So T. and I are driving up to San Francisco for a little vacay when the iPod loses its juice north of L.A., forcing me to the radio to look for a college station or NPR or something; instead, I hit what is instantly recognizable as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).
Why is it obviously CCM? Because it sucks ass, that's why--the requisite two or three pseudo-passionate major chords, a smidgen of moderate guitar distortion on top of a heap of computerized treacle-jangle--and, uh-oh, here come the vocals: histrionic '90s grunge-lite dude waxing homoerotically, and yet ironically without balls, about Jesus in epic sing-alongy faux-rock bombast. It's nearest cousin is that syrupy Korean pop they crank in the Tapioca Express boba joint on Convoy Street. Unchallenging, derivative, Christmas-cookie-cutter pop crapola.
'Wow, listen to how bad this sucks,' I say.
'It can't suck,' says T. 'It's a gift to the Lord.'
'Is it not also a gift from the Lord? Because if God inspired the song, then it is a tribute by Jesus to himself with this asshole as the conduit.'
'Jesus is so narcissistic. I can't take anymore.'
'You can't handle God's awesome love.'
'How long do you think you could stand being inspired by this?'
'Remember when I listened to The Nutcracker Suite for 45 minutes when the IRS put me on hold? I think I could probably handle Christian-rock radio cracking my nuts for at least a half an hour. I'll bet I could go longer than you without shutting it off.'
'You're on, Jesus-hating Jew.'
'You're goin' down, lapsed pastor's kid haunted by her past.'
Thus begins the greatest battle of our relationship: With our souls and eardrums on the line, T. and I face off against each other and against navigating the dreaded nothingness of Interstate 5 through the Central Valley to the strains of irrelevant groups like Pocketful of Rocks, Detour 180, Lincoln Brewster, Thousand Foot Krutch and Need to Breathe.
At first it's funny. The songs are simplistic, with big choruses you can lock down after the first go-round--the insipid heartfelt bluster has us praise-caroling in mock tearful ecstasy right along with Rush of Fools ('Turn me around, pick me up, undo what I've become')--but soon it's all headache and sadness. These bands are yelling about a make-believe, bearded zombie whom you have to believe in or else you get burned up forever in a big lake of fire. They are deluded.
I discover there are two schools of CCM: those who like to sing the word 'Jesus' a lot, like Casting Crowns, and sneaky ones like The Fold, who don't call out the Big J too often. The bands beating around the burning bush sound embarrassed--as if they're trying really hard to make Christianity seem reasonable or cool.
CCM bands imitate a variety of secular styles, but they nearly all have bright triumphant choruses that make them sound as much like each other as they do their diverse secular antecedents. They also have in common a surprising lack of beauty, depth and soul.
An hour into it, and I am desperately trying to make distinctions, sorting out the dreadfully unlistenable (Caedmon's Call) from the almost bearable (Jars of Clay), and asking T. for some insider knowledge (Q: What do the Christian kids wave in the air at a P.O.D. concert instead of lighters? A: Their hands!).
Two hours into it, T. says, 'We heard this one before.'
'My God, I think you're right. Wait. Are you sure?' Either the songs are repeating or the formula is wearing down our ability to distinguish. It's like falling asleep in a Starbucks and waking up unable to remember what city you're in.
CCM is formulaic and bad in part because it is run by the same conglomerates who control the other CCM (Contemporary Country Music). It's headquartered in Nashville, charted by Billboard and peddled by major labels. You can bet your ass that Christian music is making major pieces of silver for some big time non-Christians.
Three hours into it and I really, really hate Jesus. When I was a kid, I resented him for engendering my outcast status. As a teenager, I laughed at him: a Haight Street wind-up toy or the punch line of a movie about a corrupt televangelist. In college, I was indifferent: He was a philosophical issue to argue about over coffee instead of studying. But now, thanks to CCM, I hate his guts. He is responsible for this horrible music.
Look at T. She's starting to crack. She can't sit still. What if she jumps out the window? Maybe I should turn it off. This has gone far enough. Ha! That's just what she wants me to do. One hundred and thirty-six miles to San Francisco and I'll never have to endure another song by 'Everyday Sunday' as long as I live (though perhaps, because I am going to Hell, I will have to listen to them after that).
CCM is the 21st-century response to 19th-century Methodist minister Rowland Hill's perennial question, 'Why should the devil have all the good music?' But the question itself has always been a bit of a red herring: God has plenty of good music. I'll throw Bach's fugues, Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace out there as a few examples.
But CCM is so insipid that it ironically begs the question all over again. Fortunately, the advantage the 21st-century person has over the 19th-century person is that we can now answer the question honestly without fear of serious reprisal: Great secular music is perceived as the devil's music by believers because they invented the devil for the same reason they invented the CCM genre: to suppress the mysterious sensuality of their own bodies.
Crossing the Bay Bridge as we enter California's great mecca of sacrilege, my hand and T.'s hand slowly meet at the radio and, touching, turn it off together.