Holy Rock ’n’ Rollers

IN HICKSVILLE, Long Island, on any given Sunday afternoon, pierced and tattooed teenagers in black clothing gather to watch as other kids like themselves tear their fingertips on guitar strings and scream unintelligibly into microphones. All the elements of the indie music scene announce themselves: the spiky haircuts, the leather, combat boots, the wide eyes, the acne. At one recent show, Matt Koldinski, the lead singer of the band Legacy, muddles his lyrics with screams and throws his head back in ecstasy. To those assembled, this is music in all its soul-baring transcendence.

Then, in a break between songs, Koldinski does something that would be unthinkable at most hard-core rock shows. Panting and solemn, he invites people in the crowd to come up and talk to him about their problems after the show. He has been there, he says. And he has found the answer. “The reason I’m here, that the band is here, is that we love Jesus,” he says. “So if you have any problems, come up, say God loves me, let me help you find the way.”

Legacy is just one example of the proliferation of Christian rock over the past decade. Christian is the only musical format with increased sales in the past year–cracking the 50-million-album mark–and it is poised to eclipse country music in sales, according to Rick Welke at Radio and Records magazine. He says nearly 500 such bands have been signed to major labels. Meanwhile, innumerable garage bands are performing in storefront churches and other small venues around the country.

It’s not surprising that a certain number of disaffected youth have found hope and meaning in their own “personal relationships with Jesus,” in their literal reading of the Gospel, and in their collective desire to spread the word–in their own words. And yet it’s still jarring to see these punks in metal cuffs and fatigues, the girls in too much eye makeup, the guys in too much hair dye, setting up a table at this show to dispense leaflets against pornography, masturbation, and abortion.

The anti-abortion part of the message comes courtesy of Rock For Life, an organization launched almost 10 years ago by Bryan Kemper, who was then a mohawked security guard trying to make it in the hard-core scene. Kemper says he saw a woman lying on a table at a Los Angeles abortion clinic, which he interpreted as a sign from God that he should get into activism. “God gave me a literal vision for Rock For Life,” he explains. “I saw the concerts, the kids in the streets. I knew from that moment on that’s what my life had to be.” Since then, more than 100,000 kids have signed Rock For Life’s pledges to work to end abortion. There are more than 80 youth chapters nationwide, staffing tables at hundreds of shows like this one every week.

Though Rock For Life members also participate in more standard forms of activism, they find their biggest constituency at summer rock festivals, a dozen gigantic Jesuspaloozas drawing more than a half-million people–festivals with names like Kingdombound, Alive, and Sonshine. The Christian rock festival has become the superchurch for the thrashing masses and the ultimate mobilizing force for anti-abortionists. “It’s one thing to hear a message in a church,” says Bryan Kemper, “kids’ guards are up; at a concert they’re open to a lot of stuff.”

It’s tough to find a force that galvanizes youth–especially dissenting youth–as effectively as music. The antiwar movement in the late 1960s was deeply tied to rock music, and it’s what brings so many kids today into the evangelical fold. The collective experience of the live show–that intoxicating merger of music’s transcendence and the authority of the performer–is its most powerful form. Christian rock shows even seem capable of reversing what most people would expect of teen behavior. At a festival last year, one of the 40,000 people in attendance had an asthma attack, and the singer of a band halted the show so the audience could pray until her breath was restored. The group prayer lasted 45 minutes without a complaint. Just imagine that energy turned toward right-wing politics.

Most young evangelicals are loath to talk about politics as politics. They insist that their behavior–whom they choose to be intimate with, what books they read, what they drink, how they vote–is part of a way of life directed by their religion and aimed at developing a closer personal relationship with God. (Technically, no political campaigning–of the electoral sort–is permitted at these festivals, because they are all run by not-for-profit organizations. A press representative of the Christian Coalition admitted that the organization leaflets Christian music festivals but declined an interview.)

When some artist-preachers, whether easy-listening or head-banging, break into the mainstream, they scramble to cover up their evangelical roots, driven at times by corporate pressure or their own desire to forge new identities. POD, which stands for Payable On Death, has become Atlantic Records’ best-selling act, topping rock charts, ruling MTV, selling out huge shows nationwide. Except for one song, all its recent lyrics make the band’s personal relationship with Jesus intentionally ambiguous. But take a look at the message boards on their Web site, where members heatedly discuss topics like dating “heathens” and personal faith stemming from “fear of hell,” and you’ll see where their core fan base lies.

Not everyone who shows up at a Christian rock festival or an underground show is a believer. In Hicksville, many of the kids I talk to, like Kevin Murray of the band Now or Never, had not “known Jesus” until they found him in the mosh pit. “Sure, most of us come to this when we’ve been smoking pot or having sex or getting depressed, or hitting a point where we know we can’t live like that anymore,” Murray says. “And you come to a place like this and see a guy like me, and I tell you I’ve been there, and I’ve pulled through it, and I can help you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a total stranger or think you don’t believe in God, or what. I’ll show you the way.”

It’s moving, actually, to watch guys with tattoos and downcast eyes, peering from their black sweatshirt hoods as they approach band member after band member, saying, “My friend brought me, and he thought I could talk to you.” It’s a bizarre twist on the cool posturing of punk shows I’d occasionally checked out in high school. To watch a community of people form before your eyes, connecting through music to each other and to a shared vision, committing to the political causes they identify as joined with that vision–it’s the vibrant community of a liberal utopian’s dream.

That is, if you can block out those Rock For Life shirts, the repetition of “Jesus” and “Lord” from the conversations. This, of course, is impossible. Even though religion is a dirty word to these instruction-fearing believers (as Murray says, “We’re against religion–our God is a God of freedom, not one of religion who won’t let you have tattoos”), it’s the only reason this scene works. And that’s the reason politics so effortlessly becomes a part of the scene. It’s the nature and extraordinary effectiveness of evangelical Christianity–the whole-life, whole-belief experience. So whether you’re praying in church or at a club, or screaming on a stage or at the doors of an abortion clinic, it’s all just an articulation of the oft-repeated “way we live.” Is it a political movement? Not in the usual sense. But it is a massive and exponentially self-replicating cultural movement that binds itself inherently to politics.

Lauren Sandler writes about culture for publications such as The Nation, The New Republic, Elle, and The Los Angeles Times. She lives in New York, where she is currently investigating the cultural ramifications of the museum looting in Iraq as part of a project sponsored by Harvard’s Carr Center (the human rights center at the Kennedy School). Reprinted from The Nation (Jan. 13, 2003). Subscriptions: $39.97/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149, Boulder, CO 80322.

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