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Salt or Sugar?

As contemporary Christian music enjoys enormous success, some Christian artists believe the genre depends too much on marketing tests and pop formulas and not enough on a biblical worldview.

in Nashville - Tagged with multicolored name badges, contemporary Christian music (CCM) heavyweights descended upon downtown Nashville last month for the Gospel Music Association's (GMA) annual week-long marketing cakewalk. The frosting came on April 20 as a sold-out Grand Ole Opry House hosted the 31st Dove Awards, CCM's version of the Grammys. It was a sweet night for the $500 million genre that bases its entire marketing strategy on an adjective-Christian-instead of a distinctive sound or style like jazz, rock, or country. Some old-timers reminisced about the first Dove Awards in1969, when reigning gospel king and queen Bill Gaither and Vestal Goodman swept up the first Dove Awards. At this year's ceremony, purple hair, platform shoes, and snakeskin vinyl overshadowed Southern Gospel Sunday suits and Ms. Goodman's brown bubble hair. "We are here to honor some of the men and women who have made gospel and contemporary Christian music relevant today," announced the evening's much-touted host, Kathie Lee Gifford. "They are speaking the language of this generation." But what is this language? Some leading CCM artists are concerned that a decaying base lies beneath the glittering pedestal CCM has built, and that the pedestal may be composed of marketing tests and pop formulas instead of a biblical worldview. "CCM has made itself irrelevant in many ways because of its lack of a foundation," said singer-songwriter Wes King, who took the stage later that evening with Michael W. Smith to accept the song-of-the-year award for "This is Your Time" (co-written by both in honor of Columbine victim Cassie Bernall). If such a comment seems odd coming from a CCM artist, consider Mr. King's disturbing induction into the CCM big leagues after garnering five Dove nominations for his album, The Robe. "When I got nominated and sold a fair amount of records, everybody started going, 'Okay, let's groom this guy,'" he told WORLD. "I found myself going to this lesbian atheist who was going to tell me how to talk in interviews." Mr. King ditched CCM's finishing school after his coach instructed him to use terms like "my faith" instead of "Jesus" and "dysfunction" instead of "sin." "They wanted to extract anything and everything about my faith that was offensive," said Mr. King, who has since also ditched his record label. "But Jesus went around offending everybody." Mr. King isn't alone. In interviews with WORLD, more than a dozen CCM artists openly worried that the CCM culture forces musicians into a bland, one-dimensional niche. Songs about dealing with sin or real-life hardships, it seems, don't pass Coca-Cola popularity tests. Take "The Edge," a song Michael Card wrote about the suicidal tendencies he struggled with as a college student. "It took me four or five years of processing to finally write a song about it," Mr. Card explained. But marketing executives were terrified the song would destroy his Bible-scholar image. He recalls them saying, "People do not want to perceive that Michael Card struggled with suicide. This is bad for your career." Finally, Sparrow Records struck a compromise with Mr. Card, allowing him to include the song as long as he included another one immediately after it about hope. Mr. Card dutifully extracted the appropriate Scripture verses, put them to lyrics, and titled it "Hope." "And now I hate that song," he concluded. Mr. Card's latest project is an album, distributed by Word, based on the book of Hebrews. "One of the marketing people said, 'Is there any way we can do this so people don't know it's about Hebrews?'" he recalled. "That's the kind of thing I have battled for the last 20 years." Michael W. Smith, one of the highest-profile CCM artists over the last two decades, says the CCM attitude exerts a chilling effect on artists. "I think that artists don't know it but are probably pressured to write things that are going to work in our marketplace," he told WORLD. Dressed head-to-toe in a shiny blue running outfit, Mr. Smith took hurried gulps of bottled water as he conducted interviews for two hours in the GMA convention hotel. "To the record companies I would say, let these people be artists," he said. "I've watched record companies come in and say, we're going to mold you into this thing. We're going to sell a million records.... I've seen this and I cringe." But the record companies say that they have to sell records to make money, and the problem is that songs about the challenging parts of Scripture or the challenges of life aren't always good business. So instead, CCM leaders are striving to make "Christian" synonymous with positive. Indeed, "positive" is the latest mantra sung by CCM retailers seeking a definable marketing niche in mainstream society. The word was everywhere at the GMA convention, which looked like a sea of conservatively dressed retailers with islands of spike-haired artists. The Nashville convention halls were littered with radio booths advertising "positive hits," "positive talk," and music "safe for the whole family." Secular companies that own CCM record labels are only too happy to reinforce the slogan. "Just look at the mainstream companies," said Hugh Robertson, formerly in charge of mainstream marketing for the Sparrow label. "You've got some of the most negative things that anybody has ever created art or pop wise. Maybe on some level they like to balance it with something positive." Wearing spiffy black-frame shaded glasses and a checked shirt, Mr. Robertson made clear that the bottom-line figures into the common CCM reluctance to take up some difficult themes. "Look, you've got a record company here whose job it is to sell records," he said. "This isn't like a judgment call or a values call. If a song about suicide is unpopular, that's not the record company's fault." Christian radio stations feel the same pressures. With all of the trash on the radio nowadays, many see their role as offering a wholesome alternative. They want to