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Friday, October 02, 2009
The 12 Types of Contemporary Christian Music Songs
(aka the Gospel Music Tropes)
(aka the Gospel Music Tropes)
I've been playing around with this list for a while, and figured I'd share it with the world since it came up in conversation on Twitter.
Most of the lyrical content Contemporary Christian Music (CCM, also known as "Christian Rock") can be boiled down into a set of 12 different categories. Now, I'll let it be known right now that this is not a knock against any particular CCM artist, but when music tends to get formulaic, it loses any particular meaning to the listener. This is important, since the primary purpose of most CCM songs is for outreach and encouragement.
So, here they are. If you think I missed a few, or if you can come up with a few examples of your own, feel free to comment.
1. Hallelujah Praise The Lord Again
Examples: "Praise The Lord", The Imperials; "A New Hallelujah", Michael W. Smith
This is when the main theme of a song is about praising the Lord or singing Hallelujah – over, and over, and over again. These make good "worship songs" - like Hillsong's "For All You've Done". The problem is that there's not a whole lot beyond the "Hallelujah Praise The Lord" to encourage people.
Examples: "El Shaddai", Amy Grant; "One True God", Mark Harris
God has many names; if the main theme of the song is about one of them (or more of them), it fits this type of song. By the way, the one thing that bothered me over the years was what exactly El Shaddai, El-Elyon na Adonai, and Erkamka na adonai actually meant. Thanks to Wikipedia, I found out: "God Most High", "God Almighty, Oh Lord" and "I love you, Oh Lord". Which, translated into English, makes it sound more like entry #1.
3. The Love Song To Jesus
Examples: "Calling On You", Stryper; "Free To Be Me", Francesca Battistelli
The first song in this genre of CCM songs was actually, "What A Difference You've Made In My Life" by B.J. Thomas and Ronnie Milsap. Songs of this content almost sound like the singer is talking about their boyfriend/girlfriend and not God or Jesus. Ms. Battistelli's song (or is it Mrs. Goodwin now?) isn't quite as "Oh I lurrrvve you Lord" as this category would normally require. That's one of the keys to these "tropes", as you could almost refer to them by - don't overdo them, and you have a pretty good song.
4. The Conversion Story
Examples: "Lucas McGraw", Petra (1974); "You Found Me", Big Daddy Weave
This is a song that tells about the conversion experience of the singer – or of another person. Big Daddy Weave's version is a Saul/Paul-like conversion experience, which isn't very common (at least, not with Christians I know). If it's a true testimony of what the singer's conversion was like, though, it can be very powerful. "Lucas McGraw", however... I wonder sometimes if Bob Hartman doesn't do a facepalm every time he hears that record.
5. Cover a Hymn
Examples: "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)", Chris Tomlin; "How Can I Keep From Singing?", Chris Tomlin
Chris Tomlin is the champion at this kind of genre nowadays, but there have been plenty of Christian rock bands who've done a rock version of a hymn. In fact, this one punk-Christian rock band (One Bad Pig) did a cover of "Holy, Holy, Holy".
6. Pick a Verse, Any Verse
Examples: "More Power To Ya", Petra; "Everlasting God", Lincoln Brewster
Choose a verse in the Bible, and form an entire song around it. Petra was somewhat famous for doing this sort of thing; it's actually an easy "crutch" of sorts for Christian singers who've gotten a new meaning from a passage of scripture. Another example would be Amy Grant's "Thy Word", but that's also an example of our next category...
7. Sing a Psalm for Sixpence
Examples: "How Majestic Is Your Name", Keith Green; "How Great Is Our God", Chris Tomlin
This is a variant of the "Pick A Verse," except that the verse or verses are from the original songbook of God, The Psalms. As I stated previously, Amy Grant's "Thy Word" is a lifting of Psalm 119:105. David was a great man, a man after God's own heart, but he wouldn't have been a very good CCM artist - he was way too detailed in his lyrics.
8. Throw in a God Reference
Examples: "Find A Way", Amy Grant; "Free To Be Me", Francesca Baltiselli
This is a song that's about something non-scriptural – life in the modern world, unfaithful spouses, dents in the fender, and whatnot. Then, in one of the last parts of the song, the word "God" is thrown in. The problem with this type of a song is that even The Beach Boys ("God Only Knows") could write one like this. A lot of CCM prior to 1998 and Steve Camp's call for reformation was leaning towards this - trying to be "mainstream" but using God as a "hook".
9. The Storyteller
Examples: "For Annie", Petra; "Slow Fade", Casting Crowns
Sometimes the "storyteller" song gets confused for a country song, because it tells about suffering or heartbreak. Usually, the end of a "Storyteller" song is either "how they found God" (see "Mommy Don't Love Daddy Anymore", Rez Band) or "how we can keep this from happening again" (see "For Annie"). Mark Hall and Casting Crowns have gotten this right - witness not just "Slow Fade", but the song "What This World Needs".
10. The Prayer
Examples: "Crack the Sky", Mylon LeFevre & Broken Heart; "Give Me Your Eyes", Brandon Heath
When a song sounds more like a prayer to God than anything else, this is what results. If it's plain that the person involved wants something that only God can give him/her, the only thing missing from this song is an "Amen." And even then, you might get that thrown in. This category sometimes gets thrown in with the "One More Hallelujah" category, like Christy Nockels' song, "Life Light Up".
11. The Words Of God
Examples: "Rise Again," Dallas Holm & Praise; "By Your Side", Tenth Avenue North
This is when the singer takes the First Person Singular of God. It can be controversial when used, though; Dallas Holm's song was actually converted from first-person ("drive the nails in my hands") to third person ("laugh at Him, where you stand") in different versions. It can be very moving when done right, though.
Truly great CCM songs are a combination of one or two of the previous types of songs – mostly because it's very hard to write from strictly one POV for an entire song. If there's thought, concern, and a desire to stick to scriptural tenets in the music, you have something that's lasting - and not just a one-hit wonder that you hear 20 times on K-Love for a month and then practically never again afterwards.