In various articles I have at times written about demands being put on Christian musicians and artists by those who think their cultural biases represent the more perfect way. (‘Value System Blues', and ‘Creative Freedom In Christ' are two examples.) It's painful and frustrating to be on the receiving end of legalistic teaching and attitudes, and any musician who has experienced that kind of ‘leadership' will know just how difficult it is to deal with. Any hypocrisy from musicians in this area would be particularly sad, yet those of us who have experienced battles of this nature, or may be experiencing them now, can be tempted to impose our own views on others in exactly the same way. It seems to me that forcing obedience to our own cultural preferences ( i.e. musical tastes, etc.) is essentially a form of slavery! To demand something that even the L ord hasn't demanded is legalistic, and we know that legalism has no rightful place in the kingdom of God (Romans 14v17).
(Consider for a moment that in both a good and bad sense the strongly-held views we espouse may affect the thinking of others and influence their behaviour. The scriptures warn us against being in a hurry to teach others, because those who teach will be responsible for what they teach, and thus receive greater judgement (James 3v1). God's Word remains our true guide in all matters, and we must read it carefully; without those culturally-coloured glasses on. If we have opinions, we should label them clearly , and t hen make sure those labels stay put! Even in his own lifetime the Apostle Paul was known as a great man of God, and yet at the same time here was a man who could distinguish between his own opinions and the commandment of God; and have the grace to say so! (1 Corinthians 7v25.) Maybe that's one of the reasons he was great…)
In this article, I'd like to share some personal views which may cause hair loss in some readers! These opinions have developed over many years of playing and listening, and after much study, thought, and discussion; many people having contributed much to my understanding over the years. After all this time (almost 25 years in Christ) of prayerfully thinking through these and other music-related issues, perhaps I would even dare to say with our brother Paul: “I think that I also have the Spirit of God”! (1 Corinthians 7v40); but then again, don't we all!
What began as a search for understanding and God's wisdom in the long-contentious area of music, has led me to strong convictions in just about every other area of life and faith. This is because there are core values and life issues at the heart of the music debate. Music may be a battleground, but the real war is about whether we choose God's values and delight in His ways, or something else. In some cases, music being a prominent one, it's not so much a battle between truth and error, but between truth and culture. Man's views about music may be rooted in legalistic false teaching, but his opinions may not necessarily be wrong for him ; because God has given him the freedom to choose, and he is following his conscience! As long as man doesn't then demand that others follow him in his opinions, he can exercise his conscience before God (Romans chapter 14). However, God still says something much better exists. His grace exists, and a glorious liberty in Christ exists for all who will embrace it over and above their cultural comfort zones. If we, by God's grace, understand His truth deep in our spirit, and embrace it with our whole heart and soul, it will affect us in the most profound and complete way. Our music, and the whole of our lives, will share His glory, grace, and liberty.
One article cannot be the final word in any discussion on music, and that's not my intention anyway. I'll say my piece and let you make up your own mind. Hopefully those who can endure to the end (of this very long article!) will be inspired about things that really matter; values that are important in life , and therefore, by extension, in music too as part of that life. If it encourages or helps anyone to think their own actions and attitudes through it will be a good thing. In fact, I hope you will do just that (Proverbs 27v17).
The idea of being a ‘music fundamentalist' came up in a conversation with a fellow music-lover. It's a bit cheeky, but it may be a fitting tag for those of us with strong views about music, and, shall we say, somewhat low tolerance levels for lesser ( i.e. differing!) musical philosophies! We know there are other perspectives out there, and we respect that; we've always been pretty open-minded. After some time though, we can't help but develop a fairly clear picture of just what we're looking for in our music. The style of the music actually matters less, but values like purity and integrity mean a lot. We look for depth, and for excellence; for that spark of creativity, and that musical dialect eloquently spoken. We want sincerity, honesty, humanity, and that reflection of God's image and grace…
Just as important is the absence of false values; like propagating untruth, insincerity, a lack of integrity, or having all kinds of wrong motivation. A complete lack of originality is another serious problem for anyone calling themselves an artist, as in the case of those who jump on any sad and sorry bandwagon that looks half promising. So, like a child in a sweet shop I ask: “Could I have less peripheral garbage , and more music please?!”
The cultural nature of music has somehow escaped the notice of many in the Body of Christ. God has created music, but gives to us the privilege of discovering, developing, and actually making it. Yet we come from such different cultures, and sub-cultures; and we differ so much from place to place, church to church, family to family, and individual to individual. The different views and musical expressions that stem from this fact all have at least some validity, because we all have genuine feelings about it. God has not commanded us specifically about styles of music, so we have the freedom to follow our tastes and our conscience in the Lord. However, He has commanded us about holiness, so His character must be our guide in all that we do. With this, shall we call it, ‘freedom within boundaries' for each of us in mind, I hope you receive my comments in a spirit of broad-minded inquiry like the noble folk of Berea in Acts 17v11. Here we go then…
BETTER BEGINNINGS FOR PATHETIC POP
I have a major problem (pardon the pun) with commercial music, music as fashion, and pop music culture generally. That's three things really, but they're inseparable as I hope to show. Pop music never was likely to say much about anything beyond the boy/girl, man/woman thing. It was mostly pretty harmless, and the underlying philosophy was basically that of having fun; the songs being the soundtrack to the fun, if not the fun itself. As music, pop wasn't too serious; and neither did anyone pretend that it was.
However, in the early 1960's things changed, and Popular music became a voice for the social and political issues of the times. The world's many forms of Folk music were already powerful vehicles for all types of socio-political views and commentary, but the idea became more ‘popularized' as Folk music, Rock music, and mainstream Pop music got all mixed up together as one big thing; becoming bigger than anyone imagined. Poets and activists already writing songs were getting heard by the wider public. Convictions began to get across. Serious discussion about life and social values were not now confined to academic circles, or to poetry, literature and the other ‘fine arts'; nor even to the Folk and Roots music people.
