" against Lang). That particular review made a lot of *observations* about the album, but didn't really get into any *assessments* until the last paragraph, which reads in part:

". . . the discriminating music listener who likes to see growth, progression, and innovation for an artist will also have some things to be happy about here with Lang's new touches of soul and R&B. With the album poised to release in both mainstream and Christian markets, let's cross our fingers and hope that Lang continues to produce quality music with a stellar message."

OK, so infuze says the discriminating listener will appreciate Lang's new touches of soul and R&B. Nothing there about "this is great because he's now a Christian." The next sentence says "let's cross our fingers that Lang continues to produce quality music with a stellar message." It does NOT say it's "quality" music BECAUSE of a "stellar message" -- or because Lang had a dramatic conversion, which isn't even mentioned in this review. One could just as easily say, "Let's cross our fingers that Cockburn (or Springsteen or whomever) continues to produce quality music with a stellar message." If that was written about one of those albums, none of us would blink. But because it's written about Lang's album, the red flags are flying. Huh??

So, the infuze review does not support the original premise.

Jeffrey also linked to a CCM review, which he also didn't quote, presumably because it also doesn't support the premise. Unfortunately, CCM doesn't give the full review (or the accompanying letter grade) in this online teaser, so we'll have to wait for the print edition to see the total verdict. But in this particular posting from CCM, there's nary a word about them liking the album merely because Lang is a Christian. CCM writes:

"Beyond Lang's broadening as a guitarist, and, perhaps, more crucial to this record, is his emergence as a convincing and multi-faceted singer. He covers an enormous amount of territory on this record; his voice bends, stretches, whispers, growls and soars with a conviction that leaps out of the speakers. Stripped down ballads “Only a Man,” “Last Goodbye” and “That Great Day” lay bare the hushed emotion of Lang’s voice with a vulnerability that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago hearing the bombastic hit “Lie to Me.” "

That all reads like a straightforward assessment of the music and his vocal quality. Doesn't matter if you agree with their assessment or not. The point is that there's nothing there about, "This is great because Jonny is now one of us."

So, the CCM review (at least the part they've printed here) does not support the original premise.

Now, on to Jeffrey's third link, which he *does* quote, presumably because he thinks those quotes support the premise -- and indeed, they come closer than anything else cited. But even then, it's interesting that this particular "review" includes these words, "But even without the spiritual connections, you'd be hard pressed not to thoroughly dig this extraordinary album from an artist who seems to have found the groove he was made for." Why did they go out of their way to say they like this album regardless of the spiritual content? Are they lying? Have they been "suckered" by Lang's "dramatic conversion," as Andy might say?

But more importantly, this particular review is from Suite101.com, which is definitely not "Christian press." It's a self-described "eclectic online magazine" that delves into topics from music (all types) to science to technology to home & garden to food & drink to business & finance. They're similar to "about.com" in that regard -- just a hodgepodge of a little of everything. Definitely not a publication from "the Christian press."

On to the two "reviews" to which Andy linked . . .

I put "reviews" in quotes because one of them -- at allmusic.com -- doesn't review the album at all, but only gives it a rating of 3 stars (out of 5). That's not a "review." That's merely a rating -- and we have no idea their reasons for it.

The other is at amazon.com, and it is indeed "more restrained," noting both positives and negatives about the album. But really, when a new album comes out from *anyone,* how many of us who love music say, "I can't wait to see what AMAZON says about it!" It's not very high on my list, anyway. But it "supports" the initial premise that the mainstream isn't as wowed by this album as the "Christian press," so I presume that's why it was noted.

Meanwhile, it's interesting that neither Jeffrey nor Andy noted any mainstream/secular media reviews that just happen to be "salivating" (Andy's word) over Lang's new album -- and I don't think it's because it's "Christian":

Jazzreview.com says:
"There are 13 delicious blues, neo-soul and good ol' gospel songs on this splendid album. Singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso Jonny Lang was a childhood wonder kid. Early in his teenage years, he was sharing the stage with Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Lang's debut CD Lie To Me, which was released when he was 15, went platinum. The next year, Wander This World was released and it too went platinum. It won't be long before Turn Around joins those two albums in that stellar class."
(http://www.jazzreview.com/cd/review-18130.html)

The Atlantic City Weekly writes:
"The overly polished production that homogenized Long Time Coming is gone. Producers Ron Fair, Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders achieve a much more organic sound that compliments Lang's gritty style perfectly. Even the most obviously commercial track on the album, an acoustic ballad called “My Love Remains,” bounces along with a fresh, honest energy.

