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Show Business: New Lyrics for the Devil’s Music

5 minute read
Gerald Clarke

If you had to guess their name, you might think of the Devil’s Disciples or the Beelzebubs. Or perhaps the Killer Bees, which is what the four young men on the stage look like in their tight leather-and-spandex costumes crisscrossed with garish black and yellow stripes. Piles of makeup, spiky hair and enough dangling chains to tie up half the elephants in Africa complete the picture of the up-to-date heavy-metal rock group. Even the music, the sound of a swarm of angry insects electronically amplified several thousand times, fits the image. But wait; don’t walk away without listening to the words of their song:

The devil never pays; he robs like a thief in the night.

So many bands give the devil all the glory.

It’s hard to understand we want to change the story.

We want to rock one way on and on.

You’ll see the light some day.

I’ll say Jesus is the way.

The group is actually called Stryper, a name inspired by the biblical assurance that “with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53: 5). Instead of throwing drumsticks into the audience, these metal missionaries toss out about 500 imitation-leather copies of the New Testament. “We are rock-‘n’-roll evangelists,” says Drummer Robert Sweet, 24. “Stryper is a modern-day John the Baptist crying in the world of rock for those who don’t have the life of Christ to turn on the light switch. Our message is J-E-S-U-S.”

Stryper is only one of dozens of groups preaching the same timeless message in new ways. They are all part of gospel, a musical category that also includes soul gospel and hymns. But these new entertainers create sounds that have never been heard in churches, sounds that range from Stryper’s heavy beat to Michael Card’s folk, from Undercover’s punk rock to the mellow pop of Amy Grant, who last week won her third Grammy for her song Angels. Indistinguishable–except for their lyrics–from their secular counterparts, these performers represent one of the most interesting, fastest-growing trends in the music world: Christian contemporary music, or evangelical pop. Approximately 15 million contemporary Christian albums were sold last year, and sales exceeded $75 million. “Urban cowboy was the theme of the ’70s, and they sang about bars,” says Dan Harrell, a partner in the Nashville firm that manages Grant. “Contemporary Christian is the music of the ’80s.”

Those in the business trace the roots of the new music to the Jesus movement of the late ’60s. The election of Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, gave it a boost, and the ascent of Ronald Reagan propelled it into the big time. Its chief audience is the generation of the New Squares, primarily young whites, 24 to 35, who like the beat of rock but disavow the drugs and sexual permissiveness that are associated with it. “The people who buy my records like danceable, modern music, but they don’t want to feel guilty supporting music with trashy lyrics,” says Steve Taylor, 27, who sings his own songs. “Rock is associated with evil, but that is guilt by association. Music is music, and it is the vehicle of expression for my generation.”

Southern California, always the first with the new, is the biggest market for evangelical pop. Orange County’s radio station KYMS started playing nothing but contemporary Christian a year ago, and is now the top-rated station in the area. “Our station offers an alternative to Prince and Madonna,” says Program Director Greg Fast. “We don’t play trashy lyrics or tell dirty jokes. We give you fun and good clean songs without hitting you over the head with the Bible.” So successful has the 24-hour, all-Christian format been that Owner Paul Toberty is currently converting his stations in Denver and Phoenix. The South, where old-fashioned gospel music still prevails on the religous stations, has been the most resistant to evangelical pop, but the movement is beginning to catch on there too.

Its brightest star is Grant, 24, whose Age to Age was the first contemporary Christian album to ring up sales of 500,000. At 17 she was touring, accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar; today she and her ten-piece band move around the country in two tractor-trailers, two buses and one truck. She sold out Radio City Music Hall for a concert last year and plans before long to fly as high as those angels she sings about. “I want to play hardball in this business,” she says. “I want to be on the same level professionally with performers in all areas of music. I love to hear Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins and the Doobie Brothers. Why not? I aim to bridge the gap between Christian and pop.”

Though the movement is growing fast, few of the new contemporary Christians yet make as much money as their secular look-alikes. One of their albums is considered a hit if it sells 100,000 copies, a paltry figure in the record world. But most are making ends meet. Some, including stars like Steve Taylor and Debby Boone, tithe 10% of their income to the church. As Taylor sings in the title song of his album Meltdown:

Celebrity status only got in the way.

Had my hands in my pockets on the Judgment Day.

You can’t take it with you–there’s fire in the hole.

Had the world by the tail, but I lost my soul.

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