Back in the days when the earth’s crust was still hardening, I was a big fan of The Smashing Pumpkins. They were in the thick of the grunge scene–which was a whole new departure in rock music and which was all the rage for most of the 1990’s. After the grunge fad faded, the band broke up in 2000. Following a seven year hiatus, they got back together and have been trying to make a comeback.
Lead singer Billy Corgan recently sat down for an interview with CNN, and he makes the astonishing claim that God is the “third rail” of rock-n-roll. He also gives a brief and trenchant critique of “Christian” rock music. You can watch the video of the interview above, or you can read the transcript below. Several thoughts come to mind in response to Corgan’s remarks:
1. Corgan thinks that God is the “third rail” of rock music. This statement is revealing. It reveals the truth that human beings bear the image of God, and there will always be a yearning and unsettledness that tends toward transcendence. Nevertheless, meditations on suffering and angst won’t scratch the human itch. How else do you explain that fact that a decade that began so boldly with Nirvana ended with Britney Spears and ‘N Sync? In the absence of truth, people will turn back to the popular pabulum. God remains a “third rail” because people characteristically will not retain God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28). This intolerance is woven into the warp and woof of rock-n-roll culture, and it is why the third rail is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
2. Corgan thinks that “Christian” rock is unoriginal. I don’t think that anyone could argue with the fact that much of so-called “Christian” music is highly derivative of whatever the flavor of the month is among secular pop music. This is not a new critique, and indeed many Christians have been saying the same thing for decades. We can agree that there is something unseemly about Christian artists living off the fumes of their secular counterparts. Christianity has a history of being more vigorous than that (think Bach or Shakespeare). Why has so much of Christian artistic expression dissipated into pabulum of pop culture? We can do better.
3. So-called “Christian” artists are not the only ones whose work tends toward imitation. Current popular music is no different. Top 40 radio is rife with material that is highly imitative of other artists. One recent example: Did anyone happen to hear Katy Perry’s highly anticipated single just released last week? She didn’t sample Matt Kearney, but I think she may still owe him some royalties. (Others have noted a similarity to Sara Bareilles.)
4. Although Corgan criticizes “Christian” music for ripping-off secular acts, surely he paints with too broad a brush. There are in fact some Christians out there who are plying their trade with excellence and not as knock-off artists. I’m thinking of Andrew Peterson and everyone in his “Rabbit Room” circle. I don’t think they can be credibly indicted under Corgan’s censure. Matt Kearney is another who has carved out his own path and who is making great music. We might mention The Fray among many others who are doing good work, some of which has broken through the din. All I’m saying is that we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There really are some baby’s in there.
Transcript of CNN’s Interview with Billy Corgan
CORGAN: There’s a long established concept that gets bandied about, which is “Misery makes for great art”. And I actually think this is – if we were asking a Shinto Monk, I think they would laugh at this idea.
CORGAN: Because you’re basically saying, “Suffering’s good for business”. And I don’t think suffering’s good for business. Crazy’s good for business, suffering isn’t. I think suffering or the gestalt of, “Here I am, ripping my heart open” – I think that lasts for about two or three albums.
CORGAN: At some point, you have to mature into the deeper work. Most people are living lives of sort of survival. And constantly posing an existential crisis, either through fantasy or oblivion, really has been pretty much explored in rock and roll. At least in the western version of rock and roll. Maybe not over here in Asia, but we’ve sort of, kind of, been through all that.
RAJPAL: So what are you exploring now?
CORGAN: God. I once did – a big American magazine was doing a thing called, “The Future of Rock”.
CORGAN: And, you know, they asked 50 artists, “What’s the future of rock?” And my answer was, “God”. And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, God’s the third rail of -” What is it? “Social security is the third rail of politics in America”. Well, God is the third rail in rock and roll. You’re not supposed to talk about God. Even though most of the world believes in God. It’s sort of like, “Don’t go there”.
I think God’s the great, unexplored territory in rock and roll music. And I actually said that. I thought it was perfectly poised. And, of course, they didn’t put it in the interview.
RAJPAL: What would you say to Christian rockers, then?
CORGAN: Make better music.
CORGAN: Personally, my opinion – I think Jesus would like better bands, you know?
CORGAN: Now I’m going to get a bunch of Christian rock hate mail.
RAJPAL: But that’s interesting –
CORGAN: Just wait, here’s a better quote –
CORGAN: Hey, Christian rock, if you want to be good, stop copying U2. U2 already did it. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of U2-esque Christian rock.
CORGAN: Bono and company created the template for modern Christian rock. And I like to think Jesus would want us all to evolve.
(HT: Derek Webb)
I think Billy is on to something. However, the Christian Label might be more to blame then the artist. Its been well documented the restrictions certain labels have placed on music like JPMs(using the name of Jesus per minute) and restricting the style of music by having groups stick to a certain styles or popular styles. Its no wonder that your bands like Switchfoot(lower case people) and Jars of Clay(grey matters) are now indie(bands who are not signed to major labels).
