Rock music, once the domain of hedonism and debauchery of every kind, is now populated by thousands of upstanding citizens who create all different kinds of music, but are animated by religious ideas that would have been completely alien to rock stars of yesteryear.
Four major phenomena seemed to be occurring simultaneously.
First, a whole new crop of artists who had once been ensconced in the world of contemporary Christian music, or CCM, were, thanks to the guidance of a new generation of more savvy executives, bursting out of that scene and into the musical mainstream while still remaining at their current labels. These included the likes of MercyMe and Bob Carlisle, who experienced major crossover hits with “I Can Only Imagine” and “Butterfly Kisses,” even as they continued to be signed to Christian-oriented labels.
Second, established artists who had once rocked the CCM world were leaving those labels behind, signing with mainstream recording companies, such as Atlantic, Epic, Universal, and others, and re-emerging as mainstream artists without substantively changing their message. Among this group were the San Diego, California-based rockers Switchfoot, the Chicago-based band Chevelle, and the hard-rocking Pillar, all of whom had once been signed to labels associated with the CCM industry, but who had moved on to the mainstream giants Columbia, Epic, and Universal, respectively.
The third major trend was the continuing phenomenon of young artists who were also Christians bypassing the “Christian music” business altogether and simply pursuing and being signed directly to mainstream labels. Among this group were Flyleaf, Paramore, Evanescence, and scores of other artists.
Finally, there was the stunning turn of events that found the hit television series “American Idol” producing winners who claimed to be Christians and would then be signed to mainstream labels — again, bypassing the Christian music world altogether.
But the surprising marriage of rock and religion was just beginning — soon afterward, Prince, the most unlikely of artists when the term “religious conversion” comes to mind, announced his conversion from hedonism to the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “I embarked on a journey more fascinating than I could ever imagine,” he said. “Without spiritual guidance, too much freedom can lead to spiritual decline.”
There was the continuing phenomenon of young artists who were also Christians bypassing the “Christian music” business altogether — and simply pursuing and being signed directly to mainstream labels.
In 2015, Prince further confounded his fans when he released a cover of a song, “What If,” by artist Nichole Nordeman, who had long been a part of the Christian music scene.
What in the world was going on?
For decades, rock ‘n’ roll had represented youth rebelling against the strictures of the adult establishment. Sex, it had seemed, was a central component of the rebellion, with youth predictably rebelling against the sexual mores of their parents’ generation. But amazingly, with stars like Justin Bieber and others, that calculus was thrown on its head, for not only would Bieber take relatively conservative stands on such issues, he would do so amid catcalls from American cultural figures old enough to be his grandparents.
The controversy kicked into high gear when Bieber gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he articulated a conservative stance on both abortion and sex before marriage.
“I don’t think you should have sex with anyone unless you love them,” he told the magazine, adding, “I think you should just wait for the person you’re … in love with.” On abortion, Bieber was also clear in his thinking, declaring, “I really don’t believe in abortion. It’s like killing a baby.”
When the Rolling Stone reporter predictably leaned in with a question about whether he’d consider it in the case of rape, Bieber responded, “Well, I think that’s really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don’t know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”
Reaction from the Establishment was swift and full of outrage and came first from the set of the hit TV talk show “The View:” “He won’t be in that position because he cannot give birth,” said the show’s guest co-host, KaDee Strickland. “He doesn’t have a choice like that. He’s a 16-year-old boy, as I understand it. That’s a very hot-button thing to be talking about.”
In the 1950s, when Elvis was gyrating to the beat as girls swooned and adults gnashed their teeth over lost innocence, who could have possibly imagined that one day a young pop star would be articulating traditionalist moral ideas to the consternation of adults who had fought long and hard for sexual liberation — and were not about to let a teenage pop star drag them back into a traditionalist culture from which they’d walked away?
And yet, in the person of artists like Justin Bieber, that was exactly what was happening.
And it was a direct result of the impact of mothers like Pattie Mallette and churches like Jubilee Christian Fellowship. They were turning the page on a philosophy of escapism and engaging the mainstream world with artists of faith, who were feeling increasingly emboldened to speak out about their beliefs.
Excerpted from “Rock Gets Religion: The Battle For The Soul of The Devil’s Music,” out now from BP Books. Mark Joseph is an author and multimedia producer based in Los Angeles.