Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Any noise can be joyful

A few months ago I sat with some friends at a bar/restaurant, mostly just watching them eat and talking with them about random topics a plenty. As is typical for anyone speaking to me for longer than five minutes, we started discussing music. I mentioned the fact the term "rock and roll" originated as a blues euphemism for sex. It surprised a lot of my friends when I told them about a female blues singer moaning about how her man of choice rocks her with one steady roll. One of my friends laughed and said, "That kind of gives the term 'Christian rock' a whole new meaning!"

I greeted this revelation with the sudden eruption of laughter I tend to unleash whenever I deem it appropriate (and sometimes when it's wholly inappropriate). What a hilarious paradox: Christian rock. If we were to be very literal and tie "rock and roll" back to its linguistic origins, how could Christianity coexist with rocking and rolling without venturing into heresy? Should the term apply only to songs that forbid you from getting down and dirty until marriage? Should it apply to music that celebrates the joy of childbirth? And what about ascetic Christians? Are they doomed to listen to nothing but sexless hymns for the remainder of their lives?

But facetiousness aside, when my friend mentioned this to me I gained a firmer grasp on why rock and roll has been so chastised by Christians in the past. The fact of the matter is the term "rock and roll" was initially popularized as slang for shagging, with or without a wedding ring (most likely without). And the rock and roll genre itself certainly revels in its fair share of debauchery -- everything from Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" to Chuck Berry's "I Want to Be Your Driver" to the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" extol various pleasures of the flesh. I wonder what it must have been like for a 1950s minister to see Elvis Presley dance the way he did and sing lyrics like this one from his cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll": "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in the seafood store/I can look at you 'til you ain't no child no more." These are all great songs in their own right, but I can kind of understand why churches in the 1950s and 1960s were calling it the "devil's music."

And then ... Larry Norman. Those of you who are fans of Christian rock would be much obliged to listen this guy -- without him, the genre basically wouldn't exist. Larry Norman was the first notable musician to sing explicitly Christian lyrics over rock and roll, and like most genre originators, no one who has followed him in his footsteps has quite reached the bar he raised. (Sounds a bit like Christ, if you ask me.) I have only heard his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet once at, but that was enough to make me a fan. In an eerie, almost childlike voice and over songs that alternated between stalwart hard rock and intimate balladry, he would sing thoughtfully theological lyrics about remaining strong in the face of crushing breakups, putting love above all other acts of righteousness, Christians' lack of preparation for the Rapture, TV broadcasting's dour portrayal of the world, walking away from sexual immorality and his own not-so-high opinions of scientific "progress." My personal favorite from that album is one called "The Outlaw," which retells the story of Jesus and paints him as the righteous rebel he really was during his lifetime. But the one most relevant to this blog post is "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" This two-and-a-half-minute track is unapologetically rockabilly (with slap-back delay and everything!), over which Norman basically laid down his mission statement: "I ain't knocking the hymns/Just give me a song that has a beat."

From what I understand, Larry Norman was pretty controversial during his heyday. Not only was he arguably the most explicitly Christian out of any rock & roller in the 1960s and 1970s, but he was the most rock & roll out of any Christian musician. I've read that a lot of churches wouldn't book him as a performer because they felt his music wasn't "Christian" enough -- his holy message was theoretically negated by the fact he sang it over music many Christians deemed unholy.

I can't help but shake my head at the eerie parallel between Norman's struggles and those of so many Christian artists today who are not deemed "real Christian artists" because their music doesn't fit into the rigid stylistic formats of CCM radio. As someone who sometimes feels like one of those rejected artists, my point is this -- there is no such thing as one style of music that is more "Christian" than the other. Jesus commanded us not to judge others, and if we are to hold true to that statement we should allow everyone to sing the good news in whatever genre they please, regardless of the genre's origins. Think about the upbeat, communal tunes sang in African-American-oriented churches; what we erroneously know as "gospel music" today (shouldn't any music about God be thought of as gospel?) originated among African slaves singing their praises to the Lord who would eventually deliver them from the fields they worked tirelessly in.

When I worked as a journalist, I once interviewed a youth minister for a piece I wrote about his church's upcoming hip-hop service. He explained how he grew up in a culture where hip-hop was all the rage, and was ecstatic to find out that there are, in fact, MCs who rap about God instead of drugs and violence. Larry Norman-style, he said he has nothing against the older traditional hymns, but they don't speak to him like hip-hop does. I think this is an amazing idea -- in a world where so many people are still convinced that rap isn't even music, this ministry (whose name I cannot remember offhand) is taking a stance against such narrow-mindedness and offering an innovative form of evangelism.

It is outright arrogant and indirectly racist and agist to think that hymns written by white Europeans and played on a piano or organ are the only music God appreciates. There are countless different denominations of Christianity, and none of them are right or wrong; they just emphasize different facets of the same message. This is how I think Christians should approach whatever they do in their lives, music or otherwise. I consider it our duty as Christians to create things in God's name, and the Word of God is far too complex and frankly far too good to be confined to one style of expression. The Lord doesn't care about what your noise sounds like -- just as long as it's joyful.

Upon doing a little research (thanks, Wikipedia!), I just realized that "rock and roll" only originated as a blues euphemism for sex in the world of secular music. It existed before that in "The Camp Meeting Jubilee," an anonymously recorded spiritual with these lyrics: "We've been rocking and rolling in your arms/Rocking and rolling in your arms/In the arms of Moses."

Maybe we're giving the devil too much credit -- maybe God had all the good music in the first place.


  1. This was a really interesting read. Makes me think I should be more open minded when my brother makes me listen to Underoath when I ride in his car. Maybe not.

  2. Hahahaha, I was actually considering mentioning Underoath in this post! I think the most extreme band I've ever heard in that regard is Living Sacrifice: Christian death metal. But whether you sing, scream, mumble, growl, coo or intone the Word of God, it's certainly better than other kinds of speech. Living Sacrifice could have been Cannibal Corpse.

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  4. Underoath sucks. End of that discussion.

    (Kidding, but seriously, I think they're just terrible.)

    I took a "history of rock and roll" class at MCC and it was utterly fascinating. The professor pointed out that explicit sexual themes were present in a LOT of rhythm and blues (12-bar R&B) as far back as the 1920's and 1930's. If I'm not mistaken, it was Bill Haley & The Comets who changed a couple of lyrics in "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" and just about ripped off a black musician who wrote it. Haley was the first white "rock and roller", and people just went nuts. Then Elvis Presley came right along and put a cute face (with gyrating hips) on the music, and the rest is history.

    Cheers. --Nick Greenwood