Aaron A. Smith
Christian rock pioneer influenced Frank Black (formerly Black Francis of The Pixies). Corgan must have forgotten that detail.
This is a great post, Mr. Burk.
Bummed that you’re not THE Aaron Smith… http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Smith_(musician)
Aaron A. Smith
Hehe. Sorry to disappoint.
Aaron A. Smith
By pioneer I meant Larry Norman.
Here is a classic Christian rock from the late 70s that is Biblical and original and excellently performed. But there is no doubt that the Beatles style influenced Phil Keaggy.
Aaron A. Smith
That is pretty good.
Keaggy is great and has developed a finger style of playing no one can match. His output of music now is greater than when he first began in the late ’60’s/ early ’70’s.
I’ve always questioned the notion that the church needs its own “genre” of music. Its own labels, its own publications, its own top-whatever lists, its own radio stations, etc. Also the idea that to be considered a “Christian” artist and allowed to tap into that infrastructure all your songs must explore some explicitly Christian theme.
I’d rather have Christian artists who write about a variety of things, with some songs not obviously recognizable as “Christian”, and whose music good enough to earn them mainstream success without relying on the CCM infrastructure. The “U2 model”, as it were. Or The Fray, Switchfoot or Sufijan Stevens. Or Mumford and Sons, if you overlook the highly questionable behavior and comments from Marcus Mumford.
Or we could take his behavior and comments for what they are. Fruit.
The kind of mindset that says not all a Christian’s music needs to be explicitly Christian echoes the mindset of mainstream Christianity-lite that says not even all parts of your LIFE need to be explicitly Christian.
I’ll give you that “Christian music”, in order to earn that designation, must feature explicitly Christian themes in every instance. I guess what I reject is the idea that Christian musicians should be making “Christian music”. They should create “music”, some of which will feature explicitly Christian themes and some of which won’t. That a piece doesn’t feature conspicuously Christian themes doesn’t mean it’s “anti-Christian” or bad fruit.
If anything, Billy Corgan is being too nice. If a band or music is actually good, it will be able to cross religious (and other) boundaries in its appeal. Smashing Pumpkins, for example, is a good, talented band (not that I’m a fan). Look at Smashing Pumpkins fans, and you’ll see a diversity of different religions (Jewish, Christianity, Atheist, Buddhist, etc). On the other hand, can you name 5 Christian bands or songs in the last 40 years that have anywhere near type of appeal? I could name maybe a couple, like that song from “Jesus Christ Superstar”. While it has not always been the case (Handel’s Messiah), Christian music is second rate. And don’t even get me started about Christian Film. I remember thinking Battlefield Earth wasn’t that bad of a movie, but now I remember it’s because I had watched some Christian film right before, and it had appeared relatively good.
Aaron A. Smith
Paul, I concur with what you are saying. However, I think many people would reject Christian music, regardless of how good it is, simply because it is called “Christian.” I think that animosity has a large market share.
In reference to what Buddy said, and I hope I’m not getting too far off topic, I think many entertainment agencies try to tap into the “Christian” tag solely because it exists. I might just be too cynical, but I cringe a little when I see Christian Mingle commercials, and when I see billboards featuring attractive faces that read, “Wanted: Actors, Models and Talent for Christ.” Surely there are sincere Christian participants in these programs. However, it seems like they are casting Jesus into a figurative McDonald’s commercial.
What a great new subject and a refreshing change of pace! A fun conversation too, and glad to even see people referencing some pretty good, non-derivative stuff as a counterpoint to derivative Christian music–or, for that matter, derivative Smashing Pumpkins music (which it could be at times).
A comment like Nate Tinner’s, however, is worrisome: “The kind of mindset that says not all a Christian’s music needs to be explicitly Christian echoes the mindset of mainstream Christianity-lite that says not even all parts of your LIFE need to be explicitly Christian.” If that’s true, what comprises explicitly Christian music? And is it never okay to be obliquely Christian–even if obliqueness is the more effective, more poetic way to convey the message? I find 95% of Christian music tiresome as well, but maybe its because of the lack of subtlety–not just the banal lyrics, but the musical un-subtlety, the “lowest common denominator” stuff, which, ironically, most effectively turns out all bout the most devout, while selling like hotcakes among the faith-based followers. Does obliqueness render Sufjan Stevens, Josh Groban, or Sunny Day Real Estate null and void? All three encountered cross-over appeal (even if none have ever been lingering pop hits) precisely because they evoked Christianity with sensitivity instead of pedantry.
Yo Denny, was about to post this video to my facebook page and then saw your post!
You wrote: “surely he paints with too broad a brush.”
If you mean that there are SOME Christian artists out there that don’t sound like they’re a U2 cover band, then you are right… BUT, if you’ve been paying attention at all to what’s coming out of the Nashville machine for the past 10 years (and I know you have), then you’d note the “worship single” trend that marks MANY if not MOST of the top 10 Christian songs according to the charts. CCM record labels push their artists to put out worshipy music even when that’s not the artist’s ‘thing’ because the industry geniuses know it will sell.
