God is in the retail

Perhaps the Devil doesn't have all the best tunes after all. Evanescence became the first Christian rock band to top the charts this week. But God and pop go way back, says Steve Jelbert. And not just for fans of Sir Cliff Richard ...
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The Independent Culture

Nothing's shocking in the world of pop any more. The former dove-muncher Ozzy Osbourne is deemed acceptable enough to perform at the Queen's Jubilee bash. Our very own Pop Idol Will Young, chosen by the great British public, is matter-of-factly gay, and no one gives a damn. Coldplay's Chris Martin, Britain's best-known indie-pop singer, is currently living with a genuine Hollywood princess, something no Britpopper ever managed (though the less well-mannered Liam Gallagher did successfully snare Patsy Kensit).

But just when you thought there were no barriers left to be broken, the American rock quartet Evanescence have managed to top the charts with their first UK single, despite being - gasp - unapologetically Christian. The Arkansas band's "Bring Me to Life", a polite slab of heaven metal, has sold in huge numbers to people whose last experience of organised religion must have been a supporting role in a nativity play. In the United States, their first album, Fallen, has managed to escape from the stifling if lucratively loyal "Christian contemporary music" market to sell in unholy quantities, and it looks set to do the same here.

Not that the band themselves proffer any instant clues to their allegiance. Led by the 21-year-old Amy Lee, they favour a distinctly Gothic approach, all black hair dye and diaphonous attire. It's a long way from Goth's past, when bands with names such as Christian Death and Fields of the Nephilim flirted unambiguously, daftly even, with religious imagery. Already there's some hurriedly cooked-up confusion over how the band got together. Channel 5's The Smash Hits Chart now claims that the guitarist Ben Moody spotted Lee as she belted out a cover of Meatloaf's "I'll Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)", which doesn't necessarily contradict an earlier suggestion that they met in church. Their hit is a duet featuring one Paul McCoy of their fellow Christians 12 Stones, who were described by one rabid fan as "worship music with that metal touch to it".

As usual, the online satirical newspaper The Onion nailed this contradiction the other week. Beneath the headline "Bassist Unaware Rock Band Christian", a bemused musician wondered why he wasn't getting any groupies, despite the presence of many young women at his new group's shows. Although the story was pure fiction, the "Christian metal" bands it mentioned, such as Living Sacrifice, Third Day and Believer, are genuine entities. As are Thousand Foot Krutch, Atheist and Five Iron Frenzy.

Over here, we've produced Delirious? - originally the house musicians at a Sussex "worship session", who choose to praise the Lord through the use of guitar effects devised by infidel Japanese boffins. And U2 - two Irishmen, an Englishman, and a Welshman based in Dublin - did very well for themselves after they'd grown out of their youthful infatuation with an evangelical group calling itself "Shalom".

But vague Christian sentiments are par for the course in the American charts. The gory Creed have sold millions of records there without a single Briton noticing them. (They might have had more success here had they kept their original name, "Naked Toddler".) Last year, San Diego's POD, a tough-looking bunch who looked in serious need of some redemption, sold plenty of copies of their album Satellite and its lead single, "Alive", an exultant slice of "sports metal". Their name apparently stands for "Payable on Death" rather than the snappier "Prince of Darkness".

It is an acute reminder that Britain and America are very different in certain respects. Although our Prime Minister may be an avowed Christian, his approach to religion is appropriately ecumenical. In comparison, President Bush has no choice but to declare his belief for electoral purposes, but his attitude to faith is as pragmatic as a Renaissance Pope. Here in godless Western Europe, the love that dare not speak its name is that of a performer for The Man Upstairs. (Cynics might suggest that Old Nick has already got pop music sewn up.)

In short, we just don't take religion very seriously and we certainly don't trust those who do, be they evangelical happy-clappers or the mad mullahs of media legend. However, it remains central to American life. When the esteemed critic Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, compared John Lydon to the deranged 16th-century Reformation leader John of Leyden, largely on the basis of their names' similarity, it was a leap of imagination that no British writer could have made.

Even the supposedly irreverent The Simpsons, obviously the greatest television show ever made, manages to fix religion firmly in its endlessly evolving world. There are plenty of theses that discuss its role in the series, as well as a delightful book called The Gospel According to The Simpsons that even boasts a quote from the Archbishop of Canterbury on its cover.

