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On a recent episode of MTV Video Clash, nu-metal upstart Evanescence trounced the competition. The Little Rock, Ark., duo’s goth-tinged sound draws on established pop precedentsTori Amos and Linkin Parkand online voters can’t seem to get enough of this new blend of old favorites. Later in the hour, Stacie Orrico squeaked past another teen queen, and Chevelle lost its aggro/emo bout by the slenderest of margins. What even the viewers pointing and clicking their approval of these performers may not have realized is that all three fall into the spectrum of Christian or quasi-Christian acts currently making bids for mainstream acceptance.
Contemporary Christian music, or CCM, is big business, in 2002 racking up sales of nearly 50 million units for the second year in a row. But at nearly 600 million units, even after a second year of declining sales, the larger secular market tempts CCMers from their niche. Any ambitious performer is going to think twice before restricting himself to those who dub themselves “sold-out believers”; some younger musicians, propelled by cloudy, volatile brews of religious and commercial evangelism, are pushing their product from within the holy city into the world outside.
Evanescence is making just such a move pay off handsomely. Fallen, the gloomy, glossy Wind-up Records debut of singer Amy Lee and guitarist Ben Moody, has been anchored in the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 for more than two months and has already gone platinum. Entertainment Weekly calls the first single, Daredevil soundtrack standout and MTV2 Rock Countdown fave “Bring Me to Life,” a “surprise hit.”
A surprise, perhaps, to mainstream music critics, but the Christian underground has been predicting big things for the band for years. And now that Evanescence has major-league production muscle behind it, “Bring Me to Life” is unexpected only in the way any cannily conceived, precision-targeted chart missile is; in other words, it would have been more remarkable if it had missed. By giving nu-metal bombast an attractive female face (and voice), Evanescence looks, in retrospect, like a sure thing.
Ever since Larry Norman waxed “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” back in 1972, CCM has taken up the burden of making sanctified tunes live up to secular artistic standards. The customary approach has been to graft Christian-themed lyrics onto an established pop format. CCM performers are then positioned as versions of better-known acts made palatable for the righteous soul. Thus, Relient K is a cleaned-up blink-182, and Rebecca St. James is cleaned-up Lilith fare.
Still, these artists target just the existing Christian fan base. Only recently have the secular-to-Christian time lag become short enough, Christian production values become high enough, and the art of Christian PR become subtle enough to allow CCMor, more often, crypto-CCMto compete within the mainstream it imitates.
When a Christian singer attempts to cross over, her chart performance is generally improvedbut just how much is never guaranteed. I had thought Orrico’s self-titled second album couldn’t miss. At the age of 14, she released her first long-player, 2000’s Genuine, on the Christian label ForeFront. Following the time-tested CCM model, she and her producers had remade a chart-dominant soundin this case teenypopin His image.
Advances for a follow-up had already been mailed out when Virgin Records stepped in last year. Half the disc was dumped, new songs were added, and the unreleased Say It Again became Stacie Orrico. The new disc has eclipsed its predecessor, peaking at No. 59 to Genuine’s No. 103, but Orrico has yet to become the Amy Grant of the ’00s.
Orrico and her handlers have been nothing if not circumspect in approaching the mainstream. The first single, the terrifically catchy “Stuck,” is an anguished tale of a high-school crush that just won’t go away. The emotional tenor of romantic dissatisfaction having been set, “(There’s Gotta Be) More to Life” will be the second. Only on the third single, “Strong Enough,” will Orrico break out the G-word.
In April, when Orrico guest-hosted MTV’s TRLa venue that has been very good to “Stuck”the girl once positioned as a model of teen abstinence voiced enthusiastic approval of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” which, whatever its clarity of purpose”I’m into havin’ sex/I ain’t into makin’ love”is not exactly the soul of chastity.
It’s too early to write off Orrico as either a pop or a CCM presence. Her crossover attempt cunningly walks a fine line, leaving the door open for a return to the righteousness she now downplays, even if she hasn’t left it behind. Evanescence’s success, however, has Lee and Moody embracing the secular as if there were the devil to pay. The pull quote in the mid-April EW profile found Moody remarking, “We’re actually high on the Christian charts, and I’m like, What the f are we even doing there?”
Profanity is a big step for a guy who less than three years ago told the Christian/pop-culture online ‘zine Stranger Things, “As far as spirituallythe message we as a band want to convey more than anything is simpleGod is Love. He is a just God, but a gracious God.”
