Humanity has an issue with salvation. We have this perpetual need to be delivered from our sin, the stuffed-up-ness of our existence, or in the case of music, sheer boredom. Ever since Jesus came, we obtained a need for messiahs. That is why publications like NME always seem to churn out hyperbolic gospel after gospel about “the next big thing”, labelling groups like the Libertines as rock gods while witnessing countless others before it fizzle and die. Evidenced by the recent firing of troubled frontman Pete Doherty, these divine beings don’t have much shelf life on the pantheon.
Ironically enough, it is Contemporary Christian Music that perhaps needs redemption the most. No blasphemy meant, but isn’t it a paradox that if the God that the scene’s musicians declare to be all-powerful, then how come His omnipotent creativity does not extend to the music? The critical mire that is the genre is filled with a general sense of blah and little in the way of innovation. Occasionally, like the sparseness of Red Sea-parting miracles these days, Christian bands do cross the divide from Dove to the Billboard. This is when we, the pop-cultured, should take notice. Jars of Clay and DC Talk did it almost a decade back. POD became part of Ozzfest a few years later. In early 2004, the Switchfoot song “Meant to Live” made it on the Spider Man 2 Soundtrack. In late 2004, Canton, Ohio-based Relient K’s latest album Mmhmm debuted at a spectacular No.15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Not bad for a band operating in double critical-whammy of CCM and pop-punk.
Formed in 1997 and comprised of Matt Thiessen, Matt Hoopes, and Dave Douglas, Relient K has grown to be a fixture on the CCM scene, selling over 365,000 copies of their previous two albums. Renowned for their combination of hilarious smartass attitude and heart-on-sleeve earnestness, they are now taking their brand of music to a much-wider audience, courtesy of a recently-signed distribution deal with Capitol Records. Now, they are adopted into a family featuring members like Radiohead, the Vines, and Coldplay.
Relient K are modest about their achievements, saying, “The debut numbers just fall in line with everything else that’s happened in this band. I have trouble believing any of it. We’ve been blessed so much to just get to do this, let alone have people like what we do.” Indeed, people do like what they are doing. Besides the Billboard love, they were the most-played band on music hosting website Purevolume.com, and more impressively, USA Today likened the musicality of Mmhmm to Brian Wilson’s Smile.
On the secular side of things, Relient K sums it up by saying, “The Beach Boys, Ben Folds, and NoFx all have a lot of influence on us. I think all rock and roll bands are expected to attempt to take their recordings past the two guitars, bass, and drums stage.” The recent output by bands like Blink 182, Good Charlotte, and Green Day (with its magnum opus American Idiot indicates one thing—pop-punk is growing up. No longer content with simple melodies and a simpler worldview, the torchbearers of the genre has matured with more complex arrangements, introspective lyrics, and a newfound social responsibility (relative to their previous nihilism, that is).
An upward scaling line can be traced from Relient K’s previous effort to the current Mmhmm. The notion of regret and existentialist meanderings replace the high school frat boy philosophy-of-yore. They say, “From past experience, the songs on our previous records that we’d been able to retain pride in are the more serious ones.” And truly, they are journeying into adulthood, leaving the songs about Thundercats, horses, and mood rings behind. They add, “Combined with the increasing of our ages, it has attributed to the maturing in the lyrical content of our songs.” A discernible strain of ennui can be detected in their songs, with the attitude manifested in songs like “I So Hate Consequences”, “Who I Am Hates Who I’d Been” and “Which to Bury, Us Or the Hatchet?” Yet according to them, those songs end up resolving the concept of grace, that life is meaningless apart from knowing the Lifegiver.
On that note, perhaps a measure of that cardinal virtue is needed in the genre of CCM which they represent, gleefully dubbed Cheesy Christian Music by the hipster circle. A recent episode of South Park illustrates this point. In Christian Hard Rock, Cartman concocts another scam in an effort to win yet another bet with Kyle. This time round, the challenge takes the form of who will first earn a platinum record. Cartman decides that the fastest way to achieve that is to break into Christian rock. The formula of imitation is ludicrous, which in his words, is to “take regular old songs, and add Jesus stuff to them”. Hence, we have such lyrics as “I need you in my life, Jesus” and “I just can’t live with you, Jesus” in place of terms of affection like “babe” and “darling”. Unfortunately, the parody hits closer to home than one cares to admit. As the faith it represents transcends new grounds beyond the layer of judgmental fundamentalism, its music still has a lot of catching up to do.
In response to this concern, Relient K responds, “Well, we’ll just try to continue to do what we do. Switchfoot is still considered ‘CCM’, and they’re not a cheesy band. Mxpx has been sold in ‘Christian Music’ stores for years, and if people call them cheesy, it’s not because of the faith aspect of their music.” Unfortunately, the fact remains that the richness of Christianity, in its inherent understanding of providence, remains merely distilled in the form of insipid balladry and three-chorded-blandness. Bands continue to confuse pandering for piety, catering to a Christian audience of 180 million Americans that is not exactly progressing beyond Pat Boone.
Relient K sheds light on this matter by explaining, “Well, if all the pop-punk/emo/hardcore bands were in high school, we’d be the nerdy kids that don’t have a lot of friends, but aren’t necessarily uncool.” This aptly describes what CCM, and in particular, where Christian rock should be heading—straight-edged, slightly unfashionable, yet well-regarded because of its unshakable principles. It all lies in the issue of niche. Yet, the idea of a subgenre equivalent of spiritualized Dr Phil motivation isn’t an appealing one, nor is a Republican discourse of intolerance. Reliant K advocates a gentler approach by affirming, “We love writing about what we believe in. Our faith is something that we don’t shy away from, but at the same time, we don’t try to force on other people.” In other words, Relient K may be Bible-thumpers, but the Word makes contact with a pat of understanding and good-willed fun instead of smiting force.
Relient K concludes, “The bands that we have toured with, we become great friends with—Anberlin, Don’t Look Down, Number One Gun, etc ... We’re looking forward to making a bunch of new friends this year.” At the rate they are going and if they continue along this path of exponential growth, the new friends in question will be more Rolling Stone favourite rather than Rochester underground. In the great Christian tradition of hope, may they take the genres of CCM and pop-punk with them into those transfiguring heights.
// Notes from the Road
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