What do you mean, Preachy?
Robert Brown Commentary October 2014
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2014 All Rights Reserved
When I was eighteen, I recorded for the first time in a commercial studio. I was living in Georgia, and I had written a lead guitar part to a songwriter’s tune that he really liked, so he invited me down with him, and asked me to also lay down some bass tracks. I happily obliged. I was welcomed in the home where he grew up, and I got the opportunity to meet his mother. His mother was immediately identifiable as deeply Christian, as the religious symbols and holy kitsch that populated her living room testified loudly.
After a short introduction, I remember her asking me, as she lounged on the couch, what kind of music I played. I gladly explained that I played all different kinds of music, that I had played rock, country, jazz, and that my latest interest was this thing called progressive rock, that incorporates many different styles, tempos, time signatures, passages, and that it has-
“Well where’s your Christian music?” she cried. Her tone was sharp, sudden, and accusatory. It shut me up.
I don’t remember how I replied, but I don’t think I satisfied her. I do, however, remember the realization that there is no such thing as Christian music.
Music is subject to numerous labels, and these labels give listeners broad categories for sound. Country music has an identifying twang and uses a particular instrumentation not often found elsewhere (fiddle, banjo, steel guitar, mandolin). Heavy metal usually involves overdriven guitars, double bass pedaling, and an abrasive approach. Disco music has its characteristic four-on-the-floor beat, wah-pedaled guitar, and syncopated bass. These labels give us a broad understanding of what we can expect from the instrumentation and overall sound. A strange and unhelpful label that maintains currency is “Christian” music.
Music itself cannot be religious anymore than math can, as the basic elements of music can be expressed mathematically. A chord progression of A, D, E can be no more Christian than a pattern of 1, 4, 5. The label simply does not apply.
There are Christian lyrics and Christian intentions and Christian receptions but never Christian music. Just because a particular set of people used music for a religious purpose does not make it religious music. Many old Christian hymns are songs written to secular music. John Wesley's "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" is a famous example, borrowed from Dryden's and Purcell's King Arthur (Venus is the original singer). So if you played the melody of "Fairest Isle" to a Methodist, the hearer would may well have a religious interpretation. If you played it to a Dryden scholar, the hearer may well have a secular interpretation.
The market for Christian music in the United States has been sustained by listeners who enjoy a certain style of music, but prefer (or require) sanitary lyrics possessing uplifting spiritual themes and biblical concepts. There aren’t categories of music for other lyrical subgroups. One will search in vain to locate an “Objectivist Music” section (where Rush would be) or “Anti-Capitalist Music” (where Pink Floyd might linger). One obvious reason for “Christian Music” existing as its own subgenre, despite the adjective not describing the noun at all, is that popular Christian lyricists rarely sing about other subjects. And that is something I regard as a general failing: Wouldn’t a Christian lyricist want to address secular issues and topics, providing a perspective that may be at odds with the mainstream view?
A common criticism leveled against progressive rock music with Christian lyrics is that such lyrics are “preachy.” But do these lyrics often contain self-righteous or tedious moral advice? Usually this isn’t the case, as the progressive Christian musician pens lyrics of reverence, personal experience, (biblical) narrative, supplication, and thanksgiving.
Jon Anderson of Yes, to cite a well-known example, frequently pens spiritual lyrics, and his interviews indicate a pantheistic view of the cosmos. Certain lyrics he sings can be decidedly preachy, even though listeners would be unlikely to use such a term. Consider the line from “In the Presence Of:” “If we were flowers, we would worship the sun, so why not now?” This lyric performs the same function as an invitational, inviting the listener to a spiritual experience. However, it is not vilified as “preachy.” Imagine if this lyric had come from Neal Morse, but with two slight alterations: “If we were righteous, we would worship the Son, so why not now?” I daresay Morse would be subject to derision for being too preachy (as he often is).
The truth is that lyricists of all persuasions, religious or otherwise, write “preachy” lyrics. Consider Rush’s “Anthem,” which asserts: “Live for yourself...there's no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.” Pink Floyd released the anti-war, anti-Thatcher album The Final Cut. I love these pieces of art, even if the lyrics imply (or outright state) that the listener is wrong for believing differently than the songwriter. Is that preachy? I don’t think so. That’s participating in the forum of human expression, in which everyone is welcome.
But do those ideas make the music religious, philosophical, or political? Not any more than you could serve me a cold glass of Christian beer…although if you’ve enjoyed Chimay, you might try to argue that such a thing exists! Cheers!