Thus even the humble pop song became a vehicle for someone with something to say. Without Christ at the centre it wasn't going to have the answers, but a lot of it wasn't mindless either. Of course, a lot of it was really bad!; but credit where it's due, there was more than the usual “I love you baby” going on!
One main reason for the intelligence and integrity found in a lot of popular music from the 60's and early 70's was the influence of Folk and Blues music at the heart of so much of it. Folk music and Blues were being discovered by young people en masse , and came to the fore in the many popular expressions this brought about. We can't overlook the role of the social movements of the day either. The music was informed by these movements, which were themselves informed by and articulated through the music. The most ‘Popular‘ music then was Rock music, which is directly descended from the Blues and has a Folk music heritage as well. Thus it inherited the musical integrity, the more substantial lyric content, and the emotional intensity of these musical forms it grew out of. These things then found their way into the popular music of the times, which became all the better for it.
To this day the purity and heart found in Folk, Blues, and other ‘Roots' music remains unmatched; especially by their commercial distant-cousins. In fact, if today's commercial Pop music had any soul or conscience it would die of shame. It has lost any sense of musical or artistic roots it may have had, along with the heart and soul found there. So often now it's just poor reproductions of second-rate copies of imitations of the real thing long since lost. Popular music clings like a bad suit to a massive commercial framework, and popular culture cannot provide the values needed to transcend the whole mess.
Also not looking too good in comparison, is today's popular culture itself which is, in my view, appallingly degenerate and intellectually almost non-existent. With rare exceptions, it has almost nothing of worth to say. Not that Pop culture ever was a place to look for enlightenment anyway, but it is now so musically and spiritually impoverished that it's utterly worthless. We can all be grateful for the lesson, because it's now abundantly clear that any art-form with a core value of greed becomes very ugly indeed.
This may surprise you, but I seriously question if some of today's ultra-commercial Pop is actually music at all in the true sense! It's just a cheap entertainment solution, with tenuous connections to the musical art-form. If that's your kind of entertainment fair enough, but let's not confuse it with music ! It's more visual than aural. It's more a fashion-statement for some tribal persuasion than artistic expression; more an advertising campaign for someone's fame and fortune than an exploration of musical art. I think Pop now is really pseudo-music , because it has more in common with image, fashion, and advertising than with real Music - the artistic language of the human spirit.
Perhaps the music only reflects what have been major shifts downward in popular culture. In addition to problems like promiscuity and substance abuse which were rampant in the 60's and 70's, there is today, in addition to an even worse level of these same problems, a culture of tribalism and violence. Popular culture no longer seems to be fundamentally concerned about the creative expression of ideas, or of our humanity. The only embedded cultural themes I can detect seem to say: “I don't care”, “Whatever!”, or even “Shoot thy neighbour”! Judging by its character, and ‘fruits' of selfishness and sensuousness, it ultimately has to be seen as demonic in character (James 3v14-16).
The horrible outcomes of a recent-day update on the Woodstock festival is one graphic illustration of the bankruptcy of modern popular culture and it's morally and spiritually bankrupt music. The original themes of “Peace” and “Love”, however humanistic and misinformed they were in the defining, at least had some humanity. By God's grace, many found Christ after searching for meaning in life; something people were always interested in, and had come to believe was not to be found in conforming to the regular world around them. (As Christians, we should agree with that premise anyway.) Now though, just a few generations later, a detestable Popular culture produces such philosophy as: “Wreck the speaker towers, and set them on fire”, and “Riot for something to do”.
With all that was happening back in the 60's, most Church leaders decided that music itself was a dangerous new enemy. Rather than the wonderful creation of God it is, music was seen as the domain of all things evil. ‘Rock' music was being preached against zealously on every hand at the time, and for many years later. Why? Because the unsaved were saying ungodly things! Wow! On reflection, it's hard to believe so much effort was put into preaching against it, instead of somehow utilizing the positives. For all it's faults, the much-maligned Rock music actually had a lot more musical and lyrical substance than the washed-out R&B, mindless boy/girl-bands, and barely-musical Rap, etc. that, ironically, we hear little complaint about from the pulpits of today.
Of course, I do understand the desire to protect innocent young people from ungodliness, and I guess it wasn't just music back then was it? It was the voice of a big shift in popular culture. It was unlike anything seen before, and it was a big challenge for the Church to deal with. Let's note also, that there was plenty of the bad mixed up with a little bit of good. However, by turning against music itself many Christians made the classic mistake of ‘throwing out the baby with the bath-water'. Worst of all, the devil was practically declared to be the father of music, and virtually given license to claim it for his own! It was even widely taught that he (Lucifer) was God's appointed ‘Director of Music' in the first place; the reason for this particular teaching being a dubious interpretation of Ezekiel chapter 28. It is deeply regrettable that Christians handed such a powerful thing over to the enemy, and in my view the Church still hasn't recovered from those unfortunate mistakes. Having surrendered music to the devil as ‘his territory', it has understandably proven difficult to undo the damage. Poor teaching and outright preaching against music have taken a toll, and music is something the Church is still very insecure about today.
Surely Christians wouldn't think the same way today though would they? Actually, yes we do, and today the truth versus culture war still divides; as it always has. God has made it clear that only faith in Jesus Christ is good enough for salvation (a true cultural revolution!) in any age. Nice appearances are not enough to save us, or important enough for God to reject us! Yet many Christians don't seem to accept this; and appearances count for so much! Many thought then that a short-back-and-sides haircut was nice, respectable, and must therefore be very Christ-like! Naturally, anything else was ungodly. I suppose one is free to choose music with short back and sides if one desires (!), but we must not make the mistake of thinking our own cultural preferences (musical or otherwise) exemplify God's righteousness! Christ-likeness doesn't, and never did , have anything to do with external cultural factors, and our cultural sensitivities are not as important as we think they are! Culture for human beings is unavoidable, and cultural differences are inevitable. We can have opinions in areas left to our discretion, but as Christians who love God and His beautiful truth, we must strive to keep the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ pure, and free from extra-biblical agendas of any kind.
