The youthful faithful already know all about Steven Curtis Chapman's appearance Thursday, March 14, at Hill Auditorium. Although contemporary Christian music doesn't register much on weekend things-to-do lists, he filled Hill Auditorium three years ago and will likely do so again. But what might the show hold for the musically curious general listener?
My own interest in the CCM genre comes down to the set of issues neatly encapsulated by the eighteenth-century English cleric Rowland Hill, who asked why the devil should have all the good tunes. How do you take a musical language that evolved to express notions of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, and turn it into music of Christian worship?
Plenty of Christians say it can't be done (evangelicals aren't the monolithic group they are sometimes made out to be), and CCM has its critics. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine Steven Curtis Chapman offending too many Christians, for the language of his music is unmistakably religious. A Nashville-based vocalist and guitarist, he writes nearly all his own material — and his songwriting solutions to CCM's challenges make for sharp pop music in anybody's book. In Chapman's hands, the folkish sounds of 1980s soft rock are effectively transformed into devotional hymns, and the big, metallic, electronic beats of producer-driven contemporary pop become underpinnings for large pronouncements of personal conversion that do not lose reflectiveness. During Chapman's fifteen years as one of the top performers in Christian music, his music has displayed a sequence of styles that follow just a few steps behind the pop language of the moment. He has said that he's guided stylistically by the music his kids listen to.
And he has the songwriting chops to pull all this off. Chapman rarely needs to resort to the move, so common among CCM songwriters, of writing essentially secular love songs that barely hint at a divine object of love. The extremely infectious hooks of Chapman's up-tempo songs carry explicitly Christian enthusiasm, not generalized notions of love and commitment, and the result is music with a certain idealism. The intolerance of a Falwell or a Robertson is nowhere in evidence here, and non-Christians (I write as one) in search of some common ground with the country's dominant metaphysical outlook might check out Steven Curtis Chapman for what he has to offer.
One word of caution is in order: pop music with strong percussive elements tends to collapse into a barrage of overwhelming, lyric-obscuring noise in Hill Auditorium, and out-of-town sound crews unfamiliar with the hall's hypersensitive acoustics tend to make the problem worse. Someone who was at the concert told me this happened the last time Chapman was here. Why doesn't anybody hold rock shows at Crisler Arena anymore? It would seem a better deal all around.