Now, while Corgan’s statements may be too broad a stroke to encapsulate ALL Christian music, if he’s been listening to Christian radio stations (?) then he’s been bombarded by the unending U2/Coldplay knock-off worship songs that seem to come from all Christian musicians (regardless of their main style). Christians have in a sense “ratified” this monochromatic worship style that mimics U2 (no doubt one of the greatest bands of our time).
Criticizing this phenomenon wades into the deep waters of “what is good/bad art”, but at the LEAST can’t we (evangelicals) recognize that this is happening? And that it’s not happening for a good reason? And that maybe it should go away? And that maybe our electric guitar players can stop playing swells and simple 3 note riffs juiced up with ridiculous amounts of delay, over and over and over?
I’m not bitter 😉
Actually, I don’t pay close attention to CCM anymore. So I’m guessing you’re in a better position to opinionate on current trends than I am. The Nashville artists I tend to listen to aren’t part of the CCM industrial complex. 🙂
Aaron A. Smith
CCM Industrial Complex? Nice one. May I use that without giving credit?
I don’t know. You may need a footnote!
Aaron: I agree about the world looking askance at music simply because it bears the label “Christian”. I guess my suggestion would be: don’t label your music “Christian”. Don’t put it in that box. Be a Christian yourself, and be a good one. Don’t censor yourself when writing your songs, but but by the same token don’t feel as if every song needs to deal explicitly with some Christian theme. Part of not putting yourself in that box may include avoiding the whole “Christian music” infrastructure.
there are some good Christian musicians artists like Michael Card, Phil Keaggy, and the late Keith Green.
But they are rare.
I agree with those who say the “Christian” label is off-putting, and that it is automatically rejected by many of the musical glitterati out of hand because of that label (hmmm…there’s a word for it, I don’t exactly remember right now…)
At any rate, yes, much ‘Christian’ music is derivative, but frankly, is that different from the majority of pop? And there are artists like Steve Taylor, Terry Taylor, Randy Stonehill and others who are original. But it doesn’t play well with the stereotype that is held by the scions of the non-Christian music community, so hey, let’s ignore them.
That’s actually pretty funny when Corgan said for Christian artists to “make better music”. Reese Roper of Five Iron Frenzy (or 5Fe if you will) said in an interview around the time of their kickstarter something like, “Christian music, with few exceptions, appeals to the lowest common denominator” (he might as well have said the music sucks). Given that FIF ripped through the Christian scene from the mid 90’s to early 2000’s and now has come back to kick us all in the mouth, it’s ironic that Roper’s statement somewhat matches Corgan’s.
I wonder what Corgan thinks of bands like Living Sacrifice or Demon Hunter. LS has been going on for what, a good 15 years? (if you’re into that chord ripping, vocal growling, machine-gun drums, double bass pedal kind of Jesus music…)
For what it’s worth, I knew/know many people that aren’t Christians that love FIF’s and LS’s music. Good music can appeal to anyone.
As a second footnote, Reese Roper has been very vocal about his loathing (my word) for record labels, including Christian ones, whom he said had obscence restrictions for venues and basically tour-ed FIF into the ground.
FIF is good Christian rock, but as far as I know they were never a mainstream band. However, Red is also good Christian rock (a personal favorite) and has had that crossover success. I first found them through the local rock station in Louisville and have since grabbed their catalog and seen them in concert (opened by Thousand Foot Krutch – love ’em, too, but still a smaller act). [Granted, I was at the concert primarily for Chevelle, but Red was a great act and Breaking Benjamin was Breaking Benjamin.]
Red’s Innocence and Instinct is good music and a very honest and ultimately encouraging meditation on the fight against indwelling sin. Until We Have Faces is a solid album, and props for taking C.S. Lewis to a stage he’s never known. : D
Re: Corgan, meh. Smashing Pumpkins had one hit that we all know thanks to the grunge guitar and nasal vocals? Would kids today know them if it weren’t for Tony Hawk? Do kids today still play Tony Hawk? I’m thinkin’ he’s gotta make a comeback, so he makes a broad statement that ignores (or is ignorant of) what’s been going on the last 5 years, serves as a lightning rod of controversy, and piques interest in whatever project he’s cooking up. Saw a guy do this recently on a tech blog re: a media startup focused on today’s working women, and naturally he got flamed by all the startups focused on that exact demographic.
I would agree that FIF was never a mainstream band. Still not mainstream (no matter how much old guy/gal awesome they rocked in Detroit back last November). Ska in general (or rock with horns) was never mainstream, no matter how much you heard Less than Jake, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mad Caddies or Reel Big Fish on alternative radio channels. Though FIFs later albums were not as overt with messages as their early stuff (see switchfoot and reliant K post 2004)
Red and TFK are pretty good IMHO.
I’ve never really cared for anything smashing pumpkis. Or that side project (Zwan was it called?) back in 2002-2003. If I really want grunge I’d throw in some Alice in Chains or Nirvana. Only played Ton Hawk a few times, but I still fire up my 22yr old 16-Bit Sega Genesis and rock some NHL ’94 every few months.