Christian rock has always been an elusive creature. On the one hand it is definitely an evangelical marketing ploy to make churches look cool. On the other, though, it has roots in religious fringe culture. Pushing against the stoic closed-mindedness of dogmatic religiosity and presenting a stance of personal faith over scriptural groupthink, it gave a voice to otherwise silenced young people who may not fit the straight-laced Christian stereotype. Perhaps that explains its somewhat odd explosion in mainstream popularity from 1999 and throughout the first decade of the new millennium. As shown in the writings of William Blake or John Donne, or, hell, even the existential rant that is The Book of Ecclesiastes, some people are natural outcasts, and no “salvation” can change that.
The genre has existed in spurts since the 1950s. Though even then considered chaotic and sexually provocative, early rock n’ roll often stood with one foot in the spiritual. The strongest example being Elvis Presley’s hymn and gospel releases, which were commercial hits in their time and blurred the early line between secular and spiritual music. This may seem paradoxical until we recognize the genre is a derivative of the more conservative genres blues, country, and even gospel. In fact, much of rock’s energy traces its roots to the African American churches’ celebratory praise music.
Christian rock continued to exist as an anomaly in the 60s and ‘70s, but it was throughout the ‘80 and early ‘90s that it really gained steam. During this time bands such as Stryper and Jars of Clay began making waves in mainstream music communities. This inflating Christian rock bubble brought spiritual and dogmatic ideas to young listeners, all the while dividing opinions within the church. However, it was not until the late ‘90s and early New Millennium that scripture-based rock music gained the level of notoriety that pushed it into mainstream radio fare. This era is where Sonny Sandoval and his at times inspirational and at times controversial band Payable on Death (shortened to P.O.D) came into the picture.
Sandoval has quite the background in the c-rock scene. His music career begins as early as 1994, when Sandoval and company released their first album Snuff the Punk on independent label Rescue Records. Taking the unusual route of merging gangsta rap’s aggression and lyrical delivery with thrash instrumentation ala DRI or early Metallica, the album was a forerunner to the nü-metal sound which would dominate airwaves in the near future.
Unlike those burgeoning bands, which would gain notoriety for their focus on dark subjects of psychosis, despair, and the like, POD combined their ruthless sound with faith-based imagery. However, this imagery even contrasted much existing Christian pop, which often focused on uplifting subjects in a marketing attempt to make scripture look fun. In contrast, Sandoval’s words reflected a kind of frustrated faith marked by anger, uncertainty, and depression. Though still steeped in conservative values, in many ways Sandoval served as a mouthpiece for people who may belong to marginalized groups, and thus would have more difficulty identifying with the “peace in the valley” stoicism contemporary religiosity peddled.
On that same note, and in contrast to much Christian music of the time (and even now), is the album’s attention to social issues such as racism, as seen in the track “Who is Right”:
I’m just a locked out brother
Com’n straight from S.D.
Just another islander, beaner, wop, minority
Taught to love one another, all races
All types of colors, different skin, different faces
Can you answer my question, when I ask you who is right?
Racists come in all forms of colors black or white
So take that when I say your hatred sucks!
For Christian rock to touch on matters such as this is not unheard of, but it is incredibly uncommon. This should come off as strange for two reasons. The first being the New Testament’s “come one, come all” message coupled with instructions to love all fellow humans. The second, and maybe most important, being Christianity history of not following said instructions, in turn justifying the growing disdain many feel toward western Christianity. One might think a balance of social and spiritual commentary would be common in Christian rock themes, considering the genre’s existence is based on breaking down traditions and opening doors for outsiders to feel welcome. Yet before POD, this simply was not often the case.
Looking at his discography, there is a sense of social understanding and compassion extending throughout. For example, look at his critically-acclaimed 2001 album Satellite. Though certainly concerned with spiritual affairs, namely the final destination of people’s souls, its music likewise acknowledges the struggles of being a contemporary human and how to address these struggles: namely through forgiveness and empathy. This mainly appears in the track “Youth of the Nation,” though the undercurrent moves through the album as a whole.
The mentality of utilizing religion as a vehicle for social change seems to extend into his outreach program The Whosoevers, which attempts to extend hope of one kind or another to locations ranging from high schools to rehabs. The non-profit, co-founded by Brian “Head” Welch of Korn fame, attempts to utilize music and spoken word as a means combating issues such as suicide, drug abuse, self-harm, and more. Though the method is primarily sermonic, the intent to help those who may be struggling with real world issues is noble nonetheless.
More than a decade later – though the genre still remains popular – the Christian rock boom has all but subsided, and with it most of the controversy which once surrounded it. Gone are the days when the mainstream church decried the genre as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now, despite its roots in progressive rebellion against traditional stuffy dogmatism, Christian rock often allows itself to nest securely in the kangaroo pouch of Big Religion. Artists within the genre rarely openly oppose wealth-mongering entities such as CBN or hateful politicians fronting a Christianity bastardized for capitalist gain. Just the opposite, many musical groups, perhaps unwittingly, support and/or are supported by them. They appear on moneyed Christian TV stations and play big, flashy music festivals.
This feels antithetical. Christian rock, having appeared to seek reform by making Christianity more welcoming to weirdos, instead left it exactly as it was but in a new uniform. It isn’t that the emperor has no clothes, but that he’s clad in dirty jeans and band tee shirts; instead of gold watches, industrial piercings. The scene is just another facet in the same old system of power, and fans eat it up like manna from Heaven.
Instead of taking the route of flash and privilege that makes observant outcasts cry foul, ape your messiah and make the creeps, weirdos, dropouts, crusties, and disenchanted screwheads all feel welcome. Like it or not, there is a very good chance that if Jesus were around today, he’d more likely hang out with derelicts and crust punks, passing out bread and fish sticks at shady dive bars and rented out VFW halls, than lead the rock band at any mega-church youth group. Bear in mind that this is the same dude who kicked over sellers’ tables in religious temples, chilled with hookers and the homeless, and (in so many words) told dogmatists to piss off with their bullshit. The Son of Man, if he actually existed at all, was no poseur. He was more Woody Guthrie than Axl Rose. Likewise, we heathen screwheads can only speak negatively of organized religion, oddly enough, for the same reasons Jesus did. And right now, we can’t tell the difference between rebellious rockers and old school bible-thumpers.
Since the c-rock genre seems content to stay awhile, perhaps it’s time it takes a lesson from Sandoval’s innovation, albeit applied to a more current situation. Perhaps it is time the music again be something the most well-funded pastors talk poorly of.