Billboard magazine, the music industry’s bible, recently stopped publishing the chart that kept track of Christian rock songs being played at radio stations across the country. While at first blush it may appear to be just another example of the secularization of America, a closer look reveals just the opposite: devout rock artists have been so successful at integrating themselves into mainstream rock that a separate chart is no longer necessary.
In fact, a glance at this week’s Billboard rock singles chart shows that around half of the artists are devout, with most being Christians of an Evangelical bent, like Mumford & Sons, Matt Maer, Needtobreathe, Shinedown, Foster The People and 21 Pilots. There’s also a smattering of Mormon artists like The Killers and Imagine Dragons and even a Jewish rocker. But for a genre once labeled “the devil’s music,” Old Scratch doesn’t have much representation on the chart anymore, with the band Ghost being one of the few that seem to be among his devotees.
And it’s not just the rock charts. As I document in my book “Rock Gets Religion: The Battle For The Soul of The Devil’s Music,” mainstream pop, rock, and even hip hop are now chock full of the kind of artists who in the recent past would have signed with a Christian music label. But today, they’re going mainstream instead.
The trend became unmistakable to even the most casual observer at the Grammys two years ago when hip hop star Chance The Rapper performed his version of a modern hymn that is regularly sung in churches across America, “How Great Is Our God.”
While many in religious circles regularly lament the loss of influence in politics, media and academia, when it comes to music, the opposite is true and it’s mostly because the young and devout have rejected the cultural separatism of their parents’ generation that often left them shuffled off to cultural ghettos like Christian rock, widely mocked and not a part of the average American’s life. Four streams have powerfully fed into the new dynamic.
First, established artists who had once rocked the Christian music world left those labels behind, signing instead with mainstream recording companies, such as Atlantic, Epic, Universal, and others, and reemerging as mainstream artists without changing their messages. Among this group is the band Switchfoot which currently has the #4 single in the country on the Billboard rock chart as well as the likes of the now disbanded group The Civil Wars led by Joy Williams who was a Christian pop star in a previous incarnation.
The second major trend was the continuing phenomenon of young artists who were Christians being signed directly to mainstream labels. Among this group are the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, 21 Pilots, Mumford & Sons and dozens of other artists.
Then there was the surprising turn of events that found talent competitions like “American Idol” producing winners who were Christians and would then be signed to mainstream labels, resulting in high profile mainstream careers for artists like Carrie Underwood and Daughtry.
Finally, there was the refusal of established stars who experienced religious conversions to leave the mainstream music business and sing for religious audiences as had often happened in the past: this group included artists like Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and even the late superstar Prince who became a Jehovah’s Witness and confounded his fans in 2015 by releasing a track first popularized by Christian pop star Nichole Nordeman called “What If?”
To be sure, the Grammys do still have a Gospel category which still finds talented artists like Lauren Daigle and For King & Country relegated to a category that reflects their beliefs instead of their style of music, but if Jewish hip hop star Drake wins record of the year for his song “God’s Plan,” and artists like Underoath and 21 Pilots win in their respective categories of best metal and best rock performances, it will be just another indication that the devil’s music isn’t so devilish anymore.