Sufjan Steven’s The Age of Adz and his repetitive use of f*** at the album’s climax (“I Want to be Well”) seem to signal a moderate sea change in the Christian music industry. A gradually increasing number of “Christian artists” have decided to slip in (or, in some cases, shout) the occasional explicative, quite a different path from Michael W. Smith searching for his place in the world.
This has raised a number of questions and concerns that, to be honest, I’m going to avoid like the latest Hoobastank album. Instead, I’m hoping to briefly summarize a couple of specific cases and make some observations about the industry’s reactions.
Derek Webb is one of the best examples. He recently created a substantial media stir—but one which stayed completely within the Christian music industry—when he used the word s*** on his album Stockholm Syndrome. Since Sufjan’s most recent album has been reviewed by a much more mainstream section of the press than Webb’s, but, due to his widely-know faith commitment, his twenty-odd “bombs” also upset and confused many Christian listeners, I’ve spent the last few days looking into the reactions of their respective audiences. And those reactions have been different—different, in fact, in the extreme.
Of course, before we analyze those reactions, we’re going to have to wade through some Youth Camp drama about who is and who isn’t a bona fide “Christian band.” There are those who really wanted U2 (for instance) to be labeled “Christian” (at least by other Christians), and there’s the once-dominant school of thought which holds that “foul language” is the obvious litmus test for whether a given musician “will make it to heaven.” A recent post I found on a Christian message board is par for the course: “…they said the F word. And I’m like really disappointed, because I really thought they were [a Christian band].”
Unless we’re talking about a praise band or Geoff Moore and The Distance, there’s almost always disagreement among Evangelical youth about whether an artist can be called “Christian.” It’s about as easy to corner an artist as Christian as it is to define what it means to be an indie band. In both cases, label association has a lot to do with where an artist gets pigeon-holed, but then again (I can feel the waves of indie kid resentment coming) there is a lot of gray area outside of that.
In the same way there are isolated major label bands that sound independent (e.g. Regina Spektor), there are bands that sounds like they are Christian (e.g. Mumford and Sons). Then there are those avowed Christians who are making art that doesn’t really fit into the Christian or secular music framework, such as Derek Webb.
Webb had a highly-publicized struggle over his album Stockholm Syndrome caused by the song “What Matters More,” which employs a less-than-inconspicuously placed s*** toward the end of the song. Predictably, a fight ensued with his label, INO Records, whose mission is to “know God and make Him known.” This distribution fight became public knowledge and eventually resulted in two versions of the album and free distribution of the excluded song.
All this went down because “What Matters More” is probably the best song on the album, both in song writing and lyrical content, and it’s a song mostly about how the church has treated the gay and lesbian community. In it, Webb skewers those brothers and sisters who insist on fighting over issues much less important than large scale problems like world hunger and the AIDS epidemic, and fighting about them in very unloving ways.
I imagine some in the Church would have a problem with the caustic tone of the song; it pulls no punches in calling out the irresponsible and regrettable behavior of those who count themselves believers. What’s more, the stanza which includes the controversial lyrics is not a new idea, paraphrasing the famous Tony Campolo quote: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a s***. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said s*** than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
Webb’s lyrics are; “Cause we can talk and debate it/ Till we’re blue in the face/ About the language and tradition/ That He’s coming to save/ And meanwhile we sit/ Just like we don’t give a s*** about/ Fifty thousand people who are dying today.”
If nothing else, Webb’s use of language here shines a light on the petty discourse the Church can find itself embroiled in. Ironically, reading message boards about this very song will show you how much growing we have to do. We can see that Webb has alienated some of his fan base and yet received a lot of publicity prior to the release of his album. A year later, he’s going on a tour with Donald Miller and still on the same record label.
In any case, Webb’s album created a sensation in the Christian community but wasn’t discussed in circles outside of Christian subgenre, which is unlike Sufjan Stevens who repeatedly used the f-word at a vital point on his new album, The Age of Adz. This song, I Want To Be Well, almost gets stuck on the line “I’m not f***ing around I’m not, I’m not, I’m not f***ing around.”
And this tirade has a completely different feel then Derek Webb’s swear. There doesn’t seem to have been a precise goal in Sufjan’s mind; in other words, he wasn’t trying to effect a change of mind about a particular hot-button issue by using a very particular offensive word. It’s not even clear what Sufjan wasn’t “f***ing around” about.
Sufjan’s language was noted in a review at Pitchfork.com by Ryan Dombol who said, “[Sufjan is] whispering less, hollering more. And at the climax of The Age of Adz, the devout Christian and poster boy for mannered indie-dude sensitivity shouts, “I’m not f***ing around!” no less than 16 times. Believe him.”
This quote implies a level of surprise at Sufjan’s choice of wording. The reviewer is implying that Sufjan has finally shed off an identity that was unnecessarily holding him back from making truly great music. Christianity Today says of the colorful language, “But they will discover a more complex understanding of Stevens, who as it turns out, is neither a “Christian artist” nor an “artist who is a Christian,” but a human like the rest of us.” The quote implies Christianity Today doesn’t know what type of statement to make about Sufjan other than he isn’t a Christian artist, but stopping short of not claiming him as “one of us”.
It is hard to say what the real impact of Sufjan’s decision to swear so freely in this track will have on “artists who are Christian.” He has spent his career among a small collective of artists who are recognized as Christians by the larger music community but who are respected and appreciated for their art. The Age of Adz received an 8.4 on Pitchfork, which is high enough to put it in the best new music category. It has been analyzed in Spin, Entertainment Weekly and the BBC among others. None of the aforementioned reviewed the Stockholm Syndrome or covered any of the drama Derek Webb experienced with his label.
Watching these reactions have, in a number of ways, been parallel case studies of both Christians and non-Christians, each reacting to a known, avowedly Christian artist swearing in their music. These artists are raising questions about what it means to be a Christian artist, what the unwritten (and written) rules are. They are, for good or bad, challenging what Christians are looking for in their music and changing why people listen to music that is sectioned under a Christian label.
These types of albums force us to consider what the rules are for art created by Christians. What hurts our witness? What gives the church more credibility? How do we define “our witness” and “credibility” in the first place? Do these examples of explicit language open the door for Christians to make this a regular practice in their music-making? And another, larger question revolves around this: does this language help these Christian artists and musicians reach the purpose they have set out to achieve?