be stations parents can listen to with their children without having "to reach over to the radio dial in a moment of panic wondering what the guy on the air is going to say," said Frank Reed, program director for 100.7 KLTY in Dallas, the nation's largest for-profit Christian station. "We are ratings driven," he added. "If we are not successful from a ratings standpoint, we are out of business." But while trying to reach a mass audience, CCM also tries to maintain its niche. Responding to a public backlash after Bob Carlisle's 1997 hit "Butterfly Kisses" became gospel song of the year even though it didn't have any gospel in it, GMA officials in 1998 crafted a complicated definition of Christian music. Lyrics had to be "substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible," or "an expression of worship of God or praise for His works," or "testimony of relationship with God through Christ," or "obviously prompted and informed by a Christian worldview." The next year, though, Sixpence None the Richer threw an unexpected wrench into the GMA formula with its smash hit, "Kiss Me." GMA officials didn't consider the song Dove-worthy because it didn't fit their definition of gospel music, even as lead singer Leigh Nash promoted C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity on the David Letterman show. Michael W. Smith's best-selling single, "Love Me Good," and Wes King's "Thought You'd Be Here"-a song describing the heartbreak of infertility-were also disqualified. GMA officials then edited their formula to include songs "apparently prompted and informed by a Christian worldview." Welcome to the Christian Music Conundrum-the continuing saga of an industry trapped between its desire to infiltrate the mainstream culture and its need to protect a marketing niche. Songs must be distinctively Christian enough to be within the niche, but not so focused on the hard truths of Scripture that they alienate mainstream listeners. Those who want clarity are pulling this genre in opposite directions. On one side are those calling for a return to Christian music as a ministry. "I never thought that in my lifetime I'd be facing this within our own industry, and it really is a heartbreak," said Steve Camp, whose 17-year recording career with Word and Sparrow ended in disillusionment in 1995. Two years later, Mr. Camp raised industry ire by distributing 107 theses accusing the industry of being "unequally yoked" with secular companies. "Come away from the current industry model like Abraham venturing out into the wilderness with only the promise of God as his surety," urges Thesis 107. "Begin to build authentic Christian Music Ministry again." Similarly, former Word president Stan Moser shocked industry insiders by resigning in 1995 and later forming Ministry Music, a record label devoted entirely to worship and evangelical-oriented lyrics. "I put together a deal with A&M Records and now feel that, in some ways, we created a monster," Mr. Moser said in a 1997 CCM Magazine interview shortly after he left Word. "It hasn't gotten any better," Mr. Moser told WORLD. "We sing better, dance better, and make better records, but we have done absolutely nothing to promote purpose. Our musicians come along and as we are enhancing their skills they are not being built up in biblical purpose." On the other side are those who argue that instead of making "Christian music," artists should simply be Christians who are musicians, carrying their Christian worldview into the secular arena. Delirious?, a top British Christian band, has been climbing European music charts without the help of a special Christian music category. Standing in a cramped elevator at the GMA convention, Martin Smith, the group's slender spike-haired lead vocalist, said that in the United States Christian musicians provide their music "to a market of believers who have already heard it. That was not Jesus' mission. His mission was for the whole world." Mark Joseph, whose MJM Entertainment company markets Christian artists overseas without using the CCM category, agrees: "For each believer or person of faith who has left the secular [music] world and joined the Christian world, that's one less voice for the Christian worldview." The local Wal-Mart music section provides a telling picture of an industry divided among its missions. Lavishly decorated CCM sections boast of popular female bands like Point of Grace and Avalon, while alternative Christian groups like Jars of Clay are listed obscurely under the letter "J" with the rest of the world. But a glitzy ghetto is still a ghetto, and CCM's distinctively Christian marketing efforts may be marginalizing Christians. With the convenience of definition comes the price of alienation. Secular record companies now relegate Christian Grammy winners to a before-prime-time category. And the Dove ceremony itself was a mere blip on the national media radar screen, with only brief coverage on television and in newspapers. If the best way out of a hole is to stop digging, the problem for CCM is that it's not in many people's interest to put away this particular shovel. As the nation's 5th largest music category, CCM is a $500 million industry averaging 18 percent growth each year since 1996. Eager for a growing piece of the marketing niche pie, secular media companies like Gaylord Entertainment and EMI swallowed up more than 90 percent of Christian recording labels in the 1990s. In his book, The Rock & Rebellion, Mr. Joseph compares CCM to the 1930s-era Negro baseball leagues: "For those in power it was a most comfortable arrangement. Major League Baseball remained all-white, and the Negro league owners made lots of money. The losers were the fans and the African-American players, who wanted to be known simply as baseball players." CCM leaders have attempted to have it both ways: They've created a successful industry that is trying to win mainstream appeal. But the danger for CCM is that it could be headed for the worst of all possible worlds: A Christian ghetto watering down the gospel in order to be positive, and a secular marketplace devoid of Christians.

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman

Candi is a former WORLD correspondent.