Fever (A Defense of The Big Three)
I need to take a brief pause at this point in my story to address something that I believe to be very important. To my knowledge it is something that has never been properly articulated publicly by any music critic from within the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) community. I will take the heat for my opinions and get straight to the point.
Those from the outside world often form their perception of all Christian music based on the single experience of having accidentally stumbled onto a mainstream CCM station (designed to explicitly cater to “the church”) while scanning the dial in their car. It seems as though these folks are usually bored out of their skulls by what they hear. To be blunt, when I flip to my local Christian station, I don’t have any trouble understanding why this happens. Having said that… I would like to offer up a defense of The Big Three turn of the century Christian rock superstars. Still oft-cited derogatorily in debates over the merit of Christian music, I boldly proclaim here and now that DC Talk, The Newsboys, and Audio Adrenaline did not suck. At least not from about 1995-2000.
Within this time-span, the previously mentioned groups (besides being top notch live performers) would each release at least two albums that were just as good, if not better than, anything released in the secular realm. They would develop their own unique sounds and push the artistic envelope within their medium. Most importantly, they would set trends rather than following them.
To be sure, there had been far better and more critically acclaimed Christian artists before The Big Three (The 77’s, The Choir, L.S.U., to name a few), but none who had anywhere near the level of exposure or commercial success that these 90’s CCM rock juggernauts received.
With their landmark 1995 album Jesus Freak, DC Talk essentially took the long held ideas of “acceptable content” for Christian radio and blew them out of the water. The album would change the face of the entire Christian music industry and usher in a new era, almost single-handedly (Jars of Clay gets credit too) dragging mainstream CCM from the 80’s into the 90’s over night… albeit five years after that decade began. Jesus Freak would help pioneer “rap-rock” as well as beating a burgeoning “boy-band” craze to the punch with the unique, signature sound of DC Talk’s three harmonizing front men. Rather than resting on their laurels, in 1998 the group would produce one of the finest alternative-pop albums of the year, Supernatural, in a crossover deal with Virgin Records before breaking up at the absolute pinnacle of their career. Following this disbanding Toby McKeehan, Kevin Max, and Michael Tait ventured off to try their own projects or collaborations, all to varying degrees of success. However, save for Max’s solo material, the majority of the trio’s individual or collaborative output beyond DC Talk broke little, if any, new creative ground.
The Newsboys cracked the alternative rock nut with their breakthrough release Take Me To Your Leader, an album easily on par with any other music of the same genre dropped in 1996… Christian or otherwise. Next, with former drummer and primary songwriter Peter Furler taking on lead vocal duties, the Aussie rockers would reinvent themselves. In 1998 they offered up the phenomenal (and wildly successful) pop-rock album, Step Up To the Microphone. With enough hits on the charts to guarantee their next record would be a smash, the Newsboys could have easily put out Step Up 2 and took their paychecks to the bank. Instead, they did something unimaginable for the Christian market… Eschewing the old CCM, “play it safe” mantra, they released the most creative (and best) album of their career, Love, Liberty, Disco. Yes, it was an actual, modern disco album. Unfortunately, it was way too far ahead of it’s time (or behind depending on your age!) for most of the CCM market to handle. Though their live shows remained excellent, from there on out it was downhill as the Newsboys re-popularized an old trend of big name Christian artists cashing in on their brand recognition and riding it out as purveyors of light-weight rock worship music.
Being described as “the ultimate youth group cheerleader band” could be insulting, and in my experience is a virtual guarantee that a group is artistically irrelevant. Not so for Audio Adrenaline. They are the standard to which all other youth group rock bands have aspired, and there is a reason. I discussed at length Audio A’s 1996 album Bloom in my last blog, with its unique classic-cum-alternative rock sound. AA would continue to blaze eclectic, genre-bending trails with their next two releases Some Kind of Zombie (1997) and Underdog (1999). With a simple inspirational message, great hooks, and a genuine love for straight-up rock and roll, Audio Adrenaline carved out a niche in modern music that was all their own. They would release two more decent (heavily U2 influenced) post-90’s albums before front man Mark Stuart literally lost his voice. While continuing to put on electrifying live performances, the too-slick vocals of guitarist Tyler Burkum would slowly come to dominate their later studio recordings. Sadly, Audio A would for the most part follow the Newsboys down the trail of generic CCM radio rock and big-brand worship jams by their final album, Until My Heart Caves In.
At the dawn of the new millennium, bands like P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Blindside broke Christian rock completely and forever into the secular mainstream and there was no longer a need for artists to stay confined within the cloistered walls of the CCM world. So, for the first decade of the 21st century, contemporary Christian radio has once again been reduced to mostly trend-chasing and imitating, along with countless hours of worship music that all sounds, “like that one Chris Tomlin song”.
As far as I am concerned, the mainstream Christian radio world is all but artistically dead. I say that not as a hater, but as a lover, who witnessed the rise and fall of The Big Three. I have seen both the positives and the negatives in the CCM market, and will undoubtedly delve into them off and on as my story unfolds. With that in mind, let it be known that I don’t begrudge the existence of said market, neither do I condemn or question the sincerity of faith of the majority of those who participate in or support it. Obviously, all are entitled to their own preferences and opinions when it comes to music. So let me close this thing out officially nailing one of mine to the door…
If you were a fan of DC Talk, The Newsboys, or Audio Adrenaline during the late 90’s you have absolutely nothing to apologize for. Boom. Count it.