The O'Nan Family Blog

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Conformity of CCM

The other day, as I was surfing the net, I ran across something that made me really, really sad for the Christian music industry - a Contemporary Christian Music comparison chart. This webpage allows you to select genres of music (modern rock, rap, electronic, heavy, rap metal, pop rock, "Christian-y" mainstream, pop, urban, pop punk, worship, or random), view the "Christian" artists under these catagories, and then see what "secular" artist they apparently sound like. So, what you see are things like this:

Steven Curtis Chapman - compares to a mix of Cat Stevens and Toby Keith
Third Day - compares to Black Crowes or Rolling Stones
Avalon - compares to 21st Century ABBA
Delirious? - compares to a mix of U2 and Radiohead
Rebecca St. James - compares to Bjork and Garbage
and my personal favorite...
Mercy Me - compares to "If Steven Curtis Chapman sang for Vertical Horizon"

On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal, but I have several issues with the idea of having such a comparison chart:

1) The comparisons are not accurate, and the information presented in the chart is misleading. Therefore, all of the artists are misrepresented. For example, Rebecca St. James sound nothing like Bjork. In fact, I have never heard any other musician who sounds like Bjork. She has a unique sound and is extremely musically sophisticated. Therefore, it is not fair to compare a mediocre (dare I say poor?) recording artist to Bjork's work. It seems as if the "Christian" artists are attempting to "beef up" their appearance by comparing their very mediocre work to that of some amazingly talented musicians, such as Radiohead, U2, and Bjork.

2) The fact that the chart includes the genre "Christian-y" Mainstream speaks volumes. The website defines this genre as "secular bands whose lyrics reflect a Biblical worldview." Last time I checked, God is Lord of the whole earth and rules over every aspect of life on earth. He reigns over every musician and every song. Through common grace, His glory is reflected in the music of every musician or artists who exudes skill, talent, creativity, etc. I believe Christians should be highly involved in the arts for the purpose of reflecting God's glory - making music, writing poems, painting and sculpting, and participating in all types of creative acts. However, I don't believe that Christians produce Christian music, Christian poems, Christian paintings, etc. I don't believe that the only people capable of glorifying God through their art are Christians. In fact, ideally, I would like to see for the whole "Christian music/secular music" division to disappear.

3) Comparison charts like this suggest something that I fear is true of the Christian music industry. CCM artists are more concerned with trying to fit into the existing forms than in trying to create. For example, when ska music hit the Top 40 radio, the CCM industry introduced several ska bands. When punk found a resurgence at the popular music level, several "Christian" punk bands emerged. When these artists begin trying to conform to the forms that are popular in the secular world, they stop creating. And when Christians stop creating, they have stopped doing art in the way God intended. God is the Creator, and we are created in His image. Therefore, God recieves a special kind of glory when we too create. When we create, we are acting in God's image. When we submit to the forms presented by the world, we have stopped creating and have started conforming.


  • At 9:17 PM, Blogger Alex Jonathan O'Nan said…

    How right you are! I recall these charts strategically placed by the listening stations at the local Bible shop my mom would frequent when I was young. I was into De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and these charts recommend DC Talk to me... What!?! The white boys from Hickville, Tennessee being compared to my homies from Brooklyn still brings a laugh... Right on Darlin!

  • At 2:08 AM, Blogger adrian blackney said…

    I'm with you and I'm not with you.
    Great for discussion.
    My brother, Shawn, would be the perfect person for this discussion having worked on both sides of that fence. He may or may not agree with me but at any rate here are my thoughts.
    Music is music. What's good is good and what's bad is bad. The problem is most listeners don't know the difference or even care to. Laura Beth, we that do are a dying breed. There are plenty of bands that make bank and sell millions that beyond a personal preference level are simply bad, on both sides of that proverbial fence. They sell because people like them. Object lesson: Sublime, Reel Big Fish, No Doubt, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc. They develop a following and begin to sell many, many records. They are using marching band instruments and that's kind of odd but still, selling records. Now, it's ok to play band instruments and sell records (more to it I know), let's call it ska.
    A new niche has been created. Surely the market will be flooded. That's not a bad thing, it happens all the time. CCM gets a bad rap because you don't have to be as good to be successful. (Because of youth groups I think). If you aren't disciplened as an artist (if you sing for a living, you're an artist) are you destined for mediocrity? Certainly, without question. Unfortunately, there's just not as much competition producing excellence. If you like ska and you go to church and you are in the 8th grade (a very ska age for myself by the way) you're looking at Reliant K and the OC Supertones. You probably have both of their albums. You probably have everything that each has recorded. Because your mom isn't worried about you smoking pot at a show, you have probably seen them live a couple of times. This equals success and success breeds complacency (think one-hit-wonder). Complacency leads to the downward spiral. This is true in anything. The problem is, with CCM, because of loyal listeners, and fewer mean critics, the slope is not so steep.
    Does this mean you can't be good and be under a Christian label? No. It just means people may tell you you're good before you're as good as you can be and you may damn yourself by believing them.
    I don't have a problem with Christian bands reflecting the styles of other bands. Many bands sound similar, heck, they're all playing guitars. If God's creative juices are flowing through all (Jew and Gentile) then similarities are to be expected and it only makes sense that they will be popular at the same time.
    The chart is really funny. And to the industry's credit, isn't put out by them. That chart (as I am sure there are many more) is put out on a web-site whose aim is to provide "reviews and discussion-starters for youth leaders". Which leads to an article you absolutely must read. It was written by John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Louisville guy, for GQ. It is very long but nonetheless amazing. It grapples with this discussion and faith itself in one of the most well written articles I've ever read. The link is on my brother's site but I'll put it here too.
    In a sense, Christian music is being original in many ways. You can't get the Gaither's or worship music or Nicole Nordeman (I love her and couldn't tell you who she sounds like, she makes me cry) from anywhere else.

