In Hicksville, Long Island, on any given Sunday afternoon, pierced and tattooed teenagers in black clothing gather to listen and watch as groups of kids like themselves tear their fingertips on guitar strings and scream unintelligibly into microphones. All the elements of the indie scene announce themselves: the spiky haircuts, the leather, combat boots, the wide eyes, the acne. At one recent show, Matt Koldinski, the lead singer of the band Legacy, muddled his lyrics with screams and threw his head back in ecstasy. To those who assembled, this was music in all its soul-baring transcendence.
Then, in a break between songs, Koldinski took the mike and did something that would be unthinkable at most hardcore shows. Panting and solemn, he appealed to his audience of peers to come up to him after the show, to talk about their problems and their confusion, to open their hearts to him. He has been there, he can relate, he says. And he has found the answer. “The reason I’m here, that the band is here, is that we love Jesus,” he says. “He’s everything to us. And no matter what we do wrong, we’ll never lose that love. So if you have any problems, come up, say God loves me, let me help you find the way.”
Legacy and the seven other bands gathered to perform this Sunday are just a few examples of the exploding number of Christian rock bands that have formed over the past decade to express and evangelize their faith. Each lead singer, after prayer (“let our words sing like daggers of truth into their hearts, dear Lord,” one band member intones, hands clasped) echoes Legacy’s invitation for connection, and it appears to be working. Christian music is the only format that has increased sales in the past year–this year it’ll crack the 50-million-album mark–and it is poised to eclipse country music in sales, according to Rick Welke at Radio and Records magazine. He says nearly 500 bands have been signed to major labels, and that doesn’t include the innumerable unsigned garage bands around the country that perform in venues like this storefront church just off Jerusalem Avenue, past Jericho Bagels.
It makes a kind of sense that these disaffected kids have found hope and meaning in their own “personal relationships with Jesus,” in their literal reading of the Gospel, and in their collective desire to spread the word–in their own words. And yet it’s still surprising to see these punks in metal cuffs and fatigues, the girls in too much eye makeup, the guys in too much hair dye, setting up a table at this show to dispense leaflets against pornography, masturbation and, most significant, abortion. That part is thanks to Rock For Life, an organization that launched almost ten years ago when Bryan Kemper, then a mohawked security guard trying to make it in the hardcore scene, says he saw a woman lying on a table at a Los Angeles abortion clinic, which he interpreted as a sign from God that he should get into activism. “God gave me a literal vision for Rock for Life. I saw the concerts, the kids in the streets. I knew from that moment on that’s what my life had to be.” That moment was more than ten years ago. Since then, more than 100,000 kids have signed Rock for Life’s pledges to work to end abortion. There are more than eighty youth chapters nationwide, generating tables at hundreds of shows like this one every week.
I’ve seen kids wearing the T-shirts, from skate parks in Portland, Oregon, to the New York City subway: black with white block letters that read, You Will Not Silence Our Message. You Will Not Mock Our God. You Will Stop Killing Our Generation. In addition to the tables and T-shirts, Rock For Life participates in more standard forms of political activism, like organizing speakouts and protests, through their position in the youth outreach wing of the American Life League. Chapter members also hold prayer and worship services in front of abortion clinics and pass out literature in front of high schools.
Rock For Life finds its biggest constituency at Christian rock festivals every summer, a dozen gigantic Jesuspaloozas across the nation, drawing more than a half-million people combined–festivals with names like Kingdombound, Alive and Sonshine, which director Bob Poe began two decades ago. Back then, Christian rock was a marginal genre. In the early 1980s he’d host seven or eight bands for a small crowd. “That’s all the Christian world had to offer,” he says. “Now we have 125 bands and turn away more than twice that many.” As evangelism has spread ferociously throughout the country in the past several years, the Christian music industry has flourished in tandem.
The Christian rock festival has become the superchurch for the thrashing masses and the ultimate mobilizing force for antiabortionists. Says Bryan Kemper, “It’s one thing to hear a message in a church, a message at school, to hear a message in an institution where you’re supposed to hear a message that isn’t coming from you, it’s coming from a quote-unquote authority. The whole concert scene is supposed to go, ‘Let go.’ We’re bringing a message there where people have guards down, where people are open to listen. In school, kids’ guards are up, at a concert they’re open to a lot of stuff. It’s on their turf. It’s their own identity. And music is such a huge part of every kid’s life–music connects almost everybody–when you have that passion in the music, the singer says, ‘Hey, stand up for this, look into this,’ it causes kids to look into it and stand up like nothing else.”