THE ‘ART' OF ADVERTISING
Returning to the present, and popular culture is now nothing like it was in the turbulent 60's. Now it's just a place to advertise, or window-shop for a tribe you might like to belong to. Ultimately, it's like a side-show - a kind of fashion circus; amusing and distracting, but full of emptiness. Spiritually, today's commercial pop music is almost devoid of true humanity; instead it's a cesspit of sensuality, filled with untruth about everything. Music? There's ‘music' in there, but it's not the most important thing in the mix anymore. It's just music to accompany something else; usually something ignoble or worthless.
I believe a big part of the ‘problem' (as I see it) today is a dominant emphasis on visual/video presentation. Perhaps it's fair to say people cannot simply communicate in music and words anymore, because the marketplace demand for visual stimulation is so overwhelming. Maybe artists were freer to just make music before, whereas now there's got to be this visual thing as well. Even so, couldn't these visuals have greater humanity and truth? Who “calls the tune”, or in this case, the pictures? I'm convinced far more effort goes into producing the videos than goes into composing and actually making the music!
‘Making pop music ' is a misnomer though anyway in so many cases; ‘trying to milk the profane cash cow' would be closer to the truth! Popular music has become one huge jingle; advertising in the guise of art. Instead of communicating in the beautiful language of music, the Pop chameleons are just out to sell something! Like what? The short answer is ‘units', because their ‘music' is just a product for sale. Closer examination reveals they're actually selling themselves ; with every scrap of related “merchandise” on sale as well being a sure sign. It's all part of an attempt to sell a whole career ; the artist becoming an industry ‘package', and working to execute the financial plan of umpteen company executives, and marketing people, etc! Pop always was a business, but there's not even an attempt to politely disguise that fact now. It's just a shameless full-on hard-sell, and there's little conscience or integrity in any of it. Yo, wanna buy some o' this?
For the Pop music ‘artists', “success” of course means popularity, sales, and the music industry's definition of longevity, which might be a year or two of maximum sales, followed by a still successful but slowed-down period. Then there's the “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” package, and then some other saleable rehashed packaging. With any luck there'll be some movie soundtrack down the road with more sales and lots more merchandising. Yippee! Lastly, the ‘artist' ends up in the discount bins, followed by time in the ‘please-take-this-out-of-date-garbage-home' pile; which by then costs next to nothing, as it should have done all along.
Let me stress again at this point that this is my opinion; the way I see it happening. If you see music as just another business or industry, or as just a tool to make money, or if music to you is just a take-it-or-leave-it option for your background, then you can probably accept things as they are without any fuss. For me though ( and for many others), music is something more than all of this “business” suggests.
MUSIC WITH COMMERCIAL ZONING
Who we are, our values, and what we believe, will be reflected in our music and art; and really, in anything we do. To put this in the simplest possible way, what we do and say reveals who we are. We are spiritual beings, and communicating is something we need to do. Human beings want to connect with other people, and one of the important ways we do this is through expressing ourselves and our understanding of life through our music and art. The creative, artistic abilities within us are designed (I believe) for just such purposes. As I have shared in another place, regarding true music and art, ideas of substance need a vehicle of substance to be adequately or suitably expressed.
It seems to me, that those making pop music today don't so much want to share their ideas, as sell them. The fact that most of the ideas are really bad anyway only makes this worse! On the better occasions pop music might talk about a genuine human experience or view, such as a political idea, or an honest observation about life. Unfortunately though, most of the time it will just be an immoral or other downright bad idea, and my chief grief with pop music today is that it's so often filled with the worst of the possibilities.
As human beings, ugly things like greed, lust, and other aspects of the sinful nature are always present with us, and these will inevitably be present to some degree in popular culture. Yet today these things are arrogantly displayed like a perverse badge of honour. I don't believe this was always the case, and I'm not looking nostalgically back to some imaginary past perfection - there never was such a thing. Pop videos now look like an introduction to pornography! Even though this sleaziness is abhorrent, a more fundamental question still begs to be asked: where's the relevance to music in all this? There is, of course, no relevance to music at all. Even the ‘music' that does accompany the video has little resemblance to actual, true music!; and yes, it does look to me like the music is just the soundtrack for the video. It is the video that matters most, so if you took away the video, could the music stand alone?
There has to be some good people out there, but does Popular music today say anything true? ( i.e. Philippians 4v8.) Some popular songs have no real message or idea for sale, and are not trying to be anything except a bit of fun; fine, no problem there. However, selling something other than true perspectives on the human condition is deserving of our contempt. The ‘boy meets girl' premise in our times is without innocence. Instead, it's grotesque, vulgar, and just plain awful; particularly so-called ‘R&B', and ‘Rap'. That's not a total rejection of those styles of music, but it is interesting that they are most out-and-out commercial, and they are also in the worst shape. Yes, there are exceptions, but it's hard to notice them because the big majority is so awful. It's like looking for one good tree in a forest of bad ones.
We spoke of better days for Pop; the origins of Rap were better than what we see now too. But it too has been hijacked by a greedy, all-consuming “music business”, where the ‘business' has well-and-truly overwhelmed the ‘music'. The greatest fault lies with the record industry itself. The greed which drives it on has allowed all the imitators and freeloaders onboard. Eventually, there might be such a watered-down state that even the Pop-loving public might wake up to it!
Downloading and copying music may have already overtaken buying hard copies. I know there are many reasons people do it, but here's an interesting twist in the ongoing debate over the practise. What about the idea that this music is not going to have any meaning tomorrow, so why would you invest in it? No-one wants to pay for poor quality goods. Maybe no-one wants to pay for the plastic, production-line popular music of today either!
Sadly, young people are probably more interested in downloading sound-byte ring tones for their mobile phones than true music anyway. This is probably because those controlling the music business try to make sure they never get to hear anything not aligned with their own particular financial plan. I'm certain it will come back to haunt them, and the pop music industry will reap the wind it has sown as commercial greed. Personally, I wouldn't mourn the death of Babylon either…
One feels that the whole commercial syndrome must surely reach an ugly end. ‘Music' in some form is still the core, has actual music in the true sense has become peripheral in the pop culture money-machine monster. This has caused an artistic and cultural vacuum, and worse still, I believe it has led or contributed significantly to a loss of humanity in Popular culture. The utterly worthless Popular culture today's kids are growing up in has no substance of truth, and there's nothing to inspire them in any worthwhile thing. My spirit feels grieved at the utter trash young people now have as their ‘music'. As a source of spiritual and intellectual inspiration it is sadly deficient, but as a source of identity and culture it is truly abominable. May God help them!
