Christian rock rises again on the charts, on the road, on the sea
The nearly 40,000 people at Anaheim’s Angel Stadium raised their hands toward the sky, enduring triple-digit heat to receive a message of hope delivered by thunderous drums and amplified guitars.
In the stands, children swayed alongside the elderly, while teenagers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Bible passages danced with abandon.
“Time has faded and we see him face to face,” sang Bart Millard, the ruddy-faced frontman of MercyMe, as fans nodded their assent. “Every doubt erased, forever we will worship the King.”
The jubilance at this recent two-day Harvest Crusade is just one indication that Christian rock is experiencing a resurrection. The others? Increasing prominence in the mainstream pop charts, a robust and growing tour business and, most important, a surge in creativity.
For three weeks in a row last month, the Billboard 200 included a Christian album debuting in the Top 10. Lecrae’s “Gravity” entered at No. 3, and TobyMac’s “Eye on It” did even better, soaring straight to No. 1 in its first week of release. Until TobyMac, a Christian album hadn’t debuted at No. 1 since 1997.
Superstar acts like Justin Bieber and Adele still dominate the music business, but Christian rock has carved out a solid and increasingly lucrative niche. Three Christian rock tours — Winter Jam, Casting Crowns and the Rock & Worship Roadshow — were in the top 100 grossing music tours of the first half of 2012, selling over $14 million worth of tickets.
And despite the music industry’s chronic slump, Christian album sales were down less than 1% this year compared with the same time period last year (according to Nielsen SoundScan), while overall album sales suffered a 4% slide. In January, Rock & Worship will launch an inaugural cruise from Florida to the Bahamas.
The healthy state of Christian rock is partly due to a loyal fan base that can be counted on to buy recordings and concert tickets. But the recent revival also reflects what fans and music industry insiders alike agree has been a marked improvement in the quality of the music.
Christian acts historically have fought the perception that they’re attaching faith-based messages to watered-down versions of secular styles. MercyMe, though, plays melodically sophisticated, rhythmically propulsive rock that stands up to the competition on pop radio and reliably inspires live audiences to clap along. The Dallas band’s tunes, including “Move,” “I Can Only Imagine” and “The Hurt & the Healer,” reflect its worldview no less convincingly than, say, Jack White’s songs reflect his.
“These guys say, ‘You let us come out there and take two hours of your time, we’ll rock your face off and do it in the name of Jesus,’” says Trent Theobald, a 38-year-old police officer from Speedway, Ind., who’s been attending MercyMe shows since 2002.
In the past, songs devoted to faith have proved of little interest to those outside the flock, but there are signs that the new wave of Christian rock is drawing a broader fan base. The bulk of first-week sales of “Gravity” and “Eye on It” came from secular outlets such as Best Buy and iTunes, instead of Christian-oriented retailers, notes Keith Caulfield, who helps chart music sales at Billboard magazine.
“They are finding success in a space in which it’s increasingly difficult to find success,” Caulfield says.
TobyMac, who’s been making his living as a musician since his days with the Christian rap and pop outfit DC Talk in the 1990s, says he wouldn’t expect people to pay for music just because they like the message.
“As much as I’m a Christian, I’ve always wanted my music to fall on open ears,” he says. “I’m writing from my perspective, just like any writer would about their set of beliefs or the things that upset them or how they think love should work. I want it to be accessible to people — even those who might not agree with my spiritual walk.”
The state-of-the-art sound of “Eye on It” backs up TobyMac’s claim: It opens with a bouncy electro groove as slick as those devised by Top 40 hitmakers such as Dr. Luke, who works with Britney Spears. Later, the album’s title track throbs with the hard-edged textures of chart-conscious dubstep.
At the same time, the producers and songwriters who help create that sound come from a tightknit network of talent and labels partially based in Nashville.
“I didn’t go to anybody and say, ‘Hey, got any tracks?’” TobyMac says. “Some of those songs [by secular pop producers] inspire me, but I feel like with the guys I came up with, we can create what we need to create together. The talent is right here.”
That proud self-sufficiency — or imposed isolation, depending upon your perspective — represents the “essential contradiction of evangelical music,” according to Andrew Beaujon, author of “Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock.”
“There’s an ongoing tension among Christians over the best way to win people over,” says Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “Some say you need to go forth in the world and hit people with a heavy message: ‘If you die tonight, where you will end up tomorrow?’
“Others say you should just go out and do the right thing, and when people want to know what inspires you, you tell them. That’s a tension you see in this music.”
It’s a faith-based twist on the credibility issue that has always obsessed musicians. “A lot of these guys really idolize U2,” Beaujon says, referring to the superstar Irish group whose catalog runneth over with temples and God’s country and moments of surrender. “But U2 consciously avoided the Christian-music market. For whatever reason, we’ve yet to see a band successfully straddle both worlds.”
Theobald, the MercyMe fan, thinks that could change.
“I take my kids to shows, and I’ve even taken my parents, who are in their mid 60s,” he says. “Everyone enjoys it. Sometimes folks don’t want to give Christian artists a chance. But I haven’t seen too many people leave a show like, ‘Eh.’”
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