Tales From Christian Music III: The Christian Weird Al & Good Charlotte

There are Christian versions of every band. I previously discussed this, but in order to understand the subculture of Evangelicalism that was Christian music you must understand this point. Some are obvious– of course kids who grew up listening to Linkin Park are gonna make their own versions of the band from a Christian perspective and of course Christian labels (some of which are owned by large mainstream companies) are going to try to profit off of any trend (including boy bands).

One of the strangest Christian versions out there though was the Christian Weird Al. Yes there was a band whose purpose was to create parody songs, but rather than turning them into strange comedic bits, they Jesus-fied them. Instead of ripping off a band’s style, why not straight up rip off the song and change the lyrics to make them safe for the whole family? The band was called ApologetiX (a play on the Christian practice of apologetics: essentially a look into the reasons why Christianity is viable and defensible logically).

To their credit, they have been around since 1992, and contain some self-awareness (in their song “We’re in a Parody Band” they admit to being “[part] Weird Al…[part] Billy Graham”). Yet the whole thing feels anomalous–even those deeply entrenched in 90s Christian culture might be a bit embarrassed by their existence.

Yet as a kid that didn’t have a whole lot of access to popular culture, it was easy to latch onto these songs. They were an entry point into songs that were essential to surviving in the world. I couldn’t listen to Kid Rock (this was probably a blessing in disguise) but I could listen to the ApologetiX version of “Cowboy” called “Choir Boy”; this literally became a talking point for me one baseball practice. “The Real Slim Shady” was a pretty explicit song, but “The Real Sin Savior” sanitizes it, opening with the lyrics: May I have your repentance please? Will you tell Him ‘Save me’ and please stand up?. That’s like listening to Eminem without having to feel guilty–really the best of both worlds.

Cut to 2003, my musical tastes had begun to take off a little bit. Pop-punk was starting to hit the mainstream and I had discovered MxPx, Relient K, and Slick Shoes inside of Christian music stores, while hearing Blink-182, Yellowcard, and Simple Plan on the radio. My counter-cultural consciousness was rising and the anti-everything spirit of punk rock had developed in me. At the time Good Charlotte had a hit song called “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous”. It criticized celebrity-dom, talking about their shallow complaints and decrying the inequity of a world where celebs leverage their wealth and fame to avoid the consequences of the terrible deeds they commit. This song resonated with me, pointing out the injustice of the world, and exposing the fraudulence of fame.

Then I entered into a Christian book store–one of my favorite places to go growing up because of the vast amount of music and books they had there, all of which were safe for me to consume. In these stores they used to have sample CDs that were already open and you could take to CD players to see if you wanted to purchase it. I saw that ApologetiX had an album and I wanted to check it out. On the album they parodied Eminem, Jimmy Eat World, and yes Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles…”. The parody version was called “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Nameless” and is a pretty straight forward telling of a parable that Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. The rich man suffers because of his lack of generosity and ApologetiX uses the parable to say that earthly wealth makes no difference to God.

The themes sort of align with the original, but the band uses these ideas to quote a lot of Scripture rather than to really hammer the point home. I stood there confused as to why they felt the need to parody that song. Didn’t the themes of injustice and the anger at celebrity worship already align with the stories in the Bible? This wasn’t taking some shallow love song or explicit rap verse and changing it to include Christian theology. It wasn’t even sanitizing the song, it was just taking it and adding Bible verses to it in order to present it to a particular market. That’s when I began to see the band, the store, and the culture for what it was–a place scared of ideas, scared of a world outside of certain boxes, scared of things that didn’t reference the Bible. It wasn’t about combating the prejudices of the world that allow the “rich and the famous” to reign, it was about separating oneself from an outside culture. Sacred spaces were built to the exclusion of others, censorship was enacted for the sake of censorship. Outside ideas could be accepted only as long as we could attach a Bible verse to them.

I had always seen these ideas of separatism as generally good. Even if they were consistently embarrassing, I’d rather be ‘not of this world’ in order to hold to ideals that were true (there’s something secretly punk about that) than go along with a hedonistic culture. But what I saw that day is that the lines were arbitrary. I saw the other side and they looked an awful lot like me. There was a false safety in the confines of the Christian book store and that day it exposed itself, laying bare a larger world. I could accept a separation from the world for the sake of truth and better living, but the censorship that existed was not for this reason. I can’t even be sure of the exact reasons they tried to Jesus-fy the world so that culture at large was erased–most cynically one could accuse the Christian music world of trying to make money off of naive youth or maybe they themselves were seeking out the safety that comes from having a side in a grand US VS THEM narrative–it’s hard to tell and to squarely place blame.

That day, like Neo with the pills in The Matrix, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, I experienced something transcendent. The most perverse part of it all is that it’s all due to a cheesy Good Charlotte song.

Christian Music Tales II: Transcendant Nothing

We used to hang out at this place called The Underground Cafe all the time. It was a music venue located at a church in the suburbs of Sacramento, a ministry for the church to attract youth and attract them it did.

My teenage years saw me slowly listening to faster and heavier music, my parents would only let me listen to Christian bands, luckily there was a plethora of record labels to choose from–Tooth and Nail, Solid State, Facedown, Mono vs. Stereo, Flicker, Floodgate–all Christian based alternative music producers. I soon discovered that all these bands I loved would tour locally and my town was surprisingly a hit place to come–The Underground one of the most featured venues.

The Underground experiment was actually pretty successful, as far as being hip goes (not sure how effective of a ministry it was). Black adorned teens with swooping hair cuts formed long lines waiting to get into shows, several dozens showing up just to hang out on a daily basis. This suburb church actually turned into such a mish-mash of counter culture that my parents were reluctant to let me go to shows on a continuous basis.