APPEARANCES ARE EVERYTHING
Most Pop lyrics take either nothingness or ugliness to new levels. Anything which is not brain-dead teeny pop, is sleazy and sensual, or aggressive and dark. Most of the latter would appear to have no relevance beyond an immediate tribal sub-culture, yet we see kids the world over looking, talking, dressing, and acting out some imitation Rap/Hip-Hop or Heavy Metal cultural identity! Fashions in music and popular culture dictate what young people need to look like, talk like, listen to, etc. That tells me that young people look to popular culture for identity; something they must feel they either don't have, or want to change. Pop music and culture have strong tribal elements, so they can take their pick. Unfortunately, instead of reinforcing a common humanity, most popular culture just wants to sell us worthless crap. What's on offer?: a look, an attitude, a sexual suggestion, a case for violence as a way, etc. Having this at the heart of ‘music' is not going to add anything positive or enhance our lives in any way, and I ask myself: what are the effects on minds immersed in this horrible stuff? ‘Music'? Music is not even important in the context of whatever verbal diarrhoea these con-artists are pumping out.
The fact is, if it's Popular music, it depends on image and fashion. Today, pop music and fashion not only go hand in hand, but are like inseparable Siamese twins! Instead of ‘Music' – the beautiful creative language, we have ‘music' – a slave of fashion and the servant of huge business interests. By nature it's similar to products like computer software; it has to be the “latest” one or no-one is interested. I think it's a product that record industry people themselves have worked hard to create an artificial demand for. It's churned out like any other saleable product, and then pumped into the market place. There it is force-fed to consumers who are sold the idea that it's the happening thing.
If you take away the video clip and the hype from all this, take away the sensual imagery, and the fashion wardrobe, what's left? Not much, and certainly little music to speak of! Commercial Pop is the musical equivalent of junk-food - it's intrinsically horrible, and completely dependent upon massive marketing and hype. It's all about the appearance of desirability. Pop music and all it's cultural baggage is actually rooted in fashion and the concept of ‘image'; actual music seems to be getting less and less important. Think about it: how you look makes a lot of difference to your ‘ music ' career!? Of what relevance to music is your looks?! To real music the answer is, of course, none at all. However, if you're talking about the Pop circus the answer is very different.
Truly great music will always transcend time and place. Even the best popular music from whatever era will endure because of the musical and/or artistic integrity found at the heart of it. Call me old and in-the-way if you like, but I honestly reckon most of today's pop music is destined for the history scrap-heap and oblivion. It's fashion- driven ; it is not art! It is not real music, but is in fact anti -music! How could it possibly mean something tomorrow, or to another generation? It doesn't even mean anything today!
With imitation music and something as meaningless and temporary as fashion at the heart, it's no wonder that today's popular culture is just an illusion of something meaningful, rather than being something meaningful. Perhaps the absolute dross of current Popular music is actually the best medium for expressing something as selfish and horrible as today's popular culture! In that sense, maybe commercial music could be a suitable vehicle for something after all - for bad or worthless ideas! What a perfect combination: music with a ‘use-by' date, and today's Popular culture…
Music? That's business actually, and Pop culture and fashion are pre-evangelism for the ‘music business'; ideas put out there to hopefully get you later in some way. I have trouble telling where the advertisements end and the songs begin, because it's all mixed up together in a huge flood of blurred images and electronic noise; and there's no escaping the hard sell behind it all. The lines are blurred because commercial music and advertising share the same values. Rather than trying to give or impart something to us like true art or ministry does, commercial music, like advertising, is instead all out to take or get something from us.
The inherent humanity in art has been replaced by business and advertising; ultra-commercial Popular music is one of the results. With some exceptions, it is not born of artistic motivation; rather, it exists for commercial reasons. At it's heart, it's very nature, we find business and marketing interests of all kinds. What was once music , has become totally enslaved to every kind of unholy market force, and the peripheral things have become more important than the heart. In fact, the heart of Pop music has already died from complete corruption. Don't worry though; the corporate rulers of the Popular music industry have solved the problem. ‘Pop', their musical Frankenstein, has an artificial heart pumping hard night and day; and it's proudly embossed with a sponsor's name!
Music? That's money !! Musicians and artists certainly deserve payment for their work, but the money pop ‘stars' make is obscene, and it ends up costing us – in more ways than one! Even musicians outside the mainstream pop circus ‘cross over' to obtain those greater financial rewards; despite the fact that this comes at a high price artistically. ‘Success' like this is surely poison, coming in a package deal with a loss of any artistic integrity. The artist him/herself also actually becomes a product !; but who cares about integrity when you can be rich?! I believe the phrase “ sell your soul” is appropriate here; and how sad the irony of selling one's soul to become something cheap and disposable!
How, may I ask, can music produced with a primary motivation of sales ( i.e. financial gain) have any relationship with Art, or with ministry? Commercially motivated music loses it's true value as a gift of God, and as a work of humanity; instead it becomes equal in value to soap powder, or toothpaste. It's perfectly fitting then, to find it on a supermarket shelf. Like a magazine or a pulp-fiction novel, it's here for short-term entertainment or leisure; and, like shampoo or detergent, it's produced for carefully targeted consumers who will hopefully buy it and make loads of money for everyone involved.
Like all consumer goods, it also has to be re-invented all the time. A “new improved” thing has to be happening or people will either not be interested, or will buy a rival product. The “new improved” Pop product CDs that flood our ‘music stores' are testimony to the fact that if you force-feed someone and limit their choices you can eventually get them to hear what you want them to hear. Take this to the extended possibilities and we can see that marketing becomes ultimately successful in telling us what is good. The alarming thing is that, looking at the big picture, advertising and marketing even ‘help' to shape culture.
