Billy Corgan and the New Traditionalism in Christian Music

Last week, a clip from CNN featuring Billy Corgan made the rounds in the blogosphere, especially amongst Christians. There comes a point, says Corgan when you have to leave your youthful angst aside and mature into more interesting topics like God. He calls God the “third rail” of rock and roll – the untouchable subject (like religion is the third rail of politics), tells Christian musicians to stop copying U2, and says “Jesus wants better bands.”


His comments are interesting, if not wholly original. Many have lamented the monolithic culture and sound of Christian music – especially praise music, with it’s formula of four chords, chimey delayed guitars, and anthemic choruses. In a consumer culture, people stick with what works, and ever since the rise of Delirious, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin around the turn of the century, that sound has been the template for contemporary worship music.

There may be some very practical reasons for this, though. For one thing, U2’s sound (and its imitators) thrive on a certain kind of simplicity. The Edge’s guitar playing (especially on records like “The Joshua Tree” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, which provide the template for the aforementioned sound) is the amalgam of well-employed technology, a minimalist and punk-influenced aesthetic, and a compositional approach to guitar playing that is 100% in service to the song. In fact, one could say that of the bass and drums as well.

I think this is one reason it’s come to be imitated by praise bands; it’s not a technically demanding style of music to play. That doesn’t mean it’s inferior, though. As Miles Davis supposedly once said, the most important notes are the ones you don’t play. Minimalism is difficult to pull off, and it only works in ways that are enduring when it’s married to truly great songs. While “The Joshua Tree” endures as a great record twenty years later, most praise choruses have an expiration date of a few years. We sing them every Sunday until someone rolls their eyes and says, “This one again?” And then they disappear.

We should ask: has this sound become the template because musicianship is a lost art? Are we playing this music because we don’t know how to play anything else? While Delirious (one of the bands that established the template) certainly had roots in U2’s sound, they also had roots in other sounds. They were at times reminiscent of The Police, Queen, and Radiohead. They were great musicians, and could stylistically dabble in many directions, resulting in a catalog of albums that (sonically, anyway) are diverse and interesting. Many of their songs were musically demanding, requiring a band to know more than four chords and requiring guitar players to be able to play melodies think musically. (Those songs rarely became their hits, though.)

And they’re far from alone. While I think Corgan’s critique rings true at a certain level, at another, it rings very false. He has obviously not heard people like Gungor, Mars Hill Music, Indelible Grace, and many others who venture into other sonic territory. The U2 sound might rule the radio waves, and might have a strong foundation in the CCLI Top 10, but it isn’t the only game in town.

I’ll add one more observation here, from a more personal perspective. At Sojourn, we’ve experimented with a variety of sounds and styles over the years. One Sunday you attend, you might hear Bluegrass music, the next, you might hear indie rock, and the next, it might be Americana. U2 has certainly influenced us too.

But one thing I’ve noticed often – especially from those who are outside of our church – is that any song that doesn’t fit the template is immediately dismissed. “It’s not congregational,” they often say. In fact, whole albums I’ve released have been blasted with that comment.

Since we’re talking U2 here anyway, I think most of us would agree that U2’s melodies aren’t congregational at all. We don’t all have Bono’s range and passion. But you know who sings them? Everyone at a U2 concert. In unison. At the top of their lungs. (I’ve talked about this elsewhere here at TGC.) The same can be said of some of the melodies of the CCM songs that are imitators. The range is too wide. The melody too bizarre. And yet, congregations sing them robustly because they love the song and they love what it invites them to sing about.

I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve recorded some songs at Sojourn Music that aren’t congregational; that’s part of the journey of writing indigenous music with a community of young, developing church musicians. But I think as often as not, the dismissal of our songs has nothing at all to do with the singability of the melody, and everything to do with the genre of music itself. We’ve come to expect certain sounds that define worship for us, and when we don’t get that british pop sound we say, “Oh yeah, that’s not congregational at all.”

To those critics, I often just want to say, “Really? Come to my church. You’ll be surprised what you hear. People sing!” I know folks at Mars Hill and RUF (singing Indelible Grace tunes) would say the same thing.

Many musicians and artists are working well outside the template that Corgan mocked on CNN. But they work against a reality that demands that sound. It has become it’s own 21st century traditionalism.