He’s right that if you look across the culture, it’s tough to find galvanizing forces that have the same effect among youth–especially dissenting youth–as music. Music was of course deeply tied to the antiwar movement in the 1960s, it was the whole purpose of Live Aid in the 1980s, and it’s what brings so many of these kids into the evangelical fold. The collective experience of the live show–that intoxicating merger of music’s transcendence and the authority of performance–is its most powerful form. These Christian rock shows even seem capable of reversing what most people would expect of teen behavior. At a festival last year, one of the 40,000 people in attendance had an asthma attack, and the singer of a band halted the show so the audience could pray until her breath was restored. The group prayer lasted forty-five minutes without a complaint. Just imagine that energy turned toward right-wing politics.
Bob Poe says of his yearly festival, “Our event isn’t a political event but a behavioral event.” This is consistent with evangelicals’ insistence that all of their behavior–whom they choose to be intimate with, what books they read, what they drink, how they vote–is part of a way of life directed by their religion and aimed at developing a closer personal relationship with God. (Even, perhaps, what they drive: which may have inspired General Motors’ decision to sponsor a Christian music tour.) One can’t disassociate any part from the whole, and thus most are loath to talk about politics as politics, since any form of activism is just carrying out beliefs in some behavioral form. But these events may be politically effective precisely because they stress that behavior is merely a reflection of deep spiritual commitment. (Technically, no political campaigning–of the electoral sort–is permitted at these festivals, as they are all run by not-for-profit organizations. A press representative of the Christian Coalition admitted that the organization leaflets Christian music festivals but declined an interview.)
When some artist-preachers, whether easy-listening or headbanging, break into the mainstream, they scramble to cover up their evangelical roots, whether because of corporate pressure or their own desire to forge new identities. POD, which stands for “Payable On Death,” has become Atlantic Records’ bestselling act, topping rock charts, ruling MTV, selling out huge shows nationwide. With the exception of one song, all its recent lyrics make the band’s personal relationship with Jesus an intentionally ambiguous thing (much like Creed’s music can be interpreted as the exuberant or self-sacrificing experiences of teen love of the back-seat, not of the pew, variety), but take a look at the message boards on their website and you’ll see where their core fan base lies. You’ll find heated discussion among members with online identities like “Livin’4Christ” about topics like dating “heathens” and personal faith stemming from “fear of hell.” Not your usual top-ten-drum-solos banter.
But not everyone weighing in on these bulletin boards is a believer. Neither is every person who shows up at a Christian rock festival or an underground show. In Hicksville, many of the kids I talked to had never “known Jesus” until they found him in the mosh pit. Kevin Murray of the band Now or Never says, “Sure, most of us come to this when we’ve been smoking pot or having sex or getting depressed, or hitting a point where we know we can’t live like that anymore. And you come to a place like this and see a guy like me, and I tell you I’ve been there, and I’ve pulled through it, and I can help you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a total stranger or think you don’t believe in God, or what. I’ll show you the way.”
It’s moving, actually, to be surrounded by a mass of kids dressed in the accessories of anger and marginalization, scowling their teen scowls, and hear the opposite of what you’d expect at a secular gig–a voice, Murray’s in this case, shouting to the crowd, “If you want to talk to any guy in this band about what’s going on with you, come up. We can help.” And then to see guys with tattoos, guys with downcast eyes peering from their black sweatshirt hoods approach band member after band member, saying, “My friend brought me, and he thought I could talk to you,” a bizarre twist on the cool-posturing punk shows I’d occasionally check out in high school. To watch a community of people form before your eyes, reaching out to each other, connecting through music and performance to each other and to a shared vision, committing to the political causes they identify as joined with that vision–it’s the active community of a liberal utopian’s dream.
That is, if you squint so you can’t see those Rock For Life shirts. If you can block out the repetition of “Jesus” and “Lord” from the songs and conversations. This, of course, is impossible. Even though “religion” is a dirty word to these instruction-fearing believers (as Murray says, “We’re against religion–our God is a God of freedom, not one of religion who won’t let you have tattoos”), it’s the only reason this scene works. And that’s the reason politics so effortlessly becomes a part of the scene. It’s the nature and extraordinary effectiveness of evangelical Christianity–the whole-life, whole-belief experience. So whether you’re praying in church or at a club, or screaming on a stage or at the doors of an abortion clinic, it’s all just an articulation of the oft-repeated “way we live.” Is it a political movement? Not in the usual sense. But it is a massive and exponentially self-replicating cultural movement that binds itself inherently to politics.
It’s hard to imagine that anytime soon a secular rock band might, as John Lennon said, be bigger than Jesus.