I can imagine a world where real music is culturally pervasive! The sad thing is that if people were educated, and introduced to music of quality and integrity, I believe they would love it. The only conclusion I can arrive at, is that record company executives and industry people are clearly motivated by greed; and they must just love crap! Couldn't real music be introduced to the market place? Just who are these decision makers; these champions of crap? Do they use the mega millions they make to promote creative music? No, of course they don't. They are purveyors and lovers of the shallow and temporary.
Musically, or as a musician, it's just sad to see an abundance of commercial, trivial, non-musical rubbish absolutely thriving, while so much great and worthwhile music remains largely unknown; ignored by the companies who could distribute it to a wider audience. How can I have respect for a music industry that causes and perpetuates this?
Tell me, in Classical music, Jazz, and the many forms of Traditional, Folk, and ‘Roots' music: where is the huge marketing campaign? Where's the music video, and the sensual images? These things don't exist in, and are not part of the traditions of true music and art. They have no relevance to it, and are not necessary for either it's existence or longevity.
I wonder how nutritionists or even the health-conscious feel when they see good, wholesome food too expensive, too troublesome and too rare in our fast, but shallow, modern world. How do they feel, seeing people eat take-away food instead of properly grown and prepared food? Food fundamentalists? Maybe! This parallel is a good one for me, because I really think that music is spiritually powerful, and something nourishing for our souls; important to us by God's design and purpose. Our souls will be severely malnourished on a diet of commercial music and popular culture! It's about as close to God's design as prostitution is to love.
STATUTES OF LIBERTY
Am I really saying this? I'm reminding myself of those preachers we used to hear preaching against the evils of Rock music! The difference is I'm not talking about a style of music as the reason for rejecting it. Music should never be a problem. Music cannot be at fault, any more than a language is to blame when someone swears or blasphemes. Shall we ban the use of English because someone swears? It sounds crazy, yet some suggest this very thing with regard to music! No, legalism is the enemy of Christian liberty. I'm talking about corrupt values manifesting themselves in the way we live; in the things we do, and specifically with regard to our music.
I suggest to you that music itself will not be a problem for anyone who really knows the truth. Music is a thing shaped by many cultural factors. Culture is impossible to avoid, and wherever we live and whoever we are, there will be cultural factors that have helped to shape our attitudes and responses. Even if we live in an alternative community or in a monastery, we would still be exposed to the culture of that group of people. If you follow Jesus, you can overcome the objections of the culturally narrow, by remembering that it's not God who commands cultural allegiances from us. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the language you speak, and yes, even the music you make, will be of little real concern to anyone who understands the truth (Romans 14v17). However, the legalistic will care about the peripherals a great deal. The preachers of bondage want to exercise control over us all, and without rules and regulations, how can they?
Despite music being intrinsically “good” (Genesis 1v31), some music is derived from a commercial gene pool, and is flawed and useless. We are constantly bombarded with it: production-line rehash that's high in hype and image, but low to non-existent in content. Still, there are people who love commercial music, and their lives are filled with fascination for popular culture! At one time I may have had more feeling for it than I do today. All of us have songs that are part of our own life soundtrack too, including the music we knew before Jesus came into our lives; this music may still have some meaning. Nostalgia may even knock at the door sometimes, but personally I have absolutely no nostalgic notions about a life outside of Christ. Frankly, I never enjoyed that old movie anyway…
Let me not forget to mention that there are times when the commercial ‘product' is really good. My guess is that there will always be songs that are really well crafted, where everything is put together just right by talented people; and there are talented and gifted people out there. (Yes, I believe non-Christians are “gifted” in the same way Christians are). There will probably always be musical gems to be found in popular music, but I reckon they're increasingly hard to find. Frankly, I'm not looking there anymore anyway, because it's just not worth wading through miles of poop to find a decent song! Popular music now has become just so much noise pollution to my ears. I would rather hear a lawnmower or a barking dog than the radio or TV nowadays – and I'm a musician!
CHRIST + COMMERCE = ?
I'm not only referring to ‘secular' music here. ‘Contemporary Christian' Music is just as commercial, and follows formulas like secular pop does. I find this surprising and very disappointing, considering Who it is we claim to know and think we are serving. This doesn't mean none of it is any good, or that those Christian artists themselves have no integrity, but I think it shows a profound lack of taste! This is especially sad for people who are the “salt of the earth”!
Most of the Christian popular music I've heard, especially the ‘worship' music, is without any real character. There are some good melodies, some studiously clever arrangements and so on, but I find no sense of anything original ; and nothing we could call art . It's ‘professional standards' all the way, but I cannot find any depth or substance to it; and I'm really saddened by this. There's no incredible artistry, no profound works of creativity, and no heart and soul that I can feel. There's nothing to move me, and make me think: “Wow, that was wonderful”. All the ‘harmful' musical elements have been removed, and all that remains is a kind of syrupy goo. It's even more homogenized, pasteurized, and sterilized than secular pop, and it's just as unappealing to me; it's lukewarm at best.
Christians are selling and marketing their music and related products vigorously too . The name of Jesus is there but, as much as I hate to say it, there have been times when I've wondered if His name was only there as a marketing tool! The real purpose, or ‘bottom line', looked very much like a dollar value. Are you offended? Are you guilty !? Hopefully not, but let's be honest and search our hearts before we cry out in denial!
I wouldn't want to over-generalize this, but it seems to me that the world system's business models are right at home in the Church today. Think, for example, about how any measure of success is turned into a formula or model for others, and absolutely flogged to death! Then we get lots of seminars teaching us how to do it too! Even “worship” music CDs are mass-produced now; and the models are in place for many more. Is it only me who finds so many of them formulaic, uninspired, and tiresome? More importantly, am I the only one who thinks the idea of commercially motivated worship recordings is a horrible one that must surely offend God?!