For a long time, CCM has been the only genre defined by lyrical content rather than musical styleyou could sound like Alanis or Britney or the Bosstones, and so long as you were doctrinally correct, you were parent-approved for tender ears. But as breakout acts aspired to more headphones, they no longer strove to meet Christian radio’s “Jesus count”; lyrics grew more indeterminate, interpretation more fluid, and what a performer said in a magazine interview came to matter as much as what he snarled into the studio mike.
Conservatives may rail about mainstream antipathy toward wholesome entertainment, but the Christian ghetto is a gated community, designed and maintained for the benefit of those who choose to live there. And woe betide the prodigals who, like Lee and Moody, exit the community and let the gate slam behind them.
When Moody told EW, “I’m not ashamed of my spiritual beliefs, but I in no way incorporate them into this band,” and Lee insisted, “We have no spiritual affiliation with this music. It’s simply about life experience,” Christian retailers were left scrambling. As they cleared Fallen from the shelves, they had to justify to customers the decision to carry the disc in the first place. Billboard describes one buyer for a large chain of Christian bookstores as being “confused by the band’s attitude.” In an online posting headlined “Evanescence Pulled from Retail, Radio,” the Christian Booksellers Association quotes an apologetic letter from Wind-up Records Chair Alan Meltzer: “The decision to release ‘Fallen’ into the Christian market was made subsequent to discussions with and approval by the artist. Obviously the band has had a change in their perspective….Wind-up deeply regrets this situation.”
In 2000, when Portland Citysearch asked Chevelle drummer Sam Loeffler about his affiliation with Squint Records, he too played the beats-me-how-we-ended-up-on-this-label card: “We signed with them because they said they weren’t [a Christian label]. So if they are, it’s news to us.” Notwithstanding the interviews given to religious outlets that had positioned the band in exactly the opposite manner, one would think Loeffler would have been tipped off by the label’s mailing addressNashville is Music City only in the country and Christian industries, and the Tool- and Placebo-influenced Chevelle ain’t country. When the Gospel Music Association awarded the band three Doves (Christian Grammys), Chevelle didn’t turn them down.
Though Chevelle’s sophomore effort, Wonder What’s Next, and Evanescence’s Fallen are easy to find at such mainstream outlets as Tower and Borders, neither band shows up in the bins at the Potomac Adventist Book and Health Food Center, one of this area’s largest Christian retailers.
Orrico’s pop bid, however, has stayed close enough to home that Christian booksellers still find ample room for her; by my count, there were 28 copies of her new disc at the Potomac Adventist store. But that’s nothing next to the more than 100 copies of Jaci Velasquez’s Unspoken strewn around on various displays.
Six years older than Orrico, CCM stalwart Velasquez is the most heavily promoted artist in the store. Having already reached for the mainstream, snagged a piece of it, and then been rebuffed, the all-grown-up Velasquez has settled on pitching her talents to two niche marketsEnglish-language CCM and Latino pop.
The English-language Unspoken contains mature, middle-of-the-road balladry from a singer who knows both the occasional dark night of the soul and Orrin Hatch. (The songwriter senator shares credit for the title track.) Released two weeks later, Milagro is sung entirely in Spanish, a language Velasquez did not grow up speaking at home. Like all of Velasquez’s Hispanic-market releases, the disc isn’t merely a translated re-recording of an English-language album. Relative to Unspoken, Milagro boasts torchier vocals, more diverse arrangements, and “No Hace Falta un Hombre,” the closing title theme of Chasing Papi, the positively soul-destroying and sexless not-quite-bedroom farce in which Velasquez recently co-starred. Milagro also has a (fully clothed but fairly curvy) booty shot on the back cover. It used to be that CCMers thought Jacipronounced “Jackie”dressed too trampy, while her Latino fans thought she dressed too frumpy; now she gives each market the Jaci it desires.
More than a few heathen artists, 12-stepping their way out of a life of tour-bus debauchery, wind up in CCM, their past indiscretions washed down the Jordan to be all but forgotten. But the Christian marketplace is less forgiving to those who start there, leave, and attempt to return. The trick, as Velasquez knows, being someone who has stretched but never strayed, is making sure you’ve got someplace to call home (at least one place, anyway). The music biz being what it is, things will one day go south for Evanescence and Chevelle. Should they hope to re-enter the kingdom of CCM, Moody and Lee and the Loeffler brothers may discover they’ve roamed so far that they can’t find their way back. CP