Remember when Frodus put out an album on Tooth and Nail Records? I heard one of their songs on a compilation when I was 14. Abrasive vocals, angular guitars, less-than-straightforward drumming and a mysterious image — they spoke my love language.
Ninth-grade Collin was like most ninth-grade Christian kids. I went to the Christian bookstore with the few dollars I made stocking shelves at the local grocery store, took a look at the “if you like (insert secular band name here), then you’ll love (insert Christian-band-ripping-off-secular-band name here)” chart and bought the latest Tooth and Nail release. I ended up picking up Conglomerate International (Frodus’ 1998 album on Tooth and Nail), I was scrambling through the liner notes.
No lyrics, just weird artwork. Dang. No thank you to God. Wait a second. I was at a loss. How was I going to know that this was a Christian release? How was I going to prove to my friends that Christians can make interesting music too? Worse — if this isn’t a Christian album — why did my favorite Christian record label release it?
I emailed the band one question:
I think Conglomerate International is awesome. Are you guys a Christian band? I’d really like to know.
It didn’t take long to get a response. Two days, maybe. I wish I still had the email. It came from their vocalist, Shelby Cinca — I was a teenager in the late ’90s, this was like 10 email addresses ago — but it was definitely not what a 14-year-old youth group kid wanted to hear. The answer was something along the lines of, “Why are you even asking me? What is a Christian band anyhow? What makes music Christian?”
I don’t really think I listened to the album a whole lot for the next few years. I felt betrayed by my favorite record label, I felt betrayed by the Christian bookstore that sold it to me. It took me a few years before I understood they were never a Christian band, and that it was one of the few times Tooth and Nail took a chance with a secular artist. And looking back, I wonder how many emails they got from kids like me asking the same question.
This story seems so silly and trivial to me now, but it represented a time in my life where this line of questioning was real. Why was it my first inclination to make sure there was a Christian message behind the music? Why was it so important to me to make sure this band was comprised of upstanding Christian men before I even listened to the record? Why did Christians create a culture that puts legalism before creativity?
When a kids start a band, it’s generally because they like writing and playing music. If they happen to be Christians, then of course their beliefs are going to bleed into the lyrics and on to overall image of the band, just like they would in any other part of their lives. But most musicians aren’t cut out to be pastors. They haven’t adopted that lifestyle. There is very real pressure attached to being in a Christian band. Your every move is watched. Don’t cuss. No beer. No beer in pictures. Don’t show too much. Start every practice with a prayer.
Thank God in the liner notes.
No wonder so many members of Christian bands get burned out. No wonder that music scene can explode when someone important says something offensive or does something dumb. It all seems like a set-up, one that ultimately ends in failure.
No wonder so many of my heroes are ex-Christians.
It’s time to recognize music for what it is: An artistic outlet for feeling. It’s time we let our Christian bands be themselves, screw-ups with a limp like the rest of us. It’s time to let them use their art as catharsis. It’s time to stop expecting our favorite artists to believe for us, so we can sing along and feel better about ourselves.
It’s time to let our artists just be.