Copyright and royalties are closely related issues in this. Commercial music only exists for sales, and things like copyrights and royalties are a big part of the pie. When it comes to selling CDs and so on, the writers definitely deserve payment for their compositions, etc. These are legitimate copyright issues for sure, but to demand permission and/or payment ( i.e. for license to use the material) every time some Christian believers somewhere worship together and sing a song written by individual ‘X', or published by company ‘X'?
Surely any valid copyrights should be waved in such an obvious ministry application, yet it seems (some?) Christian record companies and publishers think otherwise. Let me ask you: can you still sing a worship song in your church without someone else's permission? It looks like the ‘Bread of Life' and ‘The Way' may for some have become just ‘The way to make bread'!
Musicians and songwriters are also entitled to recognition for their work. Acknowledgement of the composer is there in any published music scores or in the CDs used to transcribe the music. Must we also see someone's name projected up in front of us in a worship service? For me, this shows either the height of arrogance, or gross insensitivity; and I'm not sure which is worse.
I went to the internet recently to try and find the lyrics to a worship song I wanted to lead in my local church. The song was not new, and friends I asked weren't sure of the words. I managed to find the song listed on one web-site, yet I was unable to download the words. Instead of the lyrics there was a letter posted, written by a Christian publisher. It was a warning letter to the folks who put the site together, politely explaining that they were breaching copyright by displaying the lyrics on the internet!
No-one was exchanging any money for this service, and I was not downloading the song either. I was merely trying to track down the words to share the song in a worship service, and it was basically a scripture paraphrase anyway! What that Christian publisher/record company did was so unnecessary, and I was left feeling really angry and frustrated. Reluctantly, I had to choose a different song. As a result that writer and his song will now never be a blessing in our church. It's sad, and I have to conclude that in this case a worship ministry came off second best to commercial considerations and the self-interest of Christian business people. Is this an isolated incident? I don't think it would be.
Hold on to your hairpiece now, but personally I cannot see how something could be Christian , with the full meaning of that term, and commercial as well. To me those terms are contradictory. I do not mean that Christians should not engage in business, or that all commerce is ungodly! That would obviously be ludicrous. What do I mean? I reject the presumption that the Holy Spirit of God will dwell in something unclean, and I believe commercial music is unclean because it's not pure. It's neither art nor worship, but something impure and in every way inferior.
That's why I think it's ultimately incompatible with God's character, and His values . Could commercial music have , exhibit, or manifest His integrity and character? How could the Lord Jesus Christ dwell in the midst of something so rooted in, and so fundamentally of this world system? Again, this doesn't mean God cannot use some of it, or that it's all without any merits at all; remembering that the good exists. Nor is this a rejection of music itself in any way, shape or form, i.e. philosophically, or stylistically, etc. It is a rejection of gross commerciality in music. Can something which exists for reasons of financial gain be intrinsically beautiful, or blessed? Can it have value even as art? I say no.
This is a difficult issue no doubt. You may tell me how valid it is for Christian people to earn a living from their music and ministry-related enterprises, and I'm sure it would be entirely agreeable. There's a side to it that is legitimate, and I know your argument would have a lot of merit. I am directly affected as a Christian musician myself. But what does GOD really think? If we examine what the scriptures tell us about the money-changers and those buying and selling things in the temple we will see something quite shocking. These were people who provided a service and help to God's people, and would be considered a legitimate ‘ministry'. However, their ‘ministry' was for an ungodly gain.
Whether it was intrinsically wrong, or had become wrong after starting right is open to debate. However, what is abundantly clear is Jesus' profound anger at their presence in the temple. He not only did NOT approve of it, He was filled with righteous anger at what was taking place; so much so, He made an improvised whip and drove them out of the temple! He overturned their tables, and scattered the unclean contents; no doubt making a huge mess! He was really angry! What was the problem? Enterprise ? God's people being in business? Yes and no! Of course the problem was not business itself, but where and how the business was done; they had made the temple of God “a den of thieves ”!!
Jesus' words and actions here seem to bring into focus the incompatibility of “worship” and “business”. Jesus elsewhere declared our worship can only be to one: either to the living and true God, or the god of ‘mammon'. He will not accept impurity in our worship. What could be worse than ungodliness in the name of “serving God”, or greed in the name of “worship” or “ministry”? Their concerns were for merely the external elements of worship, as if doing things alone was enough; the how and why mattering not. God surely hates it when we do things simply by the numbers, without any true devotion and holiness. I believe it also shows He will call to account those with impure motives, who seek to use His name and His people as a source of self-enrichment.
In any case, through this incredible incident we can certainly see what Jesus thought of ‘spiritual' business in His Father's “house of prayer”! The Gospel of Mark says that He wouldn't even allow people to carry ‘merchandise' through the temple area! I find this whole story utterly amazing, completely stunning, and food for some very serious thought. Note that this remarkable story is recorded in all four gospels: in Matthew 21v12-13, Mark 11v15-17, Luke 19v45-46, and John 2v13-16.
How far do we go in demanding our “rights”? How many of us are making some kind of living from the ‘Ministry', and how many care more about the living than the ‘Ministry'? Can we explain this story from the life of Jesus away as not relevant for us? Is there some way to justify ourselves in His sight? Please understand that I am not judging any individual. We all make mistakes, and I'm certainly not hunting for anyone's head. I don't apologize for asking questions though, because like you hopefully do, I care far more about issues of integrity and purity than I do about offending the ‘moneychangers'. I wonder just how many of our ‘tables' would be left standing if Jesus walked through our churches today?
Is this an extreme view? I don't think so. I think that our music and ‘worship' needs heart-searching and self-examination at least as much as any other aspect of our lives, which according to the scriptures is regularly and constantly! (1 Corinthians 11v28.) As for the music itself, it never was and never should be about appearances, or the type of music, etc. It always was , and always should be about the heart.
It's incredibly ironic that judging from the recent history of Christian teaching and attitudes about music, it seems that music is a thing that deserves extreme scrutiny and examination! Where is this scrutiny then, when it comes to the actual motives and production values of the music coming out thick and fast from the churches today?
DOES AN AUDIENCE NEED TO BE A CROWD?