"With a collection of songs that allows Lang to revisit his roots, Turn Around proves that the line between gospel and blues is very thin indeed. Long-time fans will delight as Lang's guitar burns sonic holes in the atmosphere on funky tracks like “The Other Side of the Fence” and “Don't Stop (For Anything).”

"While Lang's guitar playing sounds more confident than ever, his vocal performance, which runs the gamut from a sweet falsetto to a throaty growl, is a revelation. He credits producers Ramsey and Sanders for his performance."
(http://www.acweekly.com/view.php?id=4972)

We'll probably have to wait till next week, when the album officially releases, to read reviews from Billboard, Rolling Stone, and other biggies. It'll be interesting to hear what the big boys say.

But what if it comes to this: What if, in the end, the Christian press in general likes Lang's new album better than the mainstream press? The only thing that proves is that the Christian press likes it better than the mainstream press. It doesn't prove *why.* We can speculate all we want, but until anybody in the Christian media comes out and says this is a great album BECAUSE Lang is now a Christian, it's still just that -- merely speculation.

I *thought* this discussion had ended a few posts ago when Andy acknowledged that indeed he had over-generalized in his initial posting. Andy wrote, in response to my post, "I'm guilty of generalizations and probably reading more into the conversion stories than is warranted. And I appreciate your comments that have called me on that. Mmmmm. Crow doesn't taste all that bad, you know?"

So what's the point of all this? Why am I investing time in stirring things up here? Simple: I just want people (including myself) to be able look past their (and my own) biases and expectations and be able to see things for what they REALLY are.

Andy, Jeffrey and I all agree on the overall point that some of the Christian press lacks objectivity and tends to gush in their reviews, often judging the person more than the music. ("But he's singing for God's glory, and that's all that matters." Not.) All to say, that general point is not what this is all about, because we're all agreed on it: Some of the Christian media is lacking in, shall we say, critical analysis skills. (Of course, so is some of the secular media, but that's a whole 'nother discussion.)

Anyway, that's not why I kept coming back to this forum. I kept coming back over the *specific* allegation that "reviews" in the "Christian press" were drooling over Lang primarily because he's now a Christian, and not because they made a critical analysis of the music itself. I just don't see the examples that support that. If we all dig enough, once all the reviews are posted, we will likely be able to find an example that *might* hint at that notion. But until/unless we find that many or most of the Christian press is "salivating" over Lang's new album simply because he's a believer, I think that initial assertion needs to bite the dust. Andy had essentially said as much several postings ago. But now Jeffrey is trying to bring up some "see-I-told-you-so" examples that don't really told you so after all. And Andy has added a couple of his own.

And now I've analyzed their examples -- they don't prove the initial point after all -- and added a couple more from the mainstream that say the album rocks.

So, can we just all agree that the initial premise is dead -- that Christians are drooling over the album only because Lang is a Christian? Can we let that die?

We'll see . . .

mm

Andy Whitman said...

Mark wrote:

"The next sentence says "let's cross our fingers that Lang continues to produce quality music with a stellar message." It does NOT say it's "quality" music BECAUSE of a "stellar message" -- or because Lang had a dramatic conversion, which isn't even mentioned in this review. One could just as easily say, "Let's cross our fingers that Cockburn (or Springsteen or whomever) continues to produce quality music with a stellar message." If that was written about one of those albums, none of us would blink. But because it's written about Lang's album, the red flags are flying. Huh??"

Yep. Sentences like that raise red flags for me. You know why? Because I am automatically suspicous of reviews that trumpet "the message," whatever that message may be. I am not particularly interested in music with a message, usually because the message overwhelms the art, and frequently transforms itself into propaganda, which is the antithesis of art. It's true of much Christian music. It's true of Steve Earle's hamfisted protest songs. It's true of some of Bruce Cockburn's political anthems, where he loses all sense of the grace and mystery that pervades much of his Christian writing and rams his leftist views down our throats. I love Bruce Cockburn, but he's recorded some dreadful songs because he loses sight of art and raises his voice in service to "the message."

