by Andy Zell
I forget how I won the gift certificate to the local Christian bookstore. Perhaps it was good grades or perfect attendance in 8th grade at my private Christian school. What I do remember is looking over the wall displays of cassette tapes filled with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and selecting Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man for my very first music tape. Smith was one of the biggest names in CCM. My older sister had his second self-titled album and I really liked some of those songs. I took the cassette home and eagerly put it in the deck, listening to it many times over the next few years. Later I moved on to more alternative Christian music, and some years after that I stopped caring whether an artist was a Christian or not.
It’s hard to for me to go back and listen to this album. It’s not merely the drum machines, synthesizers, and guitar solos that sound dated. It’s the poorly worded messages that typified my faith at the time (In a song about loving others, he raps the words “Light a fuse—make a spark. Try to penetrate a heart. There’s a burning need to fill the world with love.”) I never burned my secular albums on a bonfire, but I did erase my dubbed copies of “Weird Al” Yankovic albums because they weren’t bringing me closer to the Lord. I didn’t know how to interact with culture, believing that its influence would sully my conscience, so in the spirit of the album, I fled west to the Christian subculture of Christian music and books.
The first two tracks each employ troubling and problematic metaphors. Go West Young Man invokes American Manifest Destiny in a song about the importance of avoiding temptation (“Go west young man when the evil go east”). The original exhortation is attributed to Horace Greeley in the effort to encourage Civil War veterans to take advantage of the Homestead Act and settle on the frontier. The pioneer life sounds romantic and idyllic: staking a claim on the land and making a life where there was open prairie before. But the encroachment of settlers led to conflict and displacement of the Native tribes and often to their slaughter.
The next song “Love Crusade” references the centuries long conflicts from the Middle Ages in its title (and features a chorus of “na na na” and a truly unfortunate rap section that I’m sure Smith himself regrets), but uses the call to arms for the purpose of loving everyone. A year ago there was a lot of talk about the Crusades because of the President’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The President pointed out that Christians have used violence in the past so it’s no use casting stones at other religions. In response, many Christians pointed out that the Crusades are complicated or that they were in response to centuries of Islamic conquest. No doubt there is truth to these assertions, but there are also the horrors of the Crusades such as the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland or the sack of Constantinople.
Granted, the metaphors in these first two songs are in the service of good messages—fleeing temptation and loving one’s neighbor— but their casual use is troubling. I now see that even when I started listening to more alternative Christian music, troubling metaphors didn’t cease. Two examples should suffice: A Violet Burning song called “Love Is the Loaded Gun” has the same trouble conveying loving others with violent imagery as “Love Crusade”; The Dimestore Prophets had a song comparing apathy at the suffering of others to Eva Braun, aka “Hitler’s Girlfriend.” Metaphor can be tricky to get right.
When I first listened to Michael W. Smith’s songs, I didn’t know anything about history (or about music), so I didn’t see anything amiss. Mostly I was drawn in to his crossover hits “Place in this World” and “For You,” anodyne songs about figuring out meaning and purpose in life and the importance of friendship, respectively. They’re pleasant, and I can appreciate why they had broad appeal, but they’re bland and universal the way pop songs usually are. They’re not the type of songs I go for now.
Now I want higher quality music with specificity and complications, something that speaks to my doubts and questions. I don’t want simple answers, and often I don’t want answers at all. I want to understand a small part of someone else, or perhaps even myself, and, every once in great while, some ineffable glimpse of the divine.
5 Spiritual Songs I Listen to Now
“Take Me to Church” (Sinead O’Connor)
“Ya Hey” (Vampire Weekend)
“Say” (Cat Power)
“Where Are We Now” (David Bowie)
“Song for Zula” (Phosphorescent)
Andy Zell still loves to listen to music. Now that he has four kids ages six and under, a lot of it tends to be They Might Be Giants and Wiggleworms. He writes about books, music, faith, and life on his personal blog and occasionally uses Twitter @strangerextant.