Apart from the horrifying idea of mass-producing cash-cow “worship” CDs (the thought of it makes me cringe), I wonder about the direction of a lot of the CCM I referred to a little earlier. I'm sure the intentions are good, but some may be trying hard to communicate in a musical language they think a lot of people will like. It may offend some, but I believe this thinking is actually a commercial vision, not an artistic and creative one. I wouldn't presume to judge someone else's motives, or automatically doubt anyone's sincerity, but for music to have the integrity it must have to transcend worldly values, it needs to be made with artistic and creative vision, by people unafraid to shun the “formula for ‘success'” in search of higher values. By this I mean both creative/artistic values, and spiritual/ethical ones.
Of course there is also the reality that some make awful, commercial Christian Pop music because they really don't know any better. This is highly likely in many cases. People usually don't choose to be shallow or corny, and a person who is fed a life-long diet of commercial rubbish will understandably end up thinking that's what music is all about.
I'd love to see Christian music have a true renaissance. Could it happen within the context of church life? I hope I'm wrong, but any great Christian composers and musicians alive today probably know better then to expect many of their fellow Christians to welcome and appreciate their music. It's sad, because sterile pop music and commercial dross will probably be welcomed with open arms. This is not unusual. It seems to be human nature, and the same scenario exists in the secular world: crap is welcomed by the many, and art is understood and loved by the few.
Regarding Christian musical endeavour though, I'd like to stress that of course a person is not wrong to try and “reach” as many people as possible. It is, after all, our calling to win souls to Christ, and also to minister to one another in the Body of Christ ( i.e. “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”). Yet how we do this, and the methods we employ are still important. How we conduct ourselves and live our lives really does matter, and let's be in no doubt that there are values more noble than those which drive the commercial music business! Not having the “almighty dollar” (an interesting pun) as our guiding light would be good for starters! How about honesty too - being real ; something commercial music is just not interested in. That's because image, fashion (both visual and musical), and great dance steps are far more important aren't they!
Can you be honest and true to God and to yourself if you're busy being attractive to the marketplace? Jumping on the bandwagon of some current trend would seem to be one of the most pathetic and loathsome things a person could do, yet there seems to be no shortage of willing, very fashionable sheep! This is despite the whole reality of it being so temporary anyway! Yes, I do believe we need to communicate on a level people will understand; children's ministry for example. Yet making music with the lowest common denominator as your standard because it's what sells is, for me , like lowering the moral standards God demands of us just because that is what's prevalent in our surrounding environment. Unthinkable, right? - but is it? I have to ask: is popularity your guiding light?
Let me stress again that we all know there are exceptions; there is music both excellent yet also commercial. You may be able to think right away of several good examples, but it would take me a while. As for our music as Christians - whatever musical dialect we speak, let's strive to keep our motives and our music pure! I wish every Christian brother and sister involved in any kind of music ministry or career every success. However, I wish them the kind which lasts forever .
I am convinced that music, especially for us as Christians, should be filled with the same integrity God expects from us in all other areas of our lives. We are deceiving ourselves if we think sowing one type of seed could ever produce another, better quality type of fruit! Could anything less than pure motives produce any good ‘fruit' of any kind anyway? Even though God in His goodness can still use us, and will use us because He wants to reach others so much, doubt lingers about any lasting value in efforts not entirely pure in motive. If you think “wood, hay, and stubble” you will get my meaning. (1 Corinthians 3v10-15.)
All of this soul-searching probably goes against the basic premise of nearly every Pop record producer and “artist” who has ever lived, and I may be one of the few who thinks this way! I can almost hear the cries of: “Bernard, you can't be serious!?” Actually, yes I am! However, I would almost have to write a book to go into all the necessary balances and clarifications to what I'm saying here. For example, it's not wrong to be successful or popular, and popularity doesn't necessarily imply a commercial sell-out. Nor is this a criticism of the recording industry as a whole. Recordings are vital and important for many reasons, and when the creating is done there is of course the need to recoup the costs; never mind any profits, which would obviously be very nice.
I hope the reader will understand these are not issues for me. I'm talking about two separate and opposing things: on one hand we have music in two valid forms: ministry, and art. Here, music and integrity matter most, and success is measured by quality, originality, and substance. On the other hand we have pseudo-music in the form of commercial pop, with it's emphasis on anything and everything but actual music, and in which the music is in effect almost incidental; taking a minor role (pardon the pun, again) to fashion, etc., etc. Here, “success” is measured in units sold, and dollar values are the only values you'll find.
The other side of the coin
There is, however, a ‘commercial’ aspect in all music in the sense that musicians need to make a living! Coupled with this is the fact that at the end of the day musicians basically just want to play. We might have no outlet for our preferred music, so what can we do? We welcome an opportunity to play, even if the gig is not our “cup of tea”; and who knows, maybe we can throw in a couple of good songs or arrangements! Compromise is necessary here; in the good sense of the word. This is quite a different situation from that of those with recording careers who sell out or are forced by record companies into a commercial agenda. I suppose all musicians and singers must come to terms with these things, and with what matters most to them at some point. I’m sure there’s a unique balance for each individual to be found in there somewhere.
Closely related to the realities of financial survival, is that musicians and artists also have an accessibility factor to consider. By this I mean that all musicians need someone to be listening. Even music on the absolute fringes of artistic circles has some degree of accessibility. There is no known language that only one person speaks! Obviously we can only communicate to others in a common language; whether it’s a spoken or artistic language. However, I believe some go too far in trying to speak the musical lingua franca of the day. This is significant, because today’s ultra-commercial Popular music (again, this is as I see it) is so shallow, and soul-less.
It’s also true that there have always been trends in music and art, and every serious artist of their times would have been aware of them. In today’s popular music though, these ‘trends’ have mutated into massively shifting sands, and those without any true musical or spiritual bearings could get hopelessly lost. The loss of integrity suffered by someone chasing a commercial vision could even be damaging to the effectiveness of their Christian testimony; I stress, could be damaging, and perhaps not. However, I believe it will diminish their integrity as musicians, and by embracing commercial values someone could render themselves irrelevant to any real musical audience; and perhaps hinder any true ministry aspirations.
