DSC_0100 (Photo credit: c.a.muller)
After dipping my toe into the Christian music scene via Steve Taylor and Stryper, I began exploring the racks of my local Christian bookstore for other musical gems that lay hidden behind the displays of Sunday school pamphlets and Jesus wall decor.
Stryper wet my appetite for metal music, and I began buying up cassettes from groups on the Pure Metal label. To be honest, I bought the cassettes based on how cool their covers were. I bought Leviticus and Messiah Prophet because of the covers. One had a beast rising out of the ocean with an ominous stormy sky in the background. (Correction: The group with a beast rising was Saint-thanks freedom for that nugget!) The music itself was pretty awful and the recording quality was pretty bad.
I quickly learned that the cool covers from groups on Pure Metal was about as far as it went. There were some nice attempts at metal, but most of the groups were just poor rip-offs of mainstream acts that were big at the time. Yes the lyrics were about God (and actually, quite a few were about the Devil and how awful he was)…but the music was not good enough to hold my interest.
Michael and Amy
I did get into Michael W. Smith after his The Big Picture was released. His vocals were sometimes awful, but his layered synth pop was pretty amazing and overcame his lack luster, nasal vocal lines. It didn’t hurt for Michael that he was a kind of Christian version of George Michael.
His life-size cardboard standup , promoting his latest recording, was lingered upon by many a female fan. As one fan told me, Michael W. Smith was rather easy on the eyes. I once saw an interview with Michael in which late night host, Jay Leno, asked Michael what it felt like to be a Christian Sex symbol. Michael kind of stumbled in his answer as he laughed and told Jay he’d never been called a sex symbol before. But Jay Leno was right, Michael W. Smith was a sex symbol to Christian music fans in the 80’s and early 90’s.
As was Amy Grant….
In the late 80’s, she gave up the ghost on her soft rock and blue jeans. She turned over a new leaf by putting on the leopard skin jacket and assembling a new band of synth-guitar rockers. The album was called Unguarded, and it marked the first time Amy would storm the top 40 single charts and also climb into Billboards top 200 album charts. Quite a feat for a Christian artist in the 80’s.
Her status as a rock star and sex symbol brought her love and success with her teen audience, but scorn and condemnation from many older Christians who saw her new sound and style as worldly and too sexual.
As far as Christian music fans were concerned, Amy’s new direction was just what CCM needed. The music was in synch with the pop music of the day and the cool look was just what the doctor ordered in a post Jesus-freak world.
It can’t be overstated just how big and important Amy Grant was to Christian music. Whenever she released a new record, it was like Christmas for Christian bookstores. The bookstore I worked at usually stocked 5 to 10 copies of a new recording. But when Amy had a new one, we would literally throw a release party with around one thousand copies on hand. We’d have record flats, banners, and a life-sized cardboard cut out of Amy on hand. Our store literally looked like a shrine to Amy Grant whenever her newest offering was released to the masses.
Not only was Amy Grant important to Christian bookstores in terms of her massive sales, but she also served as the patron saint to many a new Christian artist. She helped launch the careers of Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, Degarmo & Key, Kim Hill to name a few of the artists that would rise. All thanks to Amy, and the exposure she gave these artists through her tours and their guest songwriting on her records. Without Amy Grant, the explosion of artists and the sales growth of Christian bookstores in the 80’s and 90’s would have been greatly diminished, if not impossible.
On a personal note, I had become a music buyer for a chain of Christian bookstores while in college. Being a buyer gave me a front row seat to all the growth and explosion of Christian artists during this period. Beside the popular success of artists like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, the newest genre of Christian music that I discovered was dubbed Christian Alternative.
Against the Grain
Artists like the 77’s, Undercover, the Swirling Eddies, and the Choir quickly became favorites for Christian fans that enjoyed edgy rock and lyrics that were more about questions of faith, instead of the typical proclamations of certainty that dominated Christian pop and radio at the time. While never huge sellers at the Christian bookstore scene (in fact, many bookstores wouldn’t even stock Christian alternative) these artists did have a loyal following and many helped to build the Christian festival scene. Thousands of fans would travel to Cornerstone or to Creation Fest to get a glimpse of these emerging Christian rockers and their twist on the pop-punk scene.
I first caught a glimpse of the new Christian alternative scene at a Degarmo & Key concert, when a punk band called The Altar Boys took the stage as the opening act. While most of the D & K fans stood there with their mouths wide open, about 100 fully decked out punkers descended to the stage in an all out mosh pit. I was at the front of the stage as an observer, in awe at the raw emotion of the band, and admiring the reaction of the punkers that were in an all out mosh mode. It’s safe to say that most of the D&K fans were either amused or scared at what was taking place. I enjoyed myself and quickly became a fan of the group and their heart wrenching, throaty lyrics about feeling desperate for God in their brokenness.
At the time, it seemed like Christian music was poised to take over the world.
More on this next time….