So yes, I'm not impressed by Christian reviews that focus on the message.

I've now read about ten reviews, all from Christian sources, that have quoted approvingly from the lyrics to "Only a Man," a song that appears on "Turn Around." Here are some of those lyrics:

"I grew up singing songs in church, with questions in my mind
And turned my back and ran away, from God who gave me life
Then one night his presence fell,
I wept and shook and then I fell down and cried "Dear Jesus rescue me again, I understand,
I am only a man"

One review refers to the "profound intimacy" of these lyrics. Another refers to the song's "deeply personal lyrical depth." Sorry, but I don't think these are very good lyrics, although they certainly communicate a message. From a Hallmark standpoint, they're lame. He rhymes "mind" and "life." He rhymes "fell" and "fell." Hell, what happened to "well" and "sell"? He could have even gone with "muscatel" to tie in his former reprobate life. Jonny needs to invest in a good rhyming dictionary, because what he's given us is lousy writing.

And this, to me, is evidence that some Christian music sites (I won't say "press") are blinded by the message, and are willing to overlook the aesthetic elements of the music that should not be overlooked.

And it also explains why that review at amazon.com (which, I submit, may be more familiar to readers than, say, The Atlantic City Weekly) refers to "heavy-handed lyrics." It sure looks that way to me. The allmusic.com review I linked to (which was there yesterday; I don't know why it's not there now) was written by Thom Jurek. Thom is a Christian, and he gave the album a mediocre review. I know him as a fair and insightful writer, and I've read his reviews for many years, so I suppose I'm more likely to trust his judgment. But it certainly bothers me that Christian music sites are essentially reprinting a breathless press release and treating it as an album review. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're simply naive, and don't know that publicists are paid to make their clients look good.

But it's the kind of evidence I've been talking about, Mark. For whatever reasons, there is a tendency for some Christian writers to throw objectivity and critical judgment out the window when writing about new, famous musical converts to the faith.

Note that I'm certainly not accusing you of doing that, and I've appreciated your many helpful comments and criticisms in this thread. I believe you when you state that you evaulate the music on its own merits. But I don't think that's true for all of your colleagues. Unfortunately, I see plenty of evidence that suggests to me that the message trumps every other consideration.

danthress said...

Have any of you listened to this record yet? If not, how can you offer your opinion? Based on some other reviews words?

I've watched this thread and post like a car wreck. I'm sure there are some valid points in here but it comes off like a christian music critic dick swinging contest.

Some words of advice:

1. Don't take yourself too seriously.

2. Is there anything on this thread that you wouldn't want Jonny Lang to read? If so, why don't you delete it.

Andy Whitman said...

"Have any of you listened to this record yet? If not, how can you offer your opinion? Based on some other reviews words?"

Because this thread is not about Jonny Lang's album, but about the way Christian critics write reviews.

"1. Don't take yourself too seriously."

Thanks. Okay.

2. Is there anything on this thread that you wouldn't want Jonny Lang to read?"

No.

"If so, why don't you delete it."

Why?

I'm not with you at all on this one, Dan.

danthress said...

Ok, got it, Lang is just the whipping boy. And hey, what's a little colaterial damage when there are points to be made.

Andy Whitman said...

Again, Dan, I think you're way off on this one. I don't mean to be rude, but if it bothers you so much, feel free not to read. But my conscience is clear, I think this has been a good and valuable discussion, and I'm not at all sorry that it's happened.

mark moring said...

I agree with Andy: Lang is not the whipping boy here. It's just that his album -- and, to a degree, his conversion -- has sparked this conversation. I don't think anything has been posted here that I would mind Lang reading.

I don't know if Andy or Jeffrey has heard the album. I have heard it, and I like it . . . but I'm not a music critic. I'm the editor of a publication, and I hire good critics -- including Jeffrey, who is one of our regular writers at Christianity Today Movies. I think Jeffrey is one of the best critics in the business. And though I'm not as familiar with Andy's work, Jeffrey tells me that Andy is one of the best too -- and if Jeffrey says so, that's good enough for me.

The three of us -- Andy, Jeffrey and I -- are really on the same page on 99% of the big issues here.

