Why Does Today’s CCM All Sound the Same?
Written by Paul D. Race for School Of The Rock (originally published on CreekDontRise.com Acoustic Instrument page)
Maybe that’s an oversimplification. But the only CCM radio station I have access to believes in heavy rotation of a handful of “hits” (interspersed with WAY too much chatter) and I don’t have time to go to the local Christian bookstore periodically and sample all of the wares. At any rate, the only reason I know one group from another is that occasionally they’ll announce who did a particular song, which sounds an awful lot like the previous song which was from another group. Don’t get me wrong, I like many of the artists, and many of the individual songs, but if they cut out every song that is sonically, melodically, harmonically, and lyrically similar to, say, the current Coldplay hit, that station’s playlist would be down to about three songs. (I don’t even mind Coldplay, or rather, I didn’t until I heard “When I Ruled the World” for about the four thousandth time.)
What made me sit up and take notice was a project I just semi-completed - cataloging what I considered to be the most influential songs from the most influential musicians in the various Jesus Music and CCM eras. The music links come and go, but you can try taking a listen for yourself at the CCM Artist Link page.
First of all, EVERY musical style was “on the table.” Often the very same artist would put Pop, Country, Blues, Hard Rock, Bluegrass, Folk, and 50s Rock on the same album. Love Song’s “Front Seat, Back Seat”? Unabashedly Country. Their title song? Unashamedly Folk. Other songs were Folk Rock and even - by later albums, “Hard Rock” (by 1970’s definitions). Larry Norman’s “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” used 50’s Rock conventions, as did Keith Green’s “You Put This Love in My Heart.” The Second Chapter of Act’s first album has Nellie doing a tolerable imitation of Janis Joplin on “You Love Me,” surrounded by Pop, Light Rock, Folk, and Folk-Rock-syle songs. Sweet-as-her-name Nancy Honeytree inserted a blues (“Rattle Me, Shake Me”) in her Pop and Folk-Rock dominated set lists. And John Michael Talbot made no excuses for inserting Bluegrass banjo solos into his concerts.
When was the last time you heard Bluegrass banjo, or 50’s Rock, or Blues, or anything other than a sort of toned-down “Alternative” sound on Christian radio?
The other thing I noticed when going over the great artists and songs of CCM history is that they almost all had totally unique sounds. To my knowledge, nobody pressured Randy Stonehill to sound more like Larry Norman, Wayne Watson to sound more like Keith Green, Glad to sound more like Acts, or Twila Paris to sound more like Amy Grant. Even the folks who collaborated often never started sounding alike. For an exercise, listen to “Love Broke Through,” a song that Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, and Phil Keaggy collaborated on and all three recorded. When Green sings it, it sounds like a Keith Green song. When Keaggy sings it, it sounds like a Phil Keaggy song. When Stonehill sings it, it sounds like a Randy Stonehill song.
I will admit that one reason I can’t keep certain current artists straight is that the guys with a heavy worship emphasis, like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Jeremy Camp, often sing each other’s songs. And if I listen carefully, I can tell them apart. But the point is, I have to listen carefully. I never had to listen carefully to tell Randy Matthews from Ernie Rettino or Love Song from Petra.
It could be that the CCM industry is doing what it’s often done in the past - imitating the Top-40 secular market to a fault.
Or maybe all the groups I’m hearing actually have a variety of songs on their CDs, but the only songs that get on the radio are the songs that sound like whatever’s already on the radio.
Or that whoever is program director for the ONE Christian station I can get on my radio (on THREE DIFFERENT FREQUENCIES, mind you) is a closet Coldplay fan.
But however you slice it, on the few occasions - such as long drives - when I do listen to an hour or more of the stuff straight, I inevitably get to the point when I feel the need to turn off the “Contemporary Christian” radio station and put on some MUSIC. And I don’t even care whose it is, as long as it has some variety.
For decades the elusive thing about Jesus Music and CCM was that it wasn’t technically a genre. It could be in many music styles (Pop, Folk-Rock, Blues, 50s Rock, Country, etc.). But what made it unique was the message. As late as, say, Jars of Clay’s first few albums, you still had to listen to the words to be able to tell what kind of song it was.
This was a far cry, say, from Southern Gospel, where you could hear the first three notes of the song and know exactly what kind of music it was. A conservative friend of mine used to drive around in his AMC Pacer (I’m not making this up) with all the windows down and some Southern Gospel group blasting. It was his way of letting everybody in town know exactly where he stood.
If I had done the same thing (sans the Pacer) with the CCM of the time, most folks would have just thought I was playing some pop or rock band they’d never heard before. To young people of the 70s, 80’s and 90’s, that was a good thing - it let them get a Christian message into place that the Southernaires would never have penetrated, in addition to letting them worship God in their own language, so to speak.
But much today’s CCM seems to have accomplished what my friend’s Southern Gospel once did - congealed into a coherent set of musical conventions that an astute listener could peg as CCM (or “Worship” music) without ever hearing the words.
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In the meantime, have a great day of God’s blessings,
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