Of course, religion has always been crucial to American music. From the earliest spirituals to today's most threatening rappers, God is always there, even if only on the "thanks" list on the sleeve notes, usually just before Moms get a shout, and not just for unlikely-sounding Christian hip-hop acts such as Preachas in the Hood and Str8 Young Gangstaz. Eminem may feel he can do without an acknowledgement, but his protégé 50 Cent is at pains to praise the Big Man. You might feel equally blessed if you'd been shot at as many times as him.

Since soul music's first superstar, Sam Cooke, emerged from the gospel group The Soul Stirrers in the Fifties, offending many of his previous fans (not least for secularising some of his previous hits), much American black music has been tied to the church experience. Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin were preachers' children, while Al Green gave it all up to take the ministry. In the words of the Sixties Memphis songwriter Roosevelt Jamison, "We wanted to put some flavour of God in it." Not that white vernacular music exactly neglected Jesus. Elvis Presley's own gospel albums are rightly regarded as classics - yet it is inconceivable that anyone from this side of the pond could have produced such work. The travails of his contemporary Jerry Lee Lewis are well recorded, as he has shared out his life between God and the Devil, though even "The Killer" has never known the humiliation meted out to his cousin, the disgraced television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Then there's Bob Dylan, whose work has inspired what can be described only as debates of theological intensity. Though born Jewish, Dylan converted to a peculiarly Old Testament form of Christianity in the late Seventies, perplexing his frequently confused audience with albums such as Slow Train Coming and Saved. A recent compilation of Dylan's gospel songs by various Christian artists has been well received on the religious circuit.

Perhaps we're just more reticent about these matters over here. You wouldn't be shocked to discover that Chris Martin was a God botherer, but you'd be surprised if he started to sing about it. Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian is a declared admirer of C S Lewis, that definitively polite C of E writer, is a former church janitor and to this day sings in a choir, but his intelligent songs don't seek to proselytise. Oddly, the rediscovered Catholicism of entertainers Frank Skinner and Johnny Vaughan is generally overlooked by a media usually desperate for snippets. Presumably such seriousness just doesn't go with their image.

The best music inspired by belief takes itself as seriously as it should. Nick Cave has always favoured the apocalyptic approach, yet his essay of introduction to a recent edition of The Gospel of St Mark was impressively thoughtful and reasoned. Of an earlier generation, Johnny Cash continues to build upon his achievements. His superb recent series of albums recorded by Rick Rubin capture a man nearer to meeting his maker than most of us. As an argument in favour of sin and redemption, he sure beats Cliff Richard.

You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't in the world of Christian rock. Jars of Clay, a Nineties American act, managed the crossover trick, only to find themselves dismissed by rock audiences when their predilections became known, and dismissed by believers for daring to tour outside the self-enclosed Christian circuit. Even the strictly middle-of-the-road Amy Grant found herself condemned by long time fans after her fluffy "Baby Baby" topped the proper US charts in 1990, though outside of taking the veil it's hard to see how she could have been less aggressive. The Christian rock veteran Steve Taylor's cruelly sarcastic "I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good" was so venomously received that he withdrew from the scene entirely, awaiting forgiveness, perhaps, from folk who felt their core beliefs were being threatened.

There must be something in the air in certain places. Texas has recently produced the wonderful Polyphonic Spree, who look like a cult in their matching robes, though they're at pains to deny any deeper intent, and the wildly eschatological and appropriately hirsute Lift to Experience. Their self-explanatory album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads defined a unique cosmology, transferring Armageddon to the American South. (Two of the trio are preachers sons, incidentally.)

We do seem to have come some distance since the fearsome Stryper were touting their Christian pop metal (in ludicrous stryped outfits) back in the Eighties, before being washed away by the deluge of Metallica and Guns n' Roses. As their name was an acronym for "Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace Encouragement and Righteousness" (which spells "Strypear" anyway), one must assume they're now working in the field of business seminars.

Evanescence might be no more than a one-week wonder at the top of the charts, but their sound is at least faintly of the moment. Yet lyrics such as "Breathe into me and make me real" and "Wake me up and save me" are open to whatever interpretation the listener wants to put on them. Rachel Jordan, the Christian country singer who occasionally passes through The Simpsons was asked where her band had gone. "They switched to regular pop," she replied. "All you do is change 'Jesus' to 'Baby'."

Remembering that, you'll never listen to St Britney's "Hit Me Baby One More Time" or St Kylie's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" in the same way again.