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Christian label presents crossover challenge

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) -- Sing about Jesus at your own risk. That's the conclusion of some rock bands that perform Christian music and then seek crossover success.

They say they face constant questions about their faith, a tough road to mainstream acceptance and charges of selling out if they ever hit it big.

Just ask members of Sixpence None The Richer, who started on a Christian music label but broke into pop stardom with 1999's decidedly secular ''Kiss Me.''

The group -- whose name comes from a C.S. Lewis essay on religion -- has faced the question that nags many mainstream performers who sing about spirituality: ''So are you a Christian band or not?''

The answer: No. Well, sort of.

''We don't consider ourselves a Christian band,'' said Jay Swartzendruber, publicist for the five-person band. ''But we do see life through that Christian lens.''

Cue confusion among fans and the media.

On the Web site for the hard-rock band Creed, band members devote much of the ''frequently asked questions'' section to addressing whether they're a Christian band.

Lyrics on the group's 1997 debut album -- ''My Own Prison'' -- contain frequent references to God and faith. But they insist they aren't a Christian band and have so tired of the question they decline most interview requests (including one for this article).

''People want to put that label on them,'' said Creed manager Jeff Hanson. ''Creed's not running away from that, but they are doing their own thing. There are so many bad role models, I think Christians are probably happy to get what they can.''

So why is it such a big deal whether musicians call themselves Christians in a country where most people say they identify with the faith?

''That's a good question,'' said Frank Breeden, president of the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association. ''America no longer acts like a Christian nation. Today's approach toward religion is very postmodern. Most Americans do believe in God but don't want to endorse one religion. They prefer the cafeteria plan: Christianity is one of many faiths.''

In other words, Jesus Rock doesn't sell.

''When people are confronted with that, it puts them face-to-face with a lot of issues that are hard to deal with: hell, eternity, fall from grace. In this society we don't talk about that kind of stuff,'' said Jerry Williams, programming director at WVFJ-FM, Atlanta's largest Christian radio station.

But when Christian musicians score a crossover hit that doesn't mention God, the genre's faithful level charges of selling out.

''There's people who say they want to have their cake and eat it, too, walking the line and having it both ways,'' Hanson said.

Dabney Gordon, 14, listens almost exclusively to Christian pop even though most of her friends at a Christian private school prefer Eminem or Britney Spears. She complained that bands have to choose between morality and commercial success, and often they pick rock stardom.

''I don't think it's pleasing to God,'' she said of bands that downplay their Christian roots. ''It's a little disappointing to me. But our world always wants to talk about sex and things like that. That's what people are interested in, so that's what they buy.''

Swartzendruber said the Christian music industry itself is to blame for the difficulty Christian bands have reaching the mainstream. Managers want every song to be ''a three-minute sermonette,'' he said, and artists are allowed little creativity.

Like many Christian bands, Sixpence was put on a church tour, but band members complained of pressure to give religious speeches after they played. Those expectations put up a wall between secular and religious acts and drove Sixpence from its first label.

''We're not preachers,'' Swartzendruber said. ''But there are some very narrow-minded believers who think the message, not the music, is the only thing that's important. It's an inbred community, a small fishbowl.''

WVFJ's Williams agreed, but said it's changing.

''There are people who want to count the Jesus-per-minute references, but I don't think that's the majority anymore,'' he said.

''Just because a band isn't as overtly spiritual on some albums, it doesn't mean they're turning their backs on their faith. Christian bands used to be called on the carpet if they got away from the message. Now some people are disappointed if the big hit doesn't mention Jesus, but they're more accepting. It just takes time.''

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