  • At 9:05 AM, Blogger Alex & Laura Beth said…

    Thanks for your comments, Adrian. I enjoyed reading the article, so much that I'm about to blog about it.

  • At 6:31 PM, Blogger Shawn said…

    Hey guys...I don't know if I'm the perfect person, but I am a person. Adrian, I do agree with you on most cases and I don't really disagree with you anywhere.

    Ahh Christian music...where to begin. I guess the easiest thing to do would be to categorically offer my opinions.

    1) The comparisons are not all accurate, but with music reviews in both worlds comparisons rarely are...check out Blender or CMJ Music Monthly. I do get your point though, I just don't think it's exclusive to Christian music. I can assure you that the artists are not themselves trying to beef up there cred and these comparisons do not come from them.

    2) I agree completely with this point. Well said. But let us not forget that Christians are called to not only fulfill the Great Commission but to also edify the Church, and this should never be slighted. The artists who are edifying/serving the Church with their songs are not doing it to be the next big thing or even the most critically acclaimed, they are simply following God's calling.

    3) The company I work for was founded back in the 1970s by a man that wanted to offer Contemporary music to Christian youth that would be an alternative to the secular music that was out at the time. That was his call, and he will never apologize for it. Funny story: When someone tells him, "All Christian music is, is just a derivative of mainstream POP/Rock music." He would say, humbly "Thank you." That to him is a compliment. There is nothing wrong with offering an alternative, you don't have to like it or defend it just because you are a Christian (let go of the burden, I did and it feels good.)

    Now I will go off on my own tangent. If you will indulge me. Trends in popular music are nothing new. Every label (Christian or not) jumps on the bandwagon, it's good business to capitalize on proven success. For example, our A&R guys are bumping into mainstream A&R guys in the "Church" realm, because labels are seeing the successes of Switchfoot, Relient K and U2...in regards to "spiritual" lyric content and how that speaks to consumers.

    Okay, now let me make it clear I am not a Christian music apologist. I am a staunch supporter of the "Christian-as a faith, not a genre" platform. I like good music whether it comes from believers or not and yes God speaks to me through music produced by non-Christians as well.

    Here are a couple of "creative" Christian artists that don't need comparisons...

    Mute Math
    Something Like Silas
    Edison Glass
    Robbie Seay Band
    Turn Off The Stars

    **not on a christian label but check out The Snake The Cross The Crown, they are really good, oh also Interpol and I'm loving The Killers right now.

    Enjoy!!! And remember what SNL's Father Guido Sarducci said when asked if Rock N Roll, the Devil's music, is what they listen to in Hell. (smiling) "There's no music in Hell."

  • At 6:19 PM, Blogger Jugador de Futbol said…

    I have to agree about Telecast. They are an awesome band. I have their CD if anyone wants to borrow it. I saw them open up for the David Crowder Band in Cali at Saddleback. Though I would "compare" them to Coldplay. (just kidding)

  • At 2:07 AM, Blogger Nikki Daniel said…

    So, Rebecca St James sounds like Bjork? Are you kidding me? That's like saying I sound like Janis Joplin!

  • At 1:07 PM, Anonymous ErinW said…

    Hey. I am a friend of Nikki's. I somewhat agree with the sad-factor of such a chart or idea even. But at the same time i think we should kep in mind that even within the secular music world there could be a chart. I mean Hilary Duff compares to early stage britney spears and christina aguilera. Every country musician sounds the same for the most part. Every pop artist chick sounds the same for the most part..meaning lindsey lohan, britney, christina, hilary, mandy moore. Every R&B, every Rap artist, every punk band....within every style they all pretty much are the same band with maybe a different message. Very rarely do we hear something new. I don't think I have ever listened to a song in any genre and thought, "WOW!! I have never heard anything like that before! This person is a musical genuis! Thank goodness for a fresh, never-heard-by human-ears-before music."
    So to all those who would compare the "christian bands" to the "secualr bands" there is only a comparison becuase it's within the same genre. The only difference is the message. So of course they sound alike.


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