It’s a common phenomenon: You’re flipping radio stations when you pause to listen to a pop-rock song, and then think, possibly in horror …
“Wait a second … is this … RELIGIOUS?”
For some people, this is terribly disconcerting, especially if they actually like the song. (“OMG, am I now a Christian rock fan?”)
Well, if that’s happened to you, you’re not alone. Many people complain that the genre called contemporary Christian music (marketed to church folk) is derivative, cliched and over-produced. To a point I empathize — and I’m a Christian radio host! But despite that, the number of people who listen is growing. Here’s why: People like how it makes them feel.
You can watch this phenomenon in person Saturday if you’re in D.C., where thousands of people will gather on the National Mall for a concert-prayer event featuring some of Christian music’s biggest names, from folk-tronica star Crowder to Grammy-winning rapper Lecrae.
Of course, Christian music has been fodder for jokes for a long time, and some good ones, too. You may remember this, from “Seinfeld”:
Elaine (alarmed): I borrowed Puddy’s car and all the presets on his radio were Christian rock stations.
George: I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.
And then there’s “South Park,” wherein an entire episode was devoted to Cartman’s attempt to talk his band into playing Christian music:
Cartman: Think about it! It’s the easiest crappiest music in the world, right? If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap!
Cartman: But it worked for Creed!
I, for one, find that (1) not entirely fair but (2) genuinely hilarious.
So, if we’re keeping score, Christian pop/rock radio stands accused of being less than real, in addition to formulaic, talent-free and vacuous. All that, and even less, actually: One analyst of religion wrote recently for the site fivethirtyeight.com that a primary failing of Christian music is that it’s not negative enough. It’s too sunny, she wrote, with too-frequent appearances of words like “hope” and “joy.”
What about pain and sorrow and darkness and evil? What happened to that? What about, you know, judgment and hell and that stuff?
Even U2’s Bono has problems with it. He wants more Christian artists to “write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pi**ed off at the government.”
Okay. Fair enough.
And yet, there are now twice as many stations playing Christian music as classic rock. In cities from Seattle to Dallas to Atlanta, Christian stations are increasingly in the Top 5 in terms of listeners. In 2008, there were less than 11 million listeners to the format. By 2015, the number grew to 16.7 million.
So why does it work? As a syndicated “personality” (notice the quotes; there’s debate on whether I have one) on 200-plus Christian radio stations, I have some answers.
Christian radio has managed to capitalize well on something you might notice if you use Spotify: Radio executives have figured out that people want to access music for specific needs and for specific moods. That’s why Spotify now offers “Morning Acoustic Chill” and “After Work Run.” It’s not always about high art. Christian radio is adjusting to this particularly well and embracing the fact that people see Christian music as encouraging and uplifting. Listeners know they live in a judgmental world and they want a reminder, particularly in traffic after a long day, that God still loves them, and still wants them, even in spite of themselves.
They’re anxious, they’re loaded with distractions, and they aren’t looking for artistic brilliance. (If they wanted that, they could listen to other “Christian artists” like, say, Bach.) They’re looking for encouragement. They want someone to say, “Don’t worry,” and “Keep going,” and “God hasn’t given up on you.”
Sounds good to me, and to a lot of others, apparently.
And sure, Bono’s right. We need songs about everything. If you want more songs about judgment, please write them. Write great ones: Plaintive ones. Profound ones. Poetic ones. Please do it. I’ll listen.
But do know that judgment, itself, is not remarkable. The world swims in it. It’s in the moral air we breathe, in and out of church, religious and irreligious, in every culture, and has been always been. We’re constantly reminded we don’t measure up.
But grace, well … that’s different. It’s a shock to the system, and a wonderful one, at that.
Rob Wagman programs one of the most-listened-to Christian radio networks in the country, WAY-FM. He says Christian radio actually has a big advantage. “People see the news, and there’s a lot of anxiety. Good music stations can make us feel better, but this format can be about hope, song after song. People are looking for that.”
Exactly. Does Christian music radio fail as great “art”? I think so. But it doesn’t set out to be great art. At its best, it sets out to be a kindness.
Mock as we might, the reason for the durable popularity of CCM boils down to something pragmatic, something more Steve Jobs than P.T. Barnum: Christian radio is getting better at giving listeners what they’re yearning for.
And that’s not politics, either. Kevin Krueger, station manager of 91.9 WGTS (based in D.C., with nearly 600,000 weekly listeners and growing), says their listenership, and station leadership, is split 50/50 politically. Like most CCM stations, they want to be an oasis from politics, not a vehicle of more division.
Like the maker of a vending machine, they want you to know what you’re getting when you press a button. When you tune into a Christian music station, you’ll keep hearing words like “positive and encouraging” because people keep saying they’re dying to hear something positive, and they’re thirsty for encouragement.
They want hope.
For good or ill, Christian radio isn’t about reflecting all of life. It’s not about artistry.
It’s a tool.
When my kids were tiny, and needed to sleep, sometimes I’d pick up my acoustic guitar and sing softly and slowly to them. Usually, it was something like “Sunshine on My Shoulder” or a lullaby. It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t reflecting all of life to them, lyrically.
This is because I was serving them. And it’s a particular “them” (our babies) and they are in a particular place (their cribs) with particular needs (sweet sleep.)
So people are tired of hearing they’re not cool enough, not skinny enough, not smart enough, not young enough, not morally good enough, not concerned enough about all the right issues, not rich enough, not whatever enough.
They want grace.
Grace is “amazing,” or so I’ve sung, along to a simple tune. Maybe there’s a reason that people — Christians or no — are, perhaps, more drawn to that song than any other.
And maybe that’s not so bad after all.