Waking Ashland, a piano driven pop-rock Tooth and Nail signed outfit was playing one weekend (everyone click on that link, it will take you to a PureVolume page). I decided to go, though I wasn’t the biggest fan of the band, my friends were going though so I chose to (this one perhaps?)

Again it was a battle between my parents to let me go, but the band was positive enough, supposedly Christian (we can talk about this more on another future post) and so I went. My friend’s mom was going to pick us up at the end–we didn’t have our licenses yet.

The show was amazing, Waking Ashland and the supporting bands that played before them were all great and I had a really good time. In my memory I remember them playing a song and it being absolutely beautiful. I closed my eyes in a moment of transcendence–even worship. Their songs, even if not explicitly religious, had taken me to a spiritual level.

When the show ended, we left, my friend realizing he had missed a bunch of calls from his mom who had been waiting outside. It went a little later than expected and she was not happy. Apparently as she sat there, sitting in the church parking lot she had witnessed kids doing things that she did not like. The kids who always hung out outside The Underground were notorious for smoking, drinking, and cursing and she had seen that and maybe more (I never got the full story).

Not only was she mad, but she had told my parents what she saw and when I got home, we had a long discussion about all of it. Near-accusatory marks were made about the church, my friends, and me. There was a lot of pain and questioning on both sides, my parents wondering what I had gotten myself into and me wondering why they didn’t trust me.

But I think the confusion rose beyond that for me. Here I was feeling as if I had had this amazing spiritual and Godly moment only to have it crushed down in talk about curfew, wrong and right, and that type of music. I was experiencing something good, without leaving the confines of conservative doctrine (at least personally) and all of that was thrown under the bus.

I desired the honesty and authenticity that the lyrics of those in the Christian alternative music scene brought. The music was fun and aggressive, but fairly positive and conservative in worldview, at least comparatively. It meant a lot to me to be able to share in those moments of emotion, while still coming around to an ultimate belief about truth and God and life. Yet somehow in all of the structures of fundamentalism and “Growing Kids God’s Way” and “safe for the whole family” there wasn’t enough space to allow for this to exist. The lines were blurred, questioning if safety was the greatest value to come out of the faith and what exactly was God’s way.

This Christian alternative scene that I found myself a part of pushed back against these norms–at least for certain pieces of time in certain people’s lives–finding themselves caught between the expectations of a clean Christianity and a larger desire to follow God. I don’t think that either side really ended up okay and the struggle between both sides really was a bloodbath, damaging those–who, like me–found themselves looking heavenward only to have it flipped upside down in moments of fear.

Christian Music Tales I: The Failure of Fun

My youth group (for the unchurched among you: a group at church consisting of either Jr. Highers or High School kids) loved the song “Sadie Hawkins Dance” by Relient K. Relient K was a band that made its living creating tongue-in-cheek (they literally had an album called The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek) pop-punk tinged songs. They were signed to TobyMac‘s label and had songs about mood rings, waking up too late, and Jesus. They were a part of the Christian music scene and their clean, fun, and silly songs made them a youth group fixture.

As a part of our culture we had charts that would literally lay out which non-christian (or secular) bands equated with the Christian ones. This would help to display a positive alternative to the music that was being made outside the church, filling it typically with bands that sounded like other ones but sang about Jesus.

Relient K’s comparison would have surely been Blink-182, both bands played music that was on the poppier end of punk and that focused on silliness. Blink’s songs were made to push the limit and they found themselves as a fixture of teen rebellion, songs that pushed the boundaries to what parents would let their kids listen to. Relient K’s songs were pretty much G-rated fun (though they did have a song about Marilyn Manson eating their girlfriend).

I remember we had a youth group event, it was a photo scavenger hunt where you and a team of people ran around trying to find certain things and take a picture in it. It was one of those ministry days, come have fun at church and invite all your friends–a bunch of silly fun. When we came back, they blasted music and in the playlist of course was “Sadie Hawkins Dance”. Everyone cheered and I distinctly remember this guy standing at the front of the room rocking out while making his hands into a large “o” to match the part of the song that goes “oh oh oh”. I think that was the moment I was entirely over that song, which is a semi-clever ode to the famed dance where “the girls ask the guys”. My friends and I rolled our eyes.

Now I do truly like Relient K. Sure most of the time I ever think of them is in nostalgic moments, they seem to have a large part of their song catalog actually holds up. The band itself largely continues to exist, though right before their latest album all but two members dropped out. They seem to have lost all enthusiasm for fun, silliness, and Christian music as none of their latest album really hits that tone. In fact on their latest effort they seem to have given up all together–only writing half the songs themselves.

Their evolution as a band seems to mirror the very places they helped to soundtrack. Youth group focused on craziness in an effort to give the kids what they wanted, while throwing in religious tidbits underneath it all–like trying to mask a dog’s medicine by placing it on top of a doggy treat. This wasn’t enough though–kids can sniff these things out and eventually get bored of what you are feeding them.

Most people who grew out mohawks, got tattoos, and sang along with Blink-182 in the 90s don’t really care that the band just broke up once again; they rebelled and then they moved on. Even the boys from Blink-182 tried to get more serious as their career progressed past the age of 23.

The same thing happened in youth group–we grew tired of fun and couldn’t hold onto the youthful innocence that youth group Christianity and Christian culture both promised and required of us. They wanted to share something important, but the only way they could think to do it was by mirroring the outside. They failed to consider that it was never going to sustain us. The end result was all the more tragic; Blink-182 never claimed to have all the answers, they were just in it for a good time. The church was trying to lead us into the most important aspect of all of life and they chose to give us good clean fun.