All About the Music?

danielson.jpgA couple of months ago, Alan Ackridge, a friend and youth minister in North Carolina, shared a brief post on spirituality and contemporary popular music. He gave a list of his favorite spiritual songs, only a few of which were actually performed by specifically Christian artists. I have long been suspect of “Christian music” and the “Christian music industry,” often wanting to like them more than I do. For me, the tension lies in the idea of the separation between “Christian” and “secular” especially when there often seems to be no discernable difference between the lyrics of the two. Swithc out God for baby or vice versa and you have an apropriate lyric for each camp. Other times, I simply do not enjoy the music, just as I don’t enjoy every “secular” group or performance. I recently watched an interesting film entitled Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here) that, at its heart, focuses on this tension between “Christian” and “secular” music.Danielson: A Family Movie, directed by J. L. Aronson is a documentary that follows the emergence of two separate artists, Danielson Famile and Danielson, the latter composed of Daniel Smith and whoever he works with at the time and the former composed, primarily, of his two brothers, two sisters, and a friend. Acclaimed folk artist Sufjan Stevens also frequently contributes to both projects. The film is composed of interviews with the Smith family about what it is like to play with their eccentric brother. Aronson also includes interviews with concert attendees to gague audience reactions to a Christian artist invading the secular realm of bars and nightclubs. Both Danielson Famile and Danielson also frequently play at Christian music festivals/venues as well. The film is an even-handed look at the Smith family and an interesting, subtle discussion of Christian vs. secular music. The DVD contains loads of extras, especially interviews, that continue the discussion and are just as interesting as the film itself.

Of course, the discussion of Christian music could be expanded to include other art forms as well, which we should keep in mind here. Daniel argues that the labels “Christian music” and “Christian music industry” should not exist. Yet he and his family walk a fine line between subverting these labels and actively contributing to them. Of course, we are not only talking about their pre-performance prayers, which of course, no one can see. One audience memeber said that he saw nothing explicitly Christian about their lyrics. Apparently, Danielson Famile did not play the song in which they repeatedly sing “I love my Lord.” One audience member was visibly disappointed by their performance (read faith), calling it self-indulgent. Of course, this argument holds no water: what artist is not self-indulgent? Still, other audience members, while not holding to Christian beliefs, saw nothing wrong with Danielson or Danielson Famile’s religious expression and were moved by, not the lyrics, but the effect the lyrics had on the performers.

Thus, we see the “debate” over Christian and secular music arising from audience members and the music business (especially through the sections of the film that focused on Daniel’s interview with a radio DJ), at least in this case. Of little concer to Danielson Famile/Danielson is the question of how to categorize their music or, as an extension, respond to it. Yet this is not to say that Daniel does not have an idea for a desired effect of his music on audiences. He and his band frequently call on the presence of the Holy Spirit and ask to be “taken out of the equation” so that the Lord may work through them and in the lives of audience members. Here, they most directly contribute to the “Christian music” label through this evangelistic effort.

Of course, we could also imagine that other artists, without resorting to Christian lingo, desire a “spiritual” effect for their music as well. They might not reference the Holy Spirit or the Lord, but they might envision a higher purpose for their music…that their music might draw audiences to something outside themselves. I am reminded of my friend’s list of his favorite spiritual songs and how many of them have had an influence on me as well.

While watching Danielson: A Family Movie I also thought about U2 and how they struggled early on between being either a “secular” group or a “Christian” one, with almost disastrous results. They have somehow blended the two in unimaginable ways, often drawing their lyrics, unmistakably and often without detraction, from the Psalms. Yet they have experienced a success that most bands cannot even dream of. Moreover, they would never be billed or introduced on the radio as a Christian band, despite the undeniable Christian imagery in their music. Their songs are currently responsible for a movement in the Episcopal Church called U2charist.

Why the difference? Of course, the reasons are innumerable and range from luck to talent. Danielson Famile/Danielson apparently has the latter, receiving rave reviews from “secular” press. Their sound is not the pre-packaged pop on which most radio stations, even Christian ones, thrive. We could also question the popularity they have currently attained. Do people flock to them because they genuinely like them, or have they become something of a fad, aided no doubt by their “different” sound and frequently unique costumes? Unfortunately, Danielson Famile performances are fewer and further between with family members going their own way with their own families and careers. Daniel keeps the torch burning as the solo act Danielson. Both artists have occupied a niche to be sure, even if it is a small one. I doubt this bothers them, because in the film, Daniel sees himself as “Tiny…with a good purpose.”

Danielson: A Family Movie (110 mins.) is available on DVD and is suitable for all audiences.