The values driving pop culture are worthless, and the music is tasteless! Why would you want to be a part of something so nasty Christian brother and sister?! Is it because you want to reach people? Thank God you care! Is it because we are the ‘salt of the earth’, and you see the decay I speak of? Some may see that as all the more reason to be involved in the Popular music circus. There’s a lot of merit to this argument if the music is beautiful and exceeds the crap of the world. There is a field “white unto harvest” out there, that’s for sure. Yet it would be quite a big task to be an active part of something so hollow, and despite that to somehow come through with a message and a testimony of integrity. I still feel that any message of truth and beauty would be better expressed in music of truth and beauty. By now I’m sure it’s abundantly clear that I don’t believe Popular music or culture has anything to offer in that department. However, if Popular music is your thing I sincerely wish you well.
The electronic nightmare
Closely related to this ultra-commercialization of popular music (it always was commercial), is it’s dehumanization. For some of us, a chronic overuse of programming, means a kind of death to the very nature of music. Machines making music instead of people is, for me, a symptom of humanity lost. Instead of a drummer, or keyboard player, we now have a technological device programmed by someone possibly unable him or herself to even play much, if anything at all in real time. For me, alienation and a certain kind of sorrow follows this loss of what is most fundamental in music: the fact that it’s skilfully and actually played – by people.
Even apart from the programming, it seems to me that there has been generally such a tasteless overuse of synthesizers in popular music. Instead of an acoustic guitar, double bass, or electric bass, we get a synthesizer imitating those instruments. Instead of a string or horn section, or even just a flute, etc., we get a synthesizer. Instead of drums and real percussion? - we get a drum machine, etc., etc., ad nauseum…
I was pleasantly surprised by something I read in an insightful interview with the great American musician Ralph Towner. I was engrossed reading about Ralph’s thoughts on the synthesizer; an instrument he has used on his recordings. I was also amazed to find him saying some of the very things I had been thinking about and sharing with friends. Among other things, he said: “... the synthesizer is at its best when it generates sounds that only it can produce, rather than being imitative.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Personal tastes come into play of course. I know not everyone hates those awful keyboard ‘brass’ parts, and not everyone feels as sick as I do when I hear synthesizer ‘bass’ lines, but the synthesizer is capable of making amazing original sounds; why use it to make trashy imitations of acoustic instruments? Even though sampling technology has copied real acoustic instruments digitally, it has not yet managed to give those sounds life and soul. Even if it can digitally imitate the nuances of human performance, what’s the point? To prove how clever we are? To cut production costs? There is, conversely, a real price to pay for such a ‘saving’; there’s horrible, soul-less music just for starters…
It’s kind of like getting all the nutrients you need from a pill and never experiencing the pleasure of food. Yes, food is messy and troublesome. It requires a lot of time and effort, but it’s wonderful, and it’s real! Electronic instruments, per se, are amazing things and music made on them (as opposed to by them) is entirely legitimate. The time when I question things is when there’s no humanity in sight. I suppose it’s all about how we use or utilize things isn’t it? The electronic instruments themselves are not to blame. For me, they’re fine; in fact they’re wonderful - as long as they are actually played by someone!
Having said that, I would still rather hear acoustic instruments any day. In one article I came across Jazz great Keith Jarrett likened his experience with electronic instruments to eating plastic broccoli! I can relate to that! I read another musician’s response to criticism of programming in music, where he argued that it’s still a person pressing the buttons, and they’re putting their heart into it. That’s a good point really, but personally I have to say I still taste the plastic, no matter how carefully it’s created or how clever it might be. There’s something missing; something that’s not right. It’s not creativity; that’s definitely still there. It’s not Art, because art could use any medium at all. I think what’s missing is humanity: there’s no soul! Machines don’t have a soul, and are incapable of having one. Any soul found in music with synthesizers will definitely have come from people singing, or playing any acoustic instruments that are also present. Check it out and tell me if this is not so!
This is not the only way to see things. There are people I respect who are strong proponents of electronic music. There’s no doubt the synthesizer is a valid modern instrument, and is really quite amazing. To my ear though it’s been so abused and misused there’s no desire to hear it anymore. Technology is capable of good things in music, and I have heard some of it; but what once may have been an exciting new frontier in music has turned out, for the most part, to be a soul-less wilderness.
The loss of humanity is a major social affliction in our modern, developed world. To import this problem into one of the very things that should address it, and even help turn it around is sad indeed. By this I mean that music and art help us to keep our humanity strong. Sad then, if our Art becomes as tasteless as the society it should inform and enlighten. Electronic music people, especially keyboard players, please take note: you cannot digitally sample our human heart and soul - and it really shows!
Does all this ‘fundamentalist’ complaining lead anywhere? For instance, what does it mean in terms of what I do? As a musician I want to share my music, so to some extent that ‘commercial’ factor is there for me too. However, there’s just no way I could play music I loathe or don’t believe in. I don’t condemn any musician who does, because the bills have got to be paid. It’s not that I hate all music with a backbeat or simple harmonies, or that the music I like is from another planet! It’s just the awful smell of worldliness in commercial music that makes me so revolted by it. By God’s grace I’ll continue to worship Him with my guitar and voice, and enjoy the legacy of great music He has allowed mankind to create. I’ll also continue looking for opportunities to play and create music with like-minded people; I know they’re out there somewhere!
This has been a long article; believe me I know! I have read some of it to my wife, and we have had some pretty heated discussions! She feels differently about some of it, so it will be of no surprise to me if you do too. In any case, thank you for reading. In the meantime the pop culture machine keeps pumping out it’s product, and the business fat cats and the mega ‘stars’ still rub their hands together with glee; even as true music gets more expensive and rare. People are still eating ‘plastic vegetables’, and I note that they still seem to enjoy them. As for me? I want to be part of something better. Right now, I think I’ll grab my acoustic guitar and head for the back yard…
© 2004, by BERNARD MCDONAGH