“Yeah, he was one of mine,” writes my brother Dave of Christian pop megastar and Grammy-winner Matthew West, Millikin University, Class of ’99, where “Doctor Dave” has taught commercial music and played jazz, blues, country and rock since the early ’90s. “Good kid,” he continues, “worked really hard on his writing.” And it shows. In a field where the range of expression is strictly limited by the a priori assumptions and expectations of the genre, Matthew West has distinguished himself as a zippy, crafty writer – a writer with a little extra style and ambition, which is an audacious thing in a world where certain resonant keynotes are supposed to be sounded again and again.
Christian pop sometimes seems to exist in its own alternative dimension: a parallel reality with its own megastars, its own economy and, in some parts of the country, its own arenas. It is the most polarized of all the major genres, and for the most part Christian pop stays on its own end of the pole. Its relationship to secular pop seems parasitic. The reconnaissance department keeps a steady tap on pop culture; its street team makes regular raids of the styles, beats, memes, attitudes, techniques and costuming of the Sin World, and then the branding people ensure that the message, the Word, is made available in every flavor and in every expiring fashion. Is there Christian house? Christian shoegaze? Scandinavian Christian death metal? You don’t even have to ask; you know that there is.
Or so it seems over here among the coastal elite, where contempt for Praise Pop is so pervasive and assumed (except among the people of the other pole, who are among us in numbers, even right here in my own house), that you don’t even have to make your case against it, which is strange. No other music that I can think of enjoys that kind of clemency from critical logic. Contemporary Christian is just bad or just blessed, end of story? How can that be?
If those who are put off by the contemporary Christian genre were forced to articulate their distaste, most would begin with the vague feeling that it is not “real” music. Its first expedient artificiality is the style-mongering and trend-glomming described above. Next comes its unfailingly high-gloss production, a chronic bigger-than-life, moneyed sound that it shares, not coincidentally, with contemporary country (Nashville is arguably the seat of both).
Christian pop feels corporate, and it is not that punk rock doesn’t; it is that Christian music inverts the usual workflow of commodification. The secular musical world monitors the street looking for Next Big Things and meal tickets, and, using its secret rubrics and predictive algorithms, decides which trends to cherrypick, spit-shine and sell back to the good people of Kardashia. Christian pop seems conceived in the corporate boardroom and planted on the street in a comically near-miss wardrobe of credibility, aiming for the now and arriving, after much well-financed study, to the mid-1990s.
Finally, however, the “not real music” suspicion rests on something else: the feeling that Christian pop does not share in the unrestricted freedoms of art. Like science that begins with its conclusions and then scrambles to assemble its proofs, the range of discovery and expression in Christian Pop seems capped, the ends fixed before the journey has even begun. Its continual reinvention seems more a commercial game than an organic act of creation – all of which is a way of saying that for me, art is a religion, and for them religion is an art.
J.S. Bach, one of the very few Christian rock stars I recognize, wrote praise music when his patron was a church, state music when his patron was the state. It didn’t matter to him so long as he had a gig; and all of his music celebrated something higher, that’s for sure. So let’s give all music a chance, even this most-politicized genre in which the issues are most clouded by extramusical concerns.
Matthew West is a snappy, clever songwriter with an incredible feel for the payoff, the payload hook. No wonder he supplies the whole Contemporary Christian music world with stellar songs, not just his own records. He also has his own cabin myth, like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), whose popular debut For Emma, Forever Ago was written and recorded over months in an isolated cabin in northern Wisconsin – or so says that story that has been attached to the record from the start.
West’s cabin was in Tennessee, and he didn’t go there to write; he went there to read (by candlelight, one hopes). Fans submitted their stories to him – over 10,000 of them by the end – and West pored over them, drawing song inspirations from their struggles and redemptions and stocking his two most recent (quite excellent) albums with the results: 2010’s The Story of Your Life and 2012’s Into the Light.
West has thereby smartly avoided one of the most common pitfalls of his genre: that lack of specificity, that sense of inherited, unoriginal language, scripted stories and foregone conclusions. West’s story/songs don’t actually tell stories. There are no characters or situations to speak of, but they seem possessed of narrativity anyway. It was someone’s real story, denuded of its details, that brought us to the moments of realization and spiritual illumination captured in the songs; we don’t know the people or the particulars, but we can feel them there, like the body of the iceberg below the water.
There is an ongoing debate in the Contemporary Christian music world between music of praise and music of substance. Praise music is functional and celebratory. It is not about making points. Its sounds may be timely and topical, but its lyrics are not. I don’t know this for a fact, but Matthew West must be one of the main flag-wavers for substance, because his songs have it. Some are downright activist in nature – and not in the right-leaning way that you might presume, either. I dare you to listen to “Do Something” from Into the Light and not be moved by its spiritually based call to worldly action and its big, big, irresistible hook.
“Yeah, he was one of mine,” wrote my brother. Well, that’s some good work there, Dave. In a genre known for its calculated ruses, Matthew West is the real deal.
Matthew West performs at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie on Thursday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost are $42, $32 and $22, and are available at the Civic Center box office, all TicketMaster locations, by phone at (800) 745-3000 or at www.ticketmaster.com.
Matthew West, Thursday, March 5, 7:30 p.m., $42/$32/$22, Mid-Hudson Civic Center, 14 Civic Center Plaza, Poughkeepsie.