I appreciate what Andy said a couple posts ago when he said he's read some stuff on Christian music *sites,* and adding, "I won't say press." Amen to that. And that's a big part of this discussion, I think. A Christian music *site* is not necessarily the Christian music *press.* There are plenty of sites out there -- Christian *and* secular -- who pretend to write legit reviews. There's no reason for any of us to be bothered by what Joe Shmoe blogger says on his fanboy site. Let's try to keep the criticisms to legitimate Christian press.

Andy makes some good points about lyrics: Just because God did something powerful in Lang's life and he's now writing about it does NOT make it a great lyric -- but as Andy noted, some folks (some of them merely "sites," and perhaps some are "press") are singling out those lyrics as especially powerful. I agree with Andy: Perhaps Lang's conversion *experience* was powerful for him, but that doesn't necessarily make the lyrics powerful. Amen to that.

Andy also wrote, "I am not particularly interested in music with a message, usually because the message overwhelms the art, and frequently transforms itself into propaganda, which is the antithesis of art."

I'm pretty sure I know what you're saying, because I've seen plenty of examples of that, in mainstream and in Christian music (the praise-and-worship movement, anyone?). But I wouldn't go so far as to say, "I am not particularly interested in music with a message." Depending on how we define "message," one could argue that MOST music has a message.

First, let's remember that it was just one particular reviewer who said Lang's new album packed a "message." That was the reviewer's opinion, but it doesn't mean the reviewer was *right,* or even that that was Lang's intent.

But anyway, back to the definition of "message." If by that we mean, "I, the artist, am writing a song with an agenda, with the intent of changing you, the listener," then I agree, that *can* be problematic. However, if by "message" we mean, "I, the artist, am passionate about something, and I want to write a song that communicates that," then there's nothing wrong with a song with a "message" -- i.e., a song that is communicating what the artist means to communicate. Music has been full of messages for hundreds of years. When Bach wrote "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," he obviously meant to communicate that Jesus was important not only to him, but to mankind. Is anybody ripping on Bach for that message? Is anybody ripping on the Wesleys or Fanny Crosby or Martin Luther for writing great hymns?

Taking it a step further, I seem to recall a few rock songs through the years that had messages. "I wanna hold your hand/get laid/get high/get stoned/get drunk/get rich/get whatever." Are those songs with a "message"? Again, depends on how you define it.

Hip-hop/rap is often criticized for "sending the wrong message" to society -- that it's all about the bling and the ho's and bitches, that's it's too misogynous, etc. If hip-hop is sending a "message," does that make it all bad?

My aim here is not to defend Lang, but to keep us all (including me) on our toes in our assessments of music. If a Christian sings about what matters to him/her, I don't see how that's much different than *anybody* singing about what matters to him/her. What matters, are they doing it well, musically and lyrically. If they're not doing it well, I don't care how important the cause or how passionate they are -- the poor quality should be criticized. Amen.

I just saw Bonnie Raitt interviewed on CNN. I missed part of the interview, but she was talking about a benefit concert for breast cancer, and how she's lost some friends (maybe her mom? I missed that part) to the illness. She said she's written some songs about it, and that she wants to "get the word out" and "increase awareness" about breast cancer, to get more people to contribute to cancer research. That's clearly "message" stuff. Is that wrong? Even if she writes a great song about it?

I recently led a missions trip to Africa as part of our church's AIDS ministry. We worked closely with people who are dying of AIDS, we worked on a hospital, we saw the "global crisis" up close and personal. It was gut-wrenching, life-changing. But you know what started it all, my passion for making a difference in the HIV/AIDS pandemic? Bono. He said some things -- yes, even in songs -- that had a message: Get off your asses and do something about this. Between Bono's "message" and Scripture's exhortations to care for the "orphan and the widow," that's exactly what I did, and I am very involved in the fight. And a musician --and music -- with a "message" was a huge part of that.

So I'm reluctant to "shoot the messenger," and just make a blanket statement that "message" music is all bad. I know what Andy's saying -- "agenda" can, and sometimes does, outweigh art, and that's a problem -- but it's not quite so cut-and-dried.

Finally, a personal note for Jeffrey and Andy, but I don't mind if others read it. A lot of people read the things we write. Our readers consider us the "experts" who know our business, and we all need to take that responsibility seriously. So, when any of us criticize something, a bunch of our readers are certainly thinking, "Yeah, man, tell it like it is!" Or, "If Andy/Jeffrey/Mark wrote it, it must be true." And so on. So, when one or more of us criticizes "the Christian press" in general, or makes some specific allegations about "Christian press" reactions to Lang's new album (allegations that Andy has admitted were premature, but they *may* come to fruition in the next few days, as more reviews post -- but we need to watch the secular reviews too, because if they're digging the new album, it weakens the argument *a bit*), readers listen. (How was THAT for a run-on sentence?) Many readers assume it's *true.* It's my experience that readers don't generally tend to "fact-check." If I write something, they take my word for it. Same for you guys. So, when any of us criticize "the Christian press" in general, readers buy it. And here I am, a member of "the Christian press," and I'm thinking, "Hold on a sec. There ARE some of us who are doing it right." I know you guys have said that all along, but again, the readers' tendency is to take a general statement and run with it. You say "most" of the Christian press, the reader often walks away thinking "all" of the Christian press. You know it's true.

You both know how readers can take anything we say and run with it -- often way off the mark. At Christianity Today Movies, for example, we gave positive reviews to "Brokeback Mountain" and to "Vera Drake," and we were inundated with e-mails, saying that we can't be "Christian" because we're "endorsing" homosexuality ("Brokeback") and abortion ("Drake"). Many readers didn't hesitate to tell us we were going to hell.

Now, it's easy to discount *those* readers, because they're obviously not thinking clearly (or for themselves). But the point is this: Readers take what we say and run with it, even to extremes. If one of us says the Christian press is drooling all over Lang's new album solely because he's now one of us, the readers will assume it's fact -- and most won't check up on it for themselves.

That's all I'm saying. As *legitimate* members of the media, all three of us need to be careful about what we say, because readers assume it's the, ahem, gospel truth.

On another note, I want to back up to something Andy said a few posts ago: I totally agree with Andy that Jeffrey Overstreet's Looking Closer website rocks. I have learned much from Jeffrey in working with him for the last few years. I love the way he looks at art, picking it apart, and finding, as his website motto states, "beauty and meaning in the arts." I don't think there are many Christian writers/journalists who do that better than Jeffrey, and I'm dang proud that he's on our team at ChristianityTodayMovies.com. He rocks. Read his work, and be edified -- and that includes his new book coming in a few months.

Finally, I'm glad I dove into this discussion. It's been helpful and stimulating for my own thinking, as I hope it has been for Andy and Jeffrey and everybody who's reading it. It's been uncomfortable at times (as one recent comment noted), but discomfort keeps us on our toes. We are three of the "good" journalists -- none of us is "the enemy"! -- so it's been especially fun to have this conversation with some of the good guys, guys who are doing it right. Kudos to you all, and keep up the good work.

And for those who were unfamiliar with our websites before I jumped in, I invite you to come check us out:

ChristianityTodayMovies.com
ChristianMusicToday.com

peace,

mm

Anonymous said...
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Dale Enns said...

Thanks for the great read, guys, about Lang's record and "Christian" music criticism. This site does not indicate the exact dates of posted comments (are you able to fix this, Andy?), so I don't know if this thread has now been completely exhausted, but I expect this issue will come up again and again at this site in later discussions.

I am also a fan of artists who happen to have a more Christian worldview, such as T Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips, Cockburn, Over the Rhine, VOL/Bill Mallonee, Innocence Mission, but I will always be uncomfortable with those who identify themselves as "Christian artists" because to me there is usually one agenda in mind for these artists, and that is Christian ministry (spreading the gospel, etc...) which, to me, compromises their artistic integrity (or at least makes them a little too "one note" for me).

From Moring's list of "Christian" artists, I would have to say that Carolyn Arends is underwhelming. I find her music too "CCM". Certainly, she would not fit in with the above list of artists at a music festival, as I discovered at one of these events. I also think her moment in the sun has passed.

With regard to Johnny Lang, what about the obsession with lauding WHITE blues artists, while African-American talents are barely noticed? The problem seems to be more race-based than Christian versus non-Christian. Lang was a curiosity because he was an upstart white, 15 year old who sounded much older, but, really, the music, even then, wasn't that remarkable.