At my 11th birthday party, I unwrapped my very first CD. I’d had a few tapes before (shout-out to my beloved green Lion King soundtrack!), listened to my parents’ old Simon & Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris albums, and flipped through the radio a bit, but this was the first time I had personally owned what felt like grown up music.
It was Jaci Velasquez’s Crystal Clear, cool blue cover with a bright yellow disc inside. I had never heard any of her songs, but I had seen her albums in the Christian Book Distributors catalog we got in the mail each month. Even before I really started listening to contemporary Christian music, or CCM, I started circling awesome-seeming CDs in the catalogs, compiling a sort of wishlist (and totally judging the bands by their covers).
Crystal Clear was the gateway drug that took me from catalog critiquer to 24/7 CCM aficionado. I tuned every radio in the house to K-Love, swapped CDs with friends, and immersed myself in these songs of confident faith, soul transformation, and cultural rebellion.
“There is nothing that we can’t do / There is nothing we can’t face”
“Now it’s crystal clear I’m falling for you / Now that I can see the mystery’s revealed”
“Wake the neighbors, get the word out / Come on, crank up the music, climb a mountain and shout”
“The voice of truth tells me a different story / And the voice of truth says ‘Do not be afraid!’”
Suddenly, music was a way to carve out an identity and connect with my peers. I hadn’t been into music in elementary school, when other kids began to become more aware of pop culture; I was busy reading books and having imaginary adventures with Luke Skywalker.
But now I felt much cooler knowing songs and CDs and lyrics. It was nice to have bands to list when my more secular friends talked about their favorites: I may not know any lyrics to the Backstreet Boys, but have you guys heard of Switchfoot? No, I didn’t really like the new Spice Girls song, but I’m really into ZOEgirl! Nah, I don’t want to go to Warped Tour, but my friends and I did just get tickets for the Newsboys and Superchick concert!
It was a weird mix: Fitting in by listening to music that claimed it was all about nonconformity, about being a freak — you know, a Jesus Freak. Bobbing our heads and swaying our hips and screaming out lyrics just like nonreligious kids, but in the name of Jesus.
The music sounded similar to more secular tunes, just a little perkier and a few years behind, but it carried the weight of heaven and hell, we were told. This was important music. This music glorified God. That music would help us build a better kingdom on Earth.
The car drive to AWANA camp seemed eternal. It was the summer before 9th grade maybe, or 10th. After a couple hours of obnoxious refrains of “Baby Shark” and giggly rounds of MASH, and a pit stop in Boise for lunch, we six or seven campers realized, packed in some church’s 16-passenger van with far more luggage than we needed, that we were almost there. Only 45-minutes, maybe an hour left. It was exciting, sure, but also ominous — these were the final moments until next weekend that we could use electronics. A whole week with the only songs being those we would sing, serious, in chapel or shout, silly, around the camp square.
We pulled out our Walkmans, flipping through our overfull CD cases and fretting over which precious anthems we would make our last. Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right but Three Do? Declaration? Where Do We Go From Here? No, Collide. Of course Collide, with my favorites: “Savior,” “Obsession,” “Collide.” Those were my songs.
“There’s something deep inside / That keeps my faith alive”
I put on my headphones and turned it up, staring at the hilly green of central Idaho flying by.
When all that mattered was how on fire we were, how devoted, how passionate, how in love with Jesus we were, these songs reinforced an ideal of Christian youth that seems forced and silly now: not just committed to but obsessed with our faith, total Jesus Freaks uncaring of what others thought, always ready to worship with pep and circumstance. There was nothing worth thinking about outside of faith. We didn’t sing about relationships, money, depression, school, or growing up. We sang about Jesus.
Music is a rite of passage and identity staple for most American kids, but it had a special significance for us, because it wasn’t just about what songs we liked — it was what those songs represented. We were part of a revolution, changing the world with family-friendly lyrics and Dove Award-winning purchases. We were counter-cultural.
The evangelical youth culture machine kept churning out books, speakers, lyrics about how brave and different we were, how we were a generation standing up for what we believed and thought, bucking trends and redeeming culture. But we weren’t bucking trends — we were just following slightly different ones than the unchurched kids. We were listening to cheaper versions of the same music, jumping awkwardly to the same concert strobe lights.
The promise was this: By creating a subculture mimicking broader American culture, by listening to love songs about Jesus instead of mortal men, by rejecting Taylor Swift and embracing Stacie Orrico, we were shining a light to a dark world.
It wasn’t bad, really. The music was kind of generic and uniform, but it was safe and we enjoyed it. It was fine — but it wasn’t the great revolution the merchandising claimed it was. We didn’t change any worlds by listening to Plus One instead of N*Sync, we just supported a different record company.
I loved Skillet and, yes, Jaci Velasquez. But looking back, it’s crystal clear we embraced a marketing scheme.
I aged out of CCM the last couple years of high school, as I gradually, guiltily let go of the need to seem constantly upbeat and unshaken about my faith. The lyrics about happy happy, joy joy and let’s transform our world still had a place in my life, but not all the time. I slowly realized faith doesn’t have to be a masquerade where everything must be positive and encouraging. I started finding meaning, truth, and a whole lot of fun in secular music, too, and often a deeper resonance in my heart and mind than with the at times faux upbeatness and unshakenness of CCM.
When I arrived at my little private college, I discovered a sort of funny rule: In the dorm bathrooms, we could only listen to Christian music. It wasn’t the hugest deal, but it was one of those things that seemed ridiculous after a while: We seriously can’t turn to a top 40 station occasionally? No Adele? No Beyonce? No Sinatra?
One can not always be in the spirit for pep and praise. One cannot always be in the mood for major chords and uplifting lyrics, the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. But whether we felt like worshiping or not, as we sat in those stalls, we heard “Come Together” and “Blessed Be Your Name” a thousand times. After a while, we mostly associated K-Love with toilets.
I don’t listen to CCM now, though I don’t hold some big grudge against it, either. I formed my identity around those songs. I played those albums on repeat. I felt those lyrics in my veins during the fevered posturing of adolescence. But I honestly can’t say whether that music made me a better (or worse) person.
Despite all the choruses filled with promises of zeal, the industry was too cautious to be revolutionary. It was sterilized. I loved it, but it wasn’t a trail-blazing revival in the way it pretended to be.
It was just music, and we were just kids, replaying our favorite songs on our Walkmans, trying to seem cool and, sometimes, listening for whispers of a better world.