God: Chart Topper

It's suddenly cool again for pop music to include spirituality.

Ben Westhoff

Why has rock music fallen off the pop charts? For supernatural reasons, perhaps. The Big Guy's always been an opinionated bugger when it came to tunage—if they were going to be called Rock Gods, after all, they could at least have His taste.

Thus, Elvis. (Although the gold sequins weren't His idea.) And the Doobie Brothers. (Nor were the doobies.) Not only did God love their jams—it was so groovy hearing shout-outs to His only begotten son.

Between dispatching the Shah of Iran and overthrowing the evil atheist empire, God didn't have time for Billboard chart manipulation in the late 1970s and 80s. Sensing an opening, Satan sank his pitchfork into the top 40. Before He knew it, AC/DC and Styx were putting subliminal, damnable messages in their songs (when you listened to them backwards, anyway), and punk rockers like Agnostic Front had led a musical revolution. Jesus was most definitely not alright with them. "Where is God? I see no evidence of God. God is probably Barry Manilow," quoth the Sex Pistols' John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten. As if! Manilow is said to be an atheist.

And so He punished these vinyl-pantsed axe-grinders for their hubris by knocking them off their Billboard pedestals. In their spots he placed sampling, baggy-pantsed rappers like Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer, the latter a born-again MC with instructional anthems like "Pray."

And it didn't stop. Hip-hoppers, along with their rhythm-and-blues brethren—equally, if not more likely, to ask WWJD?—began their reign of pop-chart domination. In 2005, hip-hop and R&B albums sold 143 million copies, according to Nielson SoundScan, outpacing rock and heavy metal (now lumped together and called "alternative"), by more than 20 million. The third most popular genre was country, led by American Idol champ Carrie Underwood and her hit single "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

If you want to hear folk singing praises to God these days, no need to go to church. Just turn on your local corporate hit music station. Or the Grammys. It makes you wonder: When did spirituality become cool again in pop?

Warner Aldridge, co-host of "Crunk for Christ"—a holy-hiphop show on Clear Channel's St. Louis rap station, KATZ— places the credit at the feet of Kanye West. West, before he became known as the guy who said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," was known as the MC who talked about J.C. "'Jesus Walks' was an incredible song," Aldridge says, "You don't hear rappers too often giving credit to God for saving them from destruction."

West famously speculated that wearing faith on his sleeve would hurt his bottom line: "They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tape/But if I talk about God my record won't get played huh," he rapped in "Jesus Walks." Instead, the opposite happened. "Jesus Walks" won the Grammy for best rap song and West's album The College Dropout sold nearly 3 million copies. Nikki Cantu, music director at Radio U, a Columbus, Ohio-based radio network that plays hard-edged Christian music, cites West as evidence that God is no longer a pariah in the mainstream. "Nowadays people are more accepting of various religious beliefs," she says. "Maybe it was a bit more taboo back in the day to bring personal faith into the open, but nowadays people are more open-minded."

The trend has coincided with increased sales of country and hip-hop, John Pauley, a professor of communications studies at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana, points out. "Both of these genres are 'cousins' of gospel," says the professor, whose primary area of study is the intersection of religion and public life. "Just as you have many stereotypical country music listeners—rural Southern whites in the Bible Belt—you have so many black singers, pop and otherwise, who got their start singing in church."

Popular rock music, meanwhile, seems reticent to come out of the Christian closet. Although arena-fillers like Switchfoot, P.O.D. (Payable on Death), 3 Doors Down, and U2 all contain professed members of faith, their lyrics are usually far from explicitly religious. Platinum-selling Evanescence, for one, took great pains to announce they were not a Christian band, despite moving lots of units through faith-centered bookstores.

"I believe in Christ with all my heart, mind, and soul," P.O.D. singer Sonny Sandoval told USA Today. "But when people label you 'Christian rock,' it's segregation, and it tells somebody who doesn't believe that they can't listen to this music because we write for Christians. We never have."

Says Professor Pauley: "[Many Christian bands] are afraid to be ghettoized into the genre of Christian music and onto Christian radio stations."

This was not always the case. Elvis, who claimed to know nearly every religious song ever written, regularly recorded gospel albums. But around the time Time magazine asked, "Is God Dead?" and hippies were taking over college campuses, Christian musicians began to self-segregate. "During the 60s and 70s, 'Jesus movement' days, music labels were owned by Christian publishing houses, and the production values were not very good," says Pauley. "By and large, most of that music ended up being heard by church kids. In the past five to seven years or so, though, some of those devout Christians don't see any problem going over and being a studio musician for a very popular rock group."

What changed? Pauley speculates that the expansion of the contemporary Christian music (ccm) genre started to blur the lines between secular rock and gospel rock. ccm moved 38 million albums in 2005, even though some of the genre's biggest stars had long ago abandoned it. Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith led the charge in the early 1990s as former ccm stars who found nothing blasphemous about selling (truckloads) of albums to the masses.

A minor backlash ensued. In 2002, Smith sang on the 16-city "Come Together and Worship" tour, sponsored by Chevrolet. That sponsorship drew fire from groups such as the American Humanist Association and the Anti-Defamation League, who saw Chevy as tacitly endorsing Christianity. But contemporary Christian musician Steve Camp had a problem with the tour, writing on a website, "Unwittingly, they harness Jesus Christ, the Worthy One, with Belial or Satan, the worthless one, in an unholy alliance."

Generally, however, the entertainment industry has seen few obstacles in its attempts to exploit religion for commercial gain. Like The Prince of Egypt, The Passion of the Christ, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—films that have catered directly to evangelicals—master manipulators Britney Spears and Madonna haven't been shy about promoting their newfound faiths in the ancient Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah. Rolling Stone and other print media have recently spilled much ink on Matisyahu, a Hassidic Jewish reggae singer and former follower of the jam band Phish.

It seems likely that R&B crooner R. Kelly, meanwhile, attempted to soften his bad boy image by collaborating with gospel singer Kirk Franklin. (Of course, since that collaboration he's been charged with numerous counts of child pornography, but that's another story.) And it's practically de rigueur for Nashville stars like Lee Ann Womack and Alan Jackson to burnish their red-state credibility by peppering their lyrics with Jehovah talk, even if such lyrics sit awkwardly next to R-rated ruminations. "In country, one very church song, straight gospel, hymn sort of thing, will be followed on an album by a 'my beer and my babe' sort of thing," says Cantu.

"[Rappers] may say, 'I'll rap about sex and money, because sex and money sells,' but then they turn around and say, 'I know God is the one who blesses me with this money,' " says Warner Aldridge, adding that rapper 50 Cent has a song called "Gotta Make It to Heaven," which includes the lyric, "You send a bitch at me I send the bitch back cut up."

Aldridge, a born-again Christian himself, believes such talk is disingenuous. "The Bible talks about 'thou shalt not kill,' but in these rap messages—'I just pulled out my nine and shot 'em,' that is obviously not of God," he says. "The last thing we need to be talking about in this day and age is about murdering more people."

Whatever their motivations, however, he thinks this era of J.C. name-dropping is preferable to rap's early days, when pioneers like Africa Bambaataa preached allegiance to the Zulu (rather than Christian) nation.

But does it really matter? Do kids even care about music lyrics anyway? Aldridge says yes. In a life-imitates-Styx tableau, he contends, rap lyrics have a subliminal effect. "Some of my nephews and nieces will be listening to a song, because the beat is tight," he says. "But a couple of days down the road, they're starting to say the lyrics. It's like, if you're studying for a test, you repeat the material so much you eventually know it by heart. It's the same thing with music lyrics—eventually they sink in."


Ben Westhoff is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times in St. Louis. Last year, his story "Jesus for Juniors" was a Religion Newswriters Association Templeton Story of the Year finalist.