Though much has changed in recent years to allow openly Christian musicians to move out of the Christian rock ghetto, it is still rare to come across a self-respecting music fan who would take the genre seriously, let alone admit to actually liking some of it. But in the pages of his entertaining and enlightening study of the Christian music industry entitled Body Piercing Saved My Life, Andrew Beaujon—contributing writer for Spin who also writes for the Washington Post and Salon—reveals this much maligned corner of the music industry to be far less monolithic (and less uniformly lame) than many outsiders realize.
Tracing the growth of the Christian music industry through the recovering hippies who led the Jesus freak movement of the early 70s to the poofy-haired divas of the 80s and the alternative-culture-aping artists of the 90s, Beaujon goes deep inside the subculture within a subculture that just so happens to generate a few billion dollars a year.
Community of Outsiders
But his study is much more than that. Along the way he examines the cultural phenomenon of a statistically immense group of people that still perceives itself as a community of outsiders, a culture that is viewed with suspicion by the elites on both coasts but that on closer inspection has no monolithic identity at all. It’s a book about American culture, the kind that could only have been written by an agnostic trying to figure whether it’s really true that the devil has all the good music.
The conclusion Beaujon reaches might surprise readers. Though he admits to being turned off and baffled by certain aspects of Christian culture, it’s obvious that he has taken great pains to not dismiss or ridicule music that often makes for easy caricature. Part autobiographical travelogue, part journalistic investigation, what Beaujon finds consistently challenges his expectations.
Christian Rockers vs
Rockers Who are Christians
In his quest to figure out how the other half lives, he walks among the mohawked kids at the Cornerstone Music Festival and rubs elbows with the record execs at the Gospel Music Association week in Nashville. He discusses Christian fundamentalism with David Bazan, the former Pedro the Lion leader who curses like a sailor and drinks whiskey out of a milk jug, then fears for his life as he cruises the hills of Seattle with Tooth & Nail Records founder and reckless driver Brandon Ebel. He explores the difference between Christian rockers and rockers who are Christians, and finds million-sellers such as Switchfoot and P.O.D. particularly adept at walking the line between the two.
All this he does with humor and insight, delivering what is likely the fairest and most even-handed account of the culture surrounding the Christian music industry, one that is beholden to no ideology in the debate. In short, it’s just good journalism, with Beaujon holding a mirror up to both sides of the cultural divide, finding that, if nothing else, neither side is quite what it seems.
BustedHalo: I guess the obvious question is why did you decide to write a book about Christian rock?
Andrew Beaujon: Well, it was pretty much just because there was a good story there. I had talked to a couple of friends who told me about their pasts as Christian rockers, and I found out that more and more friends of mine had that. And I was curious why so many of them had a past and not a present. Somebody had suggested that I go check out the Cornerstone Festival, so I pitched a story about it to The Washington Post, and I went there and realized that there was a really big story here and that nobody writes about it. Everything that I read was either by Christians who loved Christian rock or Christians who hated Christian rock, so I thought that what I’d try to do is write something that was from someone who wasn’t a Christian and didn’t care one way or the other.
BH: So as you were writing this who did you see as your likely audience?
AB: I really didn’t know who the audience was going to be. I’m still not totally sure. A lot of Americans are interested in the percentage—I’m not sure exactly what it is; I’ve heard it as high as 50% and as low as 35%— of evangelicals. I know when I pitched the book, for example, my agent told me that a lot of the answers he was getting were like, “Why would anyone want to read about this?” That was before the election of 2004. A couple of days after that, we started to get a lot of bites on the book. It’s a big problem in this country. People in the cities – and by cities I mean, like, New York and L.A.—don’t know a lot about what’s going on in the rest of the country. When they do write about it, they tend to write these “planet America” pieces, just really sneering. I didn’t want to do that.
BH: What’s been the response to your book?
AB: It’s been mostly very positive. The thing that I found a bit interesting is that the negative reviews that I have gotten are like, “Why doesn’t he confront them on this?” And I think that says more about the reviewer than anything. I’m not about confronting people. I think a journalist’s role is to go out and see stuff and then write down what you see. I think people can make up their own minds from reading the book.
BH: Would you say that you’ve gotten better press from Christian or mainstream outlets?
AB: It’s been mostly mainstream. It has been really interesting. I haven’t gotten a ton of Christian press. I got a nice review in Christianity Today. But from that side of the market, I’ve gotten most of my reviews via blogs, and that has been really interesting. For some reason—I don’t know if it’s because there is profanity in the book or if I offended somebody— the mainstream Christian publications, like CCM, haven’t done anything on it. I find that really interesting. I don’t know how many mass-market books about the industry they cover come out every year.
BH: Going into this process of interviewing people, did you have any stereotypes that were proven false?
AB: Oh yeah, absolutely. I didn’t know anything about evangelical Christianity. I thought people would be very conservative. I wasn’t sure what the deal was with alcohol and the kind of Footloose-type prohibitions. I didn’t know anything about it, so I went into it with an open mind, and still I was very surprised by the diversity of what I encountered.
BH: Did you have any stereotypes that were confirmed?
AB: Well, definitely a lot of people are conservative—evangelicals, that is. But that takes many forms. Someone who believes in low taxes might not necessarily believe in banning abortion, for example. It really was all over the place.
BH: In general, how accommodating were the musicians and other people you approached to interview?
AB: The musicians were great. I didn’t meet anybody who was not accommodating. There were people who didn’t want to be a part of a book about Christian music, and I understood that. But it was pretty hard working with the mainstream Christian music industry at times, because interview requests would never get answered. Even when I tried to go the Gospel Music Association week, I had a lot of trouble getting credentials and stuff. One of the things that I noticed when I went to that, for example, was that there was an opening worship service, and I had to stand in the back of the press area. And everyone in the press area was raising their hands and joining in the songs, so I was absolutely amazed that I was the only non-Christian there who was covering this thing.
BH: In the book, it seems like that GMA week was an existential low point for you.
AB: Yeah (laughs). That was the dark period of the whole thing.
BH: Why do you think that was so depressing?
AB: I don’t know. Have you ever been to CMJ [the yearly meeting sponsored by College Music Journal that serves as a meeting place of the indie rock industry]?
AB: It’s kind of like, whenever you see the music industry up close, it’s pretty horrifying. That holds for whatever genre you’re going to. Music is something that means a lot to people and it’s a big part of their lives, and basically it’s sold by people who would be just as happy selling shoes. So whenever you see how the sausage gets made, it can be pretty disheartening. That was especially so [at the Gospel Music Association week], because it’s not like you even get to see interesting music. It’s the blandest of the bland. It’